The responsibility we have to our residential clients as landscape designers is simple as seen from the client’s point of view, yet complex in our reality. Each house and site has specific problems to overcome as we pursue a great landscape plan, yet there are six problem situations that occur repeatedly on modern subdivision lots.
Repeat Offenders: Six problems to overcome in a typical residential landscape
By Elinor Bennett Markle
The responsibility we have to our residential clients as landscape designers is simple as seen from the client’s point of view, yet complex in our reality. For the typical client, our role is to provide a landscape plan that fits within his/her budget and improves the function and visual appearance of the property. The most successful designer will respond to the architecture of the home, its’ setting on the land, and the client’s use and aesthetic preferences. Each house and site has specific problems to overcome as we pursue a great landscape plan, yet there are six problem situations that occur repeatedly on modern subdivision lots.
1. Curb appeal is always important to a residential property, so the view of the home from the street is key. When a very wide driveway dominates the view, do not accentuate the driveway by outlining it with hedges or borders, as this reinforces its presence. Instead, divert interest toward an interesting ground plane planting near the entry or another good feature of the house. A subtopic of the overwhelming driveway is the in-your-face garage door. It is a feature of currently popular floor plans to advance the garage to the front. Unfortunately, this places the most unappealing part of the house closest to the street, and first in our view. A good way to de-emphasize this snout on our house is to use horizontal massing on either side of the driveway. Do not line up the trees to frame the garage door, but rather to set up a diagonal line of sight from front property line towards the front door. The branches of the tree(s) should overhang the driveway slightly at maturity. Limb-up the tree as it matures to allow the client’s largest vehicle to pass under without scraping.
2. Second on the list is a hidden or insignificant entry walk and/or hidden front door. Often the house is built with a narrow, uninviting and uninteresting three-foot wide sidewalk straight to the front door, with no gathering space on the ground level. Going to the front door should be a pleasure and set us up for the visit to the home, not a run through the gauntlet. Add a hardscape area outside the front entry that provides this gathering space, or add pavers to an existing narrow sidewalk to widen it and give it interesting detail. Create a planting area on both sides of the sidewalk, and give the path a great focal point for both the visitor walking to the door, and the trip back to the driveway. Use low-voltage lighting with attractive fixtures that illuminate the path and reveal great plant shapes, statuary and stones within the planting bed, as well as connecting the driveway to the front door.
3. Lawns, front and back, with no boundaries are tiresome, and read as useless and neglected space. It is not necessary to use hedges or fences around every client’s property lines to establish the extent of the homeowner’s lawn, but we need to see some definition of space. Often a homeowner is reluctant to put a plant too close to a boundary line for fear of offending the adjoining neighbor. Just as often, we work with the homeowner who wants to set plants on the line to stake his claim. There is good compromise between these two approaches; group plantings in a well-edged planting bed along the property line between your client and his neighbor. Use a variety of heights and textures for interest, depending on the size of the bed. This bed can contain the focal point for the entry walk, as well as define the client’s property boundaries. Likewise, the focal point for the visitor leaving the front door can define the opposite boundary of the lot. These sorts of beds are perfect for the placement of the client’s “favorite” tree/shrub/perennials/annuals in a planting arrangement that also gives multi-season interest. Creating these property-line beds can also help prevent the homeowner’s tendency to introduce random plantings. Random placement is annoying because the plants do not relate to the home, but simply fill a perceived blank spot in the yard.
4. Sometimes a homeowner will ask for foundation plantings alone. Most modern homes are not built with the high foundations of 100 years ago, and thus do not need the massive shrubbery to tie the house to the land, or give human scale to the view. Better to use a wide planting bed that spreads horizontally far enough away from the house so that those plants are also seen from inside. They will provide a foreground for the inside view towards the street, as well as being enjoyed from outside. A general rule of thumb I use in planning a modern foundation bed is that least half of the bed should be one-third to one-half as deep as the height of the façade it adjoins. Any less deep bed will look “stingy” and out of scale with the height of the house when viewed from the neighbor’s windows or lawn.
5. Lack of privacy in the back yard is a problem for new homes in particular. To solve this quickly can involve extensive planting and or privacy fencing, but often just using a few well-placed plants or privacy screens can add enough visual shelter to increase the comfort level substantially. I strive to find or create the principal relaxation areas of my client’s back yard, and then look from there toward the adjoining neighbors’ back yards and windows. I then take into consideration the views from inside the house toward the neighbors’ properties, using the most obvious views first, and plant or build groupings between the client and the neighbors. I design beds with several species, heights and textures of plantings. They become focal points with seasonal interest for walkways, decks, patios and poolside; provide an interesting view from inside my client’s house; and are privacy screens, as well as scenes.
6. Wasted area in side yards is another sad fact of many residences. Create side yard satisfaction with attractive fencing or trellis systems placed close to the property line. Then build a landscape bed between that edge and the side of the house. Fill up the space with plants that share microclimate needs, and use it to make a passive recreation area with a bench for bird watching or reading. A good path through is essential if routine access is wanted, but a simple stepping stone path will do if use is infrequent. Areas like this can establish boundaries and differentiate this house from the next, and do it economically too, as there generally is such a narrow area to work with.
Each client is different, and each house and site presents a range of challenges. Some of these site problems you will see over and over again throughout your career, yet your response must be individual or your work will become boring. Remember to look at the big picture of your clients’ entire property from inside the house, from the street view and from the neighbor’s yards too, even when designing for just one area of the whole. Watch out for the repeat offenders and use knowledge of them to help you see solutions that solve more than one problem. Make your plants and hardscapes multi-task to create the unique landscape within the client’s budget.
Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.