Dr. Leonard P. Perry
University of Vermont
This past summer I had the fortune to judge a local garden contest in which one of the categories was "drive-by" gardens, or those visible from the street. Through this contest I was able to see what worked the best.
To begin with, such gardens aren't for everyone, or for every neighborhood. There may be neighborhood pressure, or even ordinances if a planned community or in some towns, about how the front yard is landscaped. Or you may not want to call attention to your home. But if such rules and regulations don't exist, and you want to make a beauty spot for others to enjoy, perhaps you should consider a drive-by garden.
I plant a couple small gardens near the street for another reason besides just beauty. I live on a busy road on which cars usually are going too fast. Hopefully by planting some eye-catching flowers this may get at least a few motorists to take note and slow down.
Eye-catching is really the key to an effective drive-by garden. This can be achieved through using bright colors, bold textures, masses of plants, or a combination. Bright colors that tend to catch your attention are the warm colors of red, orange, and yellow such as zinnias and marigolds. Bold textures include plants with large leaves, such as the castor bean or hibiscus. The latter combines both traits of brightly colored and large flowers, and large leaves.
White deserves special mention as it is the most eye-catching color. Put some white flowers in a bed, and they're sure to be the first noticed. Mass a group of white flowers and you'll really attract some attention. White daffodils in spring, followed by white tulips, white peonies in early summer along with the shrub spirea, Shasta daisies or white roses in mid summer, white phlox (the cultivar David is a great choice) in late summer, then white New England Asters in fall would give some good color through the season.
This illustrates another point to keep in mind when planning drive-by gardens, as you would other gardens, to choose flowers to give color through the season. A good way to pick these is to visit your local garden center or nursery every few weeks through the season to see what is in bloom.
While one sunflower plant might be striking next to your patio, even though it is bright and large, it might not be noticed at a distance. Mass a whole group of sunflowers though, and they're sure to be noticed.
The same applies to fine-textured plants such as ornamental grasses. Silver grass (Miscanthus), Feather Reed grass (Calamagrostis), and Switch Grass (Panicum) are some of the hardy choices to consider. Singly they aren't showy at a distance, but plant in mass and they can be quite effective and give a "natural" feel to an otherwise formal landscape.
Whether grasses, other foliage, or flowers, they generally should be tall. Short flowers might be bright but too low to be seen from the road. An exception of course would be a berm or raised bed to display such low plants.
If a fence exists that you want to leave, consider a showy vine such as clematis. A long cane rose might be effective on a split rail fence. A vigorous hop vine might cover an unsightly chain link fence, and provide a background for showy flowers.
Keep in mind the background your flowers and foliage will be seen against from the road. You may wish to plant some dark green evergreens such as white cedars, balsams, upright yews, or upright junipers as a background for your flowers. Just keep in mind their ultimate height, and whether this will block views that you wish to keep open. Red flowers against a red home might not be very showy, but against light yellow siding would be striking.
One effective landscape I judged had matching colors of some flowers and the house trim. In another, the owners matched colors of flowers and lawn furniture. Yet another had the wooden lawn chairs a bold and bright color in order to stand out.
If adding accessories to your landscape, just use a few, or group similar items to avoid a cluttered effect. Remember drive-by gardens are primarily for the enjoyment of passers by, so periodically view your garden as they would, from the road.