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Replacing the front lawn with a garden: A neighborly display

Thursday, July 22, 2010; VA09

In Takoma Park, Wendy Bell's front garden has a natural, cottage-garden appeal in front of her cozy, 1920s clapboard house. Her collection of perennials and choice shrubs represents a 17-year journey that began with a landscape form all too familiar: azaleas as foundation shrubs, a weedy lawn lined with hostas, and a dense old maple casting more shade than the grass wanted.

Bell, a retired EPA environmental engineer, began by removing some of the lawn on one side of the front. The death and removal of the tree spurred more garden beds. "I wanted to experiment with different kinds of plants," she said, "and the grass never looked any good; it was full of weeds."

Bell went on to study landscape design, and today the garden is a pleasing display of first-rate woody plants rising from drifts of perennials. It provides months of decorative interest. The spike winter hazel blooms in early April, the evergreen loropetalum unfurls its fragrant spidery flowers soon afterward. In July, the summersweet prepares to present its own scented blossoms, a magnet for butterflies.

"Now that the garden has pretty much evolved," Bell said, "I add plants I fall in love with. More shrubs."

Weeding, watering, pruning, planting, mulching, moving plants: All these aspects of cultivating plants are more work than running a mower over weedy grass, but that's what gardening is all about. By placing the homeowner out in a semi-public space, neighbors stop to chat and ask about plants. "It's a great way to meet people, to talk to people when you're out in your front yard," she said. It gives her a chance to talk about how her form of landscaping is better for the Chesapeake Bay than a lawn.

One of the most recent decorative touches is a bottle tree, a pole with pegs for about 30 blue bottles. Blue glass was traditionally used in parts of Africa to chase away evil spirits. In its modern form, the bottle tree is a blue sculpture. When Bell told neighbors about the project, she would come home to find a blue bottle or two left on the porch.

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