Planning Your Outdoor Spaces Part I: The Front Yard

a picture of the front entrance to a house

By Jerry Pence

(This article was first published in the November/December 2005 issue of The Gateway Gardener.)
a picture of the front entrance to a house

An attractive, wide sidewalk provides an appealing, functional and clearly defined entrance to the home.

When planning the landscape design around your home, consider the outdoor spaces as extensions of the indoors.  In the backyard, patios and cooking areas might be extensions of a family room or kitchen. In the front of your home, a nice porch or entrance is an extension of the indoor entrance foyer. But your front yard is also your showpiece to the neighborhood.  So whether you plan something simple or elaborate, make it reflect your taste and style as you welcome visitors with your front landscape.

Your front yard can actually be broken down into several areas.  First, there is the public space, which is the area between the sidewalk and the street.  You’ll have to check with local ordinances about what you can and can’t do with this area, including with sprinkler systems.  Most people leave this area with turf and a street tree or two for practical reasons.  If you choose to plant the area with something other than turf, it’s a good idea to research what will work in those specific situations, or microclimates.  This area will be hot, with heat bouncing off of pavement and sidewalks.  It will also be very dry without irrigation, and the plants will need to be able to survive salt over spray from winter.

Next is the semi-public space (or driveway area).  The typical residential site has a

A picture of an attractive paver-stone driveway

This wide driveway is both appealing and functional, providing plenty of space for entering and exiting vehicles.

concrete driveway wide enough to accommodate one or two cars.  Generally, these driveways are just narrow enough that one must step into the grass or plant bed that is next to the driveway while getting in and out of the car.  If you are building a new home, consider having the driveway made a couple of feet wider on each side to accommodate foot traffic next to parked cars, especially if this is the main path to your entrance walk.  Existing driveways can be expanded with concrete pavers, poured concrete or another acceptable material.

The “side yard” area next to a straight driveway is often neglected.  Including planting beds and trees in that area adds to the feeling of “arriving” in your private space and will probably set your front yard apart from others on the street.  Circle drives in larger yards often make the turf area inside the circle seem like it’s own island!  Planting shade trees helps bring things back into scale and gives the area some dimension, causing people to look through the trees to your home. Planting beds planted near the driveway entrance and exit can also add a welcoming aspect.

The area between the drive and the front entrance is called the transitional space, and is also often undersized.  Entrance walks are frequently narrow (about 30-36”), straight and boring, allowing for nothing more than a single file approach or exit from your front door. Many times there is a small rectangular or square space to plant in along the way, or there might be a long narrow bed between the garage and the sidewalk.

There are alternatives!  Again, if you are in the building stage, construct a walk that is wide enough for two people to walk side by side—4’ at the very minimum, or even 5’ to allow your plantings to overhang and soften the edges. A nice, sweeping curve allows for more bed space between the house or garage and the walk for planting.  Be careful not to make it too big of a curve or to get the walk too far away from the house, or you may have difficulty filling that large planting space.

There are also alternatives to long curving walks, such as large rectangular sections of concrete or pavers that connect to make a path.  Avoid lining your entrance walk with plantings, as this will make your walk seem longer than it is.  Having a focal point, such as a specimen plant, statuary or other feature at the end of the walk or at the turn of the walk is a way to lead people to the door.  Repetition of colors, forms or textures in plants is also a way to lead people to the front door. Having a planting bed on both sides of your entrance walk allows people to walk through your landscape, even if the bed is smaller on one side of the walk than the other.  And avoid using small stepping-stones for the main entranceway – save those for smaller, secondary pathways throughout your landscape.

The next area is the semi-private space or outdoor foyer.  This is an extension of your indoor foyer.  All too often, many homes are equipped with a small front porch.  It can be difficult to stand on a small porch, open the storm door and get into the house.  Coupled with a narrow entrance walk, this leaves no gathering space at the front door to welcome people or to say goodbyes.  Expansion of the front porch is one way to solve this dilemma.  Another way, and perhaps more affordable, is to expand the porch at the sidewalk level.  This makes for a nice gathering area that could even accommodate outdoor furniture such as benches.

Finally, we reach the open space.  This consists of the yard area between the sidewalk and the house itself. Traditionally “foundation plantings” consisting of a row of some sort of evergreen or deciduous shrub have been used here to hide the foundation of the house.  These types of plantings can be out of scale with the house, since they are generally stuffed into a 4-5 ft. wide planting bed.

A photo showing a new foundation border under development

The hose was used to form the outline, then placed aside for digging once the new foundation border was marked with powdered lime.

Since many newer homes show little to no foundation, often we can be more creative with our plantings.  If you are doing this yourself, sketch out what you think you’d like your front yard to look like, then use a hose to outline a possible new planting bed or use spray paint to mark the areas.  If you are employing a professional, have them walk areas with you to help you “see” the area as they begin to put your ideas with theirs.

Bringing the planting beds out further into the yard brings the house into scale with the rest of the yard. Wrapping a planting bed around the front yard and connecting with the public sidewalk allows the creation of an actual “space” in your front yard.  Planting shade trees that will eventually get larger than the house is also a way to bring your house back into scale with the yard.  You can also use trees to frame your home or to frame a particular part of your home that you want to highlight.

As with the transitional space, one focus of the open space is to lead people to the front door.  By creatively changing your sidewalk and planting to create a space, you can direct people to the front door through the use of lines (walks), colors and textures (plants).  Colors close to the door through the use of annuals and perennials, whether planted or in containers, create an instant focus on the front door.

Making your landscape in your front yard inviting will enhance your home and make you and your guests feel “at home” when arriving!

Part II: Planning Your Backyard Space

Jerry Pence is an award-winning designer and Vice-President, Design Management & Horticulture for a local property management company, where he oversees grounds for properties in St. Louis and Florida. He also has been an instructor in the Horticulture Department at St. Louis Community College at Meramec for 15 years.