- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2000

I was locked in indecision for months trying to figure out what to do with my front-entry foundation planting. It was a deer-eaten mess, and I had let the ideal spring weather go by without turning a single shovel of soil.

Then came the wonderfully cool and moist summer. While the rest of the gardening world enjoyed this unusually good weather for planting in July and August, my shovel gathered cobwebs.

The front-entry garden is one of the most important landscaping projects a homeowner undertakes, a priority to make the home inviting. I thought about it; I shopped the garden centers. I consulted professional designers, one of them my brother, Tom, in New York and the other my son, Will, here in Maryland. I experimented with deer-resistant evergreen plants that thrive in dry shade. I sketched out ideas. Still indecision. Also, I must admit, I had a certain reluctance to rip out those once-lovely azaleas I had nurtured for many years, miserable though they looked by then.

Part of the problem was that my entry garden is bounded on one side by the driveway and on the other by the front walk. The walk ultimately curves to meet the driveway, but people were inclined to cut across rather than walk around. Meter readers, neighbors, children and visiting dogs invariably cut across this space, creating what landscape designers call a "cow path" through the garden across the front of the house. What to do?

To fence off the front garden was out of the question, so I had to decide whether to adopt the traditional approach incorporate the path into the landscape design. This is what a professional would try to do in the case of a park or campus, for instance, where people wore down a route across a lawn or through a garden.

Will, however, came to the conclusion that it wouldn't work for a small residential foundation planting. One problem was that the driveway is macadam and the front walk is concrete. We considered flagstone for the path, but decided it would be too chaotic a design to add a third hard element. We ruled out a pine-needle or pine-bark path because it would look too much like the cow path we were trying to eliminate.

Our plan then turned to creating a lush courtyard garden of huge mature plants that would deter people from cutting through. The space was good for this because both the garage and the front porch stick out from the house, making a recessed courtyardlike planting area that then extends out between the driveway and walk.

In the back yard, I had a big old stone urn that had become overgrown by abelia and forsythia it would be the perfect centerpiece for my courtyard garden, serving as a focal point from both the front walk and the dining room window. It worked unbelievably well. Not only did it look good, but the best place for it turned out to be smack dab in the middle of the cow path.

Will transplanted a huge evergreen Christmas fern into it from one of my fern gardens. So far so good. The problem now was that large mature shrubs are difficult, if not impossible, to come by at local garden centers, and if you can find them, they are prohibitively expensive. Keep in mind that we couldn't just buy any nice large plants. They had to be evergreens that would survive shade, drought and browsing deer.

I had been experimenting with a shrub-size sarcococca (Sarcococca confusa) that is larger than the more common lower sarcococca (Sarcococca hookeriana), and also with a cypress called microbiota, which has been billed as a juniperlike shrub that grows in shade. The sarcococca, however, takes years to grow to maturity, and the microbiota never gets very large. Also, it turns out that the microbiota prefers more sun than I had been led to believe.

So the hunt was on. We found a large Prague viburnum for the far corner and decided to incorporate both types of sarcococca. We also bought some lenten roses to reflect the lenten roses that grow on the other side of the front walk, and some pachysandra to be underplanted with daffodils. But we still needed some significant plants.

I wanted English boxwoods, but much bigger ones than those available in garden centers. Again, I turned to my back yard.

Some 20 years ago, there was a renowned nursery in Rockville, the Gude nursery. Among its many distinctions was that it provided bamboo for the pandas then at the National Zoo.

The nursery had a party one afternoon at which customers were served punch and cookies and were invited to take home a cutting from a boxwood that Gude had grown from a cutting from a boxwood at Williamsburg that the Colonists had brought from England. I had taken my whole family to that party, not quite 20 years ago, to get those boxwood cuttings, then about 3 inches tall. Years later, they still were growing in my back yard and were 3 feet tall.

Now they are growing in my front courtyard garden, and the garden is beautiful.

We finished it off with a heavy metal antique-looking trellis with just a touch of rust against the blank garage wall, on which we are training vines. We found the trellis in a forgotten corner at the back of a local garden center. The owner gave it to us for an unbelievably cheap price because it was used and had with rust on it. I had been prepared to pay extra for that rust.

The moral of this story, if there is one, is that it pays to work on the design of your gardens and not be in too much of a rush just to stick some plants in the ground. Be sure you have the right plants and the right accessories. It will pay off in years to come.

My indecision actually was hard work toward creating the garden I really wanted. What happened was that I blundered into planting it in the autumn, the best season for planting shrubs and trees.

You still have another month or more to undertake your planting. I hope it will make you as happy as mine has made me.

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