Front yard garden design *


I’m looking for advice on plant and shrub selection for my front garden. Our house is 3 yrs old and we started landscaping in heavy clay soil. The front bed is north facing. The first year we amended the soil with composted soil, peat and mulch. I chose hydrangeas, hostas and Stella d’oro lilies. The hydrangeas were nice but a bit wild looking. I moved them this spring and planted mugo pines which I love. I’m looking for a more formal, less busy look in front of the house. I plan to take out the hostas as well. I have boxwoods edging the new sidewalk. I would appreciate your thoughts on how to achieve a more formal look.  Thank you


Hello and thank you for contacting the Toronto Master Gardeners.  Firstly I must ask you a few questions so that I can properly recommend shrubs that are suited to your area.  Meanwhile I will answer the question as if you were in zone 5 or 6.  I might also suggest that you hold off any new plantings, especially of trees until this hot dry weather abates.  Fall, with its cooler rainy days are perfect for transplanting.

It is a good idea to transplant the hostas, as those Mugo pines will quickly grow and overtake the hostas. They are lovely and I hope you have a nice spot to move them to.

It is difficult to recommend a specific planting without knowing your particular conditions but below are some suggestions that may work – I am assuming that you have light shade, as your Stella D’Oro daylilies are doing spectacularly!

If you like the arching shape of the Mugo pines, you may like the similar arching habit of Daphne, it is a nice tidy semi-evergreen shrub that keeps its shape and does not require pruning.  Burkwood Daphne produces fragrant pale pink flowers in the spring, it prefers to be kept moist and does well in light shade.  Keep in mind that Daphne is toxic – not a good idea if you have young children.

However you mentioned “more formal, less busy” so my thinking is that you should stick with evergreen shrubs for this area.  As you already have the nice rounded shape of the Mugos, I would now look for a contrasting, conical shaped shrub;

Dwarf Alberta Spruce, Picea glauca albertiana ‘Conica‘.  This slow growing shrub makes a perfect dense cone shape, it tolerates light shade and can be trimmed lightly to keep its shape.

White cedar, Thuja occidentalis ‘Holmstrup is another slow-growing evergreen making for a dense cone shaped shrub with with rich green foliage, sometimes tinged bronze at the tips in winter.

You might also consider a ‘weeping shape’ to complement the more upright growth of the Mugo. Weeping hemlock, Tsuga canadensis ‘Pendula  has a graceful mounding shape and it does very well in partial shade.

If I may, I would like to pass on some advice on your planting of a Birch tree, depending on your area, I would not advise planting a European Silver Birch, Betula pendula.  Firstly, these trees do not like heat.  They perform best in zones 5 or less. Their root systems are shallow, and this fact makes them sensitive to variety of external conditions such as drought and overheating, also to soil compaction.   They come with a long list of potential pests, the most major being the Birch borer and leaf miner.  In short although it is a most beautiful tree – it will be short lived if you live in Southern Ontario.  A better bet in a Birch would be River Birch, Betula nigra as it is the most pest resistant of all of the Betula species.

I can see that you presently use mulch in your planting.  It is very important that you keep this up as once you get a tree growing in that area. It will ‘steal away’ a great deal of water from those new plants.   So keep up the mulching and water deeply!

Good luck with your planting!