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Improve First Impressions: A Welcome Garden

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Even if not planning to sell your home, creating a favorable first impression is important. One way to improve the image of your home is a “welcome garden” by the front door. Because it must always look good, the garden should be low maintenance, attractive and colorful year round, and reflect some interests of the owner. Besides flowers and shrubs, I add a touch of whimsy so that my visitors will be smiling when they ring the doorbell.

Before creating a welcome garden, put yourself in the position of first time guests. Are there obvious parking areas and a clearly defined path directing them to the front door? Near the entrance, is there an area that could become the welcome garden? If not, is there room for container plantings or sculpture? It need not be large, just enough to suggest that visitors are entering a special place.

My welcome garden is a triangular shaped raised bed on the right side of the sidewalk between the parking area and the front door on one side and the carport on the other. It is in full sun and small, about 150 square feet. A tan colored fountain and two lava rock boulders framed by arching branches of a tall spiraea form a strong focal point for the garden. An ancient rosemary bush trimmed into a gnarled standard and shrub rose with red flowers dictated the color scheme of red, white and blue for future plant selections and theme. Despite the boulders, the overall look is a romantic, cottage garden.

Gardening in small spaces with expectations that it be colorful and attractive year round imposes constraints as well as opportunities with solutions that are sometimes contrary to popular wisdom. Points to consider in designing a welcome garden are:

• Limit the number of colors to three or four with many different plants echoing those colors at various times of the year to assure seasonal interest, create more drama and minimize visual confusion. For example, besides the rose bush, the other “reds” in my small garden are Nandina, thrift (Armeria), and Salvia greggii. The “blues” are Veronica (‘Georgia Blue,´ and ‘Sunny Border Blue´), Clematis, iris and Agapanthus. The “whites” are Spiraea, Dianthus, jasmine, oleander and Verbena. There are also a few pale “yellows,” fortnight lily (Morea) and daffodils.

• Create at least a partial sense of enclosure and a commanding focal point. Pyramidal boxwood (Buxux japonica ‘Green Spires´) and a trellis with Clematis and jasmine obscure my carport. A compact oleander screens the driveway. Stepping-stones lead to the garden´s focal point, the vignette created by the fountain and boulders.

• Select the right plant for the right place. In my garden, every plant must be low maintenance, deer resistant, relatively drought tolerant and attractive in all seasons. If a plant is not performing, it gets transplanted to another place. For example, last year, I tried Nepeta (catmint) but the flowers were more lavender than blue, the cold weather affected the foliage and the plant became too aggressive for my small place. Although one of my favorite plants, it will be replaced.

• Pay attention to plant size, shape and texture, and how the foliage looks year round. Most gardens need plants that are short, medium and tall. Although scale and proportion are important, particularly in small spaces, some larger objects and /or plants (such as the spiraea, rosemary, rose bush and boulders that I inherited) are critical to landscape design. Using only one-gallon shrubs/perennials seldom creates an “instant garden.” Some need to be larger to immediately establish their relative importance in the design.

Different shapes include plants with foliage that is spiky (iris, fortnight lily) strappy (agapanthus), mounded (dianthus, veronica ‘Georgia blue´), upright, (salvia greggii) and columnar (boxwood). In the Mother Lode, when gardening in full sun locations, consciously supplement the many small leafed plants with foliage of other sizes, shapes and colors. Examples to consider are Nandina, Agapanthus, Phormium, Stachys (lamb´s ears), Mahonia (Oregon grape) or fine- textured plants such as rosemary, lavender, Grevillea, and Podocarpus to add variety and interest. Except for accent plants (such as my Spiraea, rosemary and rose), plant in multiples of at least three to create a more harmonious design and to avoid aesthetic chaos.

Creating a welcome garden is a manageable project that takes more planning and thinking than planting and digging, and is a good place to start if just beginning to landscape your yard. Your goals should be to improve curb appeal and to create an oasis that you like to visit as much as your guests. See you in the garden.

Marlys Bell is a Tuolumne County Master Gardener interested in landscape design.