Modern Cottage Design: A Waterwise, Low- Maintenance Front Yard

Modern Cottage Design: A Waterwise, Low- Maintenance Front Yard

Plant photos by Doreen Wynja; Landscape photos by Rachel Weill and Caitlin Atkinson
low maintenance front yard landscape with curved pathway

Plant photos by Doreen Wynja; Landscape photos by Rachel Weill and Caitlin Atkinson

Have you seen Leslie Bennett and Julie Chai's new book, Garden Wonderland? We've fallen in love with it, and think you will, too. There's so much to learn about garden design and relishing outdoor life—it's a joyful and inspiring read for plant lovers everywhere.

We spoke with Leslie and her team at Pine House Edible Gardens to bring you their Monrovia-exclusive tips and favorite plants to achieve gorgeous, low-maintenance results. Plus, we're featuring an excerpt from the book that features a low-maintenance "Modern Cottage" front yard design by Pine House Gardens' landscape architect, Holly Kuljian. Enjoy!

Cover Photo by Rachel Weill.

Expert Exclusive: How to Choose Plants for Low-Maintenance and High-Quality Results

So much of our design approach at Pine House is about creating a cohesive overall visual experience, using foliage color and texture to unify a productive landscape that includes edibles and blooms for harvest. Because different parts of a garden will have different conditions but we want a unified look, the magic of the design is choosing the right plant for the right location, that will contribute, not distract, from the overall design. 

As we explain in our new book, Garden Wonderland, shrubs and blooms that can tolerate sun and shade are so helpful if we want to carry, for example, a blue or variegated color theme across a landscape. Some plants are so well suited for a shady, soggy, or other particular kind of spot in the garden, that they have become favorites that we turn to time and time again as we know they will be healthy and robust, and will make that corner of the garden really pop! 

At the end of the day, healthy plants are beautiful plants, so choosing the right ones from the right source is really what makes all the difference in creating a beautiful, productive, and meaningful garden. We work with plant brokers who source plants for us from all over, but we are always thrilled when we can get something that’s been grown by Monrovia because their plants are always healthier and happier, and end up looking that much better in our garden projects!

Low-Maintenance Front Yard Design Lessons,  As Seen in "Garden  Wonderland"

Modern Cottage

low maintenance front yard with flagstone courtyard

(Above) Because the family entertains often, they wanted a welcoming entry. A generous front courtyard paved with warm-toned flagstone, interplanted with creeping thyme, invites visitors in. Photo by Caitlin Atkinson.

curved pathway in low maintenance front yard

Sarah has happy childhood memories of being in the garden with her mom and wanted to recreate that for their sons. The curving front path is hugged by Pittosporum tobiraWheeler’s Dwarf, Santa Barbara daisies, and lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantine)Photo by Rachel Weill.

When Sarah Nguyen and Andrew Poon relandscaped their front yard, Sarah was sure of one thing: she wanted a garden overflowing with flowers. An admirer of English cottage garden style, she loved the idea of being able to see lush blooms in every direction. The couple also wanted the space to be low maintenance and to require minimal irrigation, since water conservation is the rule rather than the exception in their region’s naturally summer-dry climate. 

An unexpected plant combination was key to creating a visual tapestry in a new garden that delights and inspires joy every day of the year. The design is a play between modern and romantic: clean lines create structure, while loosely layered plantings give a billowy look.

Evergreen trees and shrubs form the backbone of the garden, while floral flourishes mark the time of year: wallflower (Erysimum), iris, and dogwood in the spring; lavender, sea lavender (Limonium perezii), rose, crape myrtle, and butterfly bush (Buddleja) in the summer; grass plumes in the fall; and vibrant tangerines and a fragrant yuzu citrus tree (Citrus junos) in the winter. Bloomers including Santa Barbara daisies (Erigeron karvinskianus), kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos), and rosettes of Agave parryi hold space in between, with flowers or flowerlike forms that span multiple seasons. Andrew says that the changing show helps root him to the space. When different plants are at their peak, he says, “I feel connected to nature and more in tune with the seasons.” 

The couple’s sons, Hunter and Darius, use the whole space, whether they’re running or riding on the paths, exploring under plants, or helping with the harvest. While most of the homes in the neighborhood have lawns in front, Sarah and Andrew opted to go lawn-free but 

still have a visually restful expanse in their circular entry court. Curved benches hug the wide front path, inviting neighborliness and offering a welcoming spot for casual visits. “It’s perfect—like out of a fairytale,” Sarah says. 

front entryway with hostas, nandina plants

(Above) Sarah loves being greeted by this path every time she pulls into her driveway. It's bordered by Aeonium canariense, Euphorbia 'Tasmanian Tiger,' Arthropodium cirratum, and nandina, all waterwise evergreens with contrasting foliage. Photo by Caitlin Atkinson.

(Above) Blooming dogwood provides spring color. Photo by Rachel Weill.

soft, silvery low maintenance front yard

(Above) A soft color palette combines silver (Teucrium fruticans), greens (evergreen dogwood and Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerster'), and orange (loquat and Coprosma 'Rainbow Surprise'). Photo by Carilin Atkinson.

low-maintenance pathway in front yard

(Above) A mini-orchard alongside the driveway with 'Warren' pear, Asian pear, and dwarf avocado trees incorporates evergreens for year-round good looks. Plantings include lamb's ears (Stachys byzantine), 'Swane's Golden' cypress, 'Big Red' kangaroo paws, and Icee Blue® podocarpus. Photo by Caitlin Atkinson. 

avocados on trees

(Above) The homeowners love having access to fresh seasonal produce including avocados, "If you want premium ingredients, growing your own is really worth it." Photo by Rachel Weill.

Takeaway: Get Lots of Flowers with Less Work

lambs ear and iris in a low maintenance front yard

Photo by Caitlin Atkinson. 

Because flowers are showy, colorful, and impactful, people often assume they require a lot of care. But creating a beautiful, blooming display doesn’t have to be difficult. The key is choosing perennials that flower for a long stretch of time without requiring heavy maintenance. 

The following are some of my favorite lower-maintenance bloomers that deliver a lot of bang for the buck. Most of these plants benefit from some deadheading during their bloom season and a hard pruning each winter. 

Pine House Edible Gardens' Favorite Low-Maintenance Monrovia Plants

From the "Modern Cottage" Garden Featured Above

Icee Blue® 

"We love the color and texture of this evergreen foliage plant and use it to create a visually striking and modern-looking backdrop." Part to full sun. Up to 25' tall and wide. Zones 9-11.

Wheeler's Dwarf 
Japanese Pittosporum

"This low evergreen shrub is such a hard worker in the garden. We use it to define space and create year-round, low-maintenance structure in our planting beds." Part to full sun. Up to 3' tall, 5' wide. Zones 8-11.

Swane's Golden 
Italian Cypress

"Such great color and texture! The bright gold foliage is a little less expected than the traditional green cypress and can help to create an eclectic feel in a garden design. We’ll use them to help block unwanted views and protect privacy, also as vertical punctuation in the landscape." Full sun. Up to 20' tall, 3' wide. Zones 7-9.

More Pine House Edible Gardens Favorites

Camouflage® Variegated 
Japanese Aralia

"The bold, legible variegation brightens up a shady spot and grows tall enough to screen foundations and any other awkward areas." Full shade to part sun. Up to 8' tall and wide.

Flower Carpet® 
Amber Rose

"Such pretty blooms! This is one of the few carpet roses we use — we love it because there are tons of blooms, it stays a medium-low height and the color is so sophisticated it can fit into even a more modern style palette." Full sun. Up to 3' tall and 4' wide. Zones 4-10.

Mystic Spires 
Blue Salvia

"Such a classic and for good reason — it’s not too big of a plant so fits into the compact spaces, the blooms go for almost nine months in our climate, pollinators love them, the tall purple spire is a really saturated color that is legible in the landscape. They are successful in a range of sun to part-shade exposures, which makes them very helpful in creating a unified color theme across a larger space." Full sun. Up to 24" tall, 18" wide. Zones 7-10.

Little Ragu® 
Sweet Bay

"We use this in almost every garden we create. It takes sun and part-shade, is pest and disease-free, so handsome and edible too! There’s no reason to buy your herbs at the grocery store if you’ve got space for even a small garden! Little Ragu® is compact and looks great as a medium-height evergreen anchor in an informal planting bed, or is great in a pot for a classic green form." Part to full sun. Up to 8' tall and wide. Zones 8-11.

Sunshine Blue 

"Evergreen in our area, we use this as a fronter along pathways and love that it is such a pretty, compact shrub with the prettiest spring flowers and really delicious fruit too!" Full sun. Up to 4' tall and wide. Zones 5-10.

Variegated Dwarf 
Smooth Agave

"Agaves are some of our favorite plants to use in garden designs for the foliage contrast and more modern feel. We love the pretty green/blue color of this agave, also that it stays fairly compact and fits into a smaller garden space." Full sun. Up to 36" tall and wide. Zones 9-11.

About the Designer and Author of Garden Wonderland

leslie bennett, author of garden wonderland
julie chai, author of garden wonderland

Leslie Bennett is the owner and founder of Pine House Edible Gardens and coauthor of The Beautiful Edible Garden. She is a winner of the American Horticultural Society's Landscape Design Award and founder of Black Sanctuary Gardens. She lives and gardens in Oakland, California, with her two children. 

Julie Chai has spent her career covering gardening and landscapes and is the editor of Floret Farm's A Year in Flowers, Floret Farm's Cut Flower Garden, and Floret Farm's Discovering Dahlias. She lives and gardens in Los Altos, California, with her husband and son. 

Reprinted with permission from Garden Wonderland by Leslie Bennett & Julie Chai, copyright © 2024. Photographs by Rachel Weill. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC 

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2024-05-16 20:59:00