Would love some input on front yard!

sherbsterAugust 30, 2012

Hi All. I have been a long time reader of GW forums, but this is my first post in this forum. I am doing a complete redesign of my *very* sad looking front yard. Here are the current pics (don't judge! we re-did the inside of the house first):

Potentially being hardscaped to look something like:

New siding, portico/porch, walkway, retaining wall, driveway, shutters, and total landscaping. Do you see any big flaws with my (very crude) plans? I do want to put a big tree in the middle of the right side partition - was thinking western redbud to keep things water wise and CA native. We are learning as we go, as most of this is going to be a huge learning experience for us. My dad is a handyman and will be helping us through it and we are having people come in and doing the retaining wall (cinderblock with stone veneer, probably), as well as the stairs, pathway, and porch.

Or do you have any other ideas?

Thank you in advance!

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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

I'd suggest you do the hardscape first and then worry about the plants. You'll want to see how the proportions look because the overall visual balance is going to change.

I'm not big on redbuds, the city put one in as my street tree (I didn't have a choice of what they would install) and I dislike it. If I were going for a deciduous tree I would have preferred one of the following: a Japanese maple, or a Chinese pistache, or a crape myrtle. All three have better form and color, IMHO.

Redbuds are "droopers/spreaders" - at least mine is. The branches are thin/brittle so the weight of the leaves pull them downwards. I'm having to constantly trim the bottom branches because they're at just the right height to smack you in the face when you walk by. If it were in the middle of a big bed it wouldn't be a problem...but it isn't. If this tree is going to be between two paths, an upright vase shape like a JMaple or myrtle is the most practical.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2012 at 7:29PM
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Where landscape elements are placed determines what the space becomes. Enlarging one space, shrinks the adjacent space. Since space is usually not an unlimited entity, designing a landscape is a matter of creating the best obtainable BALANCE... especially when it comes to function and hardscape. Your write-up doesn't include information about how you will USE the front yard, but I see a driveway passing through it. I'd think you'd want to make the driveway space more user-friendly, if possible, and your proposed landscape scheme seems to ignore that possibility. You could kill 3 birds with one stone if you made the transition between the elevation extremes more gentle. The driveway space could become a little wider. You could lessen complexity and expense by eliminating the second walk and set of steps and make the the main walk more user-friendly by shortening it. Rather than trying to keep your yard all nice and level, you could take advantage of the grade difference to add interest to the scene, and not present the yard as a barrier (which is seems like in the proposed scheme.) I like that you've widened the stoop. It would be good to widen the walk more, too. A main objective I would work toward is having the leading entrance corner to the yard (where one enters the walk) be at a lower level and set back from the drive so that the drive seems more spacious and so that the "invitation" to the front entrance of the house occurs earlier in the entry experience. It's possible that using a spacious, vine-covered arbor to signify the beginning of the entry experience could have a powerful effect for the overall yard.

One thing your pictures don't show is the overall view. We can't really see what the trees closest to the street are like.

What's your intention with the palm?

Any idea what happened to destroy the existing retaining wall?

Do you plan on making changes to the drive? ...adding paving to the center strip?

    Bookmark   August 31, 2012 at 10:21AM
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Thank you for your replies!

I will look into those other trees you mention. I have heard good things about the crape myrtle. I'm not totally sold on deciduous, though!

To answer your questions:
What's your intention with the palm? To take it out. I am not a fan of palms.

Any idea what happened to destroy the existing retaining wall? I think it was just very poorly built. There is no rebar in the cinderblock portion that they added on, and the remainder of it is simply one solid slab of concrete. I suppose we don't know for sure until we demo it if it has any supports in it.

Do you plan on making changes to the drive? ...adding paving to the center strip? I don't have solid plans for the driveway just yet. I do not want any portion of grass down there, so yes it will be cemented in, probably completely.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2012 at 10:46AM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

I like that you will add the wide and covered porch. In the end you may not be happy with the stepping stones going toward the drive, especially if they are on a slope.

You have the opportunity to do some really fine design with your home. I would view this as the prime moment to get rid of the lawn, but of course that is a personal choice. You could do a much more interesting dry-stacked stone wall along the front sidewalk and drive, incorporating some of the stone features into the porch, and plant a fabulous xeric garden. I know -- budget constraints, etc. :)

    Bookmark   August 31, 2012 at 11:30AM
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I would love, love to do the dry stacked stone (saw one of the other posts and love it)! Unfortunately, we are doing this on a tight budget (just had out first baby!), and we have so much to do, that it's just not realistic :( On the other hand, I totally agree that this is a huge opportunity and don't want to be penny wise & pound foolish and scrimp in the wrong areas.

    Bookmark   August 31, 2012 at 8:12PM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

Your wall is probably falling apart for the same reason ours, and many in CA do - lousy construction methods. In the 50's or 60's, there was a positive mania for using concrete to solve every drainage and soil shift problem. The stuff was cheap and any handyman could throw it up in a few days.

They ignored a few details such as: a properly prepared base, sufficient rebar, and drainage holes. After all, who cared? So it would fall down in thirty years...not their problem, lol. Your slope is very minor and your new hardscape will no doubt last much longer.

Do you like the small trees on the left? What about having one of them moved to your new triangle bed? They seem too close to the house in the photo, and would make a bigger impact planted further away from it.

Also, why did you say you wanted a "big tree"? Redbuds aren't big; they're classified as small to medium height trees. Big trees require big root systems, and you DO NOT want to do that near any kind of hardscape that will be vulnerable to strong root systems.

If you unload your car from the driveway as many people do, I can understand your wanting a secondary path up to the front porch. But that also reduces the size of your triangle bed accordingly, which is why I suggested you wait until your hardscape is done before picking plants.

Another tip when you are budget-challenged - for the best price you will be limited to whatever is available when you go to actually purchase plants. You either wait for a specific plant to show up over the next year, or you buy what's in stock at the time. Special ordering plants is very expensive. It's one thing to lose a $50 plant, and a whole 'nother thing to watch a $250 special order tree die.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 5:47PM
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One thing I was wondering was why you don't widen the drive space some and cut the corner off of the yard so that the distance from drive to house could be shortened and the path could be made much more gracious and welcoming, with lots of opportunity to add detail and interest. Here are some examples of possible ways the corner could be cut.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 9:26PM
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Congrats on the new baby! And the house :)
OK, How handy is this Dad of yours? lol
Your house is cute but lacks visual balance.
To the left of the front door can you rip out the shrubs and ad a mini porch with white railing to match the front door.
I'm in NY and that's a WORLD away in style from CA.... but it seems (lacking a better word) strange. Please don't be offended, you should see my place! I don't have a handy helper, unless it come to diesel trucks lol.
I also would make the walk way some where in between where you have the 2. Make it just one so there is no confusion for company or style. I would use the arch. Simple yet stately. As for plants...I'm in zone 5 and have no idea what works in your zone. I would suggest some type of mid growing ever green under the right side of the door and keep that area full but super simple. Nothing that would grow too wide.
I'm not sure if the columns will throw off the balance of the whole house, only because it's on the narrow side and might look... no words here, but like you're trying to look impressive but the area is too small for that look kinda deal?
Again I'm not trying to be rude or a jerk. Just giving you another point of view. :)
As for the crumbling retaining wall... I would teir it with rock walls, and grow herbs. It will be a nice fragrance to come home too every time you walk passed it.
Good luck!
:) Laura

    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 10:46PM
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jkom51(Z9 CA/Sunset 17)

If the OP doesn't have a big budget, rock walls are not going to work. Rock is EXPENSIVE in coastal CA. We pay high prices for the material that everybody in other regions wants to get rid of!

Our lots are also very tight. In fact, the OP's lot looks enormous by NorCA standards - maybe 50' wide? In San Francisco proper that's a double-lot width right there.

I like Yardvaark's suggestion for cutting off the corner, but you need to meet code, which is very strict for tread width/height in CA. Cutting off that corner means more stairs, which takes more length. Also check your local codes, because more than 4 steps here requires a handrail for safety purposes - another expense if you don't want it to stick out like a sore thumb.

I like the OP's design sketch and it will probably fit very well into the neighborhood, which is the most critical element for resale. No matter how long you're planning to stay in your new home, it's never wise to ignore resale in CA, which has always had a culture of greater mobility than the rest of the US.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 11:05PM
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"Cutting off that corner means more stairs..." Jkom, not sure how you figure that. There's a an elevation at the drive and finish floor that remain constant regardless of what happens on the path between. Cutting off the corner, doesn't imply piling up steps in a particular location. Distributing steps in smaller doses along the path would be preferable to clustering them intensively.

    Bookmark   September 7, 2012 at 11:27PM
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you're absolutely right when it comes to wanting to get rid of rocks here! lol
:) Laura

    Bookmark   September 8, 2012 at 11:00AM
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I think you need to seriously ask yourself why you're moving the start of the front walkway over to the corner. If the only reason is you think the curved walkway looks nice I don't think it's a good idea. The walkway the way you drew it creates two paths from your driveway even though the one is also accessible from the sidewalk.

Ask yourself who would use each walkway and when? You may be currently cutting through that part of the yard when you park in the driveway as a shortcut but once you install the back path you'll have a more direct access from the driveway.

Occupants that live in the home will park in the drive and use the driveway stairs. Visitors, mailman, delivery people will use the front walkway. These people will generally be parking on the street in front of your house and then have to walk down to that corner and then back up to the front door. Even though the actual walkway is extending only a few extra feet because of the curve the amount extra traveled is greater because of the location.

It also puts the entrance in a not so obvious place.

Like I said there are some legitimate reasons for putting the walkway like your propose. If you want a large grassy area for kids to play in the front yard or for a more private view/setting that works out. You can also put some low hedges in the front to enhance that privacy.

Or if you normally have two cars parked in the drive way it makes it a little easier for the person parked in the back to get to the front door.

I would have liked the stairs to be facing the sidewalk as shown below.

I also like to be able to see when someone is approaching the front door. If your living room is on the left of the door with the double windows and you want a curved walk I would consider putting the stairs on the left hand side instead of the right. That's more work, more money but it has a number of benefits. It provides wider access to your front door, you get to see who's coming, you get more room on the corner near the driveway and you can expose your landscape to the public more, you have more flexibility to position the birch, etc.

photo upload

    Bookmark   September 8, 2012 at 12:30PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

I wonder if you have addressed the elephant in the room .... your budget.
Have you spoken with someone who is knowledgeable about current construction costs ?

I've broken down the various areas for demo, *minor grading, construction of entry portico, the most simple kind of retaining wall system at the driveway,
a very simple low end path and steps as drawn in your sketch , figure in a 2 zone irrigation system and a drought tolerant planting scheme.
At the very low end of the spectrum your looking at $ 23 K mid range $ 31 K and to do a very nice job with some nice finishes you're easily in int $ 45-50 range.

So, back to the most basic question, What is your budget ? And what are the priorties ?

    Bookmark   September 8, 2012 at 1:08PM
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I am not offended with what anyone has said at all! I really appreciate the input. It is a strange house as it is. The original front porch was enclosed, which is why I think it's so odd looking/unbalanced. The original porch was right behind where the current front door resides. It's now an entry inside the house. For the front porch columns, I don't want something large/impressive at all. Just something to support the portico :) My drawing is quite amateur and I don't think my intended scale is conveyed.

Our budget is about 10k. We are doing most of it ourselves. After we use up our 10k, we will have to take a little break and do it piece by piece. We will do the irrigation, lighting, demo (which is almost done), siding (hardie board/shingle), and build the portico. We are paying to have the retaining wall put in and the cement steps, walkway and porch pad poured. My dad is a retired professional so I'm confident we can do it, though I can see blowing our budget if we do it all at once.

To answer some more questions, the small trees on the left are actually camelias. And yes, jkom, you are right on! Our lot is 50 ft wide (and only about 100 ft deep). Also, Yardvaark, I like the corners you suggested!

My priorities for the hardscape are the retaining wall with an acceptable finish (am thinking stucco at this point only because I think rock will be too busy, plus it will save $$$), I was hoping for possibly some pavers in the driveway (we will lay them but probably pay for some help to prep properly), and the portico/pathway/porch pad (as you said, they can be low end). The lighting and landscaping can happen piecemeal. It's the way all of the projects on our house seem to go.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2012 at 6:15PM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

it would benefit you greatly to visit a home supply construction supply store with an materials list.
I think you will find that 10 K will barely cover your materials cost.

I do this for a living , just like your retired dad, and it can be a harsh wake up call to see those materials numbers all up.
Professional labor is an entirely other $$ figure.

A materials list will greatly help you understand the realities of the financial scope of the project.

    Bookmark   September 10, 2012 at 11:41AM
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Sherbster, here's one example of a steps/path scheme that uses the idea of cutting the corner (the main goal being to shorten the connection from drive to front door so as to eliminate the second set of steps) just to show you how something like that might play out. I don't have the benefit of accurate scale, but you can see that the idea is open to a large variety of possible configurations which could work around your various constraints. It looks a little costly, but often there are ways to economize and still achieve the overall goals (which it sounds like you know.) One would need to explore it in depth with accurate information. The green line "box" is an arbor/pergola of some sort. The light green octagon is a "cutout" in the paving... for planting. (So you know, it's missing a ret. wall section but I've already uploaded so am letting it go as is. It's just for thinking anyway.)

    Bookmark   September 10, 2012 at 12:25PM
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