I’ve written before about the garden challenges of garage-forward homes—sometimes called “snout houses.” While it’s not usually possible to disguise that big ‘ole garage sitting in front of your house, I think there are many opportunities to make garages less …. ugly.
That’s why I fell hard for Pam Penick’s garage garden during the recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas. Pam’s ranch-style home was built in the 1970s and she has one garage advantage over many homeowners—while the garage is a prominent element on the front of her house, it’s a sideways snout, meaning the garage doors face a courtyard/driveway rather than the street. Still, the garage is a big part of the front face of her house, and she’s used plants, seating, artwork and a lot of creative energy to make it as beautiful and inviting as the rest of her landscape. Pam’s yard has no grass, which makes sense given Texas’ climate where gardeners go weeks without rain only to have a gully-washer one day. (We garden bloggers experienced one heck of a gullywasher during our visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center!)
What’s so great about this garage—it’s a garden!
The portion of the garage facing the street has windows, which makes it look like part of the house, and it is surrounded by plants. A path runs along the back of the garage, leading to a gate and Pam’s charming and oh-so comfortable backyard. She’s planted several trees to provide shade and in a niche between the trees, she’s placed a bench.
Behind the bench, you see two of four framed mirrors with matching panes that add light and decoration to the house. This gives the effect of a gallery and creates a ton of interest on what could have been a long, blank wall of stone. Throughout the garden, she has low, green plantings, softening the brick.
The side yard ends with this rustic gate, inviting visitors into the backyard.
On the driveway side of the garage, Pam added pots and a whimsical wall decoration. The doors face a large planting area, giving visitors more sights to see than the garage. It’s a masterful piece of distraction.
What are your favorite strategies for landscaping around your snout house?
Seeing a lot of gardens in a few days or even on a one-day tour really highlights the importance of certain design elements. During a recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas, I saw texture everywhere. From smooth, hard metals to spiky plants to rivulets of rock or rustic bark, texture evoked a sense of place and style. It gave all of these stunning gardens contrast and made them more interesting to explore.
Here are a few of my favorite textural elements in Texas:
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center outside of Austin is filled with texture both in plants and the hard surfaces. The limestone on the arched wall is native to Texas and used in many homes and public spaces. It’s softened by the trees and vines growing around it, and its colors are varied. Wouldn’t you love to sit on that bench and contemplate the stone and the garden? If you are ever near Austin, the wildflower center is a must-see.
This contemporary garden used weathering steel (most commonly referred to as Cor-ten) for many of its walls and planters. The contrast between the soft ground covers and grasses, the sharp leaves of the yucca and the hard, rust-color of the steel, which doesn’t shine at all, is striking. Corten gives a sophisticated, industrial look to both large gardens, like this one, or smaller ones, like this Minneapolis potager, which bloggers toured in 2016.
During a visit to the Zilker Botanical Gardens’ unique Hartman Prehistoric Garden, I spotted this large, deeply cut piece of stone in a wall. The prehistoric garden was created after amateur paleontologists discovered more than 100 dinosaur tracks on the grounds of the botanical gardens. The tracks were preserved and a garden with Cretaceus plants was developed, complete with a dinosaur sculpture that is popular with children. According to the Zilker website, plants in the garden represent those that existed 100 million years ago, including ferns, horsetails, conifers, ginkos and some of the first magnolias and palms. I’m not sure how old this rock is, but its fascinating texture indicates it has experienced plenty.
With so much tan rock and green plants, many of the Texas gardens we saw added color with accessories. But accessories can also add texture. These smooth, shiny, bright blue orbs catch the eye, giving visitors a reason to slow down and notice the rest of this lovely front garden bed in the garden of Austin blogger Pam Penick. The soft texture of the lamb’s ears and ground cover contrasts with both the orbs and that big, pointy agave.
Not all of these Texas textural elements would look appropriate in northern gardens but we have plenty of our own iconic textures, including the smooth stones so common around Lake Superior and the textures of the prairies that covered about a third of Minnesota at one time. That’s one reason I loved these fish swimming through a sea of soft grass at the beautiful garden of blogger, Jenny Stocker. A native of England, Jenny has created a garden filled with smart details and varied plants in a series of garden rooms. It was a highlight of the tour, especially when Jenny showed us this recently hatched preying mantis.
What kinds of textures are you incorporating in your garden this year?
We’ve been in our St. Paul house about 20 months now, and I’m finally getting ready to tackle the landscaping and gardens (or lack of both) in the front yard.
This is a big project: it will likely involve removing and replacing sidewalks and it will definitely require rerouting water to correct issues we have with icy areas and sloping walks. I did the design and the installation on our backyard myself, but this project requires a skill level and muscle beyond what I have. I know from previous garden installations we’ve done that it really helps the landscapers if you can provide them with a good sense of what you want done, what plants you like and what your vision for the project is. Then, they can add to that or let you know what is not going to work. It makes for a happier and probably cheaper project.
So, I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks trying to get what is in my head into a form that is shareable, and to do that I’ve been using both Pinterest and paper.
While I haven’t used Pinterest much in the past few years, I revived my account and created a board with some of the ideas I’m thinking about. One thing I’ve discovered is that the style of house we have is tricky to landscape well. It has no front porch and the door to the front is flat—no roof over it, no stoop, no ornamentation. It’s technically called a “minimal traditional” house and was popular in the 1930s to 1940s when people were absorbed with other issues like the Great Depression and World War II. Keep the houses simple was the mantra.
Simple is good. Boring not so much, and that’s what we’ve got going now. The three shrubs in our foundation beds are ancient and overgrown. We’ve done some aggressive pruning to shape them and that’s helped, but they need to go. I replaced some of the perennials (mostly Stella d’Oro daylillies) with plants I like better, but the whole front bed needs to be redone. We planted a Minnesota strain redbud tree on one side of the yard about halfway to the street, and I would like to pull the front bed out to include that tree with a path to the back fence through the bed.
I’m also interested in creating a pollinator garden, and likely will put that in the boulevard area of the yard. I have a pollinator plant Pinterest board as well. St. Paul has a few rules about boulevard gardens — the main one affecting me being that plants cannot be more than three feet tall. I can work with that.
For both gardens, I’ve created a notebook, where I’ve done some clunky drawings as well as pasted pictures of designs and plants that I like. The notebook is really helpful because it’s a physical object I can look at in quiet moments and page through. To me, it seems more concrete than the Pinterest board, where everything seems possible. It’s a great way to create rough drafts of ideas. I can also give it to the landscaper when the time comes. I’ve been reading some design books as well, and found a few good ones at the local public library. A couple of the designs spoke to me, so I copied those pages and pasted them in the book, too.
So far, I’ve only given slight thought to budget—though that will be ironed out before we contact landscapers. For now, it’s mostly about dreaming and letting my ideas find some shape, whether on paper or on the internet. Let me know in the comments how you like to capture ideas for your garden.
I have always loved purple in the garden for its deep hue and because many plants I like for other reasons (baptisia and anise hyssop, for example) have purple flowers. But this year, I decided to grow a few orange annuals, and I may have to change my new favorite color. I first heard about the power of orange during a garden talk by Eric Johnson, one of our Northern Gardener columnists.
According to Eric, orange is a color that brightens up drab spaces, and it certainly is working in my patio/vegetable garden area. On the site of a former garage, I’m growing vegetables in raised beds. The vegetables are, of course, mostly green, and the perennials I planted this spring are still getting a foothold in the clay soil and aren’t blooming much. I have a ‘Blue Heaven’ morning glory that is covering a trellis and part of the back fence, but that hasn’t bloomed at all yet — so again, more green.
Enter orange, in the form of several containers filled with orange marigolds, orange pansies and Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). I bought the pansies as a six-pack early this spring, but grew the others from seed. The ‘Torch’ tithonia came from Seed Savers Exchange and has been a magnet for monarch butterflies in my backyard. The plants are more than 4-feet tall, with large leaves and several flowers per plant. Next year, I may plant them as a low hedge along one of my fences because they are big and pretty.
The marigolds are also from Seed Savers, a variety from the 1930s called Starfire Signet. The blooms are in shades of yellow, orange and red and they grow at least 12 inches tall. We ran an article on marigolds in the May/June issue of Northern Gardener and that got me inspired to use more marigolds and to grow them from seed. They are very easy to grow and the results are warm and fun.
The last orange annual I’ve been growing is an old-fashioned nasturtium called Lady Bird. This one has not done as well as the marigolds, but in a few of the containers the orange-yellow blooms are adding to the show.
Orange can be too much if you have a lot of other colors in the garden–especially reds and pinks. In this area, I’ve got mostly green with some white blooms and (of course) a touch of purple. So far, it’s been a fun departure from my usual color palette.
What’s your favorite color to brighten the garden?
I have a hard time visualizing how drawings on paper will look in three dimensions and in real space, which means my garden beds get done and re-done, sometimes on the fly, as I try to get the look in the ground to match the one in my head. In the past, I’ve had the good fortune of working with a local landscaper who I trusted to take my ideas and give them an appropriate shape that looked good in both two and three dimensions. From there, I would revise the layout and reassess the plants.
With our new house, I paid to have a one-time consultation with a garden designer (something I recommend most gardeners do before starting a larger project) and she reinforced some of the ideas I had and gave me some good suggestions for bed shapes and plant materials. I’m using those ideas to plan my back gardens on my own. Next year, we will re-do some of the sidewalks and stairs in our front, which have drainage issues, and at that point, I’ll probably hire a designer to give shape to the front. For now, I’m on my own.
Before getting too deeply into garden planning, you have to to ask the big questions. Here are some I’ve been asking myself over the past year, and a few of the answers I’ve come up with.
How will the landscape be used? Our yard basically has three sections and I see them as having three purposes. The front faces the street and I want it to be welcoming and to fit in with the other landscapes on the block, many of which have big trees and more defined spaces than we have. I don’t see us using that space for sitting outside much, though I’m open to adding a front patio area in the future. For now, I’m adding and subtracting plants from the existing bed and we are putting our bird feeder (and probably a bird bath) on the east-front side of the house. This was a purely practical decision. There’s a small window in the house that I can use to watch the birds, and as my husband says, “where do you want the bird poop?”
The backyard has two sections, a patio area that faces what will be a mostly edible garden, in raised beds, with some native plants around the beds. This is a spot for entertaining or having morning coffee. It needs some soft screening from the alley and neighbors and a big table with an umbrella. The raised beds are in and planted. The third section is between the house and the garage. It is screened on three sides by buildings and, because we are very close to our neighbors back entry, needs more screening on the fourth side. My hope is to fill this with lots of plants and turn it into a quiet garden for reflection.
How will you get from space to space? We did some work on the paths last year, adding a brick path from the patio to the back gate. We walk that path several times a day and are very happy with how it turned out. We need to create a path from the back steps into the quiet garden and that will likely be done in grass with a brick edging. That’s on my to-do list for later this summer. A path from front yard to back on the east side is also needed and will be done in the future. On the west side, we have a narrow sidewalk and no option to do much about that.
What about water? There are two questions here, really. How will you get hoses from point A to point B to water plants, but more importantly, how will water flow be handled. We have a slightly soggy area in the quiet garden and I need to adjust both the outflow from our sump pump (which runs only during major wet periods, such as last month) and a downspout. This may take some engineering, but I don’t want people to be tripping over hoses and downspouts, so it need attention.
What’s your style? Several years ago, I read a very good garden design book that recommended people name their garden to help them get a feel for their style. Facetiously, I suggested “mole manor” as the name for our former yard, which had its share of critter issues. I have no idea what I would call this garden—Farm in the City? Urban Refuge? Howdy, Neighbor? I’m stumped. Our house is a 1939 bungalow, so something on the cottage-y end of design might work. I also like to use native plants, when possible. This is a question I’m still pondering.
What questions would you ask before designing a new garden?
Yesterday I attended an event for bloggers at Bachman’s Spring Idea House in Minneapolis and got a sneak peak at what will be in stores this spring. It was great fun to meet several fashion, lifestyle and photography bloggers, as well as seeing the colors and ideas for home and garden decor in action.
In a word: think “fresh.” Also, “pink.”
Karen Bachman Thull led us through the house, a 1920s beauty that was built by Arthur Bachman Sr., a son of one of Bachman’s founders. Three times a year, Bachman’s re-designs the rooms in the house — furniture, paint, the whole she-bang — and opens the house to the public. This year, the house is open every day until April 19. It’s $5 to tour the house and, if you are someone who enjoys decor or is just hungry for spring, it’s well-worth a visit.
Lots of the decor was done in a fresh, bright combination of citrus green, bright pink and white. The combination works great in containers, in table decorations and in the furniture in the airy sunroom and living room of the house. Karen noted that this combination is dynamite as long as you do not add another color. If you put in a blue, a purple, an orange — it falls apart. The look goes from fresh to garish in a minute. I have a pair of bright green containers and plan to try this combination in them this summer.
Another garden trend worth noting is the improved vertical gardening trend. I’ve been a bit cool on most vertical gardening systems because they require so much watering — some of them are basically gutters mounted on a frame. Bachman’s is selling a couple of self-watering systems now. A sweet window box containing herbs was on display in the idea house kitchen and a massive, multi-part living wall of foliage was in the yoga room upstairs. The wall you see in the photo below contains six of the wall garden systems. Fully loaded with plants and water, each system weighs about 60 pounds. The way the systems work is that each plant is in a pot. A wicking device inside the system pulls water from the troughs to the plants.
Karen told me that the kitchen system would only need to be refilled about once a month. If you want to try vertical gardening, self watering is the way to go.
The house also features several forced branches of spring blooms. I think more northern gardeners should try forcing branches in the spring — it’s a great way to bring color into the house. Other garden trends noted in the house are increased interest in terrariums and air plants.
I also really loved this arrangement of snow boots outside the house. Everything is a container this spring!