Front Lawn Transformation

A front yard with nothing but lawn can become tiresome.
A simple solution to this grassy monotony is to make a path from the front door or entrance area of your house to the sidewalk or street. Then cross the lawn horizontally with a low wooden fence, making a gate or just leaving an opening at the intersection of fence and path.
Such a scheme is common in the Valley. Typically, the fence is at the bottom of the front yard, either along the sidewalk or street. But, there is also the alternative of building the fence closer to the house, halfway or even two-thirds of the way up from the street; by choosing this option, you create four distinct areas for planting.
For several years, we had mulled over the possibility of this path and fence improvement for our own front yard. The usual obstacle stood in our way: quality control of the work that would be done. Finding the right contractor or home-improvement person is a little like finding a partner in marriage. There is a search involved, to be sure, but luck is also important. Finally, we found our man. In a very short time, we had a path of tan-colored stone winding down to the sidewalk and crossed by a 3-foot-tall, three-rail redwood fence. The fences stands slightly more than halfway up the lawn.
Now the big question arose: what to plant in front of the fence. A simple solution would have been the bougainvillea “Rosenka,” which will grow dense in short order. Its bracts change color from rose to pink to peach to orange depending on the amount of light reaching them. But the bougainvillea is thorny and, therefore, not the best subject for rubbing elbows with a pathway. Besides, the bougainvillea would completely conceal the fence, in time, and mock us for having troubled to build the fence in the first place.
I thought about the manzanita, particularly its small tree species, Arctostaphylos glauca. A slow-growing plant with a smooth red trunk and gray-blue leaves, this manzanita is one of the most elegant specimens a Californian could grow. A whole row of them, in line with the fence, would give a stately aura to our house.
There are, of course, many vines that would make perfect sense for planting in front of this fence. For starters, I might have opted for two beauties that are flowering now: Hardenbergia violacea, the purple-blooming Australian pea or Gelsemium sempervirens, the yellow-trumpeted Carolina jessamine. Then there are the many climbing, vining roses – reliable choices to be sure.
Yet vines would be too predictable. Plant people are, at times, iconoclastic, frequently adventurous, but always on the lookout for something new. Precisely because vines on a fence make so much sense, some of us will avoid, at all cost, planting vines in front of fences.
In the end, we went to the nursery and came home with two plants we had not even considered before. The first was the princess flower, Tibouchina urvilleana. Although I have seen this plant flower gloriously in West Los Angeles, I have yet to see it bloom in a Valley garden. I’m sure it’s out there, probably more as a backyard than a front-yard plant and so invisible to casual passers-by. The princess flower may not stand up too well to searing, front-yard Valley sun. If I were in the West Valley, I probably wouldn’t embark on a front-yard princess flower experiment, but in the East Valley, where I live, the summer is a bit less intense. Also, neighboring my front yard are several large trees that should take the sting out of the afternoon sun, which my princess flowers will face.
Presently, four Tibouchinas are planted. I created a raised bed for them in front of the fence to aid drainage. I also amended and mulched their soil with peat moss, since the princess flower likes its pH on the acid side. I can choose to espalier this plant along the fence or let it grow to its natural shape.
The beauty of the princess flower is not meant for words. At this moment, I am waiting for its flower buds – large, furry green teardrops tinged in red – to open. Everything about this plant is memorable, from its fragile, buff-colored stems, to its flowers, of course, which are a study in silky violet purple.
Between the princess flowers, for uncanny contrast, we are going to plant orange floribunda roses. We selected a cultivar called “Livin Easy,” since the nurseryman swore this is the best orange floribunda around. The attached tag advertises it as follows: “Scrumptious flowers of showy apricot orange will both light up your landscape and blend in with other colors.” The flowers are double, medium-large in size and possessed of a “moderately fruity” fragrance. Remember that any floribunda worth its salt will flower without pause from spring until fall.
Tip of the week: If you buy bare-root roses and want to ensure their smooth transition into the garden, pot them in containers filled with sandy topsoil and let strong root systems develop – over a period of several weeks – before planting them in the ground.

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