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How to Create Attractive 'Drive-By' Gardens

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By Dr. Leonard Perry
Extension Professor
University of Vermont

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"I started this garden 3 years ago. It borders our driveway and sidewalk. The photo was taken early spring with the spectacular display of bearded irises." Photo by Janet of Rush, N.Y.

"Drive-by" gardens are plantings that are specifically designed to be enjoyed from a distance. Such gardens aren't for everyone, or for every neighborhood. There may be neighborhood pressure or ordinances about how the front yard is to be 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, creating a drive-by garden Can be a lot of fun.

I plant a couple small gardens near the street for another reason besides just beauty. I live on a busy road on which cars are usually going too fast. My hope is that by planting some eye-catching flowers, I 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 and masses of plants. 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, large flowers and large leaves.

White deserves special mention as you may be surprised by the fact that 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 midsummer, 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 with other gardens, choose flowers that will provide color throughout 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 towering 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.

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Sometimes, a drive-by garden can be a simple, seasonal planting, such as this fenceline garden.
"After replacing a tired, 30-year-old, split-rail fence with a 200-foot picket fence, we decided to "grow" our five children in the front yard instead of plants. I was relegated to the fence for my gardens. What a saving grace your Dutch Gardens Perennial Tulips have been." Photo by Ruth of Hanover, Mass.

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.

For a big impact, the plants in your drive-by garden should generally should be tall. Short flowers might be bright but too low to be seen from the road. An exception, of course, would be planting on a berm or raised bed to display these low plants.

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.

If a fence already exists, consider planting a showy vine, such as clematis. A bright-red climbing 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.

One effective drive-by landscape I saw recently had matched flower colors to the house trim. In another, the owners matched colors of flowers and lawn furniture. Yet another had painted the wooden lawn chairs a bold and bright color to make them stand out. Red flowers against a red home might not be very showy, but against light yellow siding would be striking.

Remember, drive-by gardens are primarily for the enjoyment of passers-by, so you'll have to leave the yard periodically to view your garden as they would, from the road.


Leonard Perry is a professor at the Univeristy of Vermont in Burlington, Vt. To see more of his articles, go to Perry's Perennial Pages.