Ideas for improving my bungalow's front/side yard? (pics!)

cruffJuly 5, 2011

Dear Wise Landscaping Friends,

I'm looking for ideas for new shrubs and other plantings for the northeast corner of my house, the front yard (the house faces north) and a little bit of side yard. In the long run, my goal is to have a grass-free front yard and a sort of cottage garden effect, but I don't want to undertake major landscaping of the whole space at this point, because chances are very good that there'll be some drainage/plumbing work that'll cut through the middle of the front yard sometime in the next couple of years. (I've just moved in and am monitoring the basement to see how bad things are likely to get :-) So I'd like to start working from the property line in on this side - the side where there are no drainage problems - defining the space and making the whole thing look like less of an unplanned mess, and I'd like to get a start on it during this year's fall planting season.

I'm in the process of having some horrible, rusty chain link fence removed. The chainlink that separates my front yard from my neighbors' yard is down and the frame for it will be coming down shortly. A new, wood, 6' fence around the back yard will end just behind my chimney, which you can just see in this pic:

and here's a more general view of the front of the house:

I love my next-door neighbors on this side and have an excellent chatting-over-the-hedge relationship with them, so I'd like to plant something along the property line that attractively defines my yard but doesn't end up much higher than the 3' or so of the old fence.

Other parameters:

- I have dogs and so would like to avoid things that are aggressively poisonous or that shed things that would get caught in spaniel feathers, but this area will be outside the fenced dog zone, so it's a semi-safe space for plants I wouldn't want them to be running through all the time.

- As you might be able to see, there are various mechanicals right near the chimney - meters, a/c unit - so I'll want to clear a path around from the front walk back along next to the house on this side and put down some stepping stones, so it's easy to access those. There are a couple of scruffy little azaleas back there that could definitely be moved.

- I'm in Washington, DC, in zone 7. Because of the slope of the land and the space between my house and my neighbors', this corner of the yard gets some morning sun, and midday, too, in the summer. The other side of my front yard, just out of frame to the right in these pics, is entirely occupied by a splendid old holly tree, so that side is completely in shade and the tree shades the east side of the lot, too, in the later afternoon. (I took these pics at about 4pm today.)

I'd be grateful for any and all ideas, because I find I have no landscaping imagination. Thanks!

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Maybe add other color tree,shrub,flower it work.

    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 7:03PM
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    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 7:24PM
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Wow, look at that color! I like it! I hadn't thought of the serpentine idea in your first pic, but it definitely has potential. Thanks!

    Bookmark   July 5, 2011 at 7:29PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Designshare has a fantastical imagination and maybe those are real plants in China where s/he lives, I dunno. But sometimes by accident, Designshare actually makes a good point, and this is one of those times.

Landscape design novices often make two mistakes, one being that they automatically plant at or alongside things and boundaries, afraid to use the whole space, and the other is that they start with trying to decide what to plant.

What to plant is easy: you go to your local nurseries, where they sell only plants that will grow in your area, and you shop throughout the season to get plants that look good at many times of the year. If you like a plant and it meets your needs, you buy it, never mind what some total strangers with different taste who live in other parts of the world think you should grow.

Where to plant is harder, and you have to figure this out FIRST. To get this, rather than thinking of the plants, think of yourself. Where do you want to have something to look at when you come and go from your house? Where do you wnat to walk in the yard? Sit? Compost? Rainbarrel or hose outlet and storage? Put groceries down? Really think through how you want to move around and work in the yard - will all your beds be positioned so you do your weeding with your back to the street? How you plan to edge your beds is also worth thinking through in advance.

Some people do go plant shopping first, and figure out where to plant stuff after that. That can work if you have enough space to do trial and error - somewhere to put your errors :-)

One thing I think I would do if you are paying attention to that back area is open up the entrance to it first by removing that hedgey thing in front of your house. The big shrub might be worth keeping if it flowers nicely or provides shade, but I don't see too many merits to the hedge in front of it.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 2:32AM
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I am from Buffalo,NY.if you feel snarky or sarcastic,ignore it.she is trying to control all.her goal isn't a dictator but only recommending her cahoots as your designer.the cahoots recommend her in other chance too.
it is enough to obey this forum rules.we enjoy freedom here.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 8:00AM
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KarinL, you've given me tons to think about. Here are some thoughts in response to parts of it:

Your questions about how I want to move through and be in the space are well taken. I'd add another consideration, though, which is how the house speaks to the street. I'd like it to say: "this bit is my yard, but please do come in! Because of the walk, the porch steps, and the deep front porch, the way in for visitors - and the way I'll walk in and where I'll put down groceries - are very well defined. Here are a couple of pics that show more of the front yard:

Because of the way the holly tree (which I love) sits on the west side of the front yard, there's a real imbalance between very strong and rectilinear visuals on the west side and open and scraggly boundaries on the east, the more so with with fence coming down on the east side. I'm cool with the openness on the east and the more closed, divided feeling on the west, because I love my east-side neighbors and not so much the west-side one! That said, I do feel like there's a need for some visual interest and definition at the property line on the east side - something just a little sheltering to reach out from the side of the house towards the sidewalk and embrace visitors without overwhelming them. Which leads to your next point about...

Planting along boundaries: The caveat against the beginner's mistake makes sense to me, because of course in interiors the comparable mistake is to line up everything absolutely straight against the walls. In this case, though, having lived in the house only a short time, I can clearly see the need for some definition along the property line but don't yet fully know how I'll want to move in the space. Since whatever goes along the side and back of the yard will be visible over whatever eventually goes in the middle, is there any harm in planting shrubs near the outside edges of the space and making decisions about the middle in a future season?

On the hedgy stuff in front of the porch, I do have some useful info, and I think you're right that most of it has to go. There are several different things going on there. The low thing out in front that's trimmed like a hedge is a group of azaleas! Now, I like azaleas, but these flower in the worst possible shade of magenta for all the other color that's going on here. The largest thing is a red-tip photinia and most unfortunately it's falling victim to that leaf spot disease. Poking up between the azaleas and the photinia are a couple of very happy rhododendrons, which could stay and become part of a new grouping. I'd love to look out over something pretty when I sit on the front porch, but I don't need something that screens the porch as much as the current ailing photinia does.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 8:20AM
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If you like the neighbors on the east side I'd suggest a row of ornamental grasses. They imply softness & flexibility, but still give you a strongly vertical line to balance the holly tree (which is magnificent and I wouldn't cut that, either).

If you are worried about having a little row of grass soldiers you could stagger them. I just tried to draw that 3 times using "x" and spaces, and got nowhere. So imagine a line where they are offset from each other, you can still see through them that way. And they make a nice sound when they wind blows through them.

The other benefit of some grasses is that they are often taller than they are wide, which gives you plenty of space for other plantings as well. With more sun on that side of the yard you have more options for pretty flowering things over there, so I'm guessing you don't want to lose too much space to a divider (like a fat hedge).

On the west side of the yard I'd suggest something easy & low maintenance since you don't want to spend much time chatting it up with those neighbors. It might seem boring but a bunch of hosta might work well. There are some varieties that are huge - they could form a nice backdrop for some of the smaller ones placed near the walkway. Add in some Heuchera and you are good to go. The rounded, mounded forms of those plants might take away some of the linear feeling you get from the holly tree, it could soften it a bit. And in the winter when you shovel the walkway you can throw the snow onto that side without hurting any plants, since both of those die back to the ground.

I know I'm suggesting some pretty common plants here, but if I were you I'd put the exotic & exciting stuff near the walkway & to the east of it (in front of the porch) where you will see it more and it will get more attention. And the common stuff can be cheaper when you are first starting out (or contemplating a potential basement drainage project in the future).

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 12:23PM
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Thanks, pam29011. Those are very helpful ideas. Are there any grasses you'd particularly recommend?

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 2:35PM
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Fori is not pleased

A heat tolerant Fargesia sp. might be a nice grass choice although you'd have to trim it if you wanted it low. Evergreen, too.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 3:26PM
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I don't know zone 7 very well, unfortunately. I'm partial to grasses with fluffy seed heads, I'd head to the local gardening center and see what they have (that looks healthy). Because it is at a distance from your walkway I'd avoid grasses that are variegated with white/green stripes on the leaves. This is just personal preference, but those tend to look ghostly or anemic from a distance. There are some very pretty red-tinged grasses out there (which someone else might think looks like a crime scene, so it's a tough call).

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 5:38PM
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Thanks, pam and fori. I'll go browsing at local nurseries and think about grasses. I actually prefer ones withOUT fluffy seed heads, because those invariably get tangled in spaniel hair :-)

    Bookmark   July 6, 2011 at 6:03PM
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whitegarden(Z5 MA)

The crafsman or bungalow style emerged at a time when there was a new discovery of asian design. You can see the influence of asian design in the woodworking and the low-slung roofs of a bungalow. You might want to keep that in mind with your landscaping. A smaller, clumping bamboo would make a stunning screen between you and your neighbor. Then a specimen japanese maple could punctuate the left corner of your house depending on the amount of sun you get. I would get rid of the huge shrub in front of the house and keep the low hedge temporarily, perhaps planting some taller perennials behind it. An adromeda is also a wonderful asian-inspired plant as are rhodies. Both can be pruned to show their sculptural trunks as they get larger. Caution, both can get very large, but one in the kind of space you have can be lovely as a specimen plant. Later, tie it all together with a larger quantity of a limited number of perennials. Don't plant too many types of plants. Low grasses like hakonechloa do well in partial shade add color and can tie it all together if you plant a good drift of them.

The house is beautiful. When the time comes to paint you might want to re-think the colors. Here is a like you might enjoy:

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 10:09AM
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Whitegarden, that's very helpful. While I wouldn't want to do a garden that's so Asian-themed that it strikes only one note, but I like the idea of using some Japanese elements to nod to the house's style. A friend just gave me a bonsai for my front porch pedestal to start me out! And there is definitely a new exterior color scheme in my future. I'm happy to collect ideas on that and I hadn't seen that particular HGTV episode - thanks!

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 2:48PM
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whitegarden(Z5 MA)

No worries. Good luck. It is a really beautiful house. Hope you enjoy health and happiness in it.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2011 at 2:51PM
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