Gardening in the Public Eye

By: Lucy Hardiman Colston Burrell

Colston Burrell a lifelong gardener, garden designer, author, photographer, naturalist, and teacher, grows all the hellebores that will fit in…

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The front garden has the considerable task of separating the public street from private space, while presenting a neighborly face to the world.

Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, Bold, Romantic Gardens

When you drive down the street, what catches your eye—a sweep of turf or a riot of colorful flowers? Front yards are where first impressions are made. When you garden  in front, you garden in the public eye. So, what does your front yard say about you? Are you a conformist or an innovator? An introvert or an exhibitionist?

Garden makers typically focus on creating private, intimate spaces. Having a peaceful, secluded garden retreat is a worthy aspiration, but what about the rest of your property? Gardens can also relate back to their communities, creating milieus of welcome, safety, and interaction with the surrounding environs. That’s where the front yard comes in. Gardening in the public eye is not really new. We have been doing it since we planted the first foundation shrubs. Traditional foundation plantings are oriented to the street; originally they hid the open gap between the first floor and the posts or foundations that supported the house. Now, they create the “curb appeal” for a house. Like a three-piece suit, they are the expected, socially acceptable, front-yard treatment. Though boring, they are expressly public.

A quiet revolution is afoot. Gardeners across North America are discarding traditional front yard treatments and taking back their public spaces as canvases for personal expression. Foundation plantings are giving way to colorful gardens; people are rethinking how they use their front yards. Lawns are being redefined and removed to allow for walkways, terraces, seating areas, objets d’art—and plants. Garden beds are even jumping the sidewalk and running all the way to the street, filling up the boulevard or “hell strip” with plants other than turf and street trees. A new front-yard style is emerging that accommodates the range of new solutions being developed by creative gardeners.

A Bit of History

Emerald turf, clipped hedges and restrained foundation plantings have been the norm since colonial times in North America’s urban and suburban landscapes. The velvet greensward we call lawn still has a stranglehold on our imaginations. The scene looks something like this: a monotonous sea of turf from lot line to lot line, a large shade tree off the corner of the house, and a collection of clashing azaleas lined up against the foundation.

As early as the 1970s, inspired in part by the environmental movement, a few innovators traded in their turf for more colorful and interesting plantings, often using plants native to the region. The movement began in earnest in the Midwest and on the West Coast. Today’s front gardens take many forms, from the ornamental to the practical, employing shrubs, trees, perennials, herbs, vegetables, bulbs, and groundcovers. A front garden can feel contained and intimate while affording the passerby a view of the beauty that lies within.

At the Hardiman residence, the stone wall under construction at the sidewalk’s edge eliminated a steep bank and created a bed for planting a streetside garden. Photographs by Lucy Hardiman, except as noted

At the Hardiman residence, the stone wall under construction at the sidewalk’s edge eliminated a steep bank and created a bed for planting a streetside garden. Photographs by Lucy Hardiman, except as noted

On the Strip: Gardens that Cruise the Street

Many of us are comfortable making gardens that are private retreats sequestered and screened from the public eye, but something magical occurs when we allow our creative selves to advance toward the street. Gardens that are truly public are open and exposed to scrutiny. They establish an ongoing dialog with the neighborhood. Even though planted mostly on private property, this new type of front-yard garden is created for the enjoyment of the surrounding community. This dichotomy presents multiple opportunities for the garden maker.

Gardeners with exhibitionist tendencies revel in the opportunity to create playful and artful, eye-grabbing spaces. Gardens that address the street invite pedestrians to slow down, linger, and experience the sensuous delights of the garden. They elevate the house’s curb appeal to a new level. Whereas bright colors and bold forms capture our attention, the subtle interplay of textures, delicious fragrances, bird song, and the flight of butterflies are the most engaging. Streetside gardens can slow traffic and even slow the pace of the city.

In urban and suburban neighborhoods today, large houses on small lots dominate the streetscape. One of the challenges of gardening in the public eye is linking the scale and mass of the house to the sidewalk. Our own large, three-story Victorian house in Portland, Oregon, is a case in point. Situated at the top of a steep grass bank on a corner lot and surrounded by traditional, shallow foundation beds, the house dwarfed the ground plane below. Six years ago, Jack Peterson, our stone-mason neighbor, built a stone retaining wall to eliminate part of the steep slope; varying from two to three-and-a-half feet in height, the wall borders the sidewalk, creating a gradual transition between the house and street.

Our front garden wraps around the corner from lot line to lot line, so it faces a street on two sides. The new beds are designed and viewed from the outside looking in, as there is no physical access to the garden from the street. With no room for large trees between the stone wall and the house, the roofline suggests the canopy or overstory. Small trees, large shrubs, and perennials bring the eye down, functioning as the understory. Plants ramble, scramble, trail over the wall, and spill onto the pavement, thus connecting the garden to the sidewalk.

At the Hardiman residence with the stone wall complete, new plantings fill the front yard with color and excitement; dry growing perennials fill the level beds next to the curb and flank the new mosaic panels

At the Hardiman residence with the stone wall complete, new plantings fill the front yard with color and excitement; dry growing perennials fill the level beds next to the curb and flank the new mosaic panels

The wall garden is home to a wide array of buxom, eye-catching plants that can be appreciated from a distance. Anchoring the south wall garden is a snow gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora) underplanted with a red banana (Ensete ventricosum ‘Maurelii’) and an enormous Phormium ‘Pink Stripe’. Clematis ‘Duchess of Albany’ clambers through the bed, delicately displaying her pink bells at will among the Euphorbia ‘Gold Foam’, Phygelius ‘Sensation’ and Physocarpus opulifolius Diablo. Viewed from across the street, the lapping layers of color, varying textures, and distinct forms reduce the overall scale and mass of the house and marry it to the site. A stone bench, built into the wall at the corner, entices the unwary passerby to sit and relax surrounded by the garden. Trailing plants dripping over the wall beg to be touched by small children, who delight in finding festive flowers to view and sniff at their eye level.

In 2001, we removed the grass parkways adjacent to the curb so I could also garden at street level. In their place are gravel beds filled with a plethora of mediterranean and dry-land plants that revel in the full sun and great drainage. A series of pebble mosaic walkways, loosely resembling flying carpets, allow plenty of access for people getting in and out of their parked cars. The gravel beds established a final link between the house, garden, and street. Now, a stroll down the sidewalk takes you through the garden—a different experience from simply walking by.

A gravel and stone terrace, surrounded by a riot of color and texture, fills the space vacated by the front lawn in Nancy Goldman’s Portland garden

A gravel and stone terrace, surrounded by a riot of color and texture, fills the space vacated by the front lawn in Nancy Goldman’s Portland garden

Across town, another streetside garden presents an entirely different scenario. Nancy Goldman’s garden defines its maker: witty, spunky, insouciant, and always provocative. She exchanged her front lawn for a gravel terrace, which created the feeling of a European bistro. This small space, surrounded by lush plantings and decorated with colorful containers, issues an invitation to step off the sidewalk and into the garden. You don’t know whether to sit down on the willow bench and order coffee or stroll along the diminutive path that bisects the garden and leads to the front door. Strategically placed small trees, shrubs, and grasses around the terrace buffer views of the street and sidewalk and establish a sense of intimacy, even though the space is decidedly public. From this vantage point you have a veiled, inside-out view of the streetside beds beyond the sidewalk.

The background of green, beetroot, and chartreuse foliage ignites brilliant drifts of pink, purple, orange, and yellow flowers. Objets d’art are displayed about the garden like museum pieces, clearly visible to all passersby. None of this is surprising from a woman who maintains a tiny patch of lawn in a desk drawer that is strategically displayed at the end of the driveway on days when the garden is open for visiting.

Welcoming benches between sidewalk and curb provide an opening in the lush streetside plantings at the Hogan/Sanderson residence

Welcoming benches between sidewalk and curb provide an opening in the lush streetside plantings at the Hogan/Sanderson residence

Taking the notion of front-yard gardens one step further, Sean Hogan and Parker Sanderson, totally flout conventional garden design. Working from a premise that more is better, they convinced their neighbor to let them design a garden encompassing both properties. Like Nancy’s garden, the sidewalk threads between lushly planted beds, and strollers are drawn through a silver, plum, and green tunnel of foliage. Here, however, the curbside plantings totally block views of the street. Punctuating the space between the two houses is a terrace crafted from a recycled stone wall. The sweep of the terrace encourages people to step off the walk and explore the interior of the front gardens. From the outside, the garden creates a lush setting for the house, while inside, the street and the city seem to vanish.

In Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, pedestrians and motorists alike stop dead in their tracks when they first glimpse a vivid garden with plants color coordinated to match the architecture of a gingerbread fantasy. This Victorian extravaganza is the home and garden of Brian Coleman and Howard Cohen (see Pacific Horticulture, January 2002). Boxwood balls lead the eye from the street up a short flight of steps to the lawn. A wrought iron fence and gate at the top of the steps provide a barrier against physical access to the garden while retaining visual access for passersby. The fence is subtle, allowing an abundance of colorful plants on both sides to reign supreme. The multi-colored trim (gold, orange red, and black) on the Victorian house is repeated in the garden. Electrifying chartreuse and yellow foliage light up the garden while the dusky foliage of Canna ‘Tropicana’ and a number of dramatically patterned coleus add a touch of the theatrical.

Through the Looking Glass: Public Views into Private Spaces

Gardeners can’t help peering over the garden gate or peeping through a gap in a hedge to see what the neighbors are doing. Garden gates, arbors, moon gates, and other portals provide lightly veiled views into the semi-private domain of an enclosed front or side garden.

Though not overtly public in nature or intent, gardens with windows allow—if not invite—the public to peer into the inner sanctum. A gate is both a physical and psychological barrier that clearly encourages us to look in and enjoy, but to enter only upon invitation. Most of us express this duality of public and private in the design of our gardens. Even traditional foundation plantings, clearly within the private front yard, are oriented toward the public street.

The design parameters for an enclosed garden are different from those for a front yard open to the street. A portal narrows the field of view into the garden and creates a strong, focused sightline, much as a camera lens does. The strong sightline or axis imposed by a gate needs a terminus, or focal point. It is important to remember that, even if the sight line from the gate is not the main viewpoint for the garden, it must resonate with the axis that a walkway creates; the visual journey should be well orchestrated.

An elaborate streetside gateway, topped by a dovecote, opens to a view of the private garden at the Garcia residence. Photograph by Coleston Burrell

An elaborate streetside gateway, topped by a dovecote, opens to a view of the private garden at the Garcia residence. Photograph by Coleston Burrell

Garden gates most often lead the eye down a path, as in Thornton Burnett’s suburban Washington, DC garden. Inside an inviting gate, the path offers a view of a narrow space defined by borders on each side. This linear planting is designed as a progression towards a terminus, with several perpendicular axes crossing the main site line. The site line is stopped by an exuberant urn, which sits off center in a sunken garden not readily visible from the street. From outside, there is only a hint of the complexity that lies within.

A gate may also open directly into an open, uncluttered space such as a lawn or terrace. Views into such spaces are more expansive, like a wide-angle or panoramic lens. The space becomes the volume that sets off the beds surrounding it, or sets up the experience of what lies within. The need for a single focal point vanishes, though one or more may be present. Brooks Garcia has created an elaborate gate for his Atlanta garden. The street side is amply planted with Euphorbia characias and other perennials. When closed, the gate is a monumental sculpture. It opens onto the cozy back garden terrace, which is actually designed to be viewed from a second-floor deck. A glimpse of sculptures tantalizes viewers from the street, making this cross axis equally compelling.

The front garden at the Crockett residence, at the end of the first growing season

The front garden at the Crockett residence, at the end of the first growing season

Laura Crockett has created a garden outside Portland, Oregon that sizzles with contradictions. The streetscape is lushly planted; flanking the sidewalk are beds filled with horticultural treasures that demand close inspection. Steel fencing separates the sidewalk borders from the inner sanctum, creating a clear distinction between public and private. But wait…the fence is translucent in places, and transparent in others. Like a stage set, each panel of the fence has a different texture and degree of opacity. Wooden louvers, turned against the street, block the view in completely; yet they can be swiveled ninety degrees to open like casement windows. Other fence panels have woven wire mesh of various densities allowing both light and views through. The main path from the street into the garden is marked by a door frame (without a door). This playful tension between public and private makes for excitement regardless of which side of the fence you find yourself.

First-year construction and plantings at the Crockett residence; note the variation in fence panels allowing full or minimal visual access to the enclosed front garden. Photograph by Coleston Burrell

First-year construction and plantings at the Crockett residence; note the variation in fence panels allowing full or minimal visual access to the enclosed front garden. Photograph by Coleston Burrell

Peepholes appeal to the more brazen among us. Half the fun of a veil is the temptation to lift it to discover the prize that lies beneath. Views into intimate spaces, through a gap in the hedge or though a window in a gate, afford intentionally placed glimpses into the private sanctuaries. If we have to, we will part the shrubs, peek through a crack in a gate, or stand on our toes to peer over a fence to satisfy our curiosity.

My former Minneapolis garden illustrates this point. The garden was completely open to the street in spring, when a low carpet of bulbs offered no resistance to probing eyes. As summer progressed, however, prairie plants, serving as an herbaceous hedge, began to gain height and veil the view into the narrow, linear space. By high summer, when outdoor activities were in full swing, the view from the street was effectively blocked to all but the most probing eyes peering through the ten-foot stems of prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) to the lawn and terrace within. I knew the garden was successful when I got an award for city beautification and a ticket from the weed police in the same year. (See Box below.)

Rather than turning their backs to the street or resorting to formulaic foundation plantings, the gardens that we champion are designed to be viewed from the outside in. These gardens rush out to envelop and welcome all passersby. Each garden, in its own way, exemplifies the generosity of gardeners willing to extend their art beyond the confines of the good neighbor fence. Whether presenting a bright face to the public or a subtle invitation to linger in a more private setting, they are all gifts to the street. The new American front yard is boastful and brash, artful and exuberant, and blatantly public in nature.


Community Conformity

Have you ever been busted by the weed police? Even in urban neighborhoods, where individuality is celebrated, a streetside planting may raise some eyebrows, or worse, some ire. Though gardening in the public eye is rewarding, it is not without potential frustration. Since front gardens are so public, they are subject to close scrutiny by neighbors, which can lead to complaints from “neat-nicks” who prefer the sterile anonymity of turf. To their defense will come the weed police!

Most communities have weed ordinances, usually found in the city codes along with other nuisance ordinances such as barking dogs and junk cars. These ordinances prohibit vegetation over a certain arbitrary height, usually ten to twelve inches. Some communities (who would want to live there?) have laws expressly prohibiting boulevard or parkway plantings. Though ornamental plants are not specifically included in most ordinances, if a neighbor takes exception to your streetside garden, he or she may call the weed police. By law, the city can require you to cut down your garden—or at least they can try. They will issue you a ticket, which you can contest at the city council meeting.

Fortunately, forward thinking communities are creating landscape ordinances that encourage a colorful city streetscape as an asset to the community. Though citations are rare when the garden is colorful and well tended, native plant gardens, such as grassland or shrubland plantings, are particularly vulnerable, because they often look weedy to the uninitiated. This is why design is so important. The system is complaint driven, and as long as your planting looks like a garden, the chances of a ticket are slim.