Judging from nearby existing mature Black Oaks (estimate age 150 to 250 years old) and pre-settlement maps and records, the front yard of this 1920 house sits on what appears to be a former upland Oak Savanna prior to development. South and west facing, this lot is high, dry and very hot and sunny. The limited shade is from a Silver/Red Maple hybrid in the city parkway that appears to be trimmed annually at the top to prevent contact with utility wires. The soil is a sand/loam mix that drains quickly. The current state of the landscape on this property is a near monoculture of Eurasian species of lawn turf, Yew bushes, English Ivy and Creeping Myrtle Vinca.
After removing the existing lawn I layed out the garden bed shapes with sweeping, undulating curves that echo the existing bed shapes near the house creating a formal design that accents the charm of the architecture as well as the graceful movement of the hill. Next, I installed brown, steel edging to keep the shape in place over the years and to prevent lawn from creeping into the beds. I always like to leave a little bit of turf lawn for contrast, paths and formal intent. Finally, I added mulch and installed the native plants.
The lawn on top of the hill was an easy prep job but the slope presented various challenges (see Vinca and English Ivy overgrowth in photos). Removal of these kinds of aggressive, invasive species on a slope cannot be achieved with smothering techniques. It was also not possible to dig out the roots because I would have created a soil erosion problem. I decided to cut each wood vine to the ground and paint the wound with Triclopyr. This method would selectively target the roots and kill them without harming the soil structure. I left the dead vine roots in the ground to keep the soil intact and then I planted around the roots and the boulders.
To stabilize the soil on the slope after killing the existing vegetation I knew I had to plant hardy species with a diversity of root systems and I had to choose species that could handle heavy competition from some of the rhizomatous plants. I also chose to limit my plant choices to short-growing species to keep a neat curb-appeal as well as to prevent any foliage from flopping onto the sidewalk. Because of the overpopulation of deer in the neighborhood I was limited to species that I knew from past experience that were unpalatable to browsing deer. This species that I planted on this slope are Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Upland White Aster, Pussytoes, Harebell, Nodding Wild Onion, Butterfly Milkweed, Prairie Smoke, Western Sunflower, Bird’s Foot Violet, Prickly Pear Cactus, Cream Wild Indigo, Dotted Horsemint, Purple Prairie Clover, Poverty Oats Grass, Little Bluestem and Sideoats Grama.
After removing the non-native Yews around the foundation of the house the facade looked bare and incongruous to the landscape. In place of the Yews I planted native shrubs (Red Osier Dogwood in the front and Ninebark on west side) and layers of flowers (mass grouping of Purple Coneflower on the right and Gray-headed Coneflower on the left, as well as a border of Sundrops) and grasses (columns of Indiangrass next to porch brick columns). I also included two Witch Hazel understory trees near both corners of the front of the house to anchor the beds and to further blend and stretch out the continuity between the architecture and the landscape.
I chose a different approach on the right slope from the high-diversity of the left slope plantings. Since the right slope didn’t have existing rock boulders to hold the soil in place I needed to create a biomass to prevent erosion and weed suppression. Therefore, I chose to fill the space with three species of low-growing shrubs (native Honeysuckle, New Jersey Tea and Shrubby Cinquefoil) and a groundcover of native Wild Strawberry.
Immediately following the installation of these beds we were already thinking ahead to expand the garden around the south side of the yard. I just finished the design for this expansion to be prepped and installed in Spring of 2022. I chose very short species to be planted among the rocks on the steepest part of the slope. A mass planting of Pussytoes and Prairie Smoke will look stunning in bloom together in the Spring and will continue with their unique foliage through the Fall. Higher up on the hill, above the boulders, I chose very showy and underused short dry prairie species like Goat’s Rue and Purple Prairie Clover. The bed’s border edge at the top will be a row of White Wild Indigo which will be a dramatic sight with its mass white plumes in bloom in early Summer and then will be a lush hedge after the flowers set seed. Three of the five species in this bed are in the legume family which naturally fixes nitrogen into the soils. This is why native gardens don’t need fertilizer added because the plants take care of it for you!
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