would love some help with my front yard

emilymchJune 6, 2010

Hi! I've been lurking here for a while and post sometimes over on the home side of the site.

I'm starting to think about what to do with my front yard. I'm just in the planning stages now, and plan to do the actual landscaping work in the fall. I live in a townhouse in the Baltimore area - zone 7. Here is the front of the house now:

The house faces mostly south, a little bit east, so it gets lots of sun.

I'd like to remove everything that is planted in the beds and start fresh. The right bed used to have a large, upright evergreen (same as on the left, but much taller), but it got damaged in the blizzard this winter and we had it cut down. I plan to have the stump ground out, but haven't done so yet. I also am planning to paint the lower concrete part of the house a creamy white color. I did this on the side of the house and it is such a nice improvement over the ugly concrete.

Restrictions on the site: On the right side of the stairs, below the dryer vent, is an outlet for a hose. We need to maintain access to that. On the far right side is the electrical meter and Fios box. I'd like to block the view of those, but they should be reachable.

You may notice a barely visible trash can on the left side behind the tall evergreen. We are having a shed built that will be on the other side of the fence, and when this is finished, the trashcan will be inside there and will not be visible.

On the left side, I don't like the upright evergreen and want to remove it, but I do like the screen that it provides. The beds are currently edged with the same wood that is used in the back yard:

. I don't know what that is called, but there is just one level of it in the front. I'd prefer to work with the existing edging, but I'm willing to consider changing it, too!

What I want:

I'd really love to have some big ornamental grasses, but I'm not sure what varieties are good for my area. I'd like the area to look nice all year round, so some evergreens might be good. I have a barberry in my back yard that I'd like to move anyway, so that might be nice. Other than that, I'm not really sure! On the right side, I don't want any plants to block the windows on the first floor. The distance from the ground to the bottom of the bay window is 7'.

Here's a graph paper diagram of the area (sorry about the poor quality - that's a bad photo of the paper). The scale is 1 box = 6".

If anyone has any ideas, I would love to hear them. I really appreciate the help. I get really overwhelmed with a blank slate like this!

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dogridge(7b nc)

I'd love to help with your yard. Can you give a description of the graph? I'm not sure which part is the house. I assume some of it is the steps? What is the distance between the house and the curb? Can you get another photo showing the entire yard (maybe from across the street?
Also, inspiration photos are really helpful. Try the Better Homes and Gardens website, they usually have lots of different styles.
Do you want something that is low maintenance, or a place to putter around the garden- weeding, deadheading, etc? Do you want seasonal color?

    Bookmark   June 6, 2010 at 5:17PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

I have a couple of questions about the graph: Is the fence even with the front of the house, or set back? Is it perpendicular to the side of the house, or is it at an angle?

It would also help to know where the side wall of the house is in relation to that side of the stairs.

How do you feel about a walk (or stepping stones) to the gate?

Do you currently access the faucet from next to the stairs, or from in front of the electric meter? I'd advocate the latter, as it would be less visible from the front walk.

What do you dislike about the large evergreen?

It would be helpful if you could post a picture from farther back -- perhaps from the other side of the street -- to show the entire yard from one property line to the other.

planning to paint the lower concrete part of the house a creamy white color -- Great idea to paint the concrete. However, I wonder about the color. "Creamy white" doesn't sound like it's the same white as the front trim. If it's a different white, will you be bothered by the clash with the white of the basement window? Will you be bothered by the unpainted concrete stairs, or do you plan to paint them also? Should the landscaping of the right-hand bed include something tall to cover the neighbor's unpainted concrete foundation?

Around here, we'd say your raised beds are edged with "landscaping timbers." I'm not sure if there are other terms.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2010 at 7:47PM
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Ah, sorry! The graph paper is a bit confusing, isn't it? The horizontal line across the top of the sheet is the house. If you were standing at the bottom of the sheet of paper, you'd be looking at the house from the same view as the top photo. Does that make sense? The steps are in the middle. The areas to the left and right of the steps are the existing beds. I left them blank because I don't plan to keep any of the stuff currently in them.

The distance from the front of the house to the sidewalk is 24'. The steps stick out 12' from the house.

Here are some pics of the front from different angles. I hope this gives a better idea of what is there.

Our yard goes to the far side of the big green electrical box thing on the left of both photos.

As for what I'd like: low maintenance, something with 4 season interest. I like the idea of focusing on some big grasses to soften it up. I think the house and current landscape has lots of angles and hard surfaces. I don't want a puttering garden, at least in the front of the house. I just planted big perennial beds on the side of my house that will take enough of my time! Add in a toddler and two jobs, and I don't have a lot of time for gardening.

I'm going to look around for inspiration photos. I'm not a fan of boxwood and azaleas as foundation plants.

I really want some Miscanthus Morning Light. I've seen them around and really love them, but at the moment I'm not finding any good inspiration photos that show them with other plants. I see tons with just it, but none with it in a bed with other plants.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2010 at 8:19PM
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The fence is set back from the edge of the house by maybe two feet. Here's a picture I had that illustrates it (somewhat poorly!). It is taken while standing at the front door and looking down over the railing:

The fence is perpendicular to the house.

I would love some stepping stones to the gate! I had been thinking about that, since the grass has developed a bit of a wear pattern where we walk.

Currently we access the hose from next to the stairs, since that is where the handle for the faucet is. I'm not opposed to accessing it near the electrical box, but I'm not sure how that would work, since we'd need to turn it on at the faucet, right? Or is there some contraption that would allow us to have that faucet on, but shut off the water later down the line, so we could store the hose near the electrical box?

The large evergreen - it's boring, mostly. Also, there's a section on the lower outer side that is kind of bare and ugly.

You're right that the creamy white I used to paint the concrete wall on the side of the house does not match the white trim on the front of the house. I'm going to paint a swatch and compare it to the front trim to see if it bugs me. It might be different enough that it looks okay...or maybe not. I'll check on that. If I had to get a different white, it wouldn't be a big deal. Or I could go with a blue gray to match the siding. Neighbors down the street did that and it looks pretty good. I do not plan to paint the stairs, but I do plan to have them powerwashed. I don't think it will bug me to have them remain concrete while the other concrete is painted. It is a different texture (the wall is stamped in a brick pattern), so when it is painted, it looks like two different things.

Landscaping timbers - thank you! I wanted to say railroad ties, but I knew that wasn't right - they're too small.

I hope that that, along with the photos I posted above, makes things a bit clearer.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2010 at 8:34PM
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dogridge(7b nc)

A few more questions.

Do you want to expand the planting area? Ex- island beds or beds at the edge of the yard?

Are you allowed/interested in changing the look of your house? Right now it has a more formal/ classical/colonial feel to it. Miscanthus generally looks best in more of an informal/prairie or modern landscape. It is a beautiful plant and has year round interest, but there may be other plants more suitable to the style of your house.

I have an idea brewing for a "modern colonial" in which the miscanthus would play a big role, but I'm not sure if that interests you or if you area allowed to change the exterior of your home.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2010 at 9:20PM
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I think at this point I'd like to keep the beds as is, no expanding. I should say that we only plan to live in this house for another 3 years or so, so I don't want to invest a ton of energy into making changes that I won't be around to enjoy. I'd like to make what is there look good, but I don't want to do any work expanding into new territory.

I'm not sure what you mean about changing the look of the house - do you mean making changes to the building? Or just changing the emphasis on things using plants? If there were a quick cheap exterior fix to be made, I'd consider it. Although I would have to check with our neighborhood association rules. I know they have rules about things, but I'm not sure how stringent they are. We've never made changes to the front exterior.

I'm a mid-century modern girl at heart, so the exterior of the home is not my style at all. I really don't know what should go with it! Oddly, I love modern, minimalist landscaping but also love cottage gardens that are overflowing with color. The beds I planted on the side of the house are wild and colorful (or will be when things grow in a bit!), but I wanted a calmer look for the front.

I'd love to hear your 'modern colonial' idea! Would it work without making changes to the exterior of the home? Or would it just look odd and out of place?

Also, I was thinking about the creamy white/white trim around the window problem. I wouldn't mind if the window were totally blocked from view from the street by plantings, thus making the paint color a non-issue.

    Bookmark   June 6, 2010 at 9:54PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I think we fall into some complicated territory here with the definition of "landscaping work."

First let me say there is no question that working in the yard replacing overgrown or inappropriate plantings is "work." There is also no question that picking the right plants for existing beds is some "work," even if mostly research and shopping work.

But it isn't necessarily landscape design, which is what most of us here are prone to discussing.

What you've told us is that you want your house to look different, but you don't actually want to change anything! So you may be preventing anyone from helping you at all.

As an example, I struggled for years to get a nice planting put together in foundation beds very much like the ones you have, that you don't want to change. I found it hard to come up with something I liked - of course your house and your requirements are different and maybe it will be a piece of cake for you. I had a pathway edging the bed where you have a landscape tie. What I finally did was rip up the diagonal pathway and make one that runs straight to the left side from the front walk, and then makes a sharp right turn to the gate that leads down the side of the house. I filled in the sharp corner with some slabs to make a bit of a patio there (the yard is small and that's all I've got) and so the shape of the bed didn't end up that much different, but somehow the little patio and the right angle rather than the diagonal walk change the look up enough that I was able to put together a planting that I like.

Squaring up the bed may not be part of the answer for you, but ruling out any expansion may also rule out the outcome you're after.


    Bookmark   June 7, 2010 at 6:49PM
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karin, thanks for the feedback. I admit that I think of "landscape design" as including "what should I plant, and where?". I know that it also refers to hardscapes - walks, paving, etc., but I thought it could also encompass the plant part of things. I'm new to gardening and don't always know the correct terms for things, so I'm sorry about that. That said, the two links that I used to get to this forum just say "design" and "garden design", which I didn't realize meant only landscape design. I realize now that it does say "landscape design" in other places, but I didn't notice that until you mentioned it and I went looking.

Is there a section of the boards that focuses more on plant planning? Or whatever it is that you would call the "what to plant where" part of the process? I looked around a bit and didn't find it, but maybe I'm just not looking in the right place. Or don't know what to call it!

That said, I am not totally opposed to changing the shape of the beds somewhat. Dogridge asked about "island beds or beds at the edge of the yard", which to me sounds like a pretty substantial change and adding new beds, rather than working with basically what is there. But if you're talking about squaring off a bed, that isn't too big of a job and I'm willing to consider something like that. And I'm willing to consider changes to the house itself, but I'm not sure what (if anything) I'm actually allowed to do. If anyone had an idea to share, I'd still love to hear it.

So, I'm sorry about the confusion. If there's a more appropriate board to post my question in, please point me to it.

    Bookmark   June 7, 2010 at 9:16PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Landscape design isn't strictly hardscape by any means - it absolutely incorporates plants, but is a far larger concept from plant selection. So I'm not at all saying to go elsewhere with your question, but rather to open up the options for answering it to utilize the opportunity here. I guess what I'm trying to suggest is that you remove the biggest constraint, relative to the hose tap and so on, which is your own limits. If you're willing to renew the edging, you may as well move it to a better place.

You can of course just work within your preferred constraints. But then there is really no point in asking for advice on the internet, is there? Might as well just go to the nursery and ask for locally relevant plant suggestions.

Again, for example, you say you hate the tall shrub but like the screening it provides. Now, let's say you were just able to move that shrub just 2 feet forward and 2 feet left (it's actually too big to move and should be replaced). And then let's say that you changed it from a lumpy evergreen to an arching deciduous shrub like, say, a lilac (not my personal favourite, but likely familiar). That gives you screening and height on the left, and also removes the feeling that your house is standing as if it had, were it a person, its arms clamped firmly to its sides. If it were me, I'd want to make this house look as if it were putting its elbows on the table.

And a pathway to the gate would absolutely be part of that (probably not a stepping stone one, but that's a taste issue).

Miscanthus is not my idea of a foundation plant, partly because you're quite right to note that it doesn't mix that well, especially not with other common foundation plants. I think if you want that, it would be best in a separate planting, maybe with perennials - meaning, a new bed :-)
There I go again, exceeding constraints! Sorry!


    Bookmark   June 7, 2010 at 11:46PM
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dsb22(z7 VA)

As another townhouse owner, I'm personally interested in knowing more details about Dogridge's "modern colonial" and more on how KarinL would make the house look like it's putting it's elbows on the table.

Re painting the foundation, you might want to post on the Home Decorating board (Gardenweb home forums). I haven't been on it for a while, but there used to be a couple of people there who were happy to photoshop various exterior color changes. I personally would not do cream. Even if you cover the basement windows, the very white frame of the door and the upper window are too close. In my experience, the existing white (while nice by itself) will make a cream color look dirty. I would try maybe a dark bluish gray in the same color family as the siding.

Re the faucet--I don't believe missingtheobvious is suggesting moving the faucet. I think the question is, can you access the faucet by going along the side of the house from the meter? As opposed to going to it directly from the front of the steps. Someone correct me if I'm misinterpreting this.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2010 at 5:47PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

dsb22 is correct. I did not envision the OP moving the faucet. I was trying to suggest that if the faucet is accessed from the right side of the bed, the hole in the shrubbery/plantings (where the path is) would be less obvious from the front walkway.

Whereas if an access route is left in the shrubbery next to the stairs, someone approaching on the front walkway would look right down the opening for the faucet access and see the hose and faucet.

Of course, there's still the issue of where the hose leaves the bed (next to the stairs or along the maintenance path I'm proposing on the right side) and how to handle the wear and tear on the various plants the hose comes into contact with.

It would depend on the plants, how often the hose is used, etc. The hose doesn't seem to be visible now, but depending on the height of the plants and the exact location of the faucet and hose, it might be. And the OP will be replacing the plants in that bed, so I figured it was worth mentioning.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2010 at 6:32PM
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Color schemes, architectural details, etc. in most/many townhouse developments in DC, and metro MD and VA are largely controlled by the HOA covenants and were planned out to the enth degree before construction even started. Trying to make changes to the TH exterior can be a lengthy and often frustrating process with any application being denied in the end. Landscaping doesn't seem to require any kind of board scrutiny, however... so you've got a pretty free hand there.

Maybe it's different in the Baltimore area with regard to changes to the structure itself. Or no one's noticed the newly painted concrete on the side behind the fence whereas painting the front a color might be a different story.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2010 at 6:32PM
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dsb2, thanks for the thoughts on the paint color. I used a creamy white on the side of the house, but it isn't anywhere near any white trim, so it doesn't look bad. (I tried to find a representative pic of it, but I don't think I have one that accurately shows the color.) I'll pick up some bluish gray paint chips next time I'm somewhere that has them and see how it looks. As for changing the exterior, I walked around our street yesterday and made it a point to pay attention to the other houses. Most don't have much of any landscaping done, and none of the houses have any changes to the house itself, except for the one that had the concrete foundation painted. Theirs is painted the same color (more or less) as the siding, and it really isn't very noticeable. I'm hoping that since they got away with it, I could too!

missingtheobvious, thanks for explaining that. I can definitely make an access walk along the right and back to the faucet. That makes perfect sense, and I think its a very good idea. I know I've seen unobtrusive stakes that can be put at the edges of beds so that the hose hits the stake and not the plants.

Karin, your third paragraph in your most recent post is the kind of information that I find really helpful. It helped to articulate what I don't like about the current evergreen, and helped me see ways I might improve on it. I get that the best way to help my yard would be to consider the whole thing as a blank slate and go from there, putting beds where they most make sense, and designing the whole thing from the dirt up. If money and time were no object, I would LOVE to do that. Unfortunately, I don't have a ton of either, so was trying to come up with a way to work with basically the current layout (but not the current plants) to have a nicer looking front yard. If there's no way to improve things without a complete overhaul, I guess I'm just stuck. I'm hoping, though, that there's a way to improve things while still working within the existing framework. I know it won't be as great as if I could do a total overhaul, but I do think that there is probably room for improvement. I don't want to give the impression that I'm not open to any ideas, because I would love some ideas and will take any/all into consideration.

I absolutely could go to a garden center for advice, but I thought it might be helpful to ask here since I can post photos and measurements and all that, and it is relatively easy to present all of the information at once.
I find choosing plants for an entire bed to be very overwhelming. I am new to gardening and don't know a lot about a wide variety of plants, so when I consider one, I have to educate myself about the various things about it (how big will it get? how much sun? what kind of soil? what zone? when does it bloom? what color is it when it does bloom? will it look good with the other plants I picked? will it play nicely with them? And on and on...). And while I enjoy learning about plants, I do find it overwhelming to put all that information together to figure out what to do.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2010 at 7:43PM
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dogridge(7b nc)

I have most of the drawings and plans done, but need to pull together a few more inspiration photos and post. Hopefully tomorrow. Looking forward to your comments.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2010 at 9:28PM
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dogridge, You're so sweet! Thanks for putting so much thought and time into it. I'm really looking forward to seeing what you've got cooking!

    Bookmark   June 8, 2010 at 10:22PM
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dogridge(7b nc)

Paint all of the trim a darker/smokey shade of the main blue color of the siding

    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 4:12PM
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dogridge(7b nc)

    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 4:35PM
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I have two radical thoughts:

1 - Right now the stairs are visually too heavy for that tiny little concrete stem of a sidewalk to support. Widen the front walkway so it equals the stairs in width all the way to the sidewalk.

2 - Start your thoughts about "landscape" at the intersection of the front walk and the public sidewalk. Making a nice knot garden, or some flower beds, with something emphatic (but not an aggressive grower) to mark the public end of the walkway, repeating that element next to the house.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 6:44PM
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dogridge, I LOVE the modern colonial! Love it. Thank you so much - it clearly took you a lot of time and thought!

I just hunted down my homeowner's association policies and just as I feared, I'm not allowed to make any changes at ALL to the house without getting approval from the architectural review board (whoever they are!). I have no idea how to submit something to it, but I'm going to ask around and see what I need to do. No one else on our street has changed the color of their trim or removed shutters, so I have no idea if it would be approved. They're relatively new houses though, so it is possible that no one has tried to make changes yet.

Painting trim and taking shutters of isn't a tough job at all. Changing the roof out is definitely outside the scope of what we can afford to do, especially because the roof is relatively new and it would only be for aesthetics. I love the type of roof that you linked to, though, and would love to change the roof if money/HOA allowed it! And of course, changing the light and the house numbers is nothing! I've thought about changing the house numbers before, but never got around to it. Same with the light.

I think the grasses with the more modern looking house will look really great. Now I just need to see if I can make it happen! Do you think it would look really out of place to go ahead with planting the grasses if the exterior of the house has to stay the same?

    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 8:12PM
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dogridge(7b nc)

Yes, using the entire yard would be ideal. It would certainly ground the house much better. Widening the walk is a great idea too. maybe that could be done with some pavers on each side rather than tearing out the entire sidewalk.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 8:15PM
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dogridge(7b nc)

If the exterior has to stay the same, I would probably stick with a more traditional planting. I know you don't like boxwood, but it does really *go* with the style of your exterior. IMO, landscapes look better when they match the style of your home.
Thank you for the compliment, glad you like it. I hope you get the go ahead. As for the roof, I thought that might be a bit out of your scope. I was thinking just the little bump out roof, but even that would probably be a stretch for the HOA and the wallet.

    Bookmark   June 9, 2010 at 9:09PM
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In all the posts no one has mentioned the fence. Painting it and straightening the gate would go a long way to improving things and expanding things. You could even add an arbior with a gate.

So would expanding the front walk. A row of rectangular cament pavers along each side would expand it without too much expense. You could even use them to make a walk to the gate. Make a little square on each side of the steps and put 2 urns on the squares. Much better than the pots you have now and you'd have unimpeded stairs. A wide entry is an inviting entry.

Remove that tree on the side and plant a fast growing shrub further out into the yard. As for the plantings, you'll have more of an idea once the rest is done.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2010 at 9:44AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Lazygardens has it... THAT's what I mean by design vs. just changing the plants. I would never have thought of widening the walk - just a row or two of bricks along each side or even a brick landing/flare at the base of the stairs would change things up.

There is much territory between just replanting and doing a complete overhaul. I just meant you should open your options to include some tweaks to the layout to allow for something that won't just be an immature version of what you have now. If you say "no changes, but I want it to look different..." well, you see that's a bit illogical.

The ability to move plants further from the house to give them space to look relaxed and expansive is what I would be after, whether that requires changing the shape of the foundation bed or putting a specimen plant somewhere else.

Dogridge is right that a foundation bed on the right is not necessary. On the left, I think yes, a bigger one, but on the right, there are many other options that might look better.

Plant suggestions are so hard to make from a distance as we don't know what is in stock at your local nursery.


    Bookmark   June 11, 2010 at 2:10PM
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dsb22(z7 VA)

Yillimuh, I noticed the other day that every townhouse and single family home in our development has the foundation painted the same shade as the siding. I don't think you would have any trouble getting approval for doing that, widening the walkway, or painting the fence. Actually I think you can get away with doing all three of those things without asking for approval. Re the shutters, in our development everyone got one of 5 different trim colors. Maybe one of the colors used in your development is a darker blue/gray? If so, I think that would be an easy approval as well. We added a deck a while back and did have to go through the Architecture Review Board process. A hassle but not terrible once you know what they want (and how long they'll take to respond). If you call your HOA, they should send you a document or point you to a website with their process. In our case, the Architecture Review Board is just a few people from the community who volunteer to be on it and meet every month or so. All our's required was a mockup/plan of what was being proposed and a form that two of our neighbors had to sign saying that they were aware of our proposed project.

Wonderful plans, I really like the grasses and how the basement window is accommodated. I personally would have never figured that out. Definitely widen the walkway! Good luck!

    Bookmark   June 11, 2010 at 6:07PM
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dsb, I've noticed that there is a dark gray/blue used for the shutters on some of the other houses, and it is much nicer than my shutter color. Every house has white trim, though. So we'll see - I have no idea how open they will be to the request. I think the potential problem will be the dark trim and removing the shutters. I don't think that painting the foundation will be an issue.

Widening the walkway - interesting! I hadn't thought of that, but I will look into doing it. (I think I will also hve to get permission to do this.) I definitely see how it would look a lot nicer if it were as wide as the steps. I don't really like the pots on the first step now, and would love to get them (or some other containers) their own little spot. Good idea.

oilpainter, I definitely agree about repairing the gate so that it won't sag. It has been driving me nuts for a while but I haven't gotten around to figuring out how to fix it. As far as painting the fence, I actually really love the look of the weathered wood, so I'm going to leave that as is. I know it isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I really like it.

lazygardens, I like your idea about having some plantings at the intersection of the public sidewalk and the walk to the house. Very few of the houses on my street have any kind of landscaping (And most of the backyards are just a dirt hill - barely even any grass!), but one that is really nice has some nice little raised beds on either side of the walk to the house. It is so inviting and pleasant. I'd love to do that if funds allow. What about putting a few squares of paver (above and beyond any path widening) and putting containers there? Do you think that would have the same effect?

karin, thanks for the additional feedback. I think I just didn't explain myself fully or clearly, because I think I am open to some changes. I was kind of imagining it as an all or nothing thing, especially before I had heard any ideas. But a lot of the suggestions are not huge major things, and they are all under consideration!

Thank you all so much for your help! It has been really helpful to have your input and thoughts. I really welcome all the ideas. I'm still a ways away from doing the work, but this is really helpful to get me thinking about it in new ways. And when I do get around to getting started, I promise I'll post photos!

Oh, and a quick question - as I said earlier, I have to get a big stump ground out of the right bed. Can I do that right before I plant new plants, or should there be some time between removal and planting?

    Bookmark   June 11, 2010 at 10:58PM
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