Planting in a small west facing front yard

(Question)

Our new home in Toronto, a semi, sits on a n.w. corner lot with the north side fenced off with a 3′ chain link fence from the heavily traveled sidewalk on Davenport Rd. Because of the heavy salting in winter on that sidewalk, what kind of a shrub could we plant along that north fence for a bit of privacy. Is that a good idea? What would be the best perennials to plant at the front of our house. Drought resistant flowers and low maintenance plants would be best as we are a young family with a baby. It’s a small lot and the front yard really needs work.

(Answer)

This is a difficult question to answer, as so much depends on personal preference when selecting plants for your garden and the type of soil you have in your garden, which in Toronto is often sandy or clay.  Here is some information that I hope will help you in making your garden a wonderful refuge.

Shrubs/Hedges: One issue to consider is how much privacy you want.  Do you want a shrub that grows just a couple of feet in height, or one that will end up being several feet tall, blocking anyone who passes by from seeing into your yard?  Remember that a tall shrub would block your view of the surrounding area, and could make your yard feel closed-in.

Take a look at information we already have posted to our site – “Hedges”. Another important matter is to make sure that young children are not at risk from anything you plant (e.g., don’t choose yew, including the one mentioned in this response – all parts of the plant are toxic if ingested). By the same token, avoid anything with thorns, such as barberry.  We also provide recommendations in “Hedges, resistant to salt…”.

Perennials/flowers:  The best advice I can offer is to choose plants based on what you like, and consider the following:

  • from your description, the front of your house faces either east or south, so there should be plenty of sunlight for any plants you select.  Make sure you choose plants that can grow in sunny or shady spots, depending on the conditions in the area of your garden the plant will reside;
  • the height/spread each will reach (e.g., don’t plant a tiny specimen behind a large one) and don’t crowd them too closely – pay attention to instructions that come with the plants;
  • bloom time (aim for constant blooming in the garden – pick plants that bloom at different times);
  • for perennials, choose plants that are hardy to your region’s growing zone (in Toronto, it’s 6b);
  • chances are that if your front yard “needs work”, the soil also needs TLC.  I can’t over-stress how important good soil is for a garden.

For perennials, which generally have shorter flowering periods than annuals, pick plants that have attractive leaves – as you’ll be looking at foliage most of the season.  Some perennials flower throughout the season, though – e.g.,  Geranium  Rozanne.  Consider native and/or non-invasive plants; The Ontario Invasive Plant Council publishes a great handbook “Beautiful non-invasive plants for your garden” – this is a helpful publication as it sets out what not to plant (invasives) and provides good alternatives.

Annuals bloom throughout the season – select these by the flowers you like – shape, colour, smell.  As well, a small herb garden might be quite wonderful in your yard – and will provide tasty treats for summer salads and drinks.  Perennial herbs like oregano, thyme and French tarragon, could do very well in your garden.

A good way to find out which plants “work” in your area is to walk around the neighbourhood and see what your neighbours have planted – what do you like (and what do you find unattractive)?  Your neighbours will likely be happy to tell you the names of the plants.  Local plant sales are often held in the spring (e.g., May) and local gardeners donate plants for these sales – such plants often work out very well in gardens.

Finally, I suggest that you speak with your local garden centre about your plant choices – they may suggest interesting alternatives that you had not considered – and advise you on how best to amend your soil.  Don’t be afraid to experiment, and you will find that your garden is full of beauty – and surprises.