How to balance this softscape?

decoratingditzMay 9, 2011

We are slowly upgrading the curb appeal of our small 70's ranch. A few years ago we replaced our front walkway with pavers. Last year members of the decorating forum helped us with a plan to update the curb appeal by painting the front door, adding shutters and a windowbox. (This work is scheduled for early June, so my photos are "photo-shopped"). After the carpentry is done we will replace all plantings.

I've spoken to designers at several local nurseries (we're in zone 6). They've helped in the selection of plantings but I don't feel the whole design is cohesive; the balance is off.

This is the original "photo-shopped" image with all existing plantings removed:

The photo below shows the plants that we selected at the nursery. We're looking for easy maintenance so we selected short-growing shrubs. The pots on the steps and the windowbox will hold summer annuals for that splash of color.

To the left of the front door are short evergreens under the window and 2 flowering evergreen shrubs (Elf Mountain Laurel or Japanese Andromeda). Iris will be transplanted in front of the flowering shrubs

To the right of the front door are 3 Bigleaf "Endless Summer" Hydrangea and several more short evergreens under the windows.

Two specimen trees will be on each side of the house (dogwood, eastern redbud or a camperdown elm).

The problem is the area to the right of the house, between the driveway and the walkway. It seems to be hidden behind one of the dogwood trees but, in fact, it is a huge open area. I can add short evergreens here but I'm not convinced that would help to balance the layout from the road.

Something is missing.

We would appreciate any thoughts on the design.

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karinl(BC Z8)

Something we've discussed here on the forum lately is how having no visible sidewalk makes curb appeal really challenging. The house looks as it if is floating randomly in the lawn, and visitors are puzzled as to how to approach. A visible walkway from the street or beginning of driveway might add that intangible something that you are after.

Beware advice to add window boxes! Window moustaches do not suit every house, they are an intrusion into your building envelope and a possible nightmare to maintain in attractive condition year-round. To be, oh, a bit blunt, in many cases they are an amateur's way of compensating for not being able to actually come up with a suitable design.

Finally, again tongue in cheek: if you really want to address the house, "step away from the foundation, ma'am!" Just adding an apron to the house, and fussing with the details of the apron, is not landscape design - it's foundation planting, which has it's place in landscape design but is not the sum total of it.

Since you're photoshopping, play with a walkway and maybe a tree here or there... you might see that using the whole canvas will get you a better picture.


    Bookmark   May 9, 2011 at 8:21PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Re. balancing the two sides of the house, consider that you've photoshopped in the iris on the left, but nothing in front of the steps or in front of the shrubs on the right. I don't know if you plan to have beds there or if you'll plant grass. The important thing is that in your photoshop, you have a left side with very deep beds and a right side with nothing but five foundation shrubs: of course it doesn't look balanced!

Admittedly, the house itself is not balanced: the right side is wider, the right roof is higher and has the weight of the gambrel-roof gable thingie (sorry: not an architect). However, on the left you have the height and mass of that huge tree, which might balance out the wider right side and higher right roof: we can't see enough of the tree to know exactly how it affects the house and the rest of the landscape. A photo showing a much wider view of the yard would be a big help, because the house and the plants immediately in front of it don't exist in a vacuum.

Another unbalancing factor is that your two new lawn trees aren't centered in relation to the front door or in relation to the front corners of the house (though again, we can only guess where the left corner is).


As for what to do in that "tongue" in-between the driveway and the walkway, these are the options I can see (not a pro designer either):

= You can continue whatever you plan to plant on the house side of the walkway all the way from the front steps to the driveway. We can assume it'll either be lawn or something low enough not to hide the hydrangeas in all their blue glory.

= Or off to the right beyond the corner of the house, you can add one or more additional bushes (though I'm not fond of the alternating hydrangeas and non-flowering shrubs, and extending the row would only make it weirder).

= Or you could add an accent shrub or very small tree in the "tongue" fairly close to its end. You would want something that wouldn't impinge on the driveway, something that won't get very large. Depending exactly where you place the two trees in the lawn, you may want to make sure this shrub doesn't conflict with the tree which is more or less in front of it (for example, they probably shouldn't flower at the same time, especially if they're different colors).


I don't know if it's part of the photoshopping or if your foundation is actually white. If the foundation is white, please consider painting it the color of the siding. This is particularly important on the hydrangea side, because the foundation will be visible behind the bare hydrangea branches in winter -- and only in those spots, as (if I understand correctly) all the other foundation shrubs are evergreens.

But regardless of the color of the foundation, by placing the evergreens under the windows and the hydrangeas in front of the bare walls, in winter you'll end up with a stripey look: bare brown wall with nearly-invisible brown hydrangea branches // dark window with dark evergreens underneath // bare brown wall with nearly-invisible brown hydrangea branches // etc.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2011 at 9:30PM
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lpinkmountain(5b/6a border PA)

Why is the front bare brown? Are you planning on some flowers there, a brick patio/walkway, or just grass . . . ?

In the empty bed by the driveway at the corner of the house, in front of the downspout, I'd plant a lilac. It will cover your view of the downspout, and provide something nice smelling and pretty to look at in the spring as you walk from the driveway to the house or into the garage. It also goes with your color scheme.

Otherwise I think it looks great! I wouldn't do windowboxes, on the second story, they are pretty but a pain to maintain. That's why so many people put fake flowers in them. I definately wouldn't go for that look, although it might not be too bad if you used realistic looking ones. But even they will have to be replaced as they weather. Just seems like way too much work, really not necessary.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2011 at 9:55AM
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karinl - "step away from the foundation"
Thank you thank you! I was thinking only of the foundation and plantings around the walkway but wasn't thinking of the entire landscape (a scary thought when you have such a big front yard). Since I couldn't get a photo of the entire front yard I used to capture the entire area.

Not only is the walkway invisible from the road due to the distance it's also up a very steep hill (hard to tell in the photo). (Such a shame because we used beautiful pavers!)
There's alot of room between the walkway and the house for plants. I think it's 11 feet wide.

Well that got me thinking about a house down the street that is beautifully landscaped. I walked by it again last night but I was uncomfortable staring at the house. So what's the next best way to stare at a house without being a voyeur? Bring it up using bing!

I photo-shopped the separate photos together since our houses are not close by.

Comparing the two layouts I can see how balanced the other house looks (and how off-balance, and bare, mine is).
They have 2 trees in the lawn but one is much closer to the walkway. I like that.
They also have a large shrub between the walkway and the driveway. I think that's the balance I was looking for but couldn't visualize.

missingtheobvious - Thanks for the "stripey" comment about alternating the evergreen shrubs and hydrangeas. I have enough room to plant evergreens directly along the foundation with the hydrangeas in front of them. Then, in the "tongue", add either a tall thin evergreen or a shrub.
And yes, the foundation is white. Don't know why I didn't realize that it'll be obviously visible in the winter. Will get a paintbrush to it.

lpinkmountain - Limited funds will keep the front as brown mulch for the near future. Maybe at some point will add low-growing junipers or other ground cover. (Can you tell that I like the color brown?)

Moustache???? Hahaha. I've read that comment many times on this forum but, of course, never thought it applied to my house.
Actually posters on the home decorating forum convinced me to add the windowbox instead of shutters; they don't like shutters on a picture window because they don't look "real". I agree that windowboxes can be time-consuming but I was planning to invest in self-watering inserts so I would only need to water once a week. Again didn't think about the winter time.

So I'll play around with a few more layouts and shutter configurations.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2011 at 5:25PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

What a pleasure to get someone thinking!

Shutters I can sometimes live with, window boxes as a design solution just curl my liver! It's a bit like someone suggesting you just put on a nice necklace when you ask for advice about a dress.

I think we get somewhere in overcoming the tendency to window boxes and shutters if we understand what people who recommend them are afraid of, what they are trying to achieve. I think part of the goal is to add personality and charm, part is softening, and finally a sense of enclosure of some sort. They seem to be afraid of starkness and exposure and isolation of the building, but also oblivious to the lines of the bigger picture. This is not an unattractive house. It does not have anything to hide.

If you step back and take the view that you've thought of taking - from above, from a distance - we can often see how much more scope there is for achieving those objectives if you use the canvas of the whole property.

I'm not a designer, so my terminology tends to be less precise than I'd like, and also I can't always name the concepts, rather kind of feeling my way to the right outcome, but I think if you consider different views of the house and how they either enhance or occlude the house, you come to some new ideas. Your consideration should, however, also always incorporate how you experience the house and yard from inside the space. For instance, the trees you like at the neighbours' for me are too close to the walkway and would constrain how I feel walking along it. Those trees could mitigate the house front just as well if they were midway between street and house.

Hard to tell from the air just where your neighbours' (I know they're not right next door) should have put the trees or their front road-edge garden based on slope, but for me they are still clinging to the perimeter of their property like a swimmer scared to let go of the edge of the pool.

I think in general paintbrush terms if I were doing your house I would
a) plan some sizable trees in the front yard, not little decorative ones but serious (deciduous) trees with presence and eventual high canopies. NOT low canopies, those just block the house for looking in and out (especially of windows).
b) keep the foundation planting low, maybe even perennial/herbaceous to provide interest up close. I really hate (sorry!) the evergreens you've photoshopped in under the windows, they close the windows in and choke the house. I'd want that area to be friendly, airy, flowery. Obviously in winter this will be less attractive, but if it snows you're good, and you know what, it's dark most of the winter anyway :-)
c) break up the lawn with some shrub borders IN it. I think that foundation planting is all too often an attempt to counterbalance the expanse of lawn. Why not just reduce the expanse of lawn in the first place? Make a fair bit of this evergreen, and that will mitigate any bareness in the foundation plantings. If that's a slope, then bed shape may also be apparent from the road and making it interesting will be an additional design feature.

The thread linked below might give you an entirely different perspective on your own house, as might looking at other threads on this forum. You can often see principles much more clearly on different houses than you can on your own.


Here is a link that might be useful: Kiki's thread

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 4:32PM
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My pet peeve, as a landscaper ... your steps are floating with no sign of how to get to them. Make it obvious, by a row of plants between the walkway and road, that something is there.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 8:54PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

Just want to add a few words about the hydrangeas -- they can get to be 5 feet tall and wide. That might be fine in those spots, but they'll be taller and stick out more than the image shows, especially without pruning. They also might not be blue, depending on your soil -- if it's neutral to alkaline, Endless Summer will turn pink. (There are many other hydrangea options, but none stay blue in alkaline soil. My new favorite is Fuji Waterfall, which is white, but a cool and unusual plant. I really didn't want pink ...) I love hydrangeas, but just wanted to make sure you know these things.

How much sun does the front of your house get, and when?

I have a split level with low windows too -- also unbalanced and lacking landscaping. In my attempt to balance it out, I recently put a hydrangea on the smaller side between two windows, and some Drift roses on the "heavier" side -- these shrub roses are supposed to stay less than 2 feet tall, flower all summer, and be resistant to common rose diseases. I also incorporated some other plants that are the common to both sides of the front so it wouldn't look like two completely unrelated beds. Don't know yet if this will look good, but thought I'd share since I'm in a similar boat.

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 10:10PM
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karinl - I think I get it! The landscaping rule for thinking "out of the box" is to think inside the box.
It seems to be true. Over 90% of the homes in my area have trees/shrubs in 3 areas: along the foundation, on the perimeter and around the mailbox. Otherwise there's a large expanse of lawn.
Your idea of "airy and flowery" is terrific. I've always longed for a cottage garden but had never considered one in the front yard. I thought it was too much maintenance.. But, after some investigation, I found over a dozen drought-resistant, easy-care perennials and herbs that will fit perfectly. And they won't cover the lower windows. (Just recently found out that's DH's only rule is: "don't block the windows". So the evergreens wouldn't have worked anyhow.)
A single tall evergreen will be planted to the right of the beds to hide the exposed foundation.
With all the lovely colors in the foundation bedding the windowbox won't be needed.
Adding pockets of evergreens within the front lawn will also give me the space for some of the larger shrubs.

1dahlia4me - the middle of the lawn is the perfect place for those 5 foot hydrangeas! The front of the house faces west so they'll get sun almost all day.
And thanks for the idea of the shrub roses! I think they'll look terrific along the foundation (and will work well with my cottage garden theme). Do you have photos of your house?

lazygardens - I agree with your observation of the floating steps. But what should be planted between the walkway and the road? Something low such as creeping junipers or perhaps a low mounding ornamental grass?

One more question/problem:
DH wants to remove the lawn from the steep slope to the right of the driveway. (He's tired of using the hand-mower.) There's already a cherry tree and a lilac bush at the top of the sloping area. I'd like to fill this entire area with mulch and perhaps add a few low-growing shrubs. But is the balance off again?
Perhaps the same pattern should be continued to the left of the driveway? But then this is along the perimeter again.

    Bookmark   May 20, 2011 at 12:53AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Your design eye seems to be coming along very nicely! Very good observation about your neighbours. The term that's been used here for that tendency is perimeteritis. Sometimes it works as a design approach, but usually it's just a missed opportunity. And that's exactly what I meant about the window boxes!

I'm linking to another resource below, some photos posted by a guy who used to post regularly here and on Gardening with Stone. I'm doing this partly to make the point that some hardscape in the landscape somewhere, once you are sure where you want your beds, might not hurt, and can help with things like balance, year-round interest, etc. Actually jugglerguy posted a funny picture on this forum just recently, search his name and it will come up.

But also, his photos show a house with a sloped yard similar to yours, and he's got beds in the middle of the space. In some photos, he has no foundation planting yet, and you can see the extent to which the island bed already functions to mitigate the foundation and the house.

Regarding balance, this has many dimensions, and should not be confused with symmetry, which in your case is not happening anyway due to the fundamental layout. Balance accommodates all sorts of elements of visual weight, including plant mass and density, contrast, ground area, and even flower colour, so can vary. You can make that bed at the opening to the driveway, and give it more or less visual weight relative to the rest of the landscape. And as it happens, you have an almost serendipitous balance in the trees on either side of your property, so I think you have a lot of flexibility. Someone else may be better at discussing this though; balance is not my strong suit.

Basically, I'd make the amount of lawn beds you're comfortable with having for now. It is easier to add beds than to return to lawn, I think, and given the babying that a new bed can need the first year, one a year or so might be a good pace.


Here is a link that might be useful: Jugglerguy's page

    Bookmark   May 21, 2011 at 2:00PM
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1dahlia4me(7a (NoVA))

I love your new design!

One more note on hydrangeas, though -- they like shade, so they wouldn't be happy in the middle of the yard. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news!

I don't have pictures yet. I still have a long way to go. Maybe I can compare "after" photos with you in a month or two. :)

    Bookmark   May 21, 2011 at 8:30PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Plant a tree: voila, shade for the hydrangea :-)
Around here they do seem to survive in full sun in many yards. Maybe they get watered a lot. And there's full sun in BC, and then there's full sun in Arizona...


    Bookmark   May 21, 2011 at 11:42PM
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