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Turning the front yard into a garden oasis for wildlife

Thursday, July 22, 2010; VA09

For Mike Anderson, a professional gardener who lives in Lincoln Park in Southeast Washington, the yard in front of his two-unit apartment building was an obvious candidate for a makeover. An old mower lived in the basement, but the lawn was a blanket of weeds below a towering Southern magnolia. Various things conspired against reviving the grass: the tree, with its shade, leaf litter and roots, and the desire of a gardener to find places for beloved specimens.

Eight years later, the front is a plantsman's mixture of specimen trees and shrubs, shade-loving perennials and plant orphans picked up at local nurseries and sales.

The front path is screened by upright hornbeams. Anderson clips them after their spring growth to keep them narrow, and he has removed some of the lower branches of the magnolia. He allows the leaves to drop all summer before assaulting the resulting litter. "I give myself one day when they're all done, and I carry out 12 bags of leaves," he said.

The plants around the magnolia are just far enough away to get the light and soil they need, and include a dwarf hydrangea named Pia. Its mopheads, now a pleasant wine color, are small and in scale with the overall shrub. Next to it, Anderson has placed a gold spotted foliar plant named Farfugium japonicum, along with hardy geraniums and a variegated variety of the holly-like osmanthus.

On the house side of the magnolia, the tree creates enough screening and shade to have a little patio where Anderson and his partner, Panchi Wilson, can sit and feel part of the neighborhood without it feeling part of them.

The whole front garden became an attractive way to provide a visual and aural barrier between the property and Massachusetts Avenue. "Anything that could push the house back from the busy intersection, I was definitely working toward," Anderson said.

His front garden has become an oasis for wildlife, drawing fireflies and butterflies as well as a bird culture. The bird bath "is very well used," he said.

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