How a new fence turned an unused front garden into an outdoor room

More living space can be hard to find on a small lot, especially if you don’t want to spend big bucks to remodel the house. Dana Granoski discovered her ideal solution to this dilemma: Enclose the front yard.

“By today’s standards, our 1,454-square-foot house is modest in size,” she says of the Palo Alto, California, home she shares with husband Nick and their two children, Maia and Max. “As the kids grew older, we looked for ways to open up the living space without altering the interior footprint we enjoy so much.” This was especially important given that the home was built in the 1950s by noted developer Joseph Eichler.

Instead of expanding the interior, the couple enclosed much of the front yard behind a fence to create a private courtyard. The space lives like an extension of the house, acting as an outdoor family room and playroom. The plan also works perfectly with the home’s contemporary style, adds Dana, who has a background in graphic and industrial design (but not a green thumb, she admits).

Challenges and solutions

The Granoskis wanted the new courtyard to be easy to maintain ― not to mention capable of withstanding punishment by the kids and their friends ― so they chose plants and materials accordingly. Because budget was an issue, they reused existing pavers and wood. They dug up a flagstone path that curved from the sidewalk toward the front door, then pressure-washed and rearranged the pavers to form the new patio just to the right of the entry.

Along the left edge of the patio, a new, more contemporary entry walk intersperses river rocks between rectangular concrete pads (which complement the flagstones’ organic shapes). The Granoskis reused Eichler siding to build the fence, and replaced heavy cobbles that covered the roots of the existing Chinese elm tree with soil and decomposed granite. They also saved and replanted as many trees, shrubs, and ornamental grasses as possible. “We chose grasses because we’ve always loved the way they move in the breeze ― they remind us of the beach,” Dana says.

The courtyard gets lots of sun in summer and can get quite hot, so the Granoskis built a tall wooden arbor topped by wide slats across the front of the house. During spring and summer, they cover the slats with sailcloth that shades and cools the courtyard but allows some light to come through. They remove the cover in fall when the sun is less intense.

For the kids, Dana designed a chalkboard fence. She installed sheets of plywood over the fence, sealed the spaces between them with wood putty, then painted on a primer. Finally she applied five coats of Krylon Chalkboard Paint.

Simple plant palette

In keeping with the home’s contemporary aesthetic, Dana chose a pared-down planting scheme for the area outside the patio. Tall yellow ‘Moonshine’ yarrow, Mexican feather grass, and sedge are planted in large sweeps across the front yard. Beside the front entry, Dana featured sculptural plants, including a potted Harry Lauder’s walking stick ( Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) and a row of dark green horsetail against the gray cinder-block wall.

With space for lounging and for the children to play, the garden has provided more enjoyment than the couple ever expected. As Dana says, “The best reward comes each morning when the kids run out to swing in their pj’s, and their dad and I have coffee in our outdoor living room.” The garden won second place in the home-gardener division of Sunset’s Dream Garden Awards.Elements of a fun family garden

Artful fence Along the faence that borders the neighbors’ property, Dana Granoski created a chalkboard where her children can draw. The board serves as “a giant art pad, message board, and holiday welcoming center,” Dana says.

Rope swing Since the arbor is sturdy enough to support a swing, Dana screwed a heavy-duty eye hook into one of the beams, then attached a carabiner to the end of the rope. That way, the swing is easy to take down, making room for entertaining.

Kids’ garden plot A sunny corner in the courtyard is reserved for a butterfly garden; Maia and Max also like to plant vegetables here. “It’s the place for us to grow together,” Dana says.

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