Introduction: Turn Your Front Yard Into a Garden

Personally, I'm not one for lawns.  I am not vehemently opposed to them or anything, but lawns need to serve a functional purpose in my landscape.  My dogs aren't about to be set loose in the front yard, and I'm not about to start a croquet match in it.  If I had kids, I doubt I would send them out front to play next to a road where people have become a bit too convinced that they are in fact excellent drivers and that children don't randomly run out in front of their cars.

I like plants, lots of them, and gardening is a high-priority hobby in my life.  I went nursery hopping in North Carolina for my honeymoon!  I would hate to lose valuable gardening real estate to a nonfunctional lawn especially when that lawn is on the southern side of the house in a region plagued by heat and drought.  Who wants to be watering and mowing in summers typified by 100F, humid weather?  That sounds like a little slice of hell to me.

So the lawn got the boot in the front yard and will be relocated to the back where it's cooler and will serve a more functional purpose.  This Instructable details planning considerations for someone wanting to tackle a project like this and how my SO and I went about doing it.  You will notice that more than half of the steps are dedicated to planning because the devil is in the details.  Our aesthetic might not be yours, and our plant selection might be completely inappropriate for your area.  However, this was a project we completed largely on our own without any considerable skills and within a somewhat modest budget.  You will have to make changes in your design according to your needs, taste, terrain, and climate, and chances are that you will be changing the design forever. 

Gardens aren't static.  Plants die.  Trends change.  You change.  Your landscape will change.  Have fun and enjoy!

Also, this wasn't a weekend project.  My SO and I have been building up to this point over the past 5 years, and it took us a couple months to complete.  It has yet to grow in just yet.

Step 1: Planning Basics

Know your soil.
Is it rocky? sandy?  largely clay?  Do you find pools of water a day after a heavy rain?
Is there lots of organic matter or practically none?  Can you find earthworms in it?
What's the pH?  What's the nutrient profile?
What have you been able to get grow in the past?

Know your sunlight.

Where's the structural shade?
Where's filtered light?
How many hours of sunlight does each portion of the landscape get?

Know your utility lines.
Where are your water, electrical, gas, and cable lines?

Know the governing rules if applicable.
Do you have an HOA that doesn't allow it?

For us, our soil drains well, is slightly alkaline, and has a modest amount of organic matter.  I am able to find earthworms in it, and I have been able to grow a variety of plants.  Despite some structural and natural shade, the light is very intense in all areas, and plants must be able to tolerate at least part sun and heat.  In general, Texas natives, Mediterranean, and South African plants do best.  There is a water and gas line running to the house from the street, and we don't have an HOA.

Step 2: Structural Design Considerations

Paths and Entries
How do you envision people to walk around the property?
How do you walk around the property?
How will you be able to reach areas for fertilizing, watering, and weeding?
What material will you use for the paths?
How would a person in a wheelchair or stroller be able to move around?

Focal Points

Are you going to use a structural focal point such as a fountain?
Are you going to use a special plant as a focal point?
Do you like formal or informal gardens?
Do you want a man-made focal point or a natural one?
How many will you need?
Will you be using seating?

What place would you like to be able to visit every single day?  A Gothic Cathedral or a Fairy Castle?
What will make your garden a destination?
How will you add charm?

From walking around, there was one definite path in the yard, and two more paths were added for guests entering the property from the street.  Two of the three paths are wide enough for someone in a wheelchair to maneuver around.  We opted to use the same material for the paths as we did for the mulch, and we may add stonework or some other material later.  We have a variety of focal points, but most focal points are special plants.  Currently, the most obvious focal points are the arbor, stock tank, and ash tree, and the remaining focal points will require time for growth as they are still relatively young plants.  I wanted this garden to be informal in a Texas cottage sort of way, but there are still gnomes as a nod to our See Rock City mailbox.

Step 3: Planting Beds

Plants as Structure
Bloom time?
Winter interest?
Potential for goring (e.g., cacti)?

Plant Care

Sensory Experiences

There are a range of sizes in plants, and because we live in a two story house, there are some large plants although they're small right now.  To block the entrance to the back yard from the street view, there's a line of  evergreen shrubs.  The plants largely have a silver-and-gold color scheme with punches of purple, and there's something that will be in bloom almost all year round.  When there isn't something in bloom, there are evergreens and interesting foliage.  Evil plants are largely pushed from the paths.

Plants with greater water needs were placed closer to the faucet and the eventual water storage tank.  These plants also have higher fertilizer needs and were clustered together for that reason.  I personally don't mind pruning, but if you're someone who hates it, be careful what you pick.  I do have one invasive, and it's called mint.  I remove the flowers and control the runners.  Know what you're getting into though.

Gardens should be full sensory experiences in my opinion which is why I selected many fragrant plants with a variety of forms and textures.  There are also edible plants ranging from herbs such as sage and rosemary to thornless blackberry bushes.

Step 4: Wildlife Considerations

Are you wanting to attract wildlife?
If so, you should consider what type of wildlife you would like to attract, how to provide food, water, and shelter, and the effects of chemical use.

We're trying to attract birds beyond just grackles and pigeons, so we have a variety of feeders/food along with a birdbath.  I'd also like to attract snakes that eat bugs so there are some shelters for them to live in although I might get something other than snakes.  Since most of my gardening is organic (and I'm lazy with pesticide/herbicide/fertilizer), chemical concerns are a bit moot.  However, it should be noted that even if you are gardening organically, you can still scare off some good stuff such as if you're a little heavy with the Neem spray.

Step 5: Certification Considerations

This is something that I suspect not everyone considers straight off the bat, but would you like your garden to be certified as a wildlife habitat?  a water-wise landscape?  a green garden?  Are you looking for a bit of glory?  If so, check around your city, county, state, and country for potential certifications.  The National Wildlife Federation offers a Wildlife Habitat certificate that you can apply for online.

Step 6: Priorities and Budget

More than likely you won't be able to afford or complete everything that you want to do right away unless you've been saving and planning for a while, so it's important to check your priorities.  What projects can you wait on?  What will give you the most satisfaction to have done now?  How long will it take for your fruit tree to actually look like a tree?

For us, the top priority was getting plants established, and for some plants, it will take years for them to look like much.  We can't really afford the $300 specimen cactus right now, so we have to opt for the $20 cactus.  Plus I won't feel so bad if I kill a $20 cactus as opposed to a $300 one.  We also have informal paths and might install flagstone later when we can afford it, and we don't have any garden lighting or a big fancy boulder or fountain which could all be priorities for someone.

For a rough break down of our costs:
10 cuyd Decomposed granite$360
Landscaping fabric$80
Stock tank$140
Hose reel$100

The money was spent according to our priorities, and I only mention the cost because that's what I'd be wondering about if I saw this Instructable.  We could have purchased different plants, spent less on them, and then been able to put in some sort of lighting system.  In other words, something has to give, and it's critical what aspects of the garden you care most about.  If you badly need that beautiful specimen plant, consider putting off another project.  If you really have to have that gorgeous cement hippo, then consider buying the lantana you found on sale.  Just have some sort of goal and way of accomplishing it.  If you can't afford the hippo right now, go ahead and dedicate the space for one later on.

Theoretically, you can landscape without spending any money, working with plants you propagated, and using finds from around town.  There's no shortage of urbanite and native plants around here - contact a developer and see if you can go in before the bulldozers.  You can also get free plants off craigslist and sometimes get mulched (although not composted) wood from your city.  There's something to be said for necessity (or thrift) and creativity.

Step 7: Supplies

It's important to have the supplies when you need them. 

In all likelihood, you're going to at least need a shovel, wheelbarrow, and pruners.

Weed Barrier:
You can use newspaper, phone book pages, shredded paper, mulch, or landscape fabric.  I would recommend using mulch and at least one of the others especially if you're removing grass. 

Mulch can range from a living mulch such as low growing plants to stone to shredded bark.  We opted for decomposed granite since it's a local product, retains moisture, is somewhat inexpensive, and can be used in pathways.  I also think it looks nice.

This goes without saying, but I will say that you probably shouldn't go to a store once and buy all your plants then and there.  Plants hit the nurseries at different times so what's there in May might not have been there in March.  There are also local plant sales and festivals, and don't forget mail order and online sources.  When doing this landscape, I stuck largely by my color scheme and buying multiples of each plant.  If you buy 3+ of the same plant, you're improving your chances of it looking better in the landscape which is why I bought twenty 4" pots of santolina.

Other Bits:

Depending on what else you do, you will also need to purchase those items.  For instance, we chose the stock tank as the main focal point which had to be installed before the plants surrounding it due to issues in the gradient.

Step 8: Preparation

Preparation is 95% of the work.  Spend a good amount of time in preparing the yard.  It will pay off.

The first thing we did was have a cedar removed as we didn't really have the skills/tools to do it.  If there are trees that need to be removed, do it.  It'll be harder to do later on.

Next we removed the top 3" of turf/soil because grass is difficult to combat.

Then we moved existing plants in the landscape or potted them temporarily.  Large plants were planted immediately.

Then we laid and pinned landscape fabric.

Finally, we mulched with the decomposed granite.

I've created garden beds a variety of ways, and this way seems to be the easiest and most successful.  It's difficult to lay landscape fabric around small plants already in the ground, and it's even more difficult to plant the smalls ones the right depth so they aren't smothered in mulch.

Step 9: Installation

The arbor was installed (plumb and level), and a lady banks rose ('Lutea') was trained up the arbor.

The stock tank was installed, leveled, filled with soil, and planted with spring-summer annuals such as basil and petunias.

Then we would lay out plants in the beds and leave them in their pots for a few hours to ensure we liked where they were.  Once we were sure the plant was in the best spot, we would move the mulch out the way, cut an X in the landscape fabric with a pair of scissors, and dig down to the appropriate depth, putting the soil in a tub or the wheelbarrel.  When the plant was in, the X would be smooth as close to the plant as possible, and the mulch would be gathered around it.

For the bulb bed, landscape fabric was not installed, and the bulbs were planted closely together and mulched heavily.

Hanging plants and bird feeders were added to the tree, the gnome got his home, the bird bath got filled, and the snakes got their pots.

Step 10: Maintenance

Plants need to be watered for at least their first year in the landscape even if they're native or drought tolerant.  After the first year, watering might not be such an issue unless you have a summer like we did last year when established, mature agaves wilted due to heat and drought.

Weeds will also inevitably find their way up through the barrier and mulch and must be dealt with.  Some organic approaches include horticultural grade vinegar (20%), torching, pulling, and digging.  The goal is to outlive the weed because it will probably die eventually with gardener vigilance.

Fertilizing can mean pulling back the mulch and weed barrier and adding some compost or using a liquid fertilizer.

If you use a wood mulch, it will have to be refreshed every 1-3 years.

Hopefully, you already know what to expect as far as long-term maintenance when you were planning and no horrible unexpected events happen.  If a plant does die, you can take it as an opportunity to change it out for something new on the market.
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