Garden Editor's Front Yard Makeover

New steps, better parking, and colorful flowers give this house great curb appeal.
Charlie Thigpen

One day as my wife and I walked around our front yard, she turned to me and said some painful words: "You have really let our neighbors down." Her comment hurt because I knew she was right. When you're a Garden editor for Southern Living magazine, your neighbors just expect your yard to look nice.

Even though we had lived in the house for a couple of years, I hadn't done anything to improve the yard. As my wife turned and walked away, I searched for excuses. "You know, if I work on the front yard, I'll have to put in a parking court, and it's going to cost us some money." She replied, "Well, put in a parking court."

Time To Work
Because we had been in the house for a while, I already knew what I wanted to do. Our long, narrow driveway offered nowhere to turn around or park additional cars. Installing a parking area in this limited space would be a challenge.

Using marking paint and flags, I laid out the dimensions of the parking court between the house and two large white oak trees. Ideally, the area needed to be 25 feet wide to accommodate two vehicles. To save the two mature trees and stay away from their roots, I had to reduce the parking area to 22 feet in width. The downsized space is a little tight for two cars, but it was worth saving the large trees.

Next, we hired a contractor to help with excavation. He scooped all the soil out of the area and leveled the site. I rented a jackhammer to break up the sidewalk.

Up Go the Walls
We ordered stone and had it dumped into the middle of the excavated parking area. I started building the walls around the perimeter of the parking court and worked my way to the front steps.

Stacking stone is like putting together a puzzle. You set the stones one at a time, tilting them slightly back toward the bank. Each rock must fit in the right space. The biggest stones are on the bottom row of the wall to create a strong and stable foundation. As the walls went up, they were backfilled with soil. No mortar holds the rocks in place. I wanted them to look like old-fashioned dry-stacked walls. This gave me the opportunity to tuck little plants such as ajugas, strawberry begonias, violas, or ebony spleenwort ferns in between the rocks' crevices.

 

Removing and Adding Shrubs
The existing foundation planting needed some help. Older 'Helleri' hollies had died in spots, making the area look ragged. I quickly ripped them out. Then, I dug up and relocated a large sasanqua camellia. We were lucky enough to have three of these fall-blooming camellias planted along the foundation. After I pruned the lower limbs from these large shrubs, they looked like neat little evergreen trees. I also moved a large 'Mrs. G. G. Gerbing' azalea to the foundation. Using mature shrubs gave the entry a more established look. We added three nandinas (Nandina domestica) and two 'Bright 'n Tight' Carolina cherry laurels (Prunus caroliniana 'Bright 'n Tight'). The nandinas' red berries add winter interest, and the Carolina cherry laurels provide height and soften one corner of the house.

Finishing Touches
Once all the shrubs were in, it was time to show the neighbors how to create a colorful entry using annuals, perennials, and bulbs. I wanted to weave flowers and foliage on top of the wall. Some parts of the wall were 3 to 4 feet high, putting the plantings at eye level for anyone pulling into the parking court. In the fall, I planted daffodils, tulips, pansies, violas, red mustard, and a few perennials. I like using contrasting-colored plants next to each other, so I placed white tulips beside black violas. The creamy tulip petals really stand out against the purplish-black viola blooms. For a contrasting foliar combination, I planted fernlike green-and-white-variegated 'Brise d'Anjou' Jacob's ladder (Polemonium caeruleum 'Brise d'Anjou') next to the large, floppy 'Red Giant' mustard.

All of my hard work paid off in the spring as the colorful flowers began to emerge and the foliage unfurled. My wife was happy, and the neighbors took notice as the new landscape came to life. One neighbor, Earle Carpenter, stopped by and gave me the greatest compliment of all. He said the stone wall and plants looked like they had been there all along. 

This article is from the March 2005 issue of Southern Living.