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Oh, Beautiful

In an Evanston front yard, a conventional turf lawn is replaced with amber waves of ornamental grass

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Backyard landscape
Foamy blooms of purple love grass lie low, while spiky stalks of feather reed grass aim for the sky. The repeating pattern—four stripes of each between the sidewalk and the house—creates a layered and dynamic look in this distinctive front yard. Photo Gallery »
 

When Peter Laundy and his wife, Shirley Dugdale, decided to get rid of the lawn in front of their graceful, century-old frame house in Evanston, they took the route of replacing it with, of all things, grass.

Four varieties of ornamental grass, to be specific, now flourish where a conventional carpet of turf grass once grew. Ornamental grasses are familiar as graceful, windblown components of many gardens, but here they fill virtually the entire front yard, edge to edge. When planted in large numbers, the slender-leafed perennials need little help to thrive beyond occasional weeding and getting cut back to the ground in spring.

Walk back and forth along the sidewalk at a brisk clip and the alternating rows—one about four feet tall, the next about a foot—suggest iconic waves of grain, particularly in the fall, when the long, reedy stalks of the tall rows turn amber. “It’s a farmhouse—why not put a farm in front of it?” says Claire Kettelkamp, the Evanston landscape architect who designed the yard.

Curving path and front yard landscape
A curving path echoes the swoop of the roofline, helping point out the sculptural intentions of the garden. Prairie dropseed and purple love grass fill the parkways. Photo Gallery »

Laundy and Dugdale wanted the new look to accomplish several things: cut way down on the time and resources demanded by a turf lawn; enhance the privacy of the front-facing screened porch but at the same time visually engage passersby; and look graphically bold, in keeping with their design tastes (he has a graphic design background; she’s an architect).

The result is a yard planted in wide, curving stripes in a simplified palette of ornamental grasses, punctuated by a clearing of ground-hugging plants. It’s carefully designed around the notion of change: plants that change color and form in different seasons; alternating high and low plants whose relationship shifts as the viewer moves through the space; and an intentional change from high-maintenance turf to a landscape that largely sustains itself on rainfall.

Some preexisting trees and foundation shrubs that hug the house were kept, but in front of them the 4,500-square-foot yard is now more like a site-specific art installation than a garden. There are eight stripes—the tall ones contain rigidly upright feather reed grass (Karl Foerster) and fluffy purple miscanthus; the short ones are fuzzy-topped purple love grass with tufts of prairie dropseed. Seen from the sky, these stripes look curved, like a flag billowing in the wind. Their arc was suggested by the pronounced slope of the house’s roof.

By-the-book designs would have called for an orderly progression of heights upward toward the roofline, with the shortest plantings farthest from the house. A “stadium planting” like that can seem flat, Kettelkamp notes. “When you move across it, your perspective doesn’t change. It’s not dynamic.” What she and the clients wanted was “something unexpected, where you have to walk up and down the sidewalk to get a sense of the whole thing.”

Though the short plants are attractive—the love grass’s seasonal purple stalks and low-hanging cloud of seed heads are eye-catchers and the prairie dropseed’s popcorn-like fragrance is intriguing—they are there in part to be not-there. Their short stature creates negative space between the taller rows. “We get more depth because we have voids between the rows,” Kettelkamp says.

A concrete walk to the front steps threads its way through the stripes and an oval clearing that’s a tapestry of sedum plants, those hardy little performers that are the mainstays of Chicago’s green roofs. Kettelkamp went with sedums because they’re low-maintenance and have a camel’s ability to get by on cyclical rainfall. But she also felt that, stuck on rooftops all over town, they aren’t often appreciated by passersby. Their diversity of foliage and flowers, she says, “deserves to be seen more.”

Laundy and Dugdale feel pretty much the same way about their front landscape as a whole. At the outset of the design process, they made it clear to Kettelkamp that though they were opting out of the lawn-dominated aesthetic of their neighborhood, they had no desire to shut out the neighbors. “We wanted to do something that everybody could look at, walk around in, and enjoy,” Laundy says. “It’s sort of our gift to those walking by.”

 

Photography: Linda Oyama Bryan

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