What do you think of this landscape design?

busybee123April 16, 2010

We have a blank slate front yard at our new house and are trying to decide what to do with it. Our house is in Memphis,TN and faces north. The front gets lots of shade from the two large oaks, which are there to stay.

We consulted with a local expert who recommended the plan below. I think it's nice but I'm not totally in love and it comes with a rather high price tag. As I know little about gardening (eager and learning, but still very much a novice), I was hoping to get some feedback from those who are more experienced.

Thanks so much in advance; I really appreciate your input & can't wait to hear what you think!

proposed front design (north)

proposed side design (west)

front of house

front of house

west side blueprint (sorry, I don't have a good pic...)

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My first thought - That's a lot of azaleas in front. If it were me I'd like a bit more variety. On the other hand, you do have a formal looking home so maybe the limited variety of plants will lend to and complement the formality.

Love boxwoods. I have three in my front yard and they are really beautiful throughout the year.

I also have pachysandra around a pine tree. I planted too sparsely and its taking quite a while to fill in. I'll probably get a flat on sale at the end of season and add them in. Depending on how they grow in your area I advise to densely plant in order that they fill in faster. Its worth the money because a sparsely planted groundcover looks goofy.

Regarding cost, have you discussed labor breakdowns with your landscaper or did he give you one lump sum? Try having him break apart the fees if you're able to do some of the heavy lifting. Labor is a lot of what you're paying for.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2010 at 3:22PM
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I am not in your zone - and not too familiar with it - but my initial impression is that its a lot of money for ground cover. Also seems like WAY too many azaleas for the square footage. Oh and also - i am not fond of the idea of planting stuff under the oaks - i would just mulch.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2010 at 5:28PM
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It's alright as it is isn't it?

    Bookmark   April 16, 2010 at 7:56PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Lovely house. I like the way the landscape plan echoes the house: rather formal, somewhat symmetical.

To save money, you could always have the landscaper do the shrubs, and then put the pachysandra and impatiens in yourselves.

You might simply want to have the landscaper break down the cost by the different areas: front shrubs alone; front shrubs with pachysandra, impatiens, and ferns; lawn; side plantings. It may be that one or more of those subgroups will impress you as just not worth the price. And it's not unusual to landscape different areas at different times rather than everything at once.

I agree with zaphod and drtygrl that there do seem to be a lot of azaleas, though apparently Gumpos are small. Certainly, being two or more rows deep as shown on the plan, they'll look nicer than if planted in a single row -- and you won't have to wait years for them to be noticed. You'll have to decide if that's worth the money.

Now here's my worry: the weeping plum yews (?) around the oaks. Those oaks are huge and have considerable root flares (where the trunk widens just above the soil level). My own lawn trees are maples and cherries, and I really don't know to what extent oak roots are close to the surface. But it's easy to see (in comparison to the 4' width of the parking strip) that the trees and their proposed plantings were not drawn to scale.

I doubt it's even possible to plant anything so close to those trunks (whether or not oaks have surface roots) -- and if somehow the landscapers managed to plant anything there, I'm fearful the trees would suffer major damage to their roots. Root damage can be an entry point for diseases and pests -- and that might be the end of the trees. If you don't get advice here from one of the pros, you might want to post on the Trees forum and see what the experts there say.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2010 at 8:55PM
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Nice house. I think the design as far as balance goes is good. My concern is the dwarf Azaleas competing with the pachsandra. Also, there is not much of a contrast between the pachy and the azaleas. I would like to see a different texture facing down the Dw.Azaleas. Overall it is a good design for your style of house.
Good Luck,

    Bookmark   April 16, 2010 at 8:58PM
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hi blb,

I can feel your pain. You spend a fair amount of money for someone else's good taste but you want to make it more of your idea and the plants you like. Can I be sold bold as to make a suggestion. The plans is a very good one, but look around at other landscaped houses in your area and pick out the plants you like or even the smells and colors you like. Take pictures of the plants and discuss them with your landscape architect. If he is better than a good technician, he will work your wants into the plan and you will both be happy with the result. I happen to love azaleas for their color. Can't have too much color for interest and excitement. I also go for something that smells good in the evening and nighttime.


    Bookmark   April 16, 2010 at 9:16PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

The plans and planting layout do seem to be a good visual match with the style of the house, but I'd suggest doing some more research about the mature sizes of all the suggested plants on the plan, and confirm whether they are being planted too closely together. The photo makes me think that there really isn't enough room for the quantities and spacing shown. I'd also tend to agree that plantings at the base of the oaks be omitted as impractical. Is sodding the lawn are with zoysia part of the total cost? Is a new lawn to replace what looks in the photo to be serviceable really necessary? I'd bet that the lawn replacement is a big part of the total cost.

When you say that you are not totally in love with the plan, is it due to the cost, or due to the design? I'd suggest elaborating your concerns to your designer first, and see if he can't respond with comments to allay your concerns or make substitutions if the particular plant choices don't please you. As a designer myself, I am willing to bet that the plant choices made reflect his interpretation of your concerns, reflecting a balance between initial cost, plant durability and maintenance issues, and whether you value year round stasis over seasonal effects. Did the designer present an initial design for your comments before finalizing it? That is a normal part of the design process, and the best time to interject if you have concerns.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2010 at 1:34PM
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Oh my goodness, so many responses! Thanks a million to all of you for your kind and thoughtful words. I can't tell you how much I appreciate the feedback.

zaphod - Yes, it is a lot of azaleas. The area we would be planting is about 45' long and gumpos are small; but I was pretty surprised by the large number as well. We did get a breakdown of costs and will probably take your advice and do much of the brunt work ourselves as the labor was nearly 1/3 of the overall cost.

drtygrl - I agree, it is lots of money for ground cover. Again, I'm just a novice with all this, but would ground cover really look that much better than just dark mulch? Also, we are young and wanting to start a family. Wouldn't ground cover require more maintenance than mulch too?

inkognito - I can't tell if you are being sarcastic or if you are just a very forgiving person. Regardless, thank you for taking a look and piping in!

missing - Wonderful idea about breaking the cost into different subgroups. We have a breakdown of plant costs and labor costs but nothing that goes into detail as to what the price would be to just do some of the planting. I will definitely look into that. After hearing all the concern about planting around the oaks, it is no longer even an option as far as I'm concerned. A big thanks to you and drtygrl for educating me in this area. The last thing I would want to do is compromise the health of the beautiful oaks in any way.

ally - Thank you for bringing up the idea of contrast. Is there another ground cover you would recommend for the area if in fact ground cover is a better (or more attractive) option than a dark mulch?

lehua13 - You totally nailed it! It's a nice design just not quite my style (although, I'm not exactly sure I know my landscaping style just yet...). I will definitely follow your advice and look more closely at neighbor's landscaping for specific plant ideas.

bahia - Lawn replacement was included in the total cost. What's there now is very spotty as the oaks were allowed to become grossly overgrown for years, blocking out nearly all light, before we purchased the home. We're planning to seed with fescue in the fall since the area is heavily shaded most of the day - fingers crossed. I think you are right on with the reasoning behind the designer's choices: we do want something that will not be too high maintenance and will stay green year round. This was just a preliminary sketch but I'm not sure we will decide to hire the designer to carry out the plans in full (we told him up front we probably wanted to install much of the planting ourselves to keep costs down), so I hate to take up much more of his time.

Thanks again to all of you. My husband & I are working on a modified plan of our own & I would love your opinions on that as well. I'll post it as soon as I have something to show. It's nothing spectacular, so please don't get too excited. ;)

    Bookmark   April 18, 2010 at 6:02PM
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I would consider, for balance, carrying the white impatiens over to the other side of the front door. Maybe face down the cornor boxwoods with dwarf blue Hosts and underplant them with Dafodiles. Astilbe could also be used because of it's shade tolerance. Liriope (low variety) is also good in the shade and is a good contrasting folage plant. By using a couple clumps of herbaceous material instead of Pachy, you'll have more seasonal interest. They are also easy to handle because they can be moved easily if needed. Pachy will need to be cut back to keep it contained.

Remember, the Dwarf Azaleas are going to go real slow because of so much shade. They are slow growing to 2' x 3' in filtered sun. They are a great plant - good choice.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2010 at 7:58PM
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Just an after thought. Instead of so many azaleas why not go with fewer but larger plants. Something to consider since they are so slow growing.

    Bookmark   April 18, 2010 at 8:21PM
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Groundcover is definitely easier than mulch. You plant groundcover and just let it fill in with very little additional work over time. Maybe some thinning out and edge upkeep, but if you have a hard stop (like a sidewalk) or good bed edging you'll be fine. Mulch requires more upkeep and work in the long run. Every couple years you'll have to refresh which is labor and money on your end. Last year we added 6 yds of white cedar mulch for about $250. I'm sure prices vary in different parts of the country, but its just something to keep in mind.

Regarding your choice of groundcover - I personally love pachysandra and your designer probably chose it because its a standard for the traditional/ formal design of your home. That being said, it is definitely not the cheapest groundcover. Its actually a pretty pricey plant. (Like I said earlier, I wait until end of season and pick up a flat or two when they go on sale.) You could possibly tweak your design and price a bit if you so choose by re-selecting your groundcover plant.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2010 at 9:25AM
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Your house itself is very attractive as-is and does not need "hiding" of foundation, so I would want to look at the plantings as things you will enjoy looking at (or smelling), and of course some nice shrubs and blooming things add drive-by-curb appeal. The design and plant choices do seem appropriate in terms of scale, simplicity, growing conditions.

I would like to know more of the scale of the drawing and the space between foundation and the oaks. Meaning, the design is a foundation planting, and I don't have a good feel for how far out it comes, and whether the oaks are so close that they box you in a lot. If you had room, your yard really lends itself to some thought on small understory trees (dogwoods and redbuds are common but still lovely) placed toward the L corner but not blocking your front windows.
I assume he's using Gumpo's because with your low front windows, the other azalea varieties get too tall. What color was specified? White, I hope. On that I'll give him credit for choosing things that aren't going to overpower the area. Your main impact then is 2 weeks of spring bloom of the azaleas. I think he does have too many packed in there, as best I can tell from my estimates of the distances--even though they are small, they would still need about 3-foot centering. It depends on whether you are someone that can't tolerate seeing any empty mulched space for a few years. The smallish azaleas are not that hard to pry out of the ground later in areas you've overplanted, but then you've paid for them and the final spacing may still be off.

There are some other choices for other bloom times rather than azaleas--or rather, if you elected to not have the entire front devoted to azaleas, but had say, the central azalea group, then some other plants that bloom earlier or later. Gumpos bloom a little later than the larger azaleas and I also have another variety that blooms a bit later than that. However, I think those choices are something that you might evolve into if you end up getting really "in" to such things and maybe even might prefer to do that "on the side" and leave the front simple and not keep digging it up.

I do think it is a great idea to save space-either in the ground proper or with several large, very nice containers--for annuals. In your climate, nothing will beat length of bloom time and overall impact of annuals, especially for shady areas. You can experiment yearly with different colors and combinations and growth requirements. This is probably the lowest maintenance way to get a lot of bang for the buck. See most any spring and summer issue of Southern Living.

You'll have to decide on the cost issue, but I'm not sure it's possible for someone starting out with landscaping and gardening interests to get their "forever landscape" right out of the gate. (Frankie ducks to miss the blows of brilliant landscapers). What I mean is, your tastes and knowledge will evolve; 5 years from now, you might bring more to the discussion table and get a different response from a professional than you get today; the plants chosen may for various reasons do better or worse than expected, or some overgrow their space sooner than expected; stuff happens. So I don't see landscaping as a one-time investment. That's one reason why I would review the plant spacing carefully so as not to pay for twice as many as needed. Down the road, you may become addicted to hostas, or heucheras, or hellebores. You may become determined to have a winter Daphne or witch hazel to smell when you go to get the mail. These are great things to look forward to and not something that every beginning landscape can include.

You might also see whether you can identify each of the plant items in the garden center and say, yes, I like that. Also--what are your "borrowed views" in the neighbors' yards? This does not address issues of grounding your own house, but more of, if the next door neighbor has a huge dogwood, or a mound of pink azaleas, you get to see these every year in a certain season, and you might decide to shift some of your choices to something that peaks at a different time.

Another thing--are you very happy with your walkway and drive --be sure you give that attention before shrubs.

Final note--how do you manage your oak leaves, and what have you noticed so far about where they drift and collect? Meaning, with the proposed plantings you will have to get the leaves out of the garden instead of just raking them from the ground. For me, this led to a plan for "raking pathways" using some perennials like hostas that die back in the fall, and not having certain garden areas planted with groundcovers that were hard to rake. Some groundcovers will be advertised as being able to absorb leaf fall but in my experience it does not work as well with large leaves or with heavy loads. Again, this may not be something you can anticipate in advance but may have to see how it goes.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2010 at 11:26AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Some very good advice from Frankie, and probably more appropriate to your climate than any plant comments I could give from my California-centric position. As no one seems to have commented on the practicality of Zoysia as a recommended turf for deeply shaded lawn, I will let that pass, except to say that this is not recommended for deep shade here in California, and seems to do best with full sun.

As I originally said, the design seems to take its cues from the house, is formal, not too busy, and certainly satisfies your intent of year round green and ease of care. You haven't really elaborated upon the reason(s) that you aren't thrilled with the design, beyond the expense. If you could give the reasons, it would help generate suggestions to tweak the design.

The number one mistake of most landscapes that are complete new installations such as yours, is the failure to give shrubs enough room to reach mature sizes without the need for constant pruning. Frankie mentions that the Azalea specified would look good at a 3 foot on center spacing at maturity, I doubt the plans have them sufficiently spaced. things like boxwood as individual shrubs would also easily need 4 or 5 foot spacing, unless very slow growing or more dwarf cultivars are selected.

I'd also recommend that you don't skimp on initial soil preparation and addition of organic compost or mulches to improve soil fertility and drainage if required, and if you don't intend to provide an irrigation system, be prepared to hand water regularly as needed to get things off to a good start. Plants such as Azaleas are a poor choice in particular if you are subject to periodic dry periods, and know that you won't have time to hand water.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2010 at 11:42AM
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bahia is right on about soil prep and that is an area that some landscapers skimp on. So, you'd want to ask what is the soil prep and not just hear that he's brining in "topsoil". I'd almost want to double or triple the compost planned for "usual" jobs. I would plan to mulch your azaleas yearly with compost or fine pine bark because that helps maintain the soil quality. I will diverge a bit from bahia on azaleas in the sense that, while they do like moisture and need regular watering through dry spells to get established, azaleas in shady areas (that have access to the available rainfall--not blocked by eaves, etc) are fairly drought-resistant once established, at least in areas that have limited dry spells like summer, and good mulching makes this more so.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2010 at 12:13PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I'm going to go back to Inkognito's comment, which (as per his usual) is certainly somewhat sarcastic and cryptic, but always worth thinking about.

The way I would put it is this: why are you "landscaping?" This is a spectacular house, the oaks are fabulous, you don't want a lot of maintenance. As far as I can see, you have the perfect landscape for this house and for your stage of life. Why on earth would you mess this up?

Before you write me off as not understanding the issue, let me assure you I am a total plant nut; I grow probably a thousand plants on a property the size of just your front yard. So believe me, if I thought plants were called for here, I would say so.

Adding a whole lot of plants to this yard will mess up its clean lines visually, will create a maintenance nightmare due to the leaves alone not to mention the grooming the plants themselves need (and weeding), plants may not grow well due to the tree roots, and you will totally negate and possibly damage the magnificence of the trees, which you have come into ownership of at almost the perfect time in their lives. Trees spend most of their lifetimes being not quite big enough or too big; you are enjoying the period of their lives that was intended when they were planted.

The trees are your landscaping. They are amazing; their trunks and root flares need no accessorizing and if you've had them pruned someone's done a nice job.

Now, I'm not here to rob you of a gardening experience if that's what you want - it's your place, obviously. But if you are wanting to enhance the look of your property, I personally think that almost anything you add will take away from the appearance of what you now have. Plus, nothing is less work than grass, other than perhaps concrete. So if you want to garden AND have the the place look good, I would lay out and edge some beds where they do not impede the grace of what you have, and plant away with whatever you like. If it were me, given my plant collecting itch, I would actually probably lay out paths and beds on, and plant up, the hellstrip (next to the road) and leave the front yard itself alone.

By all means freshen up the grass.

And in another perhaps 20 or 30 years, or sooner, the trees will be too big and someone may take them down. I'm a big fan of doing that when the time is right. That will be the time for a new, busier, conventional, modern landscape. Likely with new trees, that will outlive their companion plants and then eventually stand alone, like sentries, in an otherwise serene front yard.

My 2 cents, anyway :-)


    Bookmark   April 19, 2010 at 12:26PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I'm kind of surprised to see a couple of comments here about not understanding why any new plantings are necessary! Yes the house is attractive on its own count, and the oaks and lawn already establish a frame for the house. But doesn't everyone understand the deep seated need for a new owner to put their own stamp on a new property? Advising the new owners to take their time and think about it before investing in a major project is one thing, suggesting they do nothing is simply playing the devil's advocate...

    Bookmark   April 19, 2010 at 1:34PM
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Just an after thought. Instead of so many azaleas why not go with fewer but larger plants. Something to consider since they are so slow growing.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2010 at 2:28PM
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I wonder if an issue lies between karinl and bahias remarksÂboth were helpful in focusing the questions, as any good devilÂs advocate knows. And it may tie in with bahia's query on why you're not thrilled. Meaning, were you hoping to have more pizzazz and you have some inner compass about what looks thrilling and impressive, and want to have a garden of shrubs and perennials; or are you put off by the price alone in terms of what else you need to do with your $$; or do you smell maintenance in your future; or what.

Or, it may be that you do just have that inner drive (yes, it exists) to want to put your own stamp on it and have some greenery of your own, but maybe you donÂt need this particular design to do that. For example, is the price big and yet you recognize that the result isn't going to really rock the universe? One reason for the latter is that, as karin points out, the house and trees are such a large statement on their own that 300 pachy's aren't going to impact that a lot. So it isnÂt so much , "you donÂt need it" as that in your case, the landscaping may be just incremental enhancement, whereas in some queries and photos posed here, it makes a very notable difference. Without knowing the costs and the value you place on "landscaping," itÂs hard to tell how much your quality of life would improve by seeing the nice green shrubs and groundcover. Some people would get immense pleasure out of driving up to their newly landscaped home every day, or walking out to see whatÂs growing, or tending the soil. This may be more apparent to you living in your home and seeing it up close compared to the photoÂs posted here, which look "good enough", but people experience their plants closer up and more personally. The design you posted is understated, yet it still costs $$ to install it.
Or would it suffice to put in one area of planting and a tub of impatiens in the summer and see how it goes a year later? Or maybe you want to grow vegetables in your back yard and do the front later.

So it gets back to, if you can identify what you think you want to gain by having some landscaping, combined with what changes would be worse for you, you may be able to identify what you need in a design, whether all at once or in phases. We didnÂt really hear what has been part of your discussions with the designer, so I donÂt know how the design does or does not incorporate your concerns.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2010 at 2:36PM
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Make sure you do not plant so close to your house that you can't get in there with a ladder to wash your windows!

    Bookmark   April 19, 2010 at 9:22PM
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I agree with frankie. I think starting out with a great bones and filling in with annual is a economical and proactive way to go. You don't want to break the budget to find out in three to five years that it really does or doesn't work for your taste and lifestyle. A great way to fill on a temp. basis is to use annuals in pots and placed in the ground. They can be lifted out at the end of the season or left in place. If the area is over planted then you will have to eventually deal with air flow issues that may be making some plants struggle because they are too close. Also as mentioned you do want to make sure you have the space to do maintenance on your home. Washing windows with ease was mentioned. The ground cover mentioned is good. It will do a great job of filling in for a couple of reasons. Less mulch to pruchase and it makes a great under planting look. Skirting is how I like to refer to this. The foliage grabs light in a more shaded area espesially when the Azaleas are finished with the bloom and yet the contrast between the ground cover and shurb is going to be outstanding. As for the Oaks I would for the purpose of saving some money, do the foundation plantings and then really look to see if landscaping around the Oaks are what you want to do. If the space is large enought that it can accomidate a growing family then consider a design that will tie all together. If the lawn is going to be used by children and pets, leave it to lawn. If the lawn is struggling to compete, don't fight it and go with sub planting with shrubs and a ground cover that either mirrors or contrasts with the ground cover at the foundation. As to annuals in this type of area annual pots sunk into the ground while the other plants are getting established is also an alternative.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2010 at 3:00AM
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I still have a sense we are mostly talking about garden bed layout and maybe not bigger LD issues, but I can't seem to move beyond that, myself.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2010 at 11:10AM
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My front foundation landscape is well balanced and gives a nice clean look. I was more interested in plantings that I could enjoy from inside my house. So like you, I have two large shade trees in my lawn close to the street. I connected the two trees with a mixed border of Azaleas, Rhodes, Mt Laurel, Hydrangea and lirope for edging. It also includes some clumps of shade loving perennials under planted with daffodils for continued color.

I did it a little at a time with beds around the trees and each season I would increase the beds moving towards them eventually connecting, which they do now. It looks great from my windows as well as from the street.

Between the street bed and my foundation I have a Kousa Dogwood and a Paperbark Maple to relate human scale to the large scale of my house. These two trees make for a cozier feeling as you approach the front door.

From your pictures it is hard to tell how much frontage you have. So my ideas may or may not work.

Good luck Ally

    Bookmark   April 20, 2010 at 2:55PM
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Wow, I am just completely floored by all these responses! Thank you so much for all the information and for bringing up so many new aspects to my situation - tons of new things for me to think about. You are all so kind to take the time to read my post and to respond so thoughtfully. I will reply to each of your questions but please be patient as this may take me a while! Thanks again to each of you; it really means more than you know.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2010 at 5:24PM
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