Explain: 'Anchoring house to lot' w/ trees

sujiwan_gwMarch 31, 2011

I've seen this term used a number of times but I don't understand how it works, for example with house shape/style and lot size.

My house, 50 years old, symmetrical shape (rectangular, stone construction) on half acre sloped lot from front yard to street doesn't look "gathered to the bosom of the earth" if that makes sense.

To "anchor the house" , where does one look to place trees for design purposes? (I mean aside from generic advice to plan for shade on the south or west side and keep deciduous trees rather than evergreen in spots to allow winter sun to enter.) Is there a "planting zone" for major front yard trees that is related to factors about the house or yard shape and style? When including small ornamental trees in addition to shade, is there a rule of thumb related to their placement vis a vis shade trees for design purposes?

Thanks for explanations, examples.

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Anchoring a house is a term that goes along with softening corners to make a design clich� that is so ubiquitous it is difficult for some to see beyond it. As these notions only make sense from a standing outside in the street perspective it treats the house like a two dimensional picture so also belongs under the sub heading �curb appeal� and leads to unimaginative foundation planting. Curb appeal would not be the motivation for someone who spent any time in their garden (English usage) but has its attractions for those who don�t want to rock the boat or who want the house to look good in a real estate flyer. The standard is a combination of tall evergreens at the edges of the picture to "soften the corners" with a sloping arrangement of plants towards the front door where two, not so, tall evergreens stand as sentries, the effect is lost, makes things worse or at least made difficult if the ground slopes up from the street . Overtime, after the house has sold maybe, these plants become neglected and the house looks as though it is being swallowed by ragged greenery. Houses that look like they belong naturally are made from vernacular material in a fitting style with mature trees in the grounds that tie it in with the surroundings. Obviously this puts houses in a street on a suburban estate at a disadvantage unless the whole estate was landscaped as one (a rarity). In that circumstance I would suggest beginning the design process sans clich�.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 9:34AM
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There are a lot of different ways to look at the idea of anchoring a house to the lot with trees. The way I think about it is in terms of creating a transition space around the entrance to your home. When guests visit or you arrive home its good to use your landscape to change from the hustle and bustle of the the outside word to the relaxation and embrace of your home. One aspect of doing this is using trees to balance the mass of your house and creating a link to the natural environment. it is only one aspect of an entire landscape, but it is an important one. Planting a tree on the corner of your house will not create a transition or a landscape - there are plenty of houses out there that exemplify that - but a carefully planned tree or three in your landscaping does balance the size of a home.

The location of the tree will really be based on the entirety of the landscape design including the shape, roofline and size of the house.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 10:52AM
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There are a couple of problems I have with what you write drtgrl, firstly: a newly planted tree is unlikely to balance the mass of a house, secondly: the immediate environment may be far from natural and this part of your suggestion contradicts the notion of transition or change. In other words an oasis works because it is surrounded by desert. This does not mean it is a hopeless case only that your suggestions may not fit every situation.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 11:31AM
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I wanted to add that in terms of the size of the tree, placement of the tree in relation to the house you could use the "golden mean". In nature there is a common proportion of 1 to 1.618. Artists and architects commonly use this proportion in their work. You could measure the front length of your house, say it was 30. Along that length you might chose to place the tree about 18 feet along the front of your home(.618 times 30 = 18) or 18 feet past from one corner of the house(1.618 times 30 = 48). You might choose a tree that is 1.618 times the height of you house to put 18 feet past the corner of your house or a tree that is .618 times the height of your house to go in front of the house.

I think one of the precautions about following a "rule" like "use a tree to anchor the house" is that it reinforces the "landscape around the edges idea" of foundation plantings. We talk about that mistake a lot in the design forum so while the rule is accurate it is often misused in American landscapes because of the tendency to use foundation plantings. Thats why I find it helpful to think of the landscaping as a "transition" rather than an anchor.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 12:07PM
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@ink - i missed your post because I was juggling a bunch of things while I was writing the above - but in response:

First - I guess i was think more of existing trees, but the idea of a good landscape is to plan for the future - if we never planted trees because in their immaturity they wouldn't function as a balance, that would make landscaping pretty boring.

second - in my mind the environment being far from natural REINFORCES my idea of a transition or change. You make a transition from the asphalt and concrete into a more natural landscape of the home. I think a beautiful natural landscape can be a transition from the desert, from the city, from a pasture or from a forest.

Am I understanding you correctly?

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 12:14PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Can you provide a picture? I would expect a 50 year old house on a half acre to have some mature trees around somewhere.... Ink is right that mature trees seem to be a big part of what makes a house comfortable in its landscape. For new subdivisions, that a big problem. With small lots, there is no place on individual properties for the big trees that will make for a mature feel in the future. Street trees have to fill that role I think so for new owners in new subdivisions, you have to hope that the developer or the Town has a good street tree planting program!

If you've got mature trees in the background, it's easier to use smaller ornamental trees in the front to wrap around(think shawl... :-) to embrace the house. One of the reasons we were attracted to this house was the mature Green Ash in the backyard that rises above the roof. There are also two middle-aged White Pines, and older ones on the properties behind, to add evergreen backdrop behind the house as well. A young red oak was too small when we moved in to show above the roof line. It is now big enough to appear above the roof. A nearby house has a magnificent oak behind it - it dwarfs the house and makes the house look less like an intrusion in the landscape.

As Ink also says, your frame of reference matters. When you're in our front garden, looking out at the street, the ash is not visible and is unimportant to the picture (which is not the case in the backyard where the ash is central to the garden scene...) In the front, the ash is only relevant when looking in at the house - the 'curb appeal' view. Since the main view of the front garden for us is looking out at the garden itself or at street, for practical purposes I ignore the ash when planning/planting in the front.

Our house is a bungalow (although it has an unusually tall roof) so it's easier for it to feel nestled in the landscape. Some pictures:

Feb. last year - the background evergreens are more important/noticeable:

September last year:

October with fall color:

A view directly down the driveway in late August, just before the asters bloom. You can see that the neighbour's ash has Emelald ash Borer - I dread the loss of our ash but it's probably inevitable....:

You can see how important the mature trees in the background are to putting everything else in scale. When the ash goes, I hope the oak and white pines will be enough cover. A replacement tree for the ash is unlikely to fill that void our remaining tenure here.

So, step back and look at your 50-year-old lansdscape an see where the mature trees are - on your property and the properties around you - when you look at the house in a 'wide-angle' view. People tend to focus narrowly on the close-up view of the house but, whether you're consiously aware of it or not, how well the house feels 'anchored' depends a lot of the wider view. That's why responders on this forum often ask for pictures taken from a distance or at least across the street. Your house may already be reasonably well anchored with trees if you're in a mature landscape....

(While I was writing that wordy bit, I see that there's a different debate going on. Since the OP seems likely to be in a mature lanscape, I focussed on that...)

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 12:17PM
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On your first point you are absolutely right and fits with my remark that "your suggestions may not fit every situation" meaning it will fit some and planting for the future is a case in point

It is the word 'transition' that doesn't work for me because it means gradual change which once again may work in some circumstances, say on a large property but a little paradise like woody's surrounded by McMansions or cornfields would be more like an oasis i.e an abrupt change.

Too much semantics for a Thursday lunch time eh?

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 1:10PM
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Transition actually just means "change" not necessarily gradual change.

from merrimam webster:
1 a : passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another : change
b : a movement, development, or evolution from one form, stage, or style to another
2 a : a musical modulation
b : a musical passage leading from one section of a piece to another
3 : an abrupt change in energy state or level (as of an atomic nucleus or a molecule) usually accompanied by loss or gain of a single quantum of energy

That being said - the "gradual" part is from outside to inside. and the landscaping creates that "graduation".

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 1:52PM
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I read back over what you wrote and I see now that it is the house that is the sanctuary in your view and not the house and garden which is where we differ. In item 1. the operative word is "passage" or which is what I understand by transition, that is change but gently done.

To move away from this I would suggest that woody's "nestled in the landscape" is a better way of expressing "anchoring house to lot". Her pictures are useful in that they not only illustrate the point but show it in all seasons except the white one.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 2:57PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I don't have any 'white season' views that match the ones previously posted. Will this series of 'internal' views of the iron arbour you can see in the previously posted pictures do?

Early summer:

Early Fall/late September:


(Can you tell that I'm itchin' for garden season to begin again?! :-)

    Bookmark   March 31, 2011 at 4:36PM
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Any of this resonate with you sujiwan? we had a spring teaser earlier this week but today is freezing and a possibility of more of the white stuff aaargh!

    Bookmark   April 1, 2011 at 2:49PM
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