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How to Design a Front Entry Garden

As a landscape designer for a well-respected suburban garden center, I fielded 60 to 70 residential design calls every year. Fully half of those visits included a discussion about the client’s foundation plantings; they wanted them renovated or replaced entirely. After 7 years on the job, I had designed, re-designed and installed nearly 200 street-facing gardens. From this experience I learned that although most homeowners ask for foundation plantings that are attractive in all seasons, low maintenance and affordable, they actually want something more.

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At first, I did my best to create the foundation plantings my clients requested: a tidy row of clipped evergreens fronted by groups of flowering shrubs with ornamental trees on the corners and masses of well-behaved herbaceous perennials filling in the gaps. A rotating palette of plants added variety to the plans, but they were all basically the same: evergreens for winter interest and flowers or foliage for seasonal color. I continued to tweak this formula but soon developed a better way altogether to approach these designs. I decided to stop hugging the house with plants and start creating front-entry gardens.

The Front Entry Difference

Most North American homeowners are familiar with the term “foundation plantings,” and they assume their house should have some. Foundation plantings are shrubs that grow up against the base of the home’s façade, and sometimes its sides and back, too. They owe their origin to the Victorian architecture popular throughout the United States during the latter part of the 19th century. These homes were ornate structures built upon stone foundations several feet high. Landscape gardeners camouflaged the unsightly foundations with shrubs like hydrangea, boxwood and yew. The technique caught on, and today it remains standard practice to plant shrubs in front of our houses—whether there’s a foundation to hide or not.

We’ve come a long way since the Victorian era, and unless you own a Victorian house, there’s no great reason for foundation plantings. When I asked my clients why they wanted a two-dimensional landscape applied to the front of their house, they couldn’t provide a good answer. That’s when I suggested they start thinking of the front plantings as a garden—a three-dimensional space to be experienced by visitors.

There are just a few things to remember when designing a front entry garden:

  • First, think of the plantings as part of a garden space; visualize the area in three-dimensions.
  • Second, make it a place to be experienced, complete with the sights, scents and sounds of any other well-designed garden.
  • Third, conceive the front entry garden as a semi-public space, to be viewed from the street or sidewalk and also explored by guests as it guides them to the front door.

Determining the Space

There are a few simple design techniques that will turn the front of your house into a three-dimensional garden space. (These can be applied to landscaping around any structure, such as a garage, shed or barn or even a fence or gazebo, too.)

First, use the “two-thirds rule” to find the outer boundary of the front entry garden and truly create the 3D space:

Measure the height of façade of the house up to the roof line. (Don’t include the height of chimneys.) You may need to estimate by eye or refer to an architectural elevation drawing. Then transpose that measurement onto the ground extending perpendicular from the front façade and mark a line two-thirds of that distance away from the house. (For example, for a 30-foot-tall house, mark the line 20 feet from the facade.) The space between your house and this line will form the bulk of your entry garden.

To emphasize the space, incorporate a landscape or garden element at or beyond the two-thirds line. Possible elements include a planting bed, a single tree, a lamp post, a wall, the start of a path. Note that the element does not have to fill the entire space from the house to the two-thirds measurement, and it doesn’t have to match the width of the house.

If the property line falls short of the two-thirds measurement, design all the way out to it. Try to appropriate space beyond the property line, such as the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road. Look for a street tree or a garden element from a neighboring property, and visually incorporate it into the design. For instance, if there is a pink-flowering street tree just beyond your property line, use some plants that will flower at the same time with echoing hues.

Symmetry and Balance

Once you’ve determined the space of the entry garden using the two-thirds rule, design within it using symmetry and balance, referring back to the house when making decisions.

Many people strive for symmetry in their garden plans. Symmetry offers an easy way to provide visual balance, but it is static, and not a natural scheme. Symmetrical planting plans work well with symmetrical architecture and when a formal style is desired.

For a dynamic design, aim for asymmetrical balance instead, especially if the house has an asymmetrical façade. Here, match the density of plantings to the bulk of the house.

Consider the visual weight of your plant selections and how they will balance each other on either side of the front door. To understand visual weight, think about dense evergreens and ornamental grasses. The former are visually heavy; the latter, visually light.

Finally, when it comes to scale—the size of objects in relation to their surroundings—I don’t recommend hard and fast rules. Scale is a design element we can judge intuitively. If it’s wrong, something just won’t feel right. Ask if the garden is set to a human scale. Is it comfortable to be in? Do the spaces feel pinched? Are you overwhelmed by the plants or any other feature? Most importantly, consider how the plants will grow over time, and their need for maintenance—pruning trees and shrubs, dividing herbaceous perennials. Done right, proper scale will unite every element of the design, including the house, into a cohesive whole.

A Note on Pathways

The best way to enhance the three-dimensional space and deliver the experience of a front-entry garden is to build an interesting walkway to the front door. Here are a few ideas you can use to turn your front walk into a true garden stroll:

  • Create landings—wider points in the path, which you can edge with interesting plants. Landings provide a place to pause. They work best for long paths that run parallel to the house.
  • Include elevation changes. A single step up or down to a new level can introduce a sense of transition or arrival, even without a natural grade change.
  • Employ different shapes. A combination of straight and curving geometry gives the walkway character and interest.
  • Make space for planting beds. Use the shape and location of the walkway as it relates to the house and lawn to create corresponding areas for planting beds.
  • Use a consistent material. To maintain a sense of continuity, avoid combining paving materials in your walkway. Successfully breaking this rule takes special skill, so play it safe and stick to one material.

To Close, the Entry Garden Checklist

When designing a front-entry garden, make sure to tick these boxes:

  • Draw attention to the front door.
  • Provide glimpses of the façade and keep views through the windows clear.
  • Match the style of the garden to the architectural style of the house. For example, make a cottage garden outside of a Cape; a native meadow outside of a farmhouse; a parterre for a Georgian manor.
  • Highlight unique features of the architecture by keeping them in view. Consider framing them with plants.
  • Create a consistent aesthetic with hardscape elements and plants using color, texture and form, like sandstone with buff-colored plants, or grasses near glass.