A well-designed front yard is a gift to the neighborhood around it. That's why Michael Manneh took on the challenge of transforming an overgrown patch of grass into a cottage garden in front of his Palo Alto bungalow.
When Manneh bought the house, the 1926 fixer-upper had been vacant for three years and desperately needed attention. Foot-tall weeds and an assortment of randomly placed and disheveled shrubs dominated the compact front yard, while a concrete path led directly from the sidewalk to the front door but provided no access to the driveway.
With help from Stefan Offermann, Manneh embarked on a total home-and-garden remodel; the pair completed most of the work during evenings and weekends to keep costs down.
Since they had no experience with such large projects, they learned by trial and error ― "I love to practice and try different things," Manneh says ― and consulted with store staff while shopping for materials.
From the ground up
Because the property sloped down toward the house, Manneh and Offermann's first task was to prevent water from pooling near the foundation. They rototilled the weedy lawn, laid down a framework of PVC pipe to accommodate wiring for garden lighting, and installed an automatic drip-irrigation system. Finally, they poured a base layer of cement for a new entry walkway and adjacent paths, topping it with terra-cotta-colored Saltillo tiles, and hauled in extra soil to raise the ground level so it would be flush with the front sidewalk.
Because the home remodel featured a glass-paneled front door flanked by a pair of 6-foot-tall windows, Manneh wanted to establish a sense of privacy without completely closing off the entry. To achieve this, he and Offermann enclosed the front yard with a 4-foot-tall, wood-framed stucco wall. Manneh sponge-washed the stucco with water to expose its grit, then painted it to match the home's new exterior. Two subtle columns, each slightly taller and wider than the wall, define the courtyard entry.
Having gardened since childhood, Manneh wanted a lush, plant-filled space. But the busy professional also knew he needed easy-care plants.
On the wall's street side, Manneh placed a low row of boxwood hedges to soften the stucco. Inside the courtyard, he built small flagstone patios on either side of the walkway and interplanted the pavers with woolly thyme. The patios provide a stable surface for furniture while granting easy access to the planting beds.
Two lacy Japanese maples, one on each side of the courtyard, anchor the beds. They give height and dimension to the small space and provide additional subtle screening from the street. Manneh wanted to create a loose, cottagey feel, so he planted layers of blooming evergreens such as abutilon, geranium, lavender, nandina, and potato vine. He also tucked pots of herbs among the perennials to create additional interest. The drip-irrigation system keeps everything well watered.
As a finishing touch for the entry, Manneh set a large urn on either side of the front door and lightly sanded both to create an aged look. Chocolate-colored reeds fill the urns and echo the tone of the door and window frames. The garden became a retreat and gathering spot. Friends and neighbors began to drop by after work for a glass of wine or a barbecue on the front-yard grill and stay late into the night ― adding a whole new dynamic to the neighborhood.
LESSONS FROM A DIY REMODEL
• Gather information
For design inspiration, Michael Manneh looked through magazines and books and drove through surrounding neighborhoods. He also sought opinions from neighbors, family, and friends. "Then I tried to envision what would make the space comfortable," he says.
Knowing what to plant where can be a challenge for new gardeners; access to a knowledgeable nursery staff can save a lot of time, effort, and headache. Manneh found a nursery he liked, Roger Reynolds Nursery & Carriage Stop in Menlo Park (650/323-5612), and designed his garden around the plants he discovered there.
• Install major elements first
"Start with the necessities," Manneh advises. He began with the lighting, irrigation, and hardscape, then designed garden beds and shopped for plants last. "Adding plants is the fun part," he says.
• Get help if you need it
Unless you're a skilled builder, major elements that require precision building (such as hardscaping) are usually best left to professionals. Manneh hired a pro to install the new driveway.