Transforming Your Front Yard into a Beautiful, Low-Maintenance Landscape

An Evanston family transforms a poorly defined, overgrown front yard into a seamless extension of their mid-century modern home.

View of the front of the house with sedge, boxwoods, a graceful, weeping Japanese Maple and Service Berry–a wonderful home to many species of birds that love its berries, including Mocking Birds, Catbirds, Baltimore Orioles, Grosbeaks and Thrushes.

A few years ago, the Robinson’s moved into a mid-century modern home in Evanston. After spending many years in Tucson, they gained an appreciation for the architectural aspect of landscape design and xeriscaping principles (landscaping and gardening that reduces or eliminates the need for supplemental water from irrigation). The Robinsons wanted to bring that aesthetic to their new home while achieving a low-water landscape as opposed to a traditional lawn.

They were interested in solving several issues:  the front lawn had been poorly defined with patchy areas, the overgrown junipers were blocking the front windows, and the badly damaged concrete path to their home was hazardous in the winter with ice buildup.

After moving in, the Robinsons lived with their yard for about 6 months and then decided it was time to create an outdoor space that matched their personal aesthetic and the feel of their mid-century home. They chose Greenwise after seeing some examples of our work and because they liked our organic, sustainable philosophy.

A native garden with sedge as the focus for a low-maintenance front yard

The Robinsons were always interested in planting sedge in their lawn rather than growing traditional grass, but hadn’t budgeted for it. Sandro Nandiko, their Greenwise landscape designer, helped devise a plan and a budget, enabling them to plant the sedge along with other native plantings.

Sedge are drought tolerant grass-like plants that are easy to grow and practically maintenance free. In the front yard, the sedge moves fluidly with the breeze, mimicking Lake Michigan and creating a beautiful landscape.

Creating a habitat in the city

“We love it. We love the low maintenance of our garden and the habitat it creates. From our living room window, we watch the butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, chipmunks, and skunks. Yesterday, I could see the tail of a skunk skirting through the sedge, and I just love that we can provide a habitat for these animals and pollinators, and I enjoy walking down the path and being surrounded by plants,” said Jay Robinson.

To show off the sedge, the Robinsons wanted a purple palette to pop against the yellow-green grass. In early spring, the irises and crocuses bloom. The large allium just ended, and now the smaller alliums are blooming, along with purple wild geraniums, Salvia and Russian sage.

A graceful weeping Japanese Maple and Service Berry tree create an interesting corner outside of the living room window where the unruly junipers used to live. And, a Spirea hedge border near the sidewalk lends a bit of privacy. The Service Berry existed before our renovation and so just needed pruning. This understory tree is native to the Midwest and is a wonderful home to many species of birds that love its berries, including Mocking Birds, Catbirds, Baltimore Orioles, Grosbeaks and Thrushes.

New zig-zag path and entry way work well with the mid-century vibe and show off the garden

Because their pathway was in disrepair and dangerous in the winter due to ice build-up, Greenwise removed it and installed a zig-zag white cement pathway. The angles work well with the mid-century vibe and create wonderful spaces for the plants to grow into.

To create a stunning entry way, The Robinsons replaced the existing stoop and masonry wall as they had begun to deteriorate. The new stoop had quite a deep step off to grade, so Greenwise added the cedar timber planter as a buffer and a way to have a tidy bed for specimen plants.

Sandro’s plan filled the entry way with sculpted boxwood mounds that flanked the walk in bluestone chip beds with pockets of colorful dwarf phlox, thyme, Heuchera and rattlesnake master. Jay built the three flower boxes that sit in the beds giving them a dedicated place for annuals.

Sandro stops by the Robinson’s every few weeks on his way to work and his daughter’s school, checking in with them on how the garden is behaving, and letting them know if he notices anything that needs attention.

“Jay and Kendra were going for a contemporary twist on plant-focused mid-century modern.  The dominating geometry of the concrete walk is softened by the perennials it is embedded in, and a variety of scents, colors, and textures meet the eye when you walk up to the front door.  There is always something interesting to look at.  Behold the rattlesnake master in the raised bed, for example! This plant has so much character. It delivers height and bold contrast to the more formal context of sculpted boxwoods and thyme on bluestone chips,” Sandro said.

Adding an element of surprise or two to the landscape design

The Robinson’s latest addition to the garden was to cut out a space in their driveway. The north corner of the driveway couldn’t be driven on because of the curb, so last year, Greenwise cut into it and created a small garden to anchor and define their home’s entryway. Sandro found a large stone that matched the stone in the house’s façade, making it appear as if it always existed with the house. The sweet plantings of allium and groundcover create an unexpected visual treat and beautifully tie in the entire home and front yard.

Another unexpected surprise lies hidden from view on the north side of the house. Jay lamented that they would look out their kitchen window and just see a plain, wooden fence, so he built a series of moveable wooden boxes with thin iron rod to hold flowering plants, providing them with something beautiful to look at. Greenwise wasn’t involved in this particular project, but we love the concept and the look.

“Our neighbors comment on our native garden all the time. We’ve heard that it was a brave move to remove the lawn. We just wanted to provide a lot more habitat for the creatures around us. We’d be excited to see more Evanston homes take the leap to create habitat in their front yards,” Jay said.

The front yard before the Greenwise renovation.

The entry way before the Greenwise renovation.

A stunning entryway with sculpted boxwood mounds that flank the walk in bluestone chip beds with pockets of colorful dwarf phlox, thyme, Heuchera and rattlesnake master.

Initial installation of the zig-zag cement pathway with new plantings.

The zig-zag path after the plants have grown in.

The flower boxes that sit in the beds give the Robinsons a dedicated place for annuals.

Greenwise cut into an unused portion of the driveway to create a small garden to anchor and define the home’s entryway.

Gorgeous sedge against a purple palette of flowers.

A fence with a view: built-in moveable boxes for annuals to provide a colorful view outside the kitchen window.

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