Skip to main content

The Interesting Suburban Garden

Creating an interesting suburban garden that reflects its native surroundings.

My brave new gardening world is suburbia. Speed bumps, neighbors, roaming golden retrievers, and a flat half-acre of lawn. Not all's a bad deal, though. We now have city water, and we're blessed with the best soil Colorado's Front Range has to offer—rich, deep clay-loam. The biggest challenge is design.

Countless gardeners face the humdrum of a flat lot with neighborly views in all directions. How does one romance such a place? Many choose to create garden rooms, subdividing the space into smaller distinct areas. Being slightly claustrophobic by nature, and preferring a naturalistic style over small vignettes and an obviously designed look, I wanted a unified, open garden. My husband, Scott, agreed—this being his first Colorado garden, he was all for making it feel as regionally resonant and natural as possible.

First we needed to start hiding the neighbors. A privacy fence was out of the question, since we love the openness of our half acre and the split-rail fences that are the neighborhood's signature. So we planted large specimen western white pines, bristlecone pines, and desert olives in strategic groupings to help block out the most offensive swing sets, garages, decks, and barbeques. Luckily we have some lovely peeks to the foothills to our west. These we played up, framing them with the native trees, which also gave the garden immediate grace, maturity, and a wild sense of place. We then went on to create a close-knit orchard of crab apples, plums, and apples in a loose meadow planting of grasses and prairie perennials. This area helps minimize a 4,000-square-foot hunk of a house to our northwest and relates the garden to the rural roots of our part of town, where fruit trees and horse pastures still persist.

The next challenge was our lack of slope. We decided against the popular berm and mound solutions; they don't look natural enough for the effect we wanted. Instead we took a slight rise of about a foot on the northern third of the back area and hauled in some flat, lichen-encrusted native stone, laying it in shelves in an arc. This gives the rise more prominence and definition. A dozen interplanted dwarf conifers further accentuate the change in level and resonate with the foothills beyond.

We had committed to removing the lawn entirely, but we wanted to re-create a bit of the restful openness that it had offered (in its stylized way). So we embarked on our most complex and innovative project, a steppe planting of short grasses, sedges, bulbs, and carefully chosen low-growing companion plants. Now entering some semblance of maturity, the steppes soft textures contrast with the powerful forms of our many conifers and large succulents. When backlit by the afternoon sun, its quiet complexity calls to mind the wild landscapes that first drew us to this beautiful part of the world. A western garden is taking root in suburbia.