Home Improvement: The Front Yard

Conrad and I have been renting a cute single-family home that was built in the 20s. Since I moved in with him a few years ago, I’ve slowly improved the interior by converting Conrad’s “bedroom” into an actual living room, using the dining space for its original intention, and snagging better furniture here and there each year.

Now, the challenge is the exterior. Our landlady recently visited and asked why we don’t live in an apartment. We don’t use the backyard much, which is a shame because it’s huge. We mostly just use it as Keby’s dog park. And the front yard, while well maintained, isn’t totally a beauty.

So, I’m challenging myself and Conrad to improve both, starting with the front yard.

Our front yard is, at best, very… Blah… It has been neglected for some time now, and the long drought doesn’t really help. The tiny leaves from the willow tree have dried up on the dirt and have made an unattractive coat of tan on our dried patches of grass. I’ve lost the will to make our grass grow… I am constantly envying beautiful gardens during our daily doggy walks around the neighborhood, but I am so ready to do something about it.

I expressed my aspiration of growing a decent garden to a coworker of mine, and she was generous enough to lend me a pretty cool book called Sunset Western Garden Book. It’s basically a dictionary of all different kinds of plants that thrive in Western North America, covering 24 zones.

Considering that our yard doesn’t get much sun thanks to the 2 fully grown trees eating it all up, I would have to find shade-tolerant plants. Luckily, I came across a section that satisfies my search for plants that don’t need much sun. I’m also going to throw in another criterion – bird attractors. Because, hey – who doesn’t like birds in their garden??

Here is my short list of plants that may find a nice, shady home in our front yard. I’m excited to share, as I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have experience growing any of these plants.


  • Aka Carpet Bugle
  • Perennial
  • A. reptans – popular ground cover variety
    • Makes thick carpets of lustrous leaves
    • Spring to early summer
    • Feed in spring or late summer
    • Water every 7-10 days in summer
    • Mow or trim off old flower spikes
    • Subject to root-knot nematodes, rot and fungus diseases where drainage or air circulation is poor

Cotula squalida

  • Aka New Zealand Brass Buttons
  • Evergreen perennial
  • Grows a few inches high, good for ground cover in full sun to medium shade
  • Average water

Impatiens olivier

  • Aka Poor Man’s Rhododendron
  • Perennial, shrubby
  • Blooms in partial or deep shade
  • Needs some summer water
  • Attracts birds

Impatiens wallerana

  • Aka Busy Lizzie
  • Perennial, usually grown as summer annual
  • Best in partial shade with begonias, fatsia, ferns, fuchsias, hydrangeas
  • Grow from seed, cuttings, or buy plants from flats
  • Rich, moist soil
  • Most useful summer annual for shady gardens especially in warm-summer climates
  • Single-flowered kinds are best for massing or bedding – nearly cover themselves with flowers
  • Attracts birds

Iris foetidissima

  • Type of beardless iris
  • Grows in sun or deep shade
  • Needs little care
  • Extremely drought resistant
  • Real attraction – large seed capsules which open in fall to show numerous round, scarlet seeds, admired by flower arrangers


  • Aka primrose
  • Ideal environment: high shade, cool atmosphere, moist soil
  • Perennials
  • Zone 22-varieties
    • P. malacoides – fairy primrose, baby primrose; bloom February-May; set plants in October or November; use under high-branching trees in containers; grow as annual; indoor or cool greenhouse pot plant in cool climates
    • P. polyantha – almost any color; blooms from winter to early and mid spring; most datable; large flowered strains are Clarke’s, Barnhaven, Pacific, and Santa Barbara; novelty species is Gold Laced; excellent for massing in shade, for planting with bulbs, or in containers

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