I’m Michelle Gerner, and I garden on a small city lot in St. Paul, Minnesota (Zone 4b/5a). In 2010 I decided to get rid of the grass in half of my front yard, right next to the public sidewalk, and replace it with shrubs and perennials. This garden has heavy clay soil and tricky light conditions, with one little strip of full sun, patches of partial shade, and a few areas of nearly full shade. I’m always trying new plants to see what will thrive here (and not get eaten by the abundant rabbits). I’ve slowly built up layers in the garden to have three seasons of interest for the benefit of the many daily passersby. Having a front yard garden is a great way to get to know your neighbors!
The newly planted garden, 10 years ago, looked a bit sparse. Nearly all the plants were divisions I got from friends and family, or perennials I grew by winter sowing seed. The two rock-filled “gutters” channel all the rainwater from the front half of the roof into the central rain garden.
Ten years later the garden is full of plants—maybe a bit too full at times. A few years after I started the front yard garden, I also converted the grass boulevard strip into a garden, visible in the upper part of this photo. This photo is from late May. The white flowers are Geranium maculatum var. alba (Zones 3–8)—the white variation of the native geranium, which has reseeded itself throughout the garden. Magenta-flowered Geranium macrorrhizum (Zones 4–8) are just starting to bloom, as are the Alchemilla mollis (Zones 3–8) along the sidewalk. A couple stray branches of Cornus ‘Prairie Fire’ (Zones 3–7) poke in from the right. Geranium macrorrhizum is the most indestructible plant I’ve ever grown, and it’s semi-evergreen even this far north.
Early evening light from the west makes Narcissus ‘Marieke’ (Zones 3–8) really glow.
It’s fun to watch the bees wriggle their way in and out of the flowers of Baptisia ‘Twilite Prairieblues’ (Zones 4–8).
By midsummer, the color scheme is mostly purples and yellows, including Astilbe ‘Purple Candles’ (Zones 4–8), Monarda fistulosa (Zones 3–9), Ligularia ‘The Rocket’ (Zones 4–8), and Hemerocallis ‘Omomuki’ (Zones 3–9). Tigrinum lilies (Lilium lancifolium, Zones 3–9) add a little orange to spice things up.
In the mostly shady area closest to the house, two Fothergilla ‘Blue Shadow’ (Zones 5–8) frame Athyrium niponicum var. Pictum (Zones 3–8), pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis, Zones 5–9), and a couple of self-seeded palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis, Zones 4–9). Numerous clumps of palm sedge are spread throughout my garden because the bright chartreuse leaves play well with many other colors.
By late summer, the garden reaches jungle-like proportions as the native plants come into bloom. Sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum, Zones 4–9) likes much more shade than the standard Joe Pye weed. It’s blooming here with yellow Helenium autumnale (Zones 3–8) and the bright blue flowers of Lobelia siphilitica (Zones 4–9), which loves the wetter soil of the rain garden at the center.
Sweet Joe Pye weed is much beloved by butterflies and bees. It reseeds wildly in my garden, so I have to be careful to remove the flower heads before they go to seed. I cut the plants back by at least half in mid-June, and they still reach 6 to 7 feet tall by late summer.
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