Landscaping Ideas for Small Urban Front Yards


The urban garden poses special considerations to the gardener. Narrow spaces, shade, bright sun, concrete hardscape, urban pollution -- air, noise and visual -- city or homeowners association regulations and perhaps no exposed soil at all are factors that determine the style of your new garden. Landscaping your front yard provides a transition space between the busy urban world and the peaceful interior of your home.

Rules and Regulations

Before planning your urban landscape, look up the local rules and regulations of the city and homeowners associations. There may be specific rules regarding setbacks, or the distance between the street and any fences or hardscape. Other regulations may include the type of garden allowed, the permissible plants or trees, building materials and paint or color considerations.

In addition, before digging or removing paving or other hardscape, call 811 to ensure that you do not encounter any underground utilities, including gas, water, sewer or telephone.

Climate Considerations

Whether your front yard is shaded by street trees or buildings, or bakes in the hot sun all summer and freezes in winter, there is a garden to suit your style. Before choosing plants and trees for your landscape, look up your U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone. By typing in your zip code on the USDA zone page, you can find the hardiness zone, where your new plants are likely to survive.


Microclimates are small climate areas within your USDA hardiness zone. A concrete wall may reflect additional heat into the garden, making it a warm nook for plants that normally would not thrive in your climate. On the other hand, if you live at the bottom of a hill, cold air may settle in your yard in winter, making your garden colder than the local USDA zone. In some locations, the wind may funnel between buildings and through your front yard.

Because plants generally thrive in several USDA zones, selecting plants with a range that extends one or two zones above and below your average zone helps them thrive even if the microclimate alters the normal temperature zones. In addition, choosing plants that tolerate drought, heat, cold or wind ensures that they survive adverse weather conditions.

Space Available

The space available often limits your ability to plant shade trees or large shrubs. On the other hand, even a tiny courtyard generally has room for a small tree and a bistro set for sitting. Measure the space carefully and create a landscape plan on graph paper. Sketch in the plants at their mature size -- even a giant redwood begins as a tiny seedling.

Garden Styles

A garden's style is often determined not only by the gardener's aesthetic but also by the architectural style of the building. A bungalow or cottage cries out for a cottage garden, with lush, informal plantings on each side of the entry. An asymmetrical, contemporary style may need tall, columnar trees and a variety of closely clipped shrubs to balance the landscape. An extremely narrow front yard may only have room for espalier trees or vines trained up a trellis.


A small front yard enclosed by solid walls or a wrought-iron fence allows the gardener to create a private space, where a fountain may trickle into a basin or river rocks and a small tree, such as a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) creates dappled shade in USDA zones 5 through 8. If you love flowers, the early spring blossoms of the eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) fill the garden in USDA zones 4 through 9, while a pollution-resistant rose of Sharon trimmed to a tree form provides flowers from late summer to fall in USDA zones 5 through 9. Add flowerpots filled with annuals to brighten the courtyard through the growing season.

Long and Narrow

An urban front yard may be little more than a narrow strip between the house and sidewalk, barely wide enough for a chair and tiny table to set your coffee cup. When there's little room to grow out, consider plants that grow up. Espalier is a technique used to grow vines and trees up the side of a building, or in a less traditional use as a living privacy screen on a wire fence. When growing espalier fruit trees, such as apples (Malus pumila), the trees need at least six to eight hours of direct sun daily to produce fruit. Generally, apple trees are hardy in USDA zones 4 through 9.

You can also provide summer shade and privacy by planting fast-growing annual vines, such as edible hyacinth bean (_Dolichos lablab '_Ruby Moon'), canary bird vine (Tropaeolum peregrinum) or night-blooming moonflowers (Ipomea alba) on a trellis or pergola.

Zen Garden

A classic Zen garden, composed of raked gravel, large rocks and a selection of dwarf conifers and spring-blooming flowering trees provides a quiet space between the street and the house. The classic show of Japanese cherry blossoms (Prunus x yedoensis) in early spring lights up the front yard and, as the delicate petals drop from the tree, gives the raked gravel "lake" a dainty bit of pink and white floating amid the grayish blue stones. Also known as Yoshino cherry, the flowering cherry thrives in USDA zones 5 through 8.


  • A Zen garden, with its gravel and rocks, may be an attractive playground for children. A fence helps keep the rocks in the garden and young neighbors outside.

Container Garden

In some cases, the entire front yard is concrete. If removing the hardscape is not an option, a container garden allows you to grow vegetables, tropical flowers, dwarf fruit trees or hummingbird favorites, such as annual Salvias (Salvia spp.). A kitchen herb garden might include annuals, such as basil (Ocimum basilicum) or perennials like culinary sage (Salvia officinalis), which thrives in USDA zones 4 through 8.

A central theme, whether galvanized buckets and troughs with drain holes, or a combination of cool cobalt blue and brilliant red ceramic pots, ties a container garden together. Add a patio table and chairs or a bench for relaxing amid your potted plants after a long day at work.

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