Other Pairs Of Hands

Two clients, gardening partners, purchased a vintage ranch home on a substantial piece of property a few years ago.  After spending a lot of time renovating a backyard landscape and pool, they were interested in tackling the front yard.  They called me to consult.  They had the original landscape plan-I am guessing it dates back to the 1940’s.  The plan was drawn up by Ilgenfritz Nurseries, a Monroe Michigan based nursery and landscape business which first opened around 1915.  How great they have this original document.

The landscape had declined some since the original installation.  Every landscape is either going forward or backward-there is no such thing as neutral, where nature is in charge.  Some very large trees survived, including one of the most gorgeous mature green spruce I have ever seen-in the back yard.  The house sits up high- and the neighborhood is known for its walking population.   A city owned walking path runs through their property.  They wanted privacy from the street. 

Another major issue-a greatly degraded driveway needing replacement.  The drive was due to be ripped out-but they wanted a landscape design consultation before they went ahead.  The orange circle in the above picture-would their landscape benefit from a landscape island in the center of the new drive? 

A breezeway between the garage and the house had been enclosed.  That breezeway is now the dining room.  The plants in the beds?  Those plants moved out of the rear gardens to a temporary”nursery” spot.  The original sidewalk was showing its age, but the concrete itself seemed appropriate to the architecture of the house. 

 They were in need of a schematic plan.  A concept that would include a driveway, a walk,  and some screening.  This is an instance where I would rather look at a plan on paper than the real property.  It is very hard to look at what has always been, and imagine it in a completely different way.  If you fancy doing your own design, find a document that describes how the house sits on the property, and blow it up so you can see the spaces.  The relationships of house to land.  A scale drawing comes in very handy, should you want to determine how many astilbes, or how many magnolias you should buy.  As for a new driveway, be sure you drive the route before you commit to the paving.

Since they would be doing their own planting, I marked up the front facade of the house with those lines that represented the edges of architectural features-as in the location of solid walls, and the architectural edges.  This house had walls in a number of different planes-that would play a part in the design. The sightlines-meaning those views from the windows, would play a crucial role in determining where evergreens should be planted for screening. 


 True to the original landscape, they were interested in an informal plan which would have plenty of opportunities to plant specialty evergreens.  They  also wanted a very simple landscape that would look good year round with a minimum of maintenance. They wanted to spend most of their time in the summer gardening in the back yard.  After putting a sheet of trace (tracing paper) over the original design, I drew in the givens-the house, garage and porches. The existing driveway in this picture is outlined in red.   I could see right away that the most dramatic change they could make to their landscape would be to relocate the driveway further away from the house.  The house has plenty of green company on the left side, as pictured above, but little on the garage side.  

 I am not crazy about landscaped islands marooned in a sea of paving.  They look disconnected.  Oftentimes they do not prosper.  The roots of trees and shrubs favor a free run over a space limited by hard surfaces.  I like driveways and walkways that look like the garden came first, and the hard surfaces last.  I proposed to keep the entrance to the drive at the street in the same place.  But I thought a drive that veered away from the house would allow for a generous amount of green on the garage side of the house.    Why a parking court?  The front of the house is quite a hike uphill from the street.  They have the room for off street parking. 

The existing sidewalk was very close to the house.  I moved it out by three feet.  This made a long gracefully curved walk to the parking court possible.  Should that walk be too long for an older person, a garage entry would be close at hand.  A large landscape area around the new drive would focus visual attention on the plants, and not on the expanse of paving.  A simple and linear evergreen planting describing the changes of plane would look appropriate with the architecture, and be fairly easy to maintain.  Proposed locations for evergreens take the locations of the windows in front into consideration.

 Their driveway starts where you see the road ending in the distance.  A very unusual cicumstance, this.  But I feel they will take the project in hand, and put the landscape to right in their own time and way.  The slope you see to the right?  I am sure there are some pines in its future.

A Driveway


For good or for ill, most of us inherit a driveway that comes with the home we buy.  They are a necessity of life-most of us drive any number of places in a given day.  There is a need for space for multiple cars, a place for company to park.  Plenty of driveways are designed by exuberant contractors that love their hard surfaces better than they love anything else.  This accounts for diveways like the one pictured above.  It looks big enough to host a pair of UPS trucks side by side, and it is.  19 feet wide, that is.    

Sometimes you get lucky; this driveway was 28 years old, and deteriorated.  It needed to be replaced, which meant it could be redesigned.  A new material might be considered.  A giant concrete landing pad in front of the garage doors had doubled as a basketball court for quite a few years.  The kids are grown now; a client’s use of their landscape can change over the years. 

My first idea was to make it smaller.  I pull my chevy Suburban in and out of my driveway every day; at one point the drive is but 8 feet wide.  This drive will have a finished width of 13 feet.  Less is more, and less is nice-unless you have different than average requirements.  Some streets do not allow parking on the street.  Some families are big families.  Some people entertain a lot, or have 4 drivers going in and out at different times.  Should you have a very wide driveway by default, or need a wide drive, there are ways to minimize the impact on the eye.  The use of several materials, and the color of the surface can make a world of difference.  

As this house has a contemporary feeling about the architecture, the drive is being poured in concrete that will have an exposed aggregate surface.  A grid of steel rebar will be laid in-this gives the concrete considerably greater strength.  Portland cement, water, and an aggregate are mixed together prior to the pour.  I am sure you have all seen a concrete truck, the barrel of which turns constantly.  Concrete will begin to set up very quickly; the motion keeps the aggregate evenly dispersed in the cement cream until it is poured. 

The mixture is released from the chute as the contractor requires.  This is a lot of batter to look after.  The forms that hold the concrete have been set up to insure that the finished surface pitches away from the house.  The driveway being replaced had little pitch; my client would have ice in her garage on occasion as a result.  Much the scale of a grading rake is a concrete screed; it helps the contractor to smooth the mixture to the level set by the forms.   

He tells me this mixture is a little soupier than he likes, but the finished product will be fine.  Once the mixture is poured, it will be covered with plastic, and allowed to rest until the lower level firms up.  Though the curing process is a chemical reaction, the cool and rainy weather will slow the initial hardening process.  At precisely the proper moment, the concrete cream which has risen to the surface will be washed away, leaving 1/3 of the stone exposed, and 2/3 of the stone securely embedded in the concrete.  Beautifully executed exposed concrete aggregate is an absolutely beautiful surface.  It is a difficult surface to do well.   This driveway is being done by Albaugh Stone and Masonry; they are well known for the quality of their work.     

You can see from this picture that the basketball court where I am standing at the end of the old drive is no more.  Once the drive is done, a decision will be made about how to l;andscape the space.  This photograph says everything about what my client sees when she comes home every day.  The driveway landscape is a very important one-most people visit it every day. 

How the transition between the garage and drive gets handled is important to the functionality of the drive.  Water has to drain away.  The narrow transitional strip of garage upon which the garage door sits will be removed.  The sand strip you see here, and the garage strip will be repoured as a single piece; this piece will drop 3/4 of an inch from the floor of the garage.    

Exposed concrete aggregate is a very sturdy and strong driveway surface which survives our harsh winters quite well.  The textured surface from the exposed stone is visually lively, but very clean and uniform.  The crisp surface will compliment the architecture well. 

Once the concrete is poured, washed and sawcut, I will write again about the design of the surface. Any beautiful material asks for a thoughtful design.

House on a Hill

The idea of a house on a hill has a grand and romantic ring to it-especially considering I have spent my entire life standing on ground no higher than sea level. The terraced gardens of the villas of the Italian Lakes-heavenly.  Meaning, heavenly to look at, and the devil to visit and maintain.  The crest of this fairly steep slope was home to a narrow driveway.  Driving uncomfortably close to  a steep slope can be nervewracking;  I would not have wanted to drive it at night, after a few cocktails.  A beautiful drivecourt would provide room to drive and park. The requirement for flat space would be provided by a retaining wall of pressure treated lumber.  As I planned to grow climbing hydrangea on the face, I chose the most reasonable and serviceable material.

aug-28a-742The driveway was equally close to the front door, and ran past the house to the garage.  This made for little opportunity for a presentation of the house, and its fourteen foot width did not permit much parking.  It seemed appropriate to splurge here.  Two inch thick bluestone laid in a classic aschlar pattern, and bordered in granite setts  announced the entrance in an elegant and spacious way.   

aug-28a-480When not in use as a driveway, or for parking, this  areafunctioned as a terrace. I have known my clients to host a pre-dinner hour here on a nice night.  The asphalt would remain in place on either side.  A stone driveway demands expert installation, a service which is well worth the expense.

aug-28d-760The landscape is simple.  Rectangles planted solidly with yews abut four rectangles of pachysandra and  matching English Oaks.  The triple wide hedge of yews  adjacent to the retaining wall provide security for people and vehicles. These masses of yews did have that polka-dot pattern for a few years until they grew in; proper spacing at planting helps to avoid cultural problems later.

egren0905-11A driveway that runs parallel to the front door  needs a landscape statement that signals an imminent entrance. This drivecourt landscape creates the impression that the garden came first, and the drive through second.  The English oaks enclose the space, without obstructing the view of the house.

egren-7-07It has been a number of years since this garden was installed.  This photograph clearly illustrates what a graceful space has been created from the simple idea of flat ground. Sloped spaces are not particularly sociable or functional spaces.  Deciding how you need a space to function, should organize the design to come.   

egren-7-07-3A pair of French orangery boxes from Les Jardin du Roi Soleil define the transition from driveway to walkway. These boxes have been manufactured in this shape, design, and color since ythe 17th century.  The legs, corners and hinges are cast iron.  Originally, the slatted oak boards and hinged iron permitted the boxes to be opened from the side.  A lemon tree that had summered outdoors could be slid out of its box, and stored in the orangery for the winter. How’s that for a little romance? 

Simple rectangles of painted wood contain boxwood hedges that sit between the columns of the porch, and on the roof.  The modification of the roof to hold those boxes-the work of a very thoughtful interior designer. 


There is a fine view from the inside looking out as well.  Flat spaces are great places  to meet and to be.