Please help! New house landscaping

fish7577July 3, 2010

We moved in about 2 months ago and we're a little overwhelmed by the landscaping needs. We're in zone 6 in southwestern PA and the house faces East-Northeast. I'm new to the landscaping forum, but found it after getting lots of help and ideas from the "building a home" forum on GWEB.

The weeds in the bed in front of the house were getting so bad that we had to recently get pull weeds and put some mulch down. I was hoping to have a plan for the plantings before starting, but I'm not sure where to start. I enjoy doing it myself, but never had to design or layout something on this scale. The large bed in front of the house has a japanese maple on a small mound and a holly that we planted to block the electric meter. I'd like to have a lot of perennials or other color in the bed, but certainly will need some shrubs or other ground plantings. It's about 18 feet from the house to the inside edge of the sidewalk and the bed is about 35 feet long.

Also, there is a long mound along the road that I'm not sure what to do with. We wanted to block the sound and road a little so we have the mound about 5 feet high in the middle. It's covered with weeds now, but I just put roundup on the whole thing. I don't really want to have to mulch that whole mound every year, so I'm trying to figure out what ground covers or shrubs to use in addition to some trees. I thought a few evergreen trees would be nice in that area. I have about 15 feet on the otherside of the mound that is grass, so I could put the evergreens there and use the mound more for decorative landscape on the house side. I'm not really worried about the mound looking nice from the road, so I won't put a lot of plantings on the road side of it. That's a wheelbarrow in the picture to give some scale.

As for the patio on the side (basement level patio with large retaining wall), I have english boxwoods around it. I still need some more. Is there a perennial I could plant on the wall side of the boxwoods that will drape and overflow over the wall as it grows?

Thanks for any ideas! I know we have endless options since there's nothing yet.

Heres the pics.

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Hi fish,

I would have a landscape architect do a plan with your input. He will aid you in figuring out what suits the local growing climate and what are your likes and dislikes. He would be comfortable with the scale needed to provide with a successful landscape and help you phase it in according to your budget. You have a very beautiful home and plenty of room. It deserves a professional design and installation in whatever way you would find appealing. Aloha

    Bookmark   July 3, 2010 at 4:00PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I think you've quite correctly nailed that scale is what you're having trouble with. From what you've done, it looks as if you've chosen a tiny little portion of the canvas to work on here and another one there, the house itself and the mound, but you don't actually have a plan for the whole canvas. It sounds as if you're becoming aware, if you aren't already, that a piece-by-piece approach isn't necessarily going to end up being a brilliant composition.

I'm just reading a landscaping book by Joe Eck (Elements of Landscape Design) in which he begins by addressing the question of intent. And that to me is the second thing it seems you're having trouble with, not just on the big scale but also on the small one that you've started working on. For example, the effect of that planting of boxwoods is going to make the patio feel more cavern-like. Is that your intent? If you wanted to shade it, you would have chosen trees there. If you wanted it to feel open, you would have planted very low plants or left just lawn. The mound, at least, has intent!

It looks a bit to me as if you're having an attack of perimeteritis, planting only around things in the landscape because you don't quite dare go out and undertake anything in the middle. I've equated this in other threads (as you're far from the first to do this) to the tendency of beginning skaters or swimmers to cling to the edge of the pool or rink.

So I think you need to think about your overall intent here - just what kind of a picture do you want to paint? Cottage in the woods, grand estate, soccer and baseball space...? You can certainly undertake it and fill in the details one piece at a time, but think of it like a Renoir: you need to know if it's a nose or an ear before you do it. This is what a designer would ask you if you hired one, and what you need to know to do it yourself. And for us to help you, though we don't do design here for you, we need to know it too.


    Bookmark   July 4, 2010 at 1:17AM
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KarinL- the boxwoods are intended to provide a continuous hedge. That is mainly for safety. One end of the patio has a 7 foot wall, and I don't want to install a fence to prevent people from falling into it. As for the view from within the patio, it will have a cavern-like feel no matter what due to the height of the wall (the short side is about 5 1/2 feet). It makes for a nice private patio area. It could use some more personality from within, and I was thinking of creeping phlox or saponaria around the top edge that will cascade in.
As for the overall goals of the front landscape area, I don't think I can characterize the goals as succinctly as "cottage" or otherwise. I don't want it to be too formal. I'd like somewhat of a cottage feel with a lot of color and perennials, but the size of the house won't support a strictly cottage-style garden. I can use a lot of different perennials of varying heights and growth patterns, but I'm having more trouble figuring where it would be best to add some more sizable bushes and what types might help it tie together.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2010 at 1:38AM
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    Bookmark   July 4, 2010 at 4:58AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

We don't know exactly what the property boundaries are. Apparently it goes all the way to the intersection where you built the berm, but you're quite close to the house on the other side.

Have you thought about how you wish to use the different parts of the property? Horse pasture? Woodlot (in the corner with the berm)? Orchard? Tennis court? Giant veggie garden? 2-acre lawn with blooming shrubs scattered randomly to fill up the space (j/k: I saw one of those when I was house-hunting)? Lawn space for the kids' touch football? You're near the neighbor on the right, but have left a considerable expanse empty on the other side: do you have future plans to build a second house or a barn, or possibly sell off a lot?

Now that you can have whatever you want (exaggeration), what are your dreams?

Are there views you want to keep -- or block (besides the road)?

The foundation's attractive, so you don't need a foundation planting to mask it, and you wouldn't want to hide the porch railings either. The bed on the right could simply be groundcover or mulch, with scattered low shrubs, as well as the perennials you want. You'll need something on the other side of the house to balance it (that bed will be sunnier than the right side of the house).

I'd add a pair of Stately Trees in front of the house: deciduous trees trimmed so there aren't any low branches. Not so close to your gorgeous house as to block the view of it -- more to frame it. I don't know how far from the house that would be. [Since the house isn't symmetrical, maybe four trees, two on each side, but still with a large gap in the middle.]

I'd also add several trees behind the house, for two reasons. First, to provide shade to the west-ish side of the house. The second reason would be to provide a backdrop to the house when viewing it from the front (yeah, it would take a decade or two to achieve that height).

Normally, shade trees would be planted on the southern side as well, but you don't want large roots to jeopardize the patio walls. Still, I think there should be something with height on that side, just far enough in front of or behind the patio that the roots won't damage the masonry.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2010 at 11:04AM
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Thanks for all the thoughts so far.

We'll eventually use some of the very back of the lot for a vegetable garden and put a 2 car detached garage at the end of the driveway. There is a total of 1.8 acres. Most of the front and side will stay open lawn for the kids.
There is actually about 75 feet between our house and the neighbor. The opposite side(by the patio) and the front have about 125 feet to the street. That's the farthest we could go and have room for geothermal heat/AC ground loops. There were 5 trenches 150' long, each separated by about 15 feet on the patio side of the house, and they have plastic tubing buried about 6' deep. They say I can plant over top without worrying about it, but I'd worry about it. We want to keep an open front and side yard, but were thinking of a tree about 25 feet from the front left corner of the house. We'll add some trees in the back, but need to add some more fill to extend the level portion of the back yard a little further.
As for trees, I like maples. I planted three autumn blaze maples across the front of the property about 25 feet from the road. I'm not sure what type to used closer to the house.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2010 at 12:17PM
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sleepy33(5b KS)

It's not helpful to your questions, but can I just say that your house is gorgeous and I'm drooling! Love everything about it, from the design and style of the house, to the amount of space you have; I'm jealous of all your wide-open sunny spaces, and your 'blank slate'. Have fun!! :)

    Bookmark   July 5, 2010 at 12:40AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I'm sorry I didn't fully glean this from your original post, but I get the impression you are just looking for plant suggestions and bed layout help for the foundation planting and the mound. You may get that here, but you may also have better luck with it on the shrubs forum, a regional forum for your area, or a forum dedicated to the type of plant involved - conifers, rhododendron, trees, what have you. But generally speaking, that kind of help is better sought at your local nursery where you can discuss plants actually in stock where you shop.

This forum tends to discuss issues relating to landscape design, and so the questions that tend to engage people here are things like "does this house/site require a foundation planting at all?" rather than "what plants should I put in my foundation bed?" Most people just plunk in a foundation planting out of habit, but it actually suits the minority of houses and I don't see any requirement for it here on this house with a beautiful foundation and such a large site for plantings to frame the house. Certainly I can now see why the boxwoods are there! But I think if the target audience includes children or people wandering around at night with a beer can, a more solid boundary might be preferable - perhaps an airy metal railing that has little visual presence but significant holding power (there may also have been a way to grade the property to avoid having such a sudden drop).

I also think this house will look much more grounded when it has a backdrop of trees behind it; that tends to have a much more significant effect from a distance than a few bits of greenery at its toes - even the phantasmagorical amount our Chinese friend has sketched in his/her photoshop pretend-universe of imaginary plants in improbable sizes.

Or "is a mound a good idea and if so how to integrate it with the flat site?" But if the mound is going to be there and you don't want to integrate it, then you don't need advice.

The mound is the one thing for which I could make a plant suggestion, namely junipers - looks sunny there, and there is nothing better for covering the ground, though you'll need to weed or mulch until they grow in. But if you want actual evergreen trees, it may tend to look a bit like a moustache on the yard if there are no other plantings across the expanse of the yard. Nothing wrong with doing it if it meets your needs, but like the mound itself, if the eye has nowhere to stop between it and the house, it simply tends to go from one to the other and wonder "why?"

Would you put rocks on the geothermal field, or could you put a rockery-type thing where the geothermal isn't? If so, we did once have posted a thread with a picture of a similarly sized property with an island bed in the picture that was edged with large boulders that made a real impact from a distance. That really counterbalanced the houses in the picture, irrespective of what plants it had in it, and of course had an all-season impact. Unfortunately the photo in the thread has been pulled.


    Bookmark   July 5, 2010 at 7:32AM
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What a beautiful home!
I see a perfect opportunity to grow a beautiful weeping willow of my dream there in your spacious lawn. (It has extensive root system so it needs to be planted far away from house, walkway etc) Your lawn seems to be big enough for this graceful tree. It would grow fast and big to match the scale of your property and would provide a nice shaded area for your family outdoors. :)

    Bookmark   July 7, 2010 at 6:33PM
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I am not a landscape designer, so take my words with a grain of salt. I know you stated you would like to keep quite a bit of grass open for the children.

I personally would plant a large tree or two on the front lawn somewhere. A large, stately tree would add a lot of interest to your home and would avoid that "little trees big house" look that some developments have.

A tulip tree or oak would be very nice. That way, the children could have some shade to retreat to in the heat of the day.

And I would also like to say that your house is beautiful. I am very happy to see that you chose to put in a front porch - it makes the house look very inviting! Too many houses these days have no front porch!

    Bookmark   July 14, 2010 at 3:58PM
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Thanks for the ideas. I definitely need to add some trees. I thought about a weeping willow toward the backyard, but the best area is where our sewer line runs. I may have enough room to plant one but I've heard of the extensive roots (to the point I have heard of townships banning them in residential areas). I put a few Red Maples toward the front of the lot, but it will be quite a while till they're of any substantial size. I'll probably put some type of oak in the back, but not sure what type. I don't know much about oaks, but I know I'm not planting the ones that keep their dead brown leaves all winter and then give you an extra round of cleanup for the spring (I think those are pin oaks, but maybe all of them do?).

    Bookmark   July 15, 2010 at 5:31PM
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You made good choices with the red maples...they will look nice and they grow fairly fast so they will look good pretty soon I think :).

If you were to go with an oak, I would go with a Northern Red Oak. It says you are in zone 6, not sure exactly where, but it looks like somewhere north of the Ohio River. I always prefer to plant something native to my area, if possible. You don't want pin oak, you're correct. You already seem on the right track! Oaks are good trees, tend to be healthy, etc.

You could also consider putting smaller trees (crabapple, redbud) in strategic locations to add some softness, yet height, to some areas. I could see a nice redbud going right there at the end of your front walkway where it meets the driveway. That would be beautiful. Another place where a medium-sized tree would look great is on the side of the house near your "sunken patio". Once again, maybe a redbud or crabapple. That way it adds some interest to that area, won't get so large as to endanger your house or foundation, and will be pretty in the spring. Just suggestions. I saw your post in the tree forum but I figured I'd throw a few things out there, I'm too lazy to go over to that forum right now LOL. It's really up to you. There are people that hate trees and love lawns, people that are in between, and people that hate lawns and love trees. I fall into the last group so I am somewhat biased. But if you aren't fond of large trees all over the place, I would stay with your plan of the red maples out front, an oak in the back, and a few redbuds or crabapples placed in strategic areas. Hope my opinion helps. I know when I'm looking for help on here, fresh ideas always help me out even if I don't agree with them.

You should be proud of your house. It's not a "McMansion Monstrosity on a Hill". It's beautiful. Modern yet elegant and timeless. Which is why a few large trees and a few smaller trees will look so great and compliment the house.

Another large tree to consider for the back yard is a tulip tree. They grow very fast, have fairly strong wood, and provide nice shade. They have the same graceful beauty of an oak, imho. They can sometiems be a little messy, but to me they are well worth it. Mine grew 4-5' this year (i planted them last year and they were only 8' tall).

    Bookmark   July 15, 2010 at 7:33PM
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