What is Landscaping Supposed to Do?

“Could you explain what landscaping is supposed to do?” Kathryn Rostant of Mission Hills asks. “Could you generalize on what you think a nice front yard should look like in this hot Valley of ours?”
I would answer the first question – “What is landscaping supposed to do?” – with another question. What do you want it to do? There is nothing more personal than your immediate physical environment. Just as five different people would furnish a house five different ways, no two people would landscape a yard in the same manner.
Landscaping is a way of utilizing space. If you have small children, you will probably want a lawn where they can throw a ball and run around a bit. How big a lawn you have depends on how much you can afford to spend on water.
You will probably want to circle the lawn with plants that are suitable to our climate. “Landscape Plants for Western Regions,” by Bob Perry, is the best single volume on water-saving plants for our area, containing more than a thousand excellent photographs. It can be ordered through bookstores or via the Internet. Make sure to put trees, shrubs and perennials on their own sprinkler line, since a lawn will require significantly more water than these plants. If time permits, hand water everything but the lawn, you will save additional water this way and, by personally attending to every plant, learn volumes more than books could ever tell about the idiosyncrasies of each species.
When considering what to plant, I prefer to think of a “planting scheme” or a “plant palette,” concepts which seem more accessible than the somewhat obscure and elitist notion of “garden design.”
A planting scheme is often based on selecting plants of the same flower color or colors. A palette of plants with blue, violet, purple or mauve flowers seems to be quite popular these days, probably because many of them are drought tolerant. Blue also conjures up coolness, always in short supply during the Valley summer. Adhering to a blue color scheme, you could plant lily-of-the-Nile (Agapanthus), lavender, rosemary, scaevola, blue hibiscus (Alyogyne), buddleia, verbena, lobelia, caryopteris, veronica, perennial vinca, campanula, larkspur and many salvias.
Rose- or pink-flowered varieties of these same plants could be added to the blue garden for contrast, as could plants with gray or silver foliage – lamb’s ear, santolina, certain lavenders and the artemisias. You could even try Senecio serpens, a cool, blue-leaved succulent.
A birdbath, pond or fountain will, like your basic blue, serve as an antidote to Valley heat. Put your water feature in first and then create a garden around it, slowly working your way to the periphery.
As your children outgrow your yard, you will probably want to shrink or eliminate the lawn, using the money saved on watering to invest in your kids’ education. Divide former lawn space with pathways made of flagstone, artistic pavers or decomposed granite. Create pocket gardens in the quadrants created by crossing pathways – an herb garden here, a vegetable garden there, a bulb garden, a butterfly garden, a wildflower garden.
An attractive front yard in the Valley will resemble a garden more than a yard, and the garden itself need not be visible from the street. Wrap a decorative fence or hedge around your garden space. Allen Lacy, the dean of American garden writers, has written that “without enclosure, no true garden is possible.

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