NPR garden expert Ketzel Levine enjoys her front-yard living room.

FRONT YARDS, THOSE MOST PUBLIC OF PRIVATE SPACES, HAVE EVOLVED MIGHTILY since their earliest incarnations. In the 1950s, a front yard was something you simply maintained. At most, it consisted of a clipped lawn, a concrete walk, and some ornamental shrubs to camouflage the foundation. As long as you kept it free of trash and feral cats, you—and your neighbors—were happy. They’re now elaborate mediums of self-expression—stages on which lavender and manzanita tell the world you’re a responsible water user, while salmonberries and salal showcase a fluency in Northwest ecosystems. We stake an identity through our front yards.

The phenomenon is a 19th-century invention. That’s when Portland, like many American cities, started expanding at a rapid pace, and broad development forces, including streetcar lines and fire-safety codes, began shaping the crowded tenements and cramped urban yards of yore into the spacious grid of dwellings, each neatly set back on four sides, that we know today.

So we Americans are front-yard people. And here in Portland, some of us transform those yards in ways that are quite compelling. Like building a luxury resort for birds and bees. Helping to create a local food economy. Sharing beauty with our neighbors, and making the city a better place. Here are six approaches that may inspire you to rethink your own.

 

1 To Stop Traffic

 

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A minimal boxwood parterre graces Rick Younge and David Hopkins yard.

What: A minimal boxwood parterre
Where: Northwest Portland
Who: Rick Younge and David Hopkins

YOUNGE, A GARDEN DESIGNER, and Hopkins, a retired design-agency owner, created their yard from scratch when they rescued this house from a bulldozer and moved it to a vacant lot (it was in the way of a soon-to-be-built I-405 freeway on-ramp). Initially, a small lawn and some potted azaleas fulfilled their criteria for a neat, attractive yard that signaled to visitors where the front door was. But the lawn also attracted too many neighborhood dogs, so Younge, inspired by a friend’s boxwood hedge, came up with a different solution: a boxwood parterre.

Why It Works: To introduce a sense of calm in a small yard like this one, Younge recommends minimizing the number of visual focal points. “It’s a big design for a small space,” he says.

Get the Look: Younge planted two-gallon dwarf boxwoods 12 inches apart and had a filled-out hedge in two years. He tidies up the shape with a mechanical shearer once in late spring and again at summer’s end.

Formal Education: For more inspiration, peruse one of Younge’s favorite sources, The Gardens of Russell Page (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang, 1991), for images of this 20th-century British landscape architect’s masterful formal designs.

Hot Tip: To prevent tender interior leaves from getting sunburned, shape your hedge with a shearer while the weather is cool and wet.

 

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Rick Younge on the steps of his house that was rescued from a bulldozer and moved to a vacant lot (it was in the way of a soon-to-be-built I-405 freeway on-ramp).

 

2 To Make the Old New Again

 

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A fresh take on the old lawn-and-foundation planting scheme gives a wide welcome mat to a family home for Sergio and Sheri Lozano and their kids Kayla (15) and Lucas (13, shown practicing his “caveman” jump).

What: A fresh take on the old lawn-and-foundation planting scheme gives a wide welcome mat to a family home.
Where: Cedar Hills
Who: Sergio and Sheri Lozano and their kids Kayla (15) and Lucas (13)

SERGIO, A DESIGN DIRECTOR for Nike’s Innovation Kitchen, let stay-at-home mom Sheri take charge of remodeling their house and garden when they bought the 1968 ranch in 2004. To surmount the challenge presented by the broad front yard, Sheri turned to landscape architect Sam Williamson.

Expert Solution: An easy-care, drought-tolerant design that features lawn and ornamental cherry trees and couples beautifully with the home’s modern architecture and horizontal lines.

Payoff: Instead of a boring concrete path, arriving guests enjoy what Sheri describes as “seam-less transitions through a series of different experiences,” including, during summer months, a taste of the sweet, bright-orange raspberries that Williamson used as ground cover. Even better, Lucas gets a place to practice his “caveman” jump (pictured above).