front-yard landscaping & low-slung, big-driveway suburban houses

castorpSeptember 15, 2011

The house is long and low. The driveway and garage door are prominent, competing with the main entrance, usually winning.

The front yard is too large for a town garden yet not large enough for a country garden.

The house, the lot, the whole neighborhood (filled with such houses) is designed for empty areas of lawn and clipped shrubs along the lot lines and foundations, a tree or two--if the septic drain field doesn't prevent it. Any homeowner who doesn't stick to this standard design stands out, usually not in a good way. Even if he or she manages to make a beautiful garden or landscape--very rare--it's incongruous with the rest of the neighborhood. The beauty and interest upset the dull harmony.

I see these sorts of houses and front yards everywhere. I live in such a house too.

Landscape designers sometimes struggle to reduce the size of the front lawns, planting low shrubs and groundcovers instead. The result almost always seems cluttered and clausterphobic to me. The houses, so low in profile, "sink" in the plantings.

A few try to "hide" the house with hedges, tall fences or mixed plantings. The police discourage this. It encourages burglars, and it can seem anti social.

I read garden design books looking for a solution. I look at pictures in garden magazines. Both tend to avoid these kinds of houses and settings. The few examples I see I almost never like.

Any suggestions? (Besides moving).

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Maybe you post some the pics here,help us understand it.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2011 at 3:44PM
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I'm guessing you have something like this with a large garage door on one end of the house and zero topography:

The linked house is lucky because the driveway and garage door don't take up half of the front of the house.

I grew up in a house similar to what you describe. I think you need a mix of "lawn" with planting beds to make it work. The lawn acts as a nice low base and doesn't overpower the house.

Don't stick with the planting beds up against the house or just along the perimeter. You'll need to have something in the lawn area.

Of course, you could just make the whole front yard a meadow and call it true prairie style.

You're not going to make the garage and driveway disappear but you can minimize it by painting the garage door. For instance if you use the same color as the body of your house it will seem more like a big wall and less like "look at me". Also, by pulling the eye away from the garage door towards something else of interest, you'll minimize it.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2011 at 4:38PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

There are plenty of ways to handle this sort of boring and uniform neighborhood generic landscape without destroying the overall caharacter or openness of the landscape. Scaling down the lawn area via adding more planting area can be accomplished sensitively if done with an eye to working with the long predominantly horizontal lines of the house, using plantings in mass and in varied height layers, using plantings as architectural masses with contrasting forms/textures/colors, etc. Unfortunately you'll tend to find that most homeowners in such tracts aren't going to want to spend the kind of money it may take to make an attractive change.

Simple things like adding saw cut patterns and concrete stains to break up huge driveways, or removing bands of concrete and replacing with planted turf-block or decorative brick/stone/tile pavers is one way to play down expansive driveways. Front yards can be made more interesting by creating semi-enclosed entry courtyards at the entry with enlarged paving/walkways that provide additional usable space for people and reinforced with some plantings at the perimeter that can provide views of garden plantings from both the street and from inside the house, while leaving the majority of the front lawn intact and visually aligned with the neighbors. I've often used several of these devices to update the standard tract home landscape here in SF Bay Area gardens, in some cases losing the lawns entirely.

Another approach might be to eliminate the typical foundation shrub plantings, and instead push the planting areas out to the street, thereby enclosing a large sweep of lawn at the house and putting the garden on view from inside the house, at the same time as giving a bit of privacy or at least visual separation from the street.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2011 at 5:19PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I think the problem is that the kind of people who buy those houses most often seem to have a tract personality - almost all that post here ask for help with design and then end up doing just what everyone else does; witness concurrent thread. Sigh. It gets very discouraging here on the forum. I don't even think the landscaping needs to cost all that much, since if the lot is flat there is little hardscaping to do.

But maybe that's why there's no book dedicated to that house layout - no market for it. The people in those houses are simply happy with tract landscaping. I know some don't - I'm thinking Jugglerguy, and isn't Ironbelly's house also pretty standard looking from outside?

I'm tempted to buy a house like that just to do something different to it just to post it here. If only I had $800,000 to play with :-)

I like your idea of cuts in the concrete, David.

Karin L

    Bookmark   September 15, 2011 at 9:23PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Cutting concrete to break up the look of large slabs, or cutting out bands of concrete in walks is a relatively quick way to effect major visual changes. Applying different concrete paint on stains is also a quick and easy change.

While it may be relatively inexpensive to do complete makeovers if all work is done by the homeowner, they have never run less than $5,000 to $20,000, on any job I've designed/installed. Granted my designs are usually installed to look grown-in within a year, and have lots of plants as well as automatic irrigation, and these are typically for gardens that are only 50 by 20 feet in area, small by non-california standards.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 1:57AM
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Thanks so much for the ideas. I'm considering several of them--sawing the concrete and painting the garage door especially.

Tanowicki, thanks for posting the pic. Yes, my house is similar, but longer and lower looking (and uglier) thanks to the garage and big driveway.

It's funny that you mention the prairie look. I replaced the front lawn with a meadow (native grass and mostly native flowers) and I love it---except for the fact that it seems out-of-place in a suburban-type neighborhood.

That's one of the reasons why I posted. My problem is not so much making the garden I want, but reconciling the garden I want with the setting.

I'm using paths of mown grass through the meadow, and mown grass between the sidewalk and the street, to try to tie the garden in with the neighborhood of lawns, but I'm still not sure it works.

This is the problem: however much I love a meadow (I am obsessed with meadows) in my mind a meadow belongs in a more rural setting, so it never feels quite right to me here.

So I ask myself, What would feel right? I look around the neighborhood. The gardens that look right to me are not usually gardens that I like. They are the ones where the homeowner does the best he can with the suburban garden conventions of lawn and shrubs. These gardens are peaceful to me, if not exciting, and part of the reason they seem so peaceful is that they seem to belong.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 9:12AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Now that you explain more fully, I wonder if the solution is as simple as framing your composition. Clean defined edges, or some form of purposeful containment, can make the difference in an installation like this looking controlled and elegant vs. accidental. Same principle as what makes cottage gardens look exuberant vs. messy.

Framing could refer to defined edging - bricks or something that matches what you do on the driveway - around the exterior of the property, or a tidy fence (one that has strong presence using boards, not something too see-through like wrought iron). Or a row of boxwoods for style contrast, or a strong perennial like sedums or hostas, around the perimeter. What happens inside is up to you, but if the external appearance is an issue, an external frame or boundary may be what it needs to fit into your urban environment.

Whatever it is, your neighbour probably has to mow up to it, or you do, so that should factor into the selection.

Karin L

    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 9:57AM
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Thanks, Karin. I like the framing idea. I sketched out several different ways of doing it--low fences, low hedges, strong mixed plantings that act like hedges. The trouble is that the house is so low in profile that even relatively low plantings make it appear to be sinking. The meadow does too, when it's at its high point.

What I have not considered is framing with some type of paving that would match whatever I do with the driveway. This would keep everything more open and eliminate the sinking problem. I'm going to think about this.

Thanks again.


    Bookmark   September 16, 2011 at 12:13PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

You know, the other thing about framing is that you get to control the shape of the artwork. The yard is likely rectangular, but if paving is what you use, you can change it to rounded or some sort of hexagon quite easily. You could even just leave grass triangles on each corner to achieve a hexagon, actually.

Boundaries are, to me, one of the unheralded make-or-break decisions in landscaping. Not an issue I've solved entirely in my own yard, I might add! But bricks or paving slabs of some sort (natural stone or concrete) are very useful in this regard.

By the way there is another long low house posted in a concurrent thread, and there have been others. Looking at other people's places often puts your own into better perspective, so looking around the forum might be useful. Use the search function for the word "low" or something.

Karin L

    Bookmark   September 17, 2011 at 12:23PM
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