Berms, Bark and Boulders


Suburban landscapes can be bleak.  I sometimes think they are more about what has been replaced on impulse, or places that are just left blank when something dies, than a design.   This landscape was suffering considerably from what I call  “berm, bark and boulder”  blight.  Mini- mountains of soil are studded with rocks, and a collection of plants are installed. If there was a big design idea here, I cannot spot it.  After planting, the entire area is covered in bark, usually deep bark.  But what baffled me the most here was how every plant was pruned into ball shapes, without regard for their species,  habit or culture. My client spent a lot of years raising her kids, and then more years redoing the interior of her house-which by the way is beautiful.  When she got to the outside, she called me.  Looking at a landscape on a cold March day can be sobering.  There are no leaves,  flowers or sunshine dressing up problems so they aren’t so obvious.  The first order of business was to engage a new maintenance company that knew how to prune properly. 

berms2The house sits on a piece of property that is very high and steeply sloped.  The berms only exacerbated this precarious look; the second order of business was to grade.  We dug up as much plant material as we could, and heeled it in.  We cut the berms down, and filled in the slope to soften it. We added many more yards of soil.  The existing plants we were able to save we grouped together, so every plant had like company, and replanted in another area of the yard.  

berms3The bermed soil right up to the drive edge meant dirt and debris on the drive, non-stop.  Any design needs a component that addresses ease of maintenance.  I am happy to attend to the maintenance of my pots every day.  Needing to sweep debris off a drive every day is annoying.  This kind of thing can make people dislike gardening for no good reason.  

berms4Once the grade issues were addressed in a way that worked, we laid out the design.  My client likes white, simple and dramatic.  She wanted to drive up to that, love it,  and then go to her back yard garden to spend time.  This first element of drama came from the grading. 

berms5The irregularly sloping and steep ground was graded to slope gently on a consistent angle to the street.  Particular care was taken to insure that the view from the house to the street would feature ground with sculptural appeal.

berms6For anyone who likes white, dramatic and simple, Limelight hydrangeas are a logical choice.  The dark green yews, and the sleekly trimmed arborvitae make great companions to all the profusion to come.

berms7The walk was redone in chocolate, or lilac bluestone.  This is an unusual color, but great looking with the color of the house.  The walk is bordered in annuals in the summer, and white tulips in the spring. 

berms8This new look helps to focus some attention on the architecture of the house, and features the front porch.  We enlarged the front porch, and repainted all the trim and wood on the house.  Sometimes a landscape project can spill over into another area of design.  In this case, a new landscape helped generate changes to the house, lighting, and porch.

berms10A pair of large contemporary French faux bois pots flank the front door; what a handsome view this is now.  Very friendly formal, I call this. She calls it a blast.


  1. You’re the professional, I’m not. Howerver, I find those angles and straight lines jarring, unwelcoming and unnatural. Maybe that’s the formal part and I’m not formal. I thought the sculptural lines of the tree that was unfortunately removed were pretty cool. I guess it’s just a personal preference, and the homeowner should get what they want. The hydranges are spectacular, though. I really like blog posts like this that show befores and afters and the evolution of a design, whether I like the design or not. I get ideas even if the end result isn’t my preference. I’ve learned something, so I still consider it a win. I look forward to more of your posts like this one.

  2. Deborah Silver says

    Dear Kim, I really appreciate your comments. Little did I know when I started this blog that I would value what people say as much as I do; thanks. Your comments are really thoughtful.
    You are right, the tree was gorgeous sculptural.It had been very badly placed, so I checked seriously into getting it moved-it was just too big. People do like very different things. I like looking at all kinds of landscapes, whether I would have it myself or not. Deborah

  3. Abby Rupsa says

    So I have a question relating to the fact that the berm next to the driveway caused constant debris cleanup for the homeowner. I am considering a small shallow height berm near my driveway, but debris is my husband’s main concern. I assured him there’s a way to minimize it, but I wanted your take on the situation. What’s the best way to contain it?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Abby, plants will contain the debris, and keep it off of the street. Large barked areas will have bark runoff in a heavy rain. Keeping the berm shallower than 60 dergrees helps too. Deborah

  4. My spirit thrives in symmetry — formality. I’m loving these before and after photos. Appreciate your posting them.

    That ‘chocolate’ walk lined with ‘vanilla frosting’ is my idea of heaven.

  5. Roberta Bresette says

    I believe you had this house on your garden tour? I recall it and loved it. We spoke with the homeowner as she was in the backyard. The backyard was lovely too with the pool and large containers on the patio. Loved the use of “white”.

  6. REALLY STUNNING from what it was……….BRAVA!

  7. Julie Chamberlain says

    Ahhh. Just lovely. I always get a tremendous feeling of “phew, that’s SO much better” when I see photos of your re-do’s…actually a feeling of relief…going from the befores to the afters.
    And always, of course, inspiration. Thank you!

  8. Starr Foster says

    Elegant and green – a huge improvement and I think suits the house.
    I like the billowing hydrangeas with the formal hedges and green lawn.

  9. Linda Bradford says

    I would like to receive Dirt Simple blog updates.


    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Linda, the blog email update mechanism is on the fritz. Once it is fixed, you’ll be able to sign up. Thanks for reading. Deborah

  10. Noreen Kozlowski says

    Spectacular transformation. What a refreshing idea to plant the lawn with hydrangea and frame the entry so nicely. I am curious about the upright arborvitae. I find that is an unusual placement. Can you explain that element a little further?

  11. Jen Taylor says

    Wow! What a spectacular transformation. I love reading about all the thinking that went into it and the before and afters. Yours is my new favorite blog. I’m learning a lot too. Thank you Deborah.

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