Front yards are for showing off. That’s what I believe. That’s why when I think about what I’m going to plant and where, I think about how it will look to passersby on the sidewalk.
Now, in most American communities with single-family homes, there are two ways of using your front yard to show off. The most common way is to make your front yard a monument to conformity. You don’t just have a lawn, you have a perfectly manicured lawn without a single weed. You don’t just have foundation plantings of evergreen shrubs, you have a planting of shrubs clipped perfectly into the geometric shapes of your choosing.
In my view, this way of showing off is a waste of a front yard. Also boring.
The other way of showing off is to make your front yard not a yard, but a garden. A garden of abundant color and texture, and also full of birds, bees, and butterflies. A garden full of unusual plants that refuse to be ignored.
This is why toward the back of my front garden I have a drift of Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) – ten-foot-tall plants topped with yellow daisies from July to September. That gets people’s attention. It’s also why I place most of the really fragrant plants close to the sidewalk, so that passersby can smell the Clove Currant (Ribes odoratum) or the Lilies at the proper season of the year.
And its why I’ve planted hundreds of spring bulbs over the years, so that there is abundant color in the front garden throughout the growing season.
Why go to all the trouble? For starters, it’s a sort of a compulsion. Some people have to paint or play music, I have to dig up turf and replace it with 8′ tall flowering plants.
And also: it’s because I crave admiration. I crave admiration and at the same time I am pathologically modest. I detest boasting and people who boast. But this way, the garden boasts for me. Does this sound a little neurotic to you? Fine, I won’t argue.
And I’m happy to say that I’ve been rewarded for my efforts, particularly by people in the neighborhood who walk their kids or dogs down our street. While a few people find my front garden strange or a little disturbing, most have been generous with compliments. Some have even asked for cuttings, seeds, or divisions from my plants, and I’ve generally been happy to oblige. Thanks to my front garden, I am on friendly terms with a lot more people in our community than I would otherwise be.
Now, I’m aware that there is another sort of garden tradition, in which the garden is a private retreat. A haven removed from the outside world by walls or hedges. This sort of tradition has an appeal of its own. If I lived in a city of crowded, bustling streets, I might want a front garden that was more like a private courtyard.
But I live in an American suburb, where the streets are often too quiet. Actually, I’m grateful for all the parents and kids and dogwalkers who provide what modest street life that we have. And my front garden is one way to express that gratitude.