Front garden design ideas

Front garden design ideas: What to plant, eco-friendly options, patios, and more!

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Front garden design ideas have really evolved in the last few years—and for the better. Walk through any neighbourhood these days and you’ll see that the traditional turf grass and tidy foundation planting look is being replaced by contemporary elements that are mindful of the environment. A good garden design will incorporate a few modern suggestions together to create an eco-friendly, eye-catching space.

In my new book, Gardening Your Front Yard: Projects and Ideas for Big & Small Spaces, I explore a variety of ideas (including some DIY projects), from flowers and foliage that attract pollinators, to sneaking edibles into perennial gardens, or giving over a bigger area of your front yard to vegetable gardening. I explore a number of eco-friendly options, like alternatives to traditional turf grass that are more sustainable, and capturing rain water from excessive storms. Conversely, I include plants that can survive a drought. I even delve in to front yard patios—people are feeling social and gravitating towards their front yards.

With permission from my publisher, Cool Springs Press, which is a division of The Quarto Group, I have gathered some inspiring front garden design ideas from the book that will hopefully spark some ideas for your own front yard space.

A few front garden design ideas

I think it’s important to include a little warning. It’s easy to get carried away and want to rip everything out to start fresh. A few garden designers also made this recommendation when I was doing my research. Know when to consult a landscape professional for big projects that will affect certain aspects of your property, like the grade. And no deep digging without consulting your utility companies first. If you’re tackling a smaller project on your own, like widening a garden, be patient and chip away at it over time. Don’t overwhelm yourself with a space that is too big. You want to be able to enjoy the garden, too. Besides, if you rip out all your grass, but don’t immediately replace it with plants because of some delay or other, you’re looking at a lot of weeding in your future.

I had so much fun discovering what other savvy gardeners, and talented garden and landscape designers have been doing to transform front yard gardens. I was humbled by the creativity and I’m inspired to apply some of that vision to my own front yard.

A major thread that was deliberately woven throughout this book was a mindfulness for the environment. That includes planting with pollinators in mind and carefully considering your garden’s conditions in your plans.

Add a seating area

Many gardeners of a certain age will remember playing outside as kids, dashing across the neighbourhood front lawns without a care in the world. My husband has fond memories of his parents and neighbours drinking coffee on the front porch after dinner while the kids played in the front yards on the street.

At some point, social areas shifted to the backyard entirely. When I used to live in the city, I’d see more neighbours in the winter shovelling than in the summer (unless they were out gardening). All socializing was done in the backyard. But more and more folks are carving out front yard patios. I don’t just mean seating on a porch (if you’re lucky to have one). Front yard patios are being integrated into garden design. I met a few homeowners who have done this so they can watch the kids play. It seems as though things are shifting back a bit.

Front garden design ideas: Add a patio

This front yard on a dead-end street features a pergola over a seating area. The space allows the homeowners to watch their kids play. photo by Donna Griffith

Choose the right plants for your garden

I love how there is so much more awareness these days about right plant, right space in the garden. Sure there’s a place for pretty ornamentals (many of which also have benefits), but there is something to be said about tailoring your plant list to your garden’s specific conditions. For example, I have an area of garden that is subjected to salt spray in the winter. I’ve tried to focus on adding salt-tolerant plants to that space.

You can’t go wrong by digging in native plants. These are plants that have survived your region’s conditions for years and years. They should do well in your garden, too. There are a few plant databases that might help you with your search.

A groundcover "quilt" in a front yard garden

My friend, landscape designer Sean James, planted a groundcover quilt in this front yard garden. He said that when people plant groundcover, they generally plant one thing. This sets them up for failure if one problem comes in and wipes it all out. Biodiversity here is key, not to mention the different bloom times and plant forms to provide year-round interest. photo by Donna Griffith

Capture and filter rain

Excessive rainfalls and periods of drought seem to be the norm. A good garden design will take this into consideration. This is especially relevant if you have perpetual wet and soggy spots after a big rain. I became really interested in rain catchment ideas after being introduced to the fusion gardening concept at Canada Blooms a few years ago. There were some really clever ideas, like downspout diversion into sub-irrigated planters, as well as cool rain barrels and rain chains.

I have come across several artful rain gardens and swales that use both river rock and plants to capture and filter water, or lead it away from the house.

A river rock swale in a rain garden

A river rock swale in a rain garden works with the slope of a property to move water away from the house. photo by Donna Griffith

Grow your own food

I feel like this is kind of a no-brainer—unless you have zero space or complete shade. When I give my raised bed gardening talks, some gardeners lament that their backyard is full of shade. Sometimes a front yard presents optimal growing conditions, so why not use it? I’ve come across some green thumbs who garden on their driveways and others who sneak a tomato plant here and there among the perennials. Others aren’t afraid to just turn their whole front yard garden into a veggie patch. (I do caution that you check local bylaws before doing so).

A tomato plant in a perennial garden

If you’re not ready to transform your entire lawn into a vegetable garden, start by sneaking edibles into your perennial gardens. photo by Donna Griffith

Find eco-friendly grass options

While I’m not completely against turf grass, I am interested in finding eco-friendly alternatives that will thrive in my area. I have a hillside in my front yard that goes completely dormant in the summer. In early spring, I plan to scatter some Eco-Lawn. This local brand combines several types of fescue seeds that will grow into a drought-tolerant lawn.

You can also diminish the size of your lawn, so if you still want that feeling of grass under your toes, keep a small area. I recently watched an interesting TEDx talk by a woman named Cynthia Bee who works for a water conservancy district in Utah. She suggests making the lawn a side note in your garden design. This means that it might simply be a small flourish connecting gardens, reducing the amount of water needed and working as a part of the design.

A wild lawn in the Netherlands

I fell in love with this wild-looking lawn while riding a bike through a small town in the Netherlands. It features naturalized bulbs in the spring.

Get rid of the grass

I have seen so many front garden design ideas where people are opting to turf their turf. This is not an easy job if you’re doing it yourself, but there are methods to make it a bit easier. For example, laying cardboard with soil or mulch over the intended garden area on your lawn in the fall will help decompose the grass over the winter. I use the cardboard trick to make get rid of the grass where I want new raised beds (and to make pathways in between). Be sure to have a plan in place before you dig up the lawn.

Lavender and other pollinator-friendly plants create a mini meadow in this front yard garden

Lavender is used in lieu of a lawn in this garden. Other pollinator-friendly plants are peppered throughout creating a low-growing meadow look. photo by Donna Griffith

Add some green to even the tiniest of spaces

Some homes aren’t designed with a giant front yard. It’s great to see homeowners get clever with a small space. I’ve seen veggie gardens on driveways and pots artfully arranged on a diminutive front lawn. In my research, I came across these fabulous driveways planted with low-growing groundcover.

I wanted to showcase a project that demonstrated how even the tiniest space could be turned into a wee garden. I used Sedum Mats to create a swath of colourful ground cover on my friends’ tiny front lawn area.

A driveway garden full of sedums

This small space previously had grass, then was covered over by patio stones to make more driveway space. With the sedum carpet, a car could park with the wheels on either side without disturbing the plants. photo by Donna Griffith

Create levels in your front yard garden

If your garden has a slight slope or your house sits atop a considerable hill, adding levels can provide more gardening space and create interesting planting opportunities. This type of space may allow for combining multiple ideas—section off garden “rooms,” add a private or prominent patio, experiment with growing both food and flowers, etc.

This garden design has a golf course theme, which I talk about more in the book. But it's also a great example of creating layers of interest in your front yard garden.

This garden design has a golf course theme, which I talk about more in the book. But it’s also a great example of creating layers of interest in your front yard garden. photo by Donna Griffith

What are your favourite front garden design ideas that you’d like to add to your garden? Answer in the comments below.

You’ll find more front yard inspiration, as well as DIY projects, in my book Gardening Your Front Yard: Projects and Ideas for Big & Small Spaces (Cool Springs Press, 2020).

Gardening Your Front Yard

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6 Responses to Front garden design ideas: What to plant, eco-friendly options, patios, and more!

  1. Speckhen says:

    I just want to say I’m really looking forward to your book! There aren’t a lot of books featuring front-yard gardens – particularly ones that feature common sizes. Liz Primeau’s Front Yard Gardens is a great book, but it’s lacking in the more natural-based plantings common today, yet almost all the natural-based planting books focus on huge spaces. I have only 5.5 meters/18 feet between my house and the sidewalk (I realize that’s a lot of space in another context!).

    As one who has gradually converted my front lawn, a few thoughts come to mind. I wish I’d been more deliberate with my vertical plantings – these take a while to grow and if you can plan your plants sooner than later, it will help you avoid a lot of digging up & replanting. I’ve saved so much money by growing perennial plants from seeds, and these plants are often better acclimatized to one’s own microclimate. My lavender I grew from seed has survived; the purchased plant died (I’m zone 4). I have fruit trees and shrubs (apples, cherries), strawberries, rhubarb, and annuals (tomatoes, bright lights Swiss chard) scattered throughout the perennials and herbs, and they look lovely as well as providing food. I find different neighbours like to talk flowers or produce, so having both means more conversations.

    This year I’m looking to add a rock swale for the rainwater on one side of the house (the other has rain barrels) and I’m curious if I could play with adding heights to the groundscape (otherwise it’s flat prairie). I’ve got some more native seeds I’m starting and I’m curious to see where they will be happiest, and what additional fauna I may attract because of them!

  2. Tara Nolan says:

    Thank you! Your garden sounds lovely and I look forward to hearing about how your plans for this year work out. Hopefully the book can provide some additional inspiration! 🙂

  3. Angie says:

    I am over the moon about your new book and can’t wait to see you at Canada Blooms. (maybe you can sign my book!)I have always thought a whole book dedicated to small front yard gardens would be a winner especially for city dwellers! I have just bought a B & B in Stratford with a very small front yard. It is currently a disaster. Neglected and sad. I would send you a picture but I am too sad for it.
    I have lived in many homes and started my gardens in the front and back from nothing but this is a first for me. Designing with guests in mind!
    thank you Tara. can’t wait to see you on the 13th!

  4. Jo says:

    I bought your book and I hope it helps me come up with ideas. I have a Victorian with nothing in front at the moment. It’s very symmetrical, but the sun isn’t – one side is shady and the other side is sunny. I don’t know how to make it look similar, but different for the shade vs. sun parts… Any ideas?

    • Tara Nolan says:

      Hi Jo, I hope you’re able to find some ideas, too! For the sun vs shade, are they extremes? Or do both sides get a bit of each? If so, I would look for plants that don’t mind a balance of both – full sun to part shade, etc.

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