'Specimen' tree at the front of the house, good idea or no?

sunbum(Z7 Atl GA)April 7, 2011

I had a thread a few weeks ago about some general landscape 'design' questions. I got lots of good info but I think that post was a bit pre-mature and too general.

Now, I'll try to ask more specific questions about my ongoing landscape design at our new home.

Right now, we are trying to decide whether or not to place a 'specimen' tree (probably a Plum tree or Japanese Maple) directly in front of the house. We are by no means 'educated' on these things (of course, that's why I'm asking here), but it just seems natural to put one in front of the large dining room window. But, from reading more it seems that maybe that's not the best idea from a 'design' perspective.

What say you? What are the general guidelines to consider when trying to decide whether to do this or not?

Here's the picture of the house. We're talking about the big window in the middle. The area there in front (between the sidewalk and the house) is about 15' X 15'.

Thanks for the advice!

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IRuehl(8b-9a, Savannah GA)

I am no pro but I would not plant a tree in front of the window. Block out light, view, and is a home for bugs. I would do it on either side of your house, to soften the hard lines.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 9:39AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I think it's a good idea to incorporate some showy 'specimen' trees into the front garden - but they should be planned as part of the overall front garden. So I would add 'flowering specimen tree visible from the diningroom window' to your list of requirements for the front garden, and then work out where it should go when you are considering all the needs for there. In our case, we considered the view from the diningroom when planning the front garden. From the head of the table, you can look out the window, across the top of the driveway, along the path through the iron arbour to a bench backed by a white cedar and flanked by vines on iron tuteurs and a heptacodium tree that flowers in September on one side and spring flowering trees on the other side of the bench. The trees are a good 30-40' from the diningroom window but are an important part of the view. From other seats in the diningroom, other plants of various sorts take center stage. Don't limit your thinking so early in the process....

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 10:14AM
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Less of an issue from a design perspective - it could be done and if the correct choice, a pleasing accent - but it is a concern from a space perspective. That is just too tight a space to accommodate a tree successfully. A smaller weeping Japanese maple could work but the larger upright selections and/or the plum are just too large (or will be eventually) for this spot.

Woody's idea of considering both the view from inside as well as the view from the street or drive before siting is very sound. Try not to be limited by the current layout of the garden. The siting and best placement of a specimen tree could be the anchor for a new planting area that could properly define the front yard.

btw, it is entirely your choice but a plum would not be my first choice for a 'specimen' tree. These are extremely overused, trite and IMO, just don't have enough going for them to be considered a specimen. Look for something that has greater seasonal interest and some character. Lots of potential choices - the Japanese maple is one but the same effect could be achieved by using a dogwood, a Stewartia, a Styrax or one of several other ornamental choices.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 10:30AM
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sunbum(Z7 Atl GA)

Thanks for the input woody and gardengal. I am considering the view from inside the window. I've been thinking that we either should go short and squatty (dwarf maple) or tall with a canopy (??) so as not to impede the view from inside too much. But as gardengal suggests, maybe there's just not enough room in that space. Maybe I should re-consider the dwarf Maple, and then plant around it. By the way, we have lots of other trees in the 'yard'. Tons of Dogwoods, Eastern redbud, weeping cherry trees, etc. We have so much to do here and this is a long-term project (I'm sure I'll be working on this 5 years from now!). Right now we're focusing on the very front of the house, since it needs the most attention.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 10:56AM
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Your window is a major focal point--it actually competes with the entry-- and does not need a tree competing with it. So it is in fact not logical to plant a tree there. "Tall with canopy" is not likely to be readily achievable. Also usually no point to plant something large right in front of your front door. Try to avoid having too much going on right there in the middle.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 11:06AM
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No, not a good idea.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 11:53AM
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Let me expand. There is no doubt in my mind that the walkway is skewing your perception and dictating the design options as you see it ("it just seems natural"). And (agreeing with woody)you should make sure you have a working hand with four fingers and a thumb before you start thinking about nail varnish. If nothing else you will be wasting money otherwise.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 5:45PM
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right, ink is saying it better--you are thinking in terms of what to plant in the beds up against the house. The dimensions and location force you to put stuff right up against your lovely brick walls and windows, and then so as not to look funny and block windows you can only use tiny stuff. The architecture of the house itself and the other blank space nearby does not seem to call for any of that.

Who can remember the thread a loooong time ago where some of the folks worked through a whole series of drawings and photos of someones' front property--some of the discussion was on grounding, laag had some comments, it dealt with spaces somewhat away from the house itself but still connected visually.

If you're not planning to relocate your sidewalk in the near future, I might consider a homogeneous, evergreen groundcover in the bed area, maybe with some small shrubs; maybe in the dining window bed, a focal point small statue or structure (that is always the same low height, or a low round planter with a very nice but small shrub of some kind in it--this is just for visual interest and calm as you walk along the sidewalk and up the entryway-- and then pretend almost like all of that is not there and move out from it into the rest of the area around the house (not right in front of the door) for more substantial plant material.

Have you got some basic landscape design books, got your house sketched out and the surrounding property- drawn your bubble-diagram for the aerial view and to stay within the property dimensions, and sketch a frontal or streetside view as to how things will look vertically? This can be very rough, just circles and triangles and blobs. Remember you are first trying to decide what kind of shape where, and then do research to see what kind of plant material achieves that shape and dimension and likes the amount of sun or whatever.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 7:08PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

frankie, was this the thread? Unfortunately half the photos have vanished into the mists of time.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 9:53PM
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We have a house with a side entry garage placed in front of one side of it. Other than that the house would be fine, but now the landscape needs to mitigate for that. The first thing that you can do is to put black blinds in the garage instead of whate ones - that will help take the bright white suit off of the 800 pound gorilla.

The second thing is that the double height window is misunderstood to be thought of as what you want to emphasize as the key feature of the house when in fact the door should be, in my opinion (and almost always should be). The windows and roof peak are trying to proclaim the interest of the house, but the darn garage is too bulky, too close, and too far in front to make that legitimate.

I know it is dark in that recessed door area, but it looks like your door is a medium blue with tan framing around it. I'd consider making it and the woodwork around it white and to make the downspouts the tan color. The gutters, rake boards, and facias are fine in white and the windows are good in tan. Limestone treads on the steps and landing would not hurt my feelings either.

This is a very over simplified sketch to illustrate using empty space to mitigate big things that are powerful to compete against. The purpose is to make the door the "heart of the house".

Again this is over simplified in order to keep the focus on the concept without distraction .... and I am not well accomplished with photoimaging ..... and I don't have all night. The same thing can be acheived and enhanced with much more exiting plantings.

If you are compelled to plant a tree - either wel out in front to the left third or further left of the garage, or slightly to the right of the bank teller's window in line with the walkway.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 11:13PM
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sunbum(Z7 Atl GA)

Thanks for the input everyone. I guess we'll not be putting a tree in front of that window! I know there are a million things that could be done to this 'landscape' that would be terrific from a pure design perspective, but we're taking baby steps here.

One thing that has been pointed out in this thread as well as the previous one is the existing sidewalk and how it restricts something in the design. I'm not at all opposed to moving that sidewalk, but it just ain't gonna happen right now (time and money, folks!). So even if I can't move the sidewalk right now, I still gotta plant something in those beds in the front of the house. Maybe I should just lay some rocks in there until we can do this whole thing right?

Anyway, I got my question answered. A large-ish tree is not a good idea in front of the dining room window. I'm not sure I understand why, but nevermind I'll take your word for it. Now, moving on. I really think those three garage windows on the left need something, but I'll ask that in another thread, maybe.

Sincerely though, thanks for the help!

    Bookmark   April 7, 2011 at 11:32PM
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Be careful not to make the garage even more prominent by dressing it up. There used to be a tv show called "Magic of Oil Painting" with a man named William Alexander. One of his mantras was "you have to have dark in order to show light". If you want to control emphasis in your landscape, you can't try to make everything a focal point.

It currently reads as a garage with a house behind it. The mechanism to change that is some kind of contrast that shifts the attention elsewhere.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 7:23AM
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sunbum(Z7 Atl GA)

Laag, I just saw your previous post, I missed it before. Good info there, Thanks.

In reading through old posts (and your post above), I need to learn more about negative (empty) space, not sure I understand that concept just yet.

I understand and agree with the blinds on the garage windows.

Any other techniques to de-emphasize that garage wall with the three windows? That's one of the first things we all thought about when we first looked at the house. That this wall just didn't look right. We've been discussing things like shutters, stucco trim around the window openings or some tall-ish plants between the windows, but maybe that's thinking wrongly (is that a word?) and trying to 'dress-up' something we want to de-emphasize.

When you suggest a tree (if we're compelled to do so) 'well in front to the left third'. Are you talking about in front of that garage wall? Is that a way to hide/screen/de-emphasize that wall?

Thanks again!

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 10:17AM
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The types of plantings I described , and the neat mockup and other suggestions that laag did ( along with much better explanation), need not be expensive and would give you something to plant and enjoy.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 10:18AM
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Sunburn, from reading the responses I think you're going in the right direction. Putting a lot of decorations like shutters and tall plants on the garage wall will serve to draw the eye to something you want to recede into the background. I think Laag's mock-up bushes do that too but to a smaller extent. I would go with grass there.

Looking at the picture, it appears you have a tree near where the driveway meets the road. I see some branches in the upper left corner that hints at that. If that's the case, I wouldn't put a tree to the left side of the house. (I think Laag is talking in the general area of the middle garage window just before the dirt starts.) I would consider putting a nice specimen tree to the right though, kind of lined up with the downspout to the right of the door and about 5 paces towards the road from the edge of the sidewalk.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 11:38AM
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Quickly, for what it is worth...my thoughts on your landscape.

1. I am not certain but it appears that the planting beneath the garage windows is a type of Gardenia jasminoides perhaps 'Radicans'. If it is this type of a low growing gardenia it is the perfect planting for this situation. Soft, sprawling, will grow up a bit in time over the windows. If this is the planting, feed, mulch it and be patient. If it is not suggest using it as a replacement for whatever is presently planted in that bed.

2. Install a large pot of annuals on right hand sidewalk below steps changing out the planting with the seasons. Plant Indian hawthorn under windows to right of sidewalk.

3.Back wall of garage. Next fall when the Camellia sasanquas are in bloom visit a nursery which sells a wide selection. You are going to plant just one and espalier it on that wall. Easy. Bloom color your choice. Pick out a C. sasanqua that has a straight trunk, bring it home and remove the branches from one side so that you can plant it tight to the center of the wall. It will be self supporting, only needing trimming after it blooms to keep it tight to the wall and into a spreading form. In time it will grow up to the roof and fill the entire wall. For a picture of what I am describing your local book store should have a copy of LANDSCAPE PLANTS OF THE SOUTHEAST by Halfacre and Shawcroft. Every Southern gardener should own this book and you should find it helpful in your planning.

4. Now to the corner garden which needs texture. Plant two Fatsia japonica next to each other back toward the corner which will fill in that area. To fill the rest of the bed plant white blooming Encore azaleas which bloom heavily spring and fall, sporadically during the summer. Keep them trimmed hip high after they bloom in the spring.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 12:05PM
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There are all kinds ways to make it look good. This is just one way to use very basic and easy to understand (I think) concepts to "re-center the house".

It can look good through other ways, but this is like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with limited culinary skills, instead of trying to learn how to make a six course gourmet meal the first time out. ... There are just so much fewer ways to go wrong.

PS. centering a tree on the garage is one of the worst things you could do to de-emphasize the garage, in my opinion. Instead, it will combine with the roof peak to split the landscape in half making the left half of the garage unsettling.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 6:23PM
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We are getting back to where we were on the other thread regarding this house which has unbalanced architecture, especially in the full frontal, which planting a tree in the middle will exacerbate. I am not sure sunbum is getting it but maybe Andrew will persevere with his new found ideashare skills as there is no doubt that visuals explain better than words alone.

If you were to draw a line up through the peak above the big window it is here you would find the centre and you would see immediately that there is more weight on the left than the right. The right side also slopes away accentuating the imbalance. This is the problem that needs to be addressed: so how do we do this?

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 6:40PM
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I agree with you, Ink. It would be helpful if there was a wider shot of the landscape.

The falling off right side is a big issue. One way is to add big fluff rounding out off of the end of the house and then add a canopy over a trunk (also known as a single trunked tree with branching several feet above ground) in front of it. That is to add repose down low and then balance it with the raised canopy to "remove the hole" and contain your attention into the center f the house. I did it to some extent in the mock up above, but the picture is too closely cropped to get the point accross.

... when is the south and the west going to learn what not to do with a garage? If you are entering from the side, why the heck is it still in front of the house!!!!!! It's worse in the west. It is almost like the more garage doors you have the more important you are. ... and the more pitches your roof has, the better your house is. ... I don't get it.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 7:01PM
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Widen the walk so it's as wide as the entry - wide enough for two people to walk side by side - and consider paving the area between the walk and the house to make an entry courtyard with pots and ground cover between pavers.

Get rid of whatever is under the LR window. It's already in bad shape and overgrown. You will have to prune it weekly to keep it from blocking the view.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 9:20PM
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I like Lazygardens idea of a paved area. I'd call it a "meet & greet" area. It is a big psychologic element for centering. It is a great tool to use when a door is obscured from view because it is a space in which the subconscience projects the person into. Your mind goes there, thus makes it the heart of the landscape even though it is an empty space.

A circular patio directly in front of the door with a stone seating wall retaining the the right side would be phenomenal in dissing that garage and centering that door.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 10:03PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

laag, where would you put the retaining wall -- i.e., how far to the right would the patio extend?

    Bookmark   April 8, 2011 at 11:48PM
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I'm just a homeowner. I like your house from the tall dining room window to the right side of house. I like the bushes under that window as they soften the area. The far right corner of house needs a bush-evergreen 1 Laag put in looked good. The windows in garage are the only real problem & I would not go with black shades,looks like house is abandoned or windows broken out & just black holes. No thank you. On a limited budget I would go out from the far left 1st window about 5-7 ft from street side of that sidewalk & put in a planting bed- 3 attractive & colorful shrubs- reddish color or whatever you like that looks good with your house for 1 shrub, doesn't have to be huge just something to look at to take the eyes away from those 3 windows in a row, so tall enough to break up that area but far enough out from house so walk up to house isn't darkened. Evergreen or shrub that gets beautiful fall color & grows 6-8 ft at most I think not all the same 1 taller & 2 shorter(not necessarily same height. Drive around & find 3 shrubs in a yard that are together ,also are there other houses with this same garage wall, what did they do? Good Luck!

    Bookmark   April 9, 2011 at 12:58AM
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I agree that the black windows makes the house look abandoned, but when the only windows that have white blinds are the garage it is like a neon sign calling me. Going black is to make them match the rest of the house. Unfortunately, there is little room to do matching window treatments on the exterior (ie, shutters). Matching interior window treatment would be nice .... window pane grids would be great in my opinion, but in that part of the country the aesthetic might be that big uninterupted glass is king .... we are required to used window panes or added grids to simulate window panes where I live ... and not by an HOA.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2011 at 9:21AM
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Excellent Andrew. The circular 'welcome area' could be even bigger or semi circular instead but I think you have pushed this in the right direction.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2011 at 11:43AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Excellent use of photoshopping laag! Very educational...
But I'm not keen on the circular meet-and-greet area - it looks awkward somehow. I'm not sure if it is the shape, or size, or what.., that is making it look not right to me. Perhaps it's just that I'm used to thinking more in terms of rectangular spaces at the front entrance....

    Bookmark   April 9, 2011 at 1:32PM
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sunbum(Z7 Atl GA)

Original Poster here, just chiming in quickly. You guys are amazingly helpful (even if I don't always 'get it' right off the bat!) I am understanding most of what you're telling me, and for the stuff I don't get, I'm taking your word for it. Hey, I know when I'm in over my head! But, I have some company over today (checking out the 'new' house). I'll study your thoughts asap. Thanks again!!!

    Bookmark   April 9, 2011 at 1:50PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

That patio is not what I'd expected either. I thought it would be much larger, encompassing all the space between the current walkway and the angle of the house. Add a bit more hardscape between the right front corner of the current walkway and a spot somewhere between the front corner of the porch and the beginning of the "bank-teller" window. There would be a narrow bed along the garage and under the dining room window.

That would mean that once past the garage, the current walkway would no longer be the walkway but the edge of the patio. Visitors could head straight for the front door.

I do like the little retaining wall, though. (Also the low shrubs in front of the far corner of the house, whose height does so much to mitigate the slope.)


My mother brought me up to believe that all the curtains in the house (and garage) should be lined in white (I don't know if she thought of it in terms of unifying the house). I grew up with large California windows, tolerated New England paned windows for their historic look, and now own a house with such tiny windows I feel imprisoned -- but I can't relate to these 1 1/2 story monster windows with a little arch stuck on top! Maybe the color issue is part of it.

Anyway, that's all to say it's amazing how changing the garage windows to match the rest of the house keeps the garage from sticking out like a sore thumb. Also how much the solid line of shrubs below the garage windows minimizes the height of the garage and the sheer overwhelmingness of so much brick on that wall compared to the rest of the facade. I think part of that is that laag has kept the plants below the dining room window very low, so that the visible part of the dining room brick is just as tall as the visible garage brick. Wow!

    Bookmark   April 9, 2011 at 4:30PM
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I'm no pro with photoimaging (paint.net - free download), so it is likely that the rendition is more than a little flawed, but circles are not for everyone either. I only use it here and you know that is not often.

This is just an example of one way to do it. I like the circle because it has a containing feel to it and there is an automatic emphasis on the center point of an arc where there would not be such a reinforcement if it were a "U" shaped straight sided seating wall and rectangle patio. That would also introduce a line perpendicular to the face of the house very near to the jog that goes back to the door which will look very awkward if it is "almost, but not quite" in line with the jog. The curve allows going past the jog without making that awkward relationship.It is my way of avoiding the introduction of a conflict in this situation.

Any of it can work, but the circle is easier to get away with. I completely understand that it won't float everyone's boat and I would do something different for you.

Lazygardens made a great point on the "meet & greet" because now the focus is on an area that is not stuffed in a dark corner (the front door). It is a good example of changing the game to one that you can more easily win. If you don't like the context, make a new one. This is an intermediate stop on the way to the door and you know it before you get there. It is a great strategy when dealing with hidden doors.

Looking through the sequence of photos on the thread, it starts with the (1) garage wall over powering the house, goes to (2) neutralizing the garage, (3) framing the house to move you toward the middle, (skip 4), and finally (5) placing yourself on the patio. Hopefully, whether or not you like the outcome, it demonstrates the impact of the accumulation of subtle techniques to mitigate existing negatives and enhance the positives.

None of it has to do with what cultivar of plant you select - that too can take things to the next level, but this is working from general to specific. Plants were all chosen because I could grab them off of another photoimaging thing I did a while back and not because I selected specific plants. This example is all about abstracts influencing the big picture and not about what specifics were used to demonstrate it.

I hope it makes people watch for these things and make their own judgements of what they see and can utilize to change a space or composition when they need to.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2011 at 4:48PM
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Hi Guys,

Himaylayan white Bark River Birch just to left of dining room window (from street) to right if looking out, and in front of walkway- so approx 15-20 feet away from house.
Will draw attention away from garage and give something beautiful to look at from inside without obstructing veiw. Hope that helps.

    Bookmark   May 12, 2011 at 12:33PM
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