Plotting Out the Front Yard

When plotting the yard, I had two goals in mind. The first was figuring out where the sun would hit between March 21 and September 21. The second was trying to figure out what plants could coexist in terms of water needs, sunlight, colors, and textures. The yard is small, typical for an in-town location. Facing north, it measures about 18 feet deep by 30 feet across and has two walkways that carve it into two rhomboid-esque areas and one rectangle. 

The northern orientation has proven to be troublesome. Much of the yard spends winter in the house’s shadow, while in summer, it is almost completely bathed in sunshine all day. So, it goes from being close to full shade in winter to nearly full sun in summer. This total swing in sunlight causes problems when choosing plants. Plants that do well in spring shade give up under the hot, relentless summer sun. Plants that love the sun do poorly until late May; then, they stumble through fall until the first frost. 

Sun/Shadow Line March 19, 2014

I started with a hand-drawn diagram. Now, someone who is particular would use graphing paper, rulers, and possibly a protractor—I wasn’t. Hand-drawn with colored pencils on drawing paper was it for me. On the diagram, one can see a light-green line going across in a zigzag, marking off the shadow of the house at noon on March 19th (2014). Everything above that line is in the shadow. 

Since I didn’t know how far the shadow would retreat, the area three feet from the porch was assigned full shade status. Everything else was assumed to be full sun in summer. What I failed to take into account was the arc of the sun. Because of the arc, in early morning, the sun shines at about a 20-degree angle from the East to a similar angle from the West in the evening. This arcing movement resulted in much more light during summer than expected. Hostas and ferns on the east side barely make it through summer. I lost the Minute Man hosta two summers back. 

Hosta layout

The meaning of full sun, which seems obvious, only becomes apparent when put to the test. Many plants designated “full sun” were quickly fried each summer. Parsley is a good example. I tried parsley in three different full sun areas; all failed to thrive. Finally, I planted it under a gardenia in the shade with the hostas, and it succeeded. 

Watering can be hit-and-miss with neighboring plants. The first tickseed (Moonbeam was the cultivar, I think) died from overwatering because the dwarf phlox next to it needed a lot of water. The dwarf phlox died from the heat anyway — three years in a row. However, creeping phlox and garden phlox took the sun with no problem. Calibrachoas fry no matter how much they are watered. The bellflowers gave up, and the ballon flowers renounced the yard. Hyssop and speedwell simply refused July—water did not help. Plants native to Texas and Mexico seem to do best, but I’m just beginning to try them.  

Color and texture proved to be a challenge because of local nurseries. I spent hours agonizing over the perfect flowers and textures only to go to a garden store and have a staff person tell me they had never heard of them.  

How much did plotting help? Well, the best I can say is that a good garden design allows one to select the ideal location for carefully chosen, well-watered plants to die a slow, languishing death. Ah, good times…

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