checkboard hard & soft garden design - how to?

smoochas(zone 7a-NYC)May 7, 2011

Mixing soft (plantings) and hard (pavers, pea gravel) etc in a geometric, checkerboard pattern seem to be all the rage right now (and yet I can't seem to find a picture to best illustrate what I mean!) Anyways our small front yard is approx. 17'x 17'. I have an idea to grid & divided it up into squares of alternating soft & hard patterns - for example, there might be squares of each of these textures, mulch in one, pavers in another, sedums in yet another, creeping thyme in another etc. abutting each other

Does anyone have any advice about how to do this? do the pavers need to be set in sand?

Thanks in advance!

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All the rage where? Sounds like a fad that will soon die when the drawbacks show up, leaving lingering patches of ugly.

From a safety view, it multiplies the changes for a twisted ankle or broken wrist if you step or trip on the border between squares, or squish a succulent and slip on the goo.

From a design view it's chopped-up and doesn't flow.

From a maintenance view, you spend a lot of time trying to keep the checkerboard tidy, the pea gravel contained, and the birds from flinging mulch all over. If the plants don't thrive you are left with half-filled squares of dying plants. If they do thrive, you will be clipping them back to keep the squares tidy.

    Bookmark   May 8, 2011 at 7:41AM
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smoochas(zone 7a-NYC)

you are right. Its probably only "the rage" in my own mind. I do really like the modern look of it.

It sounds like all gardens need requirement of maintenance, like you said, keeping tidy and having to clip back etc?, etc. Like with any other area of plants that don't thive in any other garden, wouldn't you just try something else in its spot?

The idea of mixing the hard surfaces gives one the ability to stand somewhere when tending other planting squares. I don't intent to have any grass anywhere.

You seriously sound like you are discouraging me from this design - I wonder why because the dangers would be any more or less than any other gardens? So, curious, what would you in a front yard that only 17'x17'?

    Bookmark   May 8, 2011 at 8:08AM
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The thought of standing on one square and bending over to maintain the adjacent squares sounds acrobatic and backbreaking. If you kneel, unless the squares are 2+ feet wide, your feet will damage the square behind you.

17x17 is tiny - Can you show a picture of the area? An entry courtyard

How much snow and ice do you get?

    Bookmark   May 8, 2011 at 12:21PM
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Not exactly what you are describing but close. A Ron Herman design.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   May 8, 2011 at 1:14PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I think this may be the first time I'm disagreeing with LazyGardens, but disagree I do. I would far rather maintain that than try to reach into a classic deep border - and believe me, I do enough of that to know! Mind you I am imagining your squares would be at least 18 inches, maybe even 2 feet.

I think it's as good a way as any to divide an area into hardscape and beds. It might not have a really great impact from a distance/in a big picture sense, but then again, it might outstrip the standard cottage garden in that regard.

As to how to do it, in your climate you may or may not need sand depending on risk of frost heave. If I were doing it in my climate I would simply level the ground, lay my slabs out (using lines strung across the yard to ensure straightness), then finesse the leveling, and then deal with each open square one at a time. If I had some ability to alter the grade, I would maybe add a layer of sand to raise the level up a little. But if I had to excavate... naah. I'd rather come back and re-level a few stones in future years. But then I'm getting a little creaky and lazy :-) Also, if you put sand it has to be contained, or it starts to migrate.


    Bookmark   May 8, 2011 at 5:40PM
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lpinkmountain(5b/6a border PA)

I live in a neighborhood with many tiny front yards. I have seen some good examples of this type of garden, but also some that are poorly done. You have to know your plants, you want to pick ones that have a growth pattern that is going to fit inside the blocks. Also, it can look tacky with bad color and shape coordination, it isn't easy to pull off. It also may not fit with the style of your house. There are a lot of variables. I'll try and remember where the good examples are on my morning walk and snap a photo, although maybe that's not ethical?? Is it wrong to post a photo of a yard in your neighborhood, if not including people? Unfortunately, there are far more bad examples, but I definately don't think it is right to post those. One of the worst is a mixed media front yard designed to look like it is in front of an adobe in New Mexico, except the people have a modest brick bungalow in PA. It looks kind of kitschy, replete with vibrantly colored plastic kiddie toys left out in the yard, but I say more power to the homeowner, if they want to imagine they're in New Mexico and that is enjoyable to them, they're not really bothering anyone except the excessively esthete.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2011 at 7:52AM
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smoochas(zone 7a-NYC)

@lazygardens - the squares will be at minimum 2ft, I agree. I live in NY NY. We do get real winters with snow, though nothing as bad as upstate NY.

@inkognito - that ron herman design is perfect to what I'm talking about - the same lines! I would be overjoyed to achieve something like that!! Any clues how?? I notice there seems to be a hard edge to each square... I wonder what that is. At Home Depot we found 6ft plastic snap-edge angle pieces (that seem to be used to keep pavers in line.) They aren't cheap though...

@karinl - thanks for your input. I'm going to post a picture of what we're dealing with right now in a day or two. I think NYC is in either zone 7 or 6 (depending on what website I'm consulting - is it weird that it varies???) How do I find out if I'm in danger of frost heave? When we bought our place the front yard was one giant patch of ivy that looked like it hadn't been touched in a decade. When we removed it all last fall, there were vines as thick as 3/4-inch! Anyways we found that the dirt in the yard was kind of mounded up so that's another challenge... maybe we need to remove some??

@lpinkmountain - yes, please, snap some pics! I think we are both in similar zones so I am also curious to see what pple have chosen to grow in this layout.

    Bookmark   May 9, 2011 at 9:59AM
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smoochas(zone 7a-NYC)

Okay, here are the pics (hope it works.) We also though maybe we should plant a tree in the middle but don't know what... and maybe some bamboo on the face/corner of 1-story structure to the left, around where the wall-thru ac is.

    Bookmark   May 13, 2011 at 7:45AM
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The Ron Herman design uses steel edging, welded into a grid to keep the squares separated. If you don't, the ground cover tends to take over the pebbles.

How about brick pavers, set in a sand bed into overlapping rectangles of pavement (reflecting the rectangular pattern of the brick on the house), leaving some rectangular openings for flowers and a rectangular tree well for a small tree that's good for your climate. You can test this out with big chunks of cardboard.

Sort of a "parterre" or knot garden, but with more pacing and fewer plants:

Tree: Something with winter interest, like berries or shapely branches?

Candidates for removal: What species is the hedge along the front? And the plants under the windows look like they could overgrow the windows really fast.

Frost line in NYC is 4 feet, so you do freeze enough to get frost heave in pavers. However, small ones are less of a problem because you can reset sections as needed.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 1:32PM
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lpinkmountain(5b/6a border PA)

As I'm looking at your photo, to the right of the yews under the window, it appears you have some weed trees, including a norway maple and perhaps some kind of ash or whatever. At any rate, remove those, they want to be huge trees and are way out of size for your lot. They will just get larger and larger and larger and larger until they eat up your house. Chop them down if you can't spade them out, and paint the trunks with Roundup becuase they will sprout from the trunks. Keep pruning down the sprouts and painting with Roundup. You can cover the trunks with bark or stones while waiting for the trees to finally die. Dig them out if you can, or cut down below soil level, but like I said, it will take some persistence because they will sprout up again.

You have yews under your window. Hard to keep those babies small and pruned, unless they are dwarf varieties which I doubt.

The hedge doesn't look to great but maybe I'm missing something. Why are all the hedge plants bare and yet the other vegetation has leafed out? Did you just prune them after this photo was taken?

If you're going for a japanese theme, (maybe with th bamboo) then maybe a japanese maple is a good thing for the middle. There is a yard near me that has something like that, I'll have to take a photo of it. Make sure to get a CLUMPING bamboo otherwise you'll be fighting it, a regular bamboo is really innapropriate for such a small yard, unless you get the right species. You might even be able to grow it in a large pot over those stumps until they give up the ghost.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 2:44PM
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That is a nice layout lazy but the maintenance would require a lot of patience. Boxwoods with gravel underneath oy! No. it can be done and I have done it with a tarp wrapped around like at the barber shop.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 5:18PM
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I am not sure I would say the checker board is all the rage - but I have seen it several times recently. One of my clients had a checker board with grass in between. You could actually mow right over the whole thing, but I am not recalling what stone was used and I dont know how it was laid. Last summer I went on a garden tour and one house had a rose garden with a checkerboard pattern alternating stone and peastone which was interesting. The whole thing was probably underlaid with landscape fabric.

I LOVE the photo ink posted - that is gorgeous and if you do something like that please post pics!!

    Bookmark   May 14, 2011 at 5:51PM
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Came across this today and thought of this thread:

Here is a link that might be useful: checkerboard example

    Bookmark   May 15, 2011 at 11:31AM
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drtygrrrrrl ... I love it! However, the house is an ultra-boxy modern one that really calls for the rigid lines. If you've seen the rest of the landscape, even the hedges are clipped square.

Inkognito - that was a concept pic. I'd use brick instead of the gravel.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2011 at 10:42AM
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