Front Yard Landscape Without a Door

Michael_J_ClarkAugust 24, 2012

We have a very difficult landscape situation. We live in a wonderful 120 year old Victorian home located in a historic district, but with a unique twist. Our front door is not on the front of our house. It is actually facing the side of the house along the driveway. The other issue is the front of our house faces north and gets partial sunlight in spots. A large blue spruce at the west end prevents it from getting much if any evening sun, but it does get some morning sun.

We did plant 3 hydrangeas a bunch of hostas, columbine, ferns, a small Japanese maple, and two very small rhododendrons. On paper, the design looked great. When I got in into the ground, it did not address the height of the house at all. As shown in the attached photo, each of those front windows is 8 feet high.

Does anyone have any suggestions?


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Here is a pic of the house.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 10:41PM
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My immediate suggestion would be to use colour and texture to direct a visitor's feet to the front door. I would look into removing a strip of the current right side driveway surface (the same width as the stairs) from sidewalk to porch and then replacing it with contrasting pavers or cobbles. I would also introduce a low barrier bed of ?hedging ?evergreen plants ?wrought iron fencing along the adjacent lawn area. Lastly, I would hang appropriate period window boxes filled with bright annuals and/or seasonal arrangements under the first two windows along the new walkway and probably on the back railing in front of the entryway as well.

The rest of your planting scheme sounds fine. You'll never get the tall height that I suspect you want without encroaching way too much on the driveway. Shame about those darned air conditioners though. No plans for central cooling in the future, eh?

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 11:11PM
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A better photo would help readers to understand the property. The picture you've posted has strong shadows; it's not possible to see details in the darkened areas. The angle is OK for a supporting photo, but it would be better if the basic photo you show is from a more straight on angle. I'd suggest using some of that morning light and lining up with the steps and standing in the street so that we see everything from the curb on back.

What's the stone arch at the right front?

Where are you located?

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 11:39PM
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Here is a link to a better pic.

As for the AC, we will be getting it within two years when it is time to replace the furnace.

I like the idea of the cobble stone and it sparked another idea. There is a walkway in the curb lawn between the sidewalk and the street that is almost perfectly in line with that front window on the left. Maybe if I remove the extra concrete only leaving the driveway width then connect the walk way to the frond door with an curved path, that might help.

I should have also noted that we are painting right now. The new colors are a charcoal grey, with cream white trim and cranberry red accents.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 11:49PM
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Oh and the arch is a basement window.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2012 at 11:50PM
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And where?

This one helps but it's easier to view photos if they are added directly to the thread. Maybe you can add a straight-on photo later...?

    Bookmark   August 25, 2012 at 8:13AM
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I take the fact that the front of the house does not face the road to indicate that the house probably was built before the street was built. In the town I grew up in, several houses had front doors on the side and they were the oldest and prettiest houses in the town.

I really like adrienne's suggestion about taking the side of the driveway out and creating a walkway. It looks like the steps to the door could be improved also. I would suggest a small (15-20ft at maturity) tree located close to what appears to be the center of the yard. The foundation is really pretty, I wouldn't focus too much on hiding that with a row of shrubs. It probably would be a good idea to remove the spruce in the front yard before it gets much bigger - it will out grow that spot and the house. Removing it will also add some much needed light to the front yard. Finally, I would find some victorian style urns, plant them with colorful flowers and put them at the steps leading to the door.

I love the flag in the first picture.
Where do you live? It would help us to know your planting zone. I would also love to see pictures when the painting is completed.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2012 at 9:58AM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

I feel like you got some excellent advice from adrienne.
There are some wonderful textured cobbles that have a period look that you can choose from that will coordinate well with the stone waincotting that you have on the house. Once installed as a walkway they will read as an inlaid welcome carpet leading from the public sideway to the front door.

The spruce is going to eventually overwhelm the front area and further limit the amount of light into the house.
You might consider removing it. Please don't limb it up, that would be a pity.

I would suggest doing a period planting scheme in the front yard with a wonderful victorian urn at the center or on either sides to the opening to the low enclosed courtyard garden - a simple low green box hedge at the perimeter and infilled with hydrangeas, perhaps 4 corkscrew topiaries at the corners and some perennial or annual color that relates to your newly painted house scheme colors.

It's a unique house that deserves a unique planting scheme .
You will lose a wonderful opportunity by installing an average cookie cutter mediocre planting scheme.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2012 at 11:59AM
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Ah, can see the "front" bed a little better now. It all looks like Lizzie Borden's neighbourhood - in a good way :)

Nix my suggestion about the window boxes. It would be too fussy here. I had completely misunderstood where you had put in a well chosen selection of japanese maple, rhododendrons etc. It's all in the front by the sidewalk then? Hmm, then I might go even further and remove ALL the grass in the front yard and reconfigure everything into separate planting beds in a potager-like configuration with the JM at the centre. That way, everyone can easily appreciate your attractive stone foundation whilst the beauty of the tree is highlighted against the blank area between the facing windows. If the same entryway cobbles were laid in the pathways between the beds, a low-maintenance and cohesive frontage would be seen. A wrought iron fence could still be incorporated as needed to direct foot traffic flow.

Your new colour scheme sounds really good. Is the gray going to be a soft dove or a saturated stormy gray tone?

I also agree that the oppressive spruce really needs to go. Definitely it shall make things too gloomy in the near future, especially so close to such a large boulevard tree. I presume that the sidewalk tree is owned by the municipality and can't be removed. It would have been nice to lose that one as well. What kind is it?

    Bookmark   August 25, 2012 at 12:58PM
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The spruce has a few (as in lots) useful years left - and it still has its groundsweep branches. When those start to go, I'd call in the professional services to remove it - and in this case grind out the stump.

For the period of the house, and the need for a bit of height. Try a rugosa rose or two - if you get maybe 5 hrs. of morning sun, these tend to do fine. Some bloom only once a season, others are repeaters - like the variety Frau Dagmar Hastrup.

The foundation is nice as is the basement window treatment; definitely wouldn't hide either. With something like the roses, planted out from the foundtion, a scattering of hostas and low growers would work. Not a 100% sold on the too small to be effective rock border.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2012 at 1:04PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I live in a 110 year old house in a historic district, and from my experience and observation of this type of house, standard cookie-cutter landscaping rules simply do not apply to tall narrow tightly spaced houses with postage-stamp sized yards. "Addressing the height of the house" is just "not gonna happen" because - as you can see with the spruce - anything big enough to match the HOUSE is (a) too close to it, and (b) completely dominates and takes over the YARD. To have a nice yard adjacent to a house like this, you have to - and I know this is counter-intuitive - ignore the house and just focus on the quality of the space you want to create. The house is going to dominate the view no matter what you do - and that's a good thing, since we love the houses.

What most of us in these houses do is design the space so it is either usable (utility space, space to sit or otherwise spend time, passage-way) or so it is attractive close-up, that is, a nice yard or garden in and of itself, as experienced from being in it or from close range - the public sidewalk, the immediate street. The distance view, which drives most "curb appeal" initiatives in suburbia, runs a distant second because not only is it hopeless to try to address the height of the house at the foundation with the ground space you have, but also, you just don't get far enough away from this type of yard for a standard foundation planting to have its desired effect - typically the streets are narrow, the houses close to the street, and street trees further reduce what can be seen. That is one reason why your initial planting did not achieve anything. The other is that the foundation is busy (in a good way) and actually visually fights with this style of garden placed right in front of it.

With an old house in a small yard, there are two other reasons to stay away from the foundation. One is that the space adjacent to the foundation is sometimes the nicest space to be in the yard. It has no overhanging branches, at least from one side, and you have some hope of privacy given that your only other option for open space is by the yard perimeter where you have no privacy. Putting plants at the foundation simply pushes you out to the perimeter. The second is that you need to maintain your siding, and possibly your foundation as well. It is not good for old wood siding to be covered by anything that retains moisture, and this means plants, rain barrels and compost bins, window boxes, or anything else. I might add a third - your foundation looks like it might not be all that airtight, and having a bunch of plantings adjacent to it may increase chances of insect and vermin entry.

I think Yardvaark is interested in a straight-on view because it is easier to sketch ideas on, but I find the shots you show allow ample room for discussion. The only thing not clear to me is what role the "front" yard might play in getting from front door to back yard. Taking the idea of a paving stone walk to the front door a bit further, perhaps a branched walkway to the back, or a patio/courtyard that you can walk through, could be the backbone of your "front" yard design. The existing stub of sidewalk in the hellstrip could be incorporated, but I find you need two paths across the hellstrip - to the passenger door and to the front or back of the car for the driver to go around the car (I actually have three options so I can go around front or back of the car).

By the way, your climate matters in terms of what materials you use for a sidewalk that is delineated from the driveway. If you do a lot of snow clearing, you might be best to stay with a common concrete surface and simply paint or stain a different surface on the walking part. Cobbles, bricks, or pavers will also be vulnerable to frost heave unless very well done. The structural stability of the whole thing, driveway included, matters most.

Karin L

    Bookmark   August 25, 2012 at 2:59PM
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molie(z6 CT)

Is that a covered porch on the right corner? If so then that porch becomes a feature of your home that you can enhance instead of hiding ---another reason to remove the tree. I'd love to see a picture of that corner taken closer to the tree.

Your house is lovely and there are many great suggestions, above, to enhance its unique style----- like eliminating part of the driveway and putting in a walkway to the front door and using urns and period plantings to give a statement to the home. Karin's use of the world "hellstrip" and her suggestion for adding additional walkways in that area got me to thinking more about that space. Have you seen the Living Hellstrips of Buffalo, NY? These are landscaped areas between the sidewalk and the street which are often neglected or just grass-covered. Landscaping (of a period sort) here will add color and textural interest as well as visually extend your front yard. Of course, I don't know if this is an accepted practice in your area or if you are looking for low maintenance, which hellstrips often are not. One other thing you might consider is to incorporate new front steps when you put in the walkway.

I'd love to see a photo when the painting is done. Your house is marvelous and with enhancement of its special qualities, I think it will become a focal point on the street.


    Bookmark   August 26, 2012 at 11:06AM
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Michael, without us also seeing what exists at the right side of the house, we might be offering you an incomplete assessment of what the front yard should be. I see a part of a porch-like structure over there, but not enough of it to know what could/should be done with, or around it.

It's too bad the spruce isn't far enough away from the house that you could keep it for all time. While it's good for a while longer, I think it's clear that its days are numbered before you are forced into taking some kind of action. Though you've been counseled against limbing it up into the tree form, I think doing exactly that (only when the time came) would be one way for you to gain a few more years use of it. Maybe you could find a local example of a spruce with its canopy raised to the tree form to see if it would work for you... though I wouldn't at all be opposed to your then replacing it with something more workable.

It's difficult to see the existing garden in the front yard, but I can see enough of its border to tell that it's working against your overall efforts to enhance the appearance of the house. The stone is so small as to look like bits of gravel (cheap looking) in comparison with the block-like stone of which the foundation is built. It would be better to edge the garden with a mowing strip embedded flush with the grade, or a right-sized stone curb if the grade was raised a few inches (I'm not making this suggestion) or plain and simple, 'Victorian edging,' which is nothing more than ending the sod with a clean cut and slightly recessed garden soil grade.

Also, the geometry of the garden layout seems to me to be somewhat of the reverse it should be. I'd change it to funnel vision toward the door, not away from it.

It seems to me that building an improved set of steps could make a great difference in connecting the side entrance to the front of the house. It would be better if they were widened (all the way to the foundation) and lengthened (to come forward) and a railing were added. Making those changes would make the steps easier to use and more visible. I'm all for creating the appearance of a carpet runner that sweeps from the steps to the street. You may not be able to tell from my picture, but I'm notching the walk around the corner of the house (allowing for some landscape space) in order to widen it and enhance the effect of it funneling vision toward the entrance. Stamped, colored concrete seems like it would be a practical way to construct such a feature. (Plain--un-stamped--colored concrete with a scored border is a favorite inexpensive, decorative solution.) If it were possible to further cut the curb and widen the flare on the drive, you might consider taking advantage of that opportunity, too. If not, then (though I'm not showing it in the drawing) I'd even consider building a vine covered arbor (at the parkway) over the non-public walk. It could play on your architecture and add a lot of interest that would, in turn, lead to the main house entrance.

I think you could attract people toward the house entrance by surrounding the path to it with a floral display. Beginning with a couple of window boxes, you could also have a couple of patches of annuals in the ground and a flowering vine growing at the porch. It should radiate some "energy". I'm sure you could find colors that work with your new paint scheme. A floral display could be accomplished with no more than 20 square feet of annuals (and maybe some perennials) so it would a relatively easy display to maintain, especially if put on a timed drip irrigation system.

I noticed when I finished drawing the small tree in the front yard that it doesn't appear to be centered between the windows, so just imagine that's where it's supposed to be... planted enough feet off of the house to have clearance from the wall... even forward enough, if necessary, so as to be centered in the yard. Around it, there is a dome-shaped outline. If you could find a small "tree" who's ultimate size would be between these two configurations, it would work to incorporate some taller greenery into the front yard. What plant? Well, we still don't know where you are so I couldn't say. For myself, I'm attracted to a small tree that has some weeping/pendulous quality about it. If there was such a thing as a dwarf sourwood, a "look" along those lines seems about right. Surely, given the height limit, you'd need to make such a tree from a plant that would normally be considered a large shrub. Old fashioned favorites that get too big for their britches might be a place to look: lilac, some Viburnums, Hydrangea paniculata and things along those lines. See what kinds of large woody shrubs grow in your neighborhood and appeal to you. I'm showing the rest of the lawn divided between grass and groundcover. But it wouldn't be hard to imagine something pretty below the tree--like a bed of hosta--as part of the front yard solution.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2012 at 1:12PM
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molie(z6 CT)

Love Yarkvaar's' design, especially the floral colors at the widened steps --- and yes, to a railing --- and the multi-stemmed "tree" between the front windows! With the widened, colored sidewalk, he's given great visual interest and a kind of formal symmetry that your landscape lacked in the original photo.


    Bookmark   August 26, 2012 at 3:57PM
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Was this once the back door of the house, making the porch on the other side the original front entrance? And on that side, do you look at the back of other houses? Is there hedging or fencing along that property line? It's just that with such a tight space to work with, it would be nice for the "front" and that "side" yard to share some cohesive elements.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2012 at 6:24PM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

It looks to me like a variation on a porte-cochere. So the carriage pulls up the drive, and lets passengers out near the steps. There was probably some sort of back exit, so the horses didn't have to back up.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2012 at 9:47PM
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