In his remarkably rich first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan offers the image that the plurality of grass lawns planted by the tens of millions across America in the last century congealed into the singular and became one vast lawn stretching coast to coast, with the concrete hardscape of our highways the heavily travelled paths in the awful sameness of it all. Well, that was then, and this is now: look around the Sabin community of beautiful Portland, Oregon, and you will see a wonderful variety emerging out of that sameness, with some front yards full of flowering plants and others sporting vegetables, tall grasses, herbs, impressive stones, sculpture, street trees, and native shrubs. In Sabin, you see people using mulch to control weeds and save water. You see gardens attracting bees and butterflies. Some front gardens are fenced for pets and children while others have the open character of Oregon beaches. Some are blank slates. Some bespeak neglect, in other words: opportunity, adventure.
This essay is written for those Sabin homeowners who don’t yet know what they want to do with their front yards. Whereas in the dismal past folks just planted grass and mowed it, now your options seem limitless and bewildering. How do you figure out what to do?
If you decide to enhance the curb appeal of your home, you will inevitably experience some trial and error and that’s okay, but you can ask yourself some questions at the very beginning that will reduce error, if not trial. Start with questions based on your senses and then proceed to emotion and cognition. Which of your senses do you want your front yard to most engage?
Consider all your senses:
your tactile sense,
For many the answer will be vision. They want a visually appealing front yard, with color, shape, light, and seasonal decorations. If you want fifteen plastic tombstones in your front yard before Halloween and twelve reindeer before Christmas, you will have to make room for them. Once you know you want your curb appeal to be visual, you have a starting point. If you learn you want it to be seasonal, you have a plan.
For others, the kinesthetic sense is paramount, quite literally: the front yard is meant to be moved into and through. Perhaps a wide stairway mounts to the front door with foliage on either side. Perhaps a circular path surrounds a feature that needs to be seen from all directions, so you have to move around it. Perhaps stepping stones meander among cutting flowers. Its all about movement. The movement might be your movement or it might be your garden’s movement: kinetic sculpture; weeping trees, tall plants that wave in the breeze.
You may prefer a highly tactile experience: petting gardens, we might call them. Passersby can’t help running their hands over the lavender on one side of the sidewalk and the Tuscan rosemary on the other. There are hedges in Sabin of soft conifers that beg to be petted as much as any cat begs.
My own garden is to be smelled and tasted. I plant the most extravagantly perfumed plants I can find. I want the daphne odora to stop you in your tracks in February and the night-scented stock to do the same in August. I plant vegetables because I want my garden to taste as good as it smells. Powell’s Books has a whole section on fragrance gardening, and Vegetable Gardening West of the Cascades is in all the libraries.
You may want your garden to be all about sound. On my walks through Sabin, I have been lead by the sound of a bubbling fountain in one direction and by wind chimes in another. A friend of mine plants for bird song. She missed the bird song that filled the air in her Midwestern childhood, so she tries to make as much of that happen here in Portland as possible. She likes to sit on her patio and watch the birds with binoculars on summer evenings.
Next after the senses, consider emotion. What emotion do you want to feel (or avoid!) in your garden? I want to feel delight in my garden, so it’s a pretty light-hearted garden. Mine is not your serious garden. You may be more interested in other members of the celebration family, wanting gladness, mirth, and gayety in your garden. This will be particularly true, I should think, if the most important function of your garden is for entertaining. It’s more common to entertain in the back yard than in the front, but there is a house in a nearby neighborhood surrounded on three sides with an openwork fence through which one can see an outdoor kitchen, a fire pit, play equipment, and many chairs and tables. The space is festooned with lanterns. The front of the house welcomes like the swinging door of a saloon in movies. It’s the way you get to the party.
Perhaps, on the other hand, you need your garden to be comforting, healing your loss, soothing your sadness. Perhaps your garden needs to be a haven in times of anxiety or dread, or just plain relaxing.
You might legitimately garden for pride. The elaborate gardens featured in tours are often created by gardeners who want to say, “I take pride in my garden.” They have every right to their pride and they are true to themselves as gardeners. The other side of their gardening coin is the avoidance of shame, so to call their gardens well-tended is understatement.
Perhaps you will cultivate a hope garden like the ones popping up in tiny spaces in large cities. Hope gardens seem to be contagious: The Contagion of Hope.
Perhaps what you really care about is that your garden be romantic, a private place that promotes bonding and affection between yourself and your mate. If that is your goal, you will be able to fulfill your dream because you know what you want. You will plan around the emotion you are pursuing and you will use your imagination. It’s easy to imagine a romantic garden, isn’t it?
You may want a meditation garden in which you cultivate the emotions theologians write about: awe, wonder, and reverence. You can visit monastery gardens and church courtyards to learn how to create a sacred space outdoors. There are books on the subject. Statuary may be important. A meditation garden may have more seating than most other gardens and the quality and character of the seating will be important. Rather than sound, you may need to aim for silence in that garden. The serenity you create may be primarily for your own benefit or it may be a gift to others who see your garden and are calmed just walking down the street past it.
So, you’ve thought about your senses and your emotions. Now turn to cognition, which may turn out to be first in importance for you. The world is full of front yards made by conceptual artists. Their gardens are primarily about ideas. If ideas are your thing, create a conceptual garden of your own. Your concept might be reflection, for instance, so you fill your garden with reflecting pools and mirrors and paths that turn back on themselves. Your idea might be simplicity. If you have a ten by ten foot space alongside a path in front, you might plant a low-growing Japanese maple in that space with a few crocuses to peak through the mulch in springtime. Simple.
Here’s an idea: a free garden. You could get free seeds from the new Northeast Seed Library. You could get cuttings and divisions from neighbors. You can gather leaves for vast bins of leaf mulch. Nothing works better. It just takes a couple of years for a huge pile of leaves to turn to garden gold. If you collect every year, you have a constant supply. For mulching large areas, you can get free wood chips from arborists. Wood chips work fine so long as they have time to break down some before you plant. You can collect stones and driftwood when you go to the coast. You can embed broken pots and plates artistically in the soil.
There is one sculpture garden in Sabin in the small front and side yard of a corner house. Even the fence is a sculpture. The word generous comes to mind when I walk past that garden almost daily. It is generous of the home owner to provide what amounts to a gallery for the whole community in that way. The garden teaches viewers something about the power of art to integrate experience: this garden is conceptual insofar as it is sculptural, but it is also sensory, being visually engaging, and emotional, offering a grounded, centering tranquillity with touches of humor.
There will be other considerations besides your senses, your emotions, and your ideas. One is your relationship to plants. Are you a plant person? Do you adore plants so that you want the garden to be all about the plants? Where a plant person would put a tree, his neighbor with different affinities will want a patio, or a sculpture. Are you more interested in single plants or in groups of plants? Where one person would put a drift of poeticus daffodils another will fill the space with a variety of spring flowering bulbs from the tiniest to the tallest and of many colors. Where one person wants a specimen, another fills the space shoulder to shoulder with plants that play off each other and are not meant to be attended to singly, a bunch ‘o plants.
Another consideration is the house. Most people want their garden congruent with their home. This can be especially important if your home is strongly of a particular style. An Arts and Crafts house wants an Arts and Crafts garden, not a Zen garden or a formal garden. The imperative for congruence gives you another opportunity to learn about your home and its history, so constraint in this case is context for engagement rather than for frustration, as one might think. If you really want that Zen garden but you have an Arts and Crafts house, see if you can tweak the garden in a Zen-ish direction without offending the house. Alternatively, make a little “garden room” that scratches that itch.
Climate and micro-climate are huge factors in your choices. You’ll do yourself a big favor by planting what is happy in this climate, even what is native to it. Take time to become intimately acquainted with your space so that you know its micro-climate. My space, on 15th near Fremont, is in a basin created by the Alameda Ridge to the north and east and by some less visible elevation on the west, evident when water streams down Beech street from the west past the Albina Library toward 15th most of the winter even when it isn’t raining, and my soil stays surprisingly moist in the summer. Plants that don’t like waterlogged soil are going to die under these conditions, so I avoid things I could have planted in North Portland without a worry.
Another limiting factor is size. You will not be happy with a plant that grows too big for its space unless you love the task of pruning to size. You will not enjoy the little plants that get lost in a large space unless you are prepared to plant a bazillion of them or put them in a pot by the door.
What you neighbors have chosen for their gardens will almost certainly limit or influence what you can do. Their huge trees may shade your space, for instance, so that you must choose plants that thrive in shade. All this can be delightful to deal with if you take your time and just have fun with it, learning as you go. There’s this other possibility with neighbors: maybe you all have neglected front yards. If so, you might all work on them together, creating a common space in front with everything congruent. Friends of Trees would help you put the same tree in the parking strip all the way from one street to the next. It’s a beautiful effect and you would be significantly increasing your property value.
I recommend anthropomorphic language as you think about your garden. Ask what your garden wants. Gardeners talk like that. They say, “My garden wants to grow more vertically,” or, “That plant wants to be on the north side of the house. It just didn’t like it on the south side.” Ask what your garden likes. At a seed savers’ meeting on Alberta, a speaker said, “Corn doesn’t like to come off the cob until it’s planted next year.” Ask what your garden needs. Say things like, “This garden needs a stone in this spot.”
When you make a garden yourself, using your own senses, your own emotions, your own ideas, your garden will also make its gardener. Creation is reciprocal in a garden, so get used to being changed by it. You may be surprised to find, for instance, that you just naturally begin to pick up your lunch and carry it outdoors, then your breakfast, then your dinner. Just the other day I walked past a woman sitting on her front steps eating donuts (I swear. Here in Oregon!) with her face turned toward the rare February sun with a look of total contentment on her face. Your garden could turn you into an outdoor eater like our contented neighbor.
Making your own garden over time allows you to delight in the advance of knowledge. You might, for instance, have believed that soil science had pretty much done its job, that scientists know all about the components of “soil dirt,” as I heard someone call it recently, and about how to provide what plants need. Not so. Just in the last few years scientists here in Oregon have identified what they call the soil food web, a network of living organisms--bacteria, viruses, nematodes, protozoa--that forms in the soil over time and greatly benefits plants in symbiotic ways that scientists will now be investigating for many years to come to gain a complete understanding of how it works. This discovery is to soil science what relativity was to physics and the discovery of micro-organisms in the ocean jets was to oceanographers, a whole new world to explore, brain candy. The soil food web is great news for gardeners, for it gives us a new way to garden, a whole new set of organisms to consider and cooperate with. We want to foster these soil creatures and their relationships and we learn as we do so that gardens with protected soil food webs share characteristics with forests that make gardening easier. We can use fewer chemicals and fertilizers as we allow the soil its natural webbing. This kind of learning is one of the great delights of gardening. We are so lucky to be alive in the years when the soil food web is discovered, and we are so lucky to live in Sabin where the Ariadne Garden stands as an example of what can happen when practical attention is given to the soil food web. You can volunteer at the garden to learn about the soil food web. You can learn about the soil food web athttp://soils.usda.gov/sqi/concepts/soil_biology/soil_food_web.html, and the Wikipedia article is good, too. Garden Fever, at Fremont and 24th, has books on the subject.
Learn as much as you can from our fine Sabin businesses. Make weekly visits to the garden stores on the edge of Sabin and to the bird shop within it. These are places that welcome browsing. Push your sleeping baby in the stroller while you browse. You don’t have to buy every time you go. Just go and get ideas. See what other people are buying. See how what is offered at the garden stores changes in different seasons. See if you can figure out why that is.
Don’t forget the Albina library. The excellent librarians there will get you anything you need to help figure out what you want to do in your front yard. They love hooking people up with books.
When you develop a profound relationship with your own garden, you find you are thereby developing a relationship with the earth, with nature itself. The garden finds many ways to let you know it is part of a larger world in which the whole affects the part--global warming makes your snowdrops appear earlier than they once did--and the part affects the whole, so you decide to eliminate pesticides from your gardening so that you keep our rivers cleaner and passersby and pets safer. This sense of connectedness is both gratifying and demanding, and gardening makes you strong enough to meet the demand.
Gardening is good exercise. Old people who garden do better than those who don’t. Kids who garden stay trim, strong, and healthy. Get even more exercise by walking the streets of Sabin looking for ideas. Take your camera and keep pictures on your computer of what you like. You can take a picture to the garden store and someone will identify the plant for you and tell you all about it. Or, knock on the door and ask. You may be offered a cutting of the plant.
Here’s what we know: as we make Sabin bloom, it will return the favor.
Copyright Barbara Conable 2009.
You have my permission to download, print, or reprint this pamphlet in its entirety or to quote parts of it so long as you credit authorship and so long as your intention is to benefit your community, not to profit from the reproduction. Barbara Conable.