A House On A Hill

It’s a rather quick and showy matter – to discuss container planting design, planting, and the eventual, and hopefully lush outcome. The satisfaction planting and growing them on is a pleasure of a single summer season. But landscape projects can consume months of work, and the progress can be slow. Any large landscape project that involves a number of contractors requires loads of patience. I am in year two of this particular project. I will admit that the first time I drove up to the house, and looked back down the driveway, I was rattled. A large piece of land featured a house built on top of a hill in the far rear corner of the property. That hill dropped away dramatically in every direction.  Substantial portions of the land were below the grade of the adjacent roads. Knowing as I do that human interaction with the landscape depends on some flat ground on which to stand, I was discouraged. I would go so far as to say it is an alarmingly difficult site. My clients were not the least bit concerned. They were in it for the long haul. They loved the house, and they were interested in making a home for themselves-inside and out. My first visit to the property was not their first. They were already well on their way to making their presence known, cutting down dead trees and shrubs, and hauling away debris. They had planted some white pines.

The driveway was in rather poor condition, and would have to be redone.  But to my mind, the location of the drive was a bigger problem than the condition of the surface. It was not particularly functional, as it came up to the house at a very steep and awkward angle. Keeping it ice free in the winter would be necessary for both vehicular and pedestrian traffic. But even in good weather, it was a nerve wracking haul going up, and a nerve wracking brake fest on the way down. The distance from the road was considerable, so adequate parking near the house was a must. The existing drive court was too shallow to permit parked vehicles and access to the garage at the same time. The drive was too narrow to permit 2 cars to pass on the drive. Lastly but not least, it did not provide a beautiful and unfolding presentation of the house on the trip up. I proposed moving the driveway altogether, to a location that was less steep. The sweeping curve would provide views of the property. And it would be wide enough for 2 cars to use the long drive at the same time.

See what I mean? A good bit of the property is covered in trees.  That wooded look was entirely appropriate, and with some pruning and care would thrive. There was very little in the way of designed landscape near the house, as the opportunities to plant were few. My clients decided they wanted to proceed with the driveway renovation, and the creation of a larger drive court at the top. The driveway contractor saw to having the plan engineered and permitted. That was not the most simple or speedy process.  The grades were extreme such that several retaining walls would need to be built to hold up that drive.

An enlarged drive court and a place to plant on the street side of it would require a third retaining wall. The amount of natural flat space all around the house was minimal.  The drive court was up there in the tree canopy.  A landscape buffer would keep a vehicle away from the drop off point. Fortunately, the soil was on the sandy side, making the earthwork fairly easy to do. Another advantage was that work was not held up by rain, and water drained off quickly. Working a site with heavy clay soil can be set back a week or better after a drenching rain. There would be a terrific amount of work to be done before there would be any talk of a landscape installation.

The actual construction was quite interesting. The new drive was completely staked out, top to bottom. Once laid out, my clients could walk it, and see how they liked it. The layout was extremely close to the drawn plan, as the permit was issued for a specific location and configuration. All the while that this work was going on, my clients were still able to use the old driveway for their comings and goings. It is easy to tell from the picture above that the slope of the new drive would be considerably less steep than the original.

Once laid out, the retaining walls that would shore up the driveway were constructed from giant blocks of ledge rock, set with the help of an excavator. It’s obvious in the above picture that that the driveway grade is considerably higher than the grade of the land where the trees in the background are planted.


This picture reveals how the house will come in to view half way up the drive. This is the welcome home, and the welcome to our home moment. It is tough to spot the old driveway off to the left, but it is still there.

Once the grade was satisfactory, truckload after truckload of gravel was delivered and dumped on the site of the new drive.

The heavy equipment up at the top of the drive signals that the last of the gravel has been laid. That gravel would be thoroughly compacted. Very shortly thereafter, the first 2 inch thick layer of asphalt was put down. The final two inches will not be installed until the landscape front and back is completed. The weight of heavy equipment can damage a drive. Once the new drive was drive able, the old drive could be removed.

A gravel base had been installed, and tamped for the drive court retaining wall. This is a great view of the level of the new drive court, set at the grade of the base of the house. The slope away from that drive court is not sustainable without some retention.

Slabs of ledge rock would be set in place one at a time to shore up the soil adjacent to the drive court, and create an 11 foot deep planting bed.

Once the wall was in place, the bed was back filled with soil. There would be room for a landscape to soften the size of the drive court.

Once the old driveway was removed, all of the open ground needed regrading. In the first picture in this post, it is easy to see that the old drive was installed on on a hill of its own.  Much of that soil under the drive was graded towards the new drive, and smoothed out. This is a very large area – thus the bulldozer doing the rough grade.

There are situations when starting over, and balancing the land forms will make all the difference in the world to the landscape outcome. I was actually thrilled to see the progress at this point. This was an enormous change, but all for the much better. The driveway contractor, Ralph Plummer, who owns and operates GP Enterprises, sent me the following statistics on the driveway installation.

– Removed 6,100 sq. ft. of asphalt.  Stripped 200 yards of top soil and re-installed it in low area along drive. Installed 400 yards of sand.-Added 500 tons of 21AA crushed stone and compacted in place. Installed 10,000 Sq. Ft. of asphalt on the first base layer. The new walls along drive took 184 tons of stone, in addition to 84 tons of existing stone that were relocated.  Whew.

Late last summer, we were ready to begin the landscape.

A New Gravel Driveway

landscape under construction (8)I admire people who buy old homes, and sign up for all that it will take to renovate them. That is a huge commitment in every regard. An undertaking such as this demands lots of time and even more patience. I cannot imagine the expense. This gorgeous English Tudor style home is 95 years old. Very old homes like this one are remarkably sturdy and well built. I own a house built in 1930, and I can attest to how rock solid it is. I can barely drill a hole in my steel mesh reinforced plaster to hang a picture. That plaster and brick set over concrete block walls means that my house is incredibly quiet and structurally sound. This home features a virtually indestructible brick fired from a clay body featuring a big mineral content – manufactured with the idea of longevity and service in mind.  A good bit of the trim is hand carved limestone, all of which is excellent condition. The new roof is slate; slate roofs last just about forever. But great age exacts a toll on the working parts of an old house. Every house is a small city. It needs electricity, heat, air conditioning, weather tight windows, plumbing – this is a short and not comprehensive list. What got updated here is just about everything, and took a year and a half to accomplish. A kitchen and bathrooms that worked well in 1920 were reworked from the ground up. The interior renovation of this house is finished, and is finished beautifully.

a new driveway (1)My client’s interior designers introduced me to them and their property.  Eventually they would turn their efforts towards the landscape. Last year’s landscape efforts were concentrated on a pool, terracing, a spa, and an astonishing pergola built and installed by the Branch Studio. Screening trees, and a large collection of small spring flowering bulbs got planted late in the fall. This year, we hope to plant the front, side, and rear yard landscape. The property had been neglected for decades. The gravel driveway, all but invisible under a thatch of compost and weeds, was lined in concrete curbing that went 24 inches below grade.  A number of trees grew up, and spent decades thriving. Many of those trees were now were in serious decline.  Disease and fierce weather had taken their toll. The roots had grown over the curb, reducing the width of the drive to just over 8 feet.  A new driveway design and installation would need be the first part of the installation of the landscape.

a new driveway (13)Once the front yard landscape was agreed upon, there was a lot of work to do. Once the dying and diseased trees came down, the stumps were loaded into a 30 yard dumpster – almost 12 tons worth. That is a staggering number, and it explains why so many large machines are parked in the front yard. Taking apart an old landscape and driveway is a shocking experience, but bare dirt that is asking to be regraded is a big breath of fresh air. It is never an easy thing to abandon what was, and go on.

a new driveway (12)Once the drive curbs and the trees were removed, the ground had to be graded.  In this case, there was quite a bit of what I call balancing to do.  The land which was high on one side was lowered, and the low side needed to come up.  From the street, the land would look balanced, left to right.

a new driveway (4)The grade of the driveway would determine the final grade of all of the land surrounding it. A large motor court some 56′ feet wide by 32′ deep would be a dominant feature of the landscape. This would permit off street parking for clients who entertain regularly. But most importantly, a gravel drive and motor court seems appropriate for a house of this age and architecture. It interests me that many very old homes with motor courts were built before the advent of motor traffic. It can be a beautiful feature in and of itself. The accompanying landscape would in a simple way feature the house and gravel court.

a new driveway (2)In many respects a gravel drive is simpler and somewhat less expensive to install than concrete, asphalt, or stone.  One of the biggest expenses is the cost of the edging. The gravel must be contained.  A hard boundary is what keeps the gravel in place.  Gravel that has crept away from its intended location can look great in a very informal setting. It would look messy and untended in a house of this architectural formality.

a new driveway (3)
Both the drive and motor court are edged in 1/4″ thick steel.  That steel edges is secured by steel stakes that are driven into the ground through steel loops welded to the back of the edging. The steel has to be this thick to withstand repeated vehicular traffic, and stay in place.

a new driveway (6)The gravel motor court will be bordered in concrete paver brick, three bricks deep.  The border will help to visually reduce the size of the gravel area. It will also recall the brick on the house. This brick will be dry laid between parallel bands of steel edging.  Concrete brick can better withstand compression weight of a vehicle. Pictured above is a base layer of compacted road gravel.  The finished crushed stone will be added at the very last, at the height you see indicated by the top of the steel edging.
a new driveway (5)A large new blue stone front walk will make beautifully clear the location of the front door. The house is not symmetrical in its footprint.  The walk which is large enough to feel like a terrace is a centering gesture. There is plenty of room for containers out away from the front door. This exterior entry way echoes the scale of the spacious foyer just inside.

a new driveway (9)An important element of designing any driveway is to check if it is driveable.  My clients drove it a number of times when the scheme was painted on the ground. One little but significant change was made to help anyone backing down the drive stay in the lane. A driveway that doesn’t work well always shows where that pinch point is. Curves and changes of direction need to be gradual and sweeping.

gravel drivewayThe drive at the back will be installed as concrete aggregate, rather than compacted gravel. This will make it easy to shovel a path from the detached garage to the back door. The forms are being set for this portion of the drive. An iron fence and gate appropriate to the architecture is to come soon.

a new gravel driveway (3)The bed lines near the gate to the back yard were specifically set to allow my clients to back out of the garage, and turn around.

a new gravel driveway (2)As of late yesterday, the finish gravel has been put down in the motor court. The concrete brick is due to come in today.

a new gravel driveway (1)At the last of the day, a pair of 25 foot multitrunked katsura trees were added to frame the view of the house from the road. The landscape will be underway shortly.