Should You Convert a Front Lawn Into A Garden?
by Art Drysdale
by Art Drysdale


Art Drysdale, a life-long resident of Toronto and a horticulturist well known all across Canada, is now a resident of Parksville, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, just north of Nanaimo. He has reno-vated an old home and has a new garden there. His radio gardening vignettes are heard in south-western Ontario over radio station Easy 101 FM out of Tillsonburg at 2 PM weekdays.

Art also has his own website at

August 31, 1997

Fourteen years ago at this time of year I was involved in the final judging of all the front gardens in my own small community of East York, Ontario (population 100,000+). It was the first year of a new "Mayor's Blooming Contest" I initiated with then Mayor, Dave Johnson.

Now 14 years later, I am doing the same thing and the contest has grown to a significant activity in the community's annual events. What has impressed me the most over those years is the huge increase in residents who have abandoned the "front Lawn" concept in favour of a front garden. This is something which I first did at my previous home a way back in 1983--the year before we began the Mayor's Blooming Contest. At that time it was unique, and I couldn't find more than one other front garden in all of East York and it was quite different compared to mine.

Now, after this year's judging, even I have to admit it was amazing to see the number of front gardens either with no grass whatsoever, or with a much reduced lawn area predominated by other plants.

The "other plants" or alternative front lawn concept deserves some comment. My idea (in 1983) was nothing new: a way back in the 1930s, Howard Dunington-Grubb, dean of landscape architects in Canada (and founder of Sheridan Nurseries in 1913) had such a garden at his home on Astley Avenue in the Rosedale area of Toronto. That front garden--virtually all green--is still there today! Though he was a lover of herbaceous perennials, Mr. Grubb didn't believe in using them in such a front garden because they provide "no interest" over the seven-month winter season. I wonder now what he would say if he could see all the front gardens--small and large--which incorporate large numbers of perennials.

When I created my first front garden, removing my entire small front lawn, I used virtually all evergreens. The predominant plant was 'Prince of Wales' junipers as a ground-hugging cover with other interesting plants such as blue hollies, PJM rhododendrons, globe blue spruce and a few accent deciduous shrubs for their flowers at various times of year. Four years later, after a move, I had a larger front lawn, but decided to go the same route--removing all the grass and creating a landscape. This time, because there was more shade, I opted for English ivy as a ground cover for part of the area (see my comments two weeks ago), and an even wider selection of plants, but again predominantly evergreen with some deciduous for flowers at various times of the year. Those deciduous plants include one shrub in full bloom currently--my double-flowered blue rose-of-sharon, and a small tree about to come into full creamy-white bloom--the hard-to-find Heptocodium, about which more when it becomes available at garden centres.

However, the main point, I haven't used perennials for exactly the same reason that Mr. Grubb didn't 60 years ago. And that's what I'm noticing in countless (most) of these new front gardens--what I consider the over-use of herbaceous perennials. Perennials are fine--wonderful, but provide nothing through the winter. Even leafless deciduous shrubs have attributes that make them interesting through the winter (coloured stems, seeds/fruit remaining attached, and textured bark), whereas perennials during the winter, at the most are twigs that hold the snow in place.

If you're considering converting your lawn into a garden, do keep in mind that we are a country (at least nine provinces and two territories are) where for seven months of the year, our gardens are pretty much devoid of colour and interest. The front of your home is enhanced by the front lawn and "foundation planting"--usually evergreens and these have a good appearance for 12 months of each year. If you change all that and go to a majority of perennials, the front of your home will likely be very dull for a majority of every year.

In summary, it's fine to convert a lawn to a garden (as long as you realize that grass is still the best ground cover in terms of the environment), but if you do this, be sure to include at least some evergreens, broadleaf evergreens and deciduous shrubs to enhance your home for those long cold months of winter!

* Art Drysdale is the Horticultural Editor of Plant & Garden magazine and is seen daily each hour at 23 minutes past, on Canada's Weather Network with a two-minute garden tip. In Toronto and environs he is also heard Saturdays from 8 to 10 am, with a live two-hour garden broadcast on TALK640 (640 on the AM dial). this is

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