Front yard with plants blooming

Making Transitions in Life and in a Garden

Reimagining landscapes in a retirement community

Original front yard

When my husband Jim and I decided to retire, we wanted to make the next stage of our life an adventure. We investigated many of our favorite places in the United States and decided to move from Austin, Texas, to Davis. You can all guess the reasons that Davis caught our attention—college town, great location to either get to mountains or coast, vibrant small community. A key factor in our decision was to find a continuous care community that would provide the services and amenities needed as we aged. We moved into the University Retirement Community (URC) in November 2010 and have never regretted our decision. But congregate living does require a willingness to work within established rules and guidelines.

I have long had an interest in gardening, but it was finally in retirement that I was able to seriously pursue my interests in horticulture, particularly native plants and how learning about native plants helps me understand the history and culture of my new California home. My timing was excellent for the start of a new University of California Master Gardener training class that I jumped into almost immediately. Unfortunately, it took a few years for the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden to launch a new training class, so it was not until 2013 that I was able to start volunteering and was part of the group that installed the California native plant collection in the Arboretum GATEways Garden.

Photo of house with front lawn cleared

Because of all that I was learning and seeing, I realized that the institutional landscape of the URC looked like it could be anyplace and did not take full advantage of the opportunity to incorporate appropriate native plants or suitable waterwise plants. As we faced concerns over the availability of water and as I learned about public education efforts at the Arboretum to “reimagine” front yards, I sought to try and encourage some changes at the URC. You should know that all public spaces are managed by the community so all changes must be approved. Thanks to the cooperation of management and the interest of the Landscape Committee, three cottage front yards participated in a trial to demonstrate the use of different plants and to test a new look for the cottage front yards.

Newly planted front yard garden

The designs for two yards were provided by designers from out of the area, but we were fortunate to be able to use my Arboretum member benefit of a design consultation and worked with Ellen Zagory to create a new look for our own cottage front yard. We thought it was important to have a design that took advantage of the knowledge and plant expertise developed by horticulturalists at the Arboretum. In my north facing front yard, I wanted to incorporate suitable natives and create a green space that was attractive and welcoming year-round, easy to maintain, and used waterwise plants that could handle our changing climate. The Landscape Committee was presented with information about the recommended plant palette and an overall design. The Landscape Committee and management approved the design as an example of what could be done to revamp a front yard using tested plants, in fact many Arboretum All-Stars.

In late November 2017, the new plants—over 450—were installed, and we now have a very open engaging green space for all to enjoy. Since there was such interest in this trial, in the spring when the plants are at their best, I put out plant signs to let the URC residents and visitors learn about the plants and the pollinators that benefit from them. The space is dominated by a swath of Carex divulsa, a plant that seems to thrive no matter where it is. The Carex acts as a lawn replacement, and I usually trim it twice a year—no need for the weekly “mow & blow." Viburnum tinus ‘Spring Bouquet’ provide structure along the front of the cottage but are planted out from under the eaves of the roof so they get rainfall and provide easy access to the cottage for any repair or window cleaning. The spring color is provided by mass plantings of Heuchera ‘Rosada’ and Geranium ‘Bikovo’. At the very back under the large set of windows, Mahonia repens is very slowly growing and will eventually provide additional color with yellow flowers in the spring and blue berries in the fall.

Front yard with plants blooming

As with all gardens, it is a work in progress. In keeping with the plant palette discussed in the approval process, I am adding some additional seasonal interest and color to the design by planting Aster ‘Little Carlow’, Verbena bonariensis, and Byzantine gladiolus amongst the Carex and Heuchera. We will see if they receive enough sun to thrive.

Overall, our trial garden has been a success and is enjoyed by the residents and visitors to the URC. You may have noticed the large green metal cover in the yard that covers mechanical systems for the URC campus. We had hoped that Artemesia ‘Powis Court’ would spread and cover this, but alas it did not thrive and has been replaced with Stachys byzantine ‘Helen von Stein.' Fingers crossed that it spreads and helps disguise the big metal cover. If only we could create a faux koi pond and turn the ugly cover into a work of art!






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