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Street-Side Gardens: Inspirational, Lawnless Front Yards

Where space is tight and lawn’s a yawn, street-side gardens are growing lush with specimen trees, showy shrubs, bold foliage, and riotous blooms. Check out the curbside plant life here—it might just inspire a front-yard makeover of your own

Four-Season Appeal: Conifer Foundation

Photo by Matthew Benson

Chalk it up to all the negative press about traditional water-hogging, chemical-laden turf grass—or possibly, all the high praise community gardens have received—but more and more homeowners are trading in front lawns for flower beds. The trend is especially noticeable in suburban and city neighborhoods, where postage-stamp-size plots of land keep maintenance demands in check, and sidewalk foot traffic brings a steady stream of encouragement.

Shown: Mature conifers along the foundation—a juniper on the left and a cedar—offer privacy without blocking views of the garden from inside.

Four-Season Appeal: Evergreen Palette

Photo by Matthew Benson

For a drive-by glimpse at street-side spaces that extend a friendly welcome—bursting at their borders with flowers, shrubs, ornamental trees, and even edibles—you need look no further than Buffalo, New York. This Rust Belt city with a neighborhood feel knows well just how infectious gardening can be; it now hosts the largest garden tour in the country. Every year, on the last full weekend of July, over 400 residents graciously open their garden gates to the public, attracting an estimated 65,000 visitors. “And you’d be hard-pressed to find two gardens that look alike,” says the event’s past president, Jim Charlier. As he describes it, most of the gardens on the tour—including his own—grow on tight urban lots. The front yards are often packed with plants, completely absent of grass, and loaded with personal touches, such as quirky yard art and custom fence designs.

Just ahead: four distinctive stops along Garden Walk Buffalo. Each offers a unique take on creating a small front-yard garden—with passersby in mind.

Shown: A largely evergreen plant palette of shrubs and groundcovers makes a lush, four-season alternative to lawn grass.

Four-Season Appeal: Hydrangea

Photo by Matthew Benson

People usually overestimate the time Phoebe McKay spends working in her garden. “Just thirty minutes, most mornings, deadheading and pulling here and there” is all it requires, she says. That’s if she’s even home; every summer, Phoebe and her husband, Bruce, take off for their home state of Maine for weeks at a time. As long as she lines up someone to water and tidy, the garden carries on thanks to low-maintenance plant picks and a shrub-based design.

Shown: ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea, lavender, and gaura reflect the garden’s white-purple-pink color scheme. Hot hues are confined to the hellstrip.

Four-Season Appeal: Hen Planters

Photo by Matthew Benson

When the McKays moved in to their 1904 house in the late ’80s, the front yard already had good bones, with granite steps, a slate walk, and a mature evergreen juniper and cedar. Busy keeping up with two young sons back then, Phoebe planted some pachysandra along the front walk and replaced the grass in her sunbaked hellstrip with drought-tolerant perennials—all freebies from a neighbor. It wasn’t until 2005, with both boys in college, that, she says, “I finally got serious about gardening.”

Shown: A hen planter in front of boxwood spheres and an oakleaf hydrangea strikes a playful note.

Four-Season Appeal: Variegated Licorice

Photo by Matthew Benson

That year, she dug up the remaining turf and set out to create a garden for all seasons, filling her 30-by-22-foot front plot with a framework of easy-care shrubs and pockets of flowers. By 2006, the garden was on Buffalo’s Garden Walk, and it has only become more special with time, as Phoebe tucks in reminders of Maine, like the fern garden under the limbed-up cedar and collections of river rocks from her travels. Despite these personal touches, Phoebe says, “where the backyard is for us, this is for the neighborhood”—a beautiful space that’s meant to be shared.

Shown: The perfect spiller plant for pots, variegated licorice tolerates heat and drought; here, it sets off pink and purple blooms.

Bring on the Sun: Mixed Plantings

Photo by Matthew Benson

The old adage “right plant, right place” recently hit close to home for Peter Quartararo and his fiancée, Michele Battistoni. After years of shade gardening under a seriously overgrown 50-foot pine planted by Peter’s father decades ago, the couple made the tough call to cut it down. “It’s tricky when you lose such a tree,” Michele says. “Suddenly you see part of your home and yard that you never saw before.”

Shown: A mixed foundation planting that includes rose of Sharon, oakleaf hydrangea, and boxwood complements the olive- green house trimmed in white and terra-cotta.

Bring on the Sun: Railing Planters

Photo by Matthew Benson

But by eliminating one problem, they essentially created another—or rather, an opportunity to overhaul the now sunny area in front of their 1892 Queen Anne. The garden is still in transition. All shade-loving plants were either reused or unloaded via a FREE PLANTS! posting on the neighborhood’s Facebook page. “Within an hour, the hostas by the curb were gone,” Michele says.

Shown: A basket of hot-pink fuchsia hangs above a cheery railing planter of petunias, begonias, and succulents.

Bring on the Sun: Tropical Foliage

Photo by Matthew Benson

A stone water feature and seating area are planned, as are bee-friendly plants “staged to have color all season,” Peter says. Opposite to where the pine stood, flowering shrubs and a low boxwood hedge line the driveway, poured in 2006 to replace lawn; the porch hosts revolving displays of succulents, bold tropicals, and annuals, picked to pop against the olive-colored house.

Shown: Black-eyed Susans pick up the yellow in the tropical variegated foliage of a potted croton.

Bring on the Sun: Practical Picks

Photo by Matthew Benson

“You can only do so much in a given space,” says Peter, who has just 20 feet between porch and sidewalk. “You have to think about how plants will look in five years, and balance what you want versus what fits.”

Shown: Slow growers, like Japanese maple and boxwood, are practical picks for small spaces.

Bold Foliage in Focus: Layered Shades

Photo by Matthew Benson

When Scott Dunlap and Joe Hopkins bought their Folk Victorian in Buffalo’s cottage district, there were two peonies out front, some lawn, and scraggly privet along the sidewalk. “It was probably still the prettiest yard on the block,” says Scott, recalling the 1990s, when drugs and crime sent his street into a tailspin.

Shown: Layered shades of green create a subtle but still exuberant design.

Bold Foliage in Focus: Leaf Shapes

Photo by Matthew Benson

It wasn’t until Joe sold his pet-store business, in 1995, that the garden really got growing. He dug up the shrubs and planted a mixed border by the porch. Each year he turned over a little more grass, till it was gone, leaving behind a tapestry of contrasting foliage. Since Joe is color-blind, he concentrates on texture, shape, and pattern—which explains his obsession with coleus. Says Scott, “He’s fearless with color because he doesn’t see it like everyone else.”

Shown: Flowers go unmissed with this array of leaf shape, size, and pattern featuring ferns, hostas, and coleus.

Bold Foliage in Focus: Eye-Catching Display

Photo by Matthew Benson

The garden finally got a worthy backdrop when they rebuilt their crumbling porch in 2003. Borrowing ideas from the city’s historical homes for spindles, a roof gable, and railing cutouts, the couple dreamed up a custom design and recruited an architect friend to help build it.

Shown: Mixing light and dark pinks makes for an eye-catching display of potted petunias, leafy coleus, and mophead hydrangea.

Bold Foliage in Focus: Victorian Choice

Photo by Matthew Benson

“As stunning as the back garden is, we haven’t sat out there in years,” Scott says. It’s on their front porch that the couple spend every evening, usually with friends. A stash of folding chairs inside the front hallway means they can always make room for one more. Says Joe, “For me, a front garden is as much about socializing as it is about gardening.”

Shown: A classic choice for a Victorian porch, hanging Boston ferns are bought new each year, then given away to friends at season’s end.

Bold Foliage in Focus: Trample-Proof

Photo by Matthew Benson

Pedestrians and pets no longer trample the garden thanks to a white picket fence.

Free-Spirited Blooms: A Riot of Color

Photo by Matthew Benson

Gardeners everywhere battle bugs, weeds, and weather, but a city garden has extra challenges. Since buying her 1870s brick cottage 25 years ago, Ellie Dorritie has had snowplows bulldoze plants, utility workers dig up her blooming hellstrip, and drunks fall into her flowers. But she’s still at it: “I’m determined to just keep planting.”

Shown: The hellstrip is a riot of color all summer, with scented pink and white phlox, the blue spires of Russian sage, and raspberry-hued coneflowers.

Free-Spirited Blooms: Fragrant Blooms

Photo by Matthew Benson

And plant she does, on every square inch of her street-side plot. But she’s careful about what she puts where. The raised bed along her front porch sits mostly on concrete, with less than a foot of slow-draining soil. Plants that prefer better drainage are happier in the hellstrip.

Shown: Fragrant sweet autumn clematis climbs both porch posts.

Free-Spirited Blooms: Flowers for All

Photo by Matthew Benson

Both areas are packed with fragrant peak-summer bloomers in pink, purple, and white—though a gifted patch of yellow rudbeckia and an orange daylily have found a place, too.

Shown: Cutting shears are intentionally left out in the front garden for passersby wishing to snip a few flowers to take home.

Free-Spirited Blooms: Purple and Pink

Photo by Matthew Benson

During the summer, daily watering, deadheading, and pinching back perennials like bee balm, loosestrife, and mallow encourages more blossoms. “I’ll never admit to how much time I take in my flower beds,” Ellie says. She’s afraid of discouraging other people—and keeping them from discovering the joys of front-yard gardening for themselves.

Shown: Purple-throated petunias and pink geranium fill a railing planter by the front door.