Though a house has four sides, most of us want our front gardens to present a beautiful picture to the world driving by, so we'll start there. If you have photographs of your home taken at different times of the season, line them up from earliest to latest. Notice where the shadows lie in each snapshot. Where are the bright spots?
If your front door faces north, you'll see mostly shade throughout the season and, even in mid-summer, your home will cast a triangular shadow at the centermost point. A western exposure will have very little summer shade, except in early morning and early evening.
Now, assess the plantings that fall within the shady spots in your photographs. Are they shade-loving plants, or do they just happen to be planted there? Are they thriving, or doing poorly? One drawback to getting an early start on spring planting is that the sun is still low and we are fooled into thinking we have good light exposure in certain places when, in fact, by July, the area is drenched in brutal direct sunlight. Shade loving plants wilt and, by summer's end, have all but dried up. Additionally, shade plants usually require more water and are further stressed by the quick evaporation caused by long hours of heat. Many "full sun" plants can tolerate morning shade, and some will appreciate a respite from hot afternoon sun. Finding the perfect place for each plant is always a challenge, but doing so might save you the disappointment of a garden that doesn't thrive.
Looking again at your photos, determine what could be moved to a more suitable space, and what you might plant in its place. Sketch out your front garden, crosshatch the predominantly shady spots, then start moving things around on paper. When I redesigned the west-facing front garden of my home, I stood at the curb and photographed the house straight on (first photo above). I then printed out the photo in black and white, and made all my notations in red marker. In this way, I was able to visualize how different heights and widths would look against the architectural lines of the house.
Hot or cold, wind can damage fragile or sensitive plants such as rhododendrons, azalea, and laceleaf maples. Determine from which direction your predominant wind blows, then use hardy specimens at the house corners to protect the rest of the bed; Arbovitae (Thuja spp.) and Juniper (Juniperus spp.) are examples of wind tolerant shrubs.
Densely shaded beds will retain moisture longer, sometimes to a fault. If the soil remains soggy for too long, some plants can succumb to rot. Take care to choose specimens that will tolerate heavy moisture; ferns (Pteridophyta spp.), Hosta (Hosta spp.), and primrose (Primulaceae spp.) are good examples.
Regardless of the shade you think you have in this location, unless you have a large tree nearby, the afternoon sun and its reflection off the house will test even the hardiest sun-loving varieties. Plant foundation shrubs that will provide shade to nearby plants; small trees such as Crabapple (Malus spp.), or medium height shrubs such as Spiraea (Spiraea spp.) or Burning bush (Euonymus alatus spp.) will add an interesting background. Be generous with mulch and water frequently. Plant specimens that are drought tolerant. In the most unprotected areas of the bed, use succulents and rock garden varieties such as Hen & Chicks (Sempervivum tectorum), Stonecrop (Sedum spp.), or yucca (Yucca spp.).
It's a good idea to assess each side of your home for suitability of plants to the soil, water, and light conditions. If you take the time to do this now, you'll be able to move things around and find a place for everything when you start redesigning your front garden.
All photos ©Toni Leland '06