The Roundabout

new-house.jpgBig houses on very small properties-a given, in urban areas.  A very small property that is hosting a very large house presents a special set of design considerations.  The entire space is  instantly visible.  This makes it very difficult to create a sense of mystery, or discovery.  There are few opportunities to create “rooms”, each with their own distinct atmosphere.  There is a single view, and few options to generate other views.  It is easy for a large structure placed in a small space to look uneasy or unsettled.  Big buildings loom over small spaces.  They block the light.  They are the dominant landscape feature with a capital L.

concrete-aggregate-driveway.jpgThis particular property is very narrow.  Critical to a successful landscape design is an assessment of how the house sits relative to the grade.  This house is set very high, given that the client wanted window wells that would add light to the basement level rooms.  This meant that a retaining wall and curb was necessary to create a driveway which is level.    A driveway would necessarily be a big feature of this landscape.  There is no room to make it a secondary feature.  Given the stone on the house, I designed a concrete aggregate driveway with a stone curb.  Why so much fuss over a utilitarian feature?  When the driveway occupies a big part of the front yard landscape, that driveway needs to be functional and beautiful.


landscape-design.jpgI like a front walk which begins at the sidewalk, and ends at the front door.  That route may be direct, or meandering.  It is also nice to have a walk from the driveway to the front door.  This is a matter of convenience.  The idea of pair of walkways in this small space seemed overpowering.  I was thinking about a landscape which would be based on an ellipse.  Much like a roundabout that enables traffic to flow, without stopping and starting.  Though I am nervous approaching a roundabout, I find the process goes smoothly once I am in it.  A gravel ellipse would touch the concrete aggregate drive such that a path from the drive to the front door would be visually unobtrusive.


The gravel ellipse would be bordered on each side by garden.  This would help to keep the gravel surface out of view from the street.  The elliptical ring with the blue handled  flat shovel pictured above would have a gravel surface.  The innermost ring would be grass.


The property had been overrun with trucks over the course of the construction of the house.  Given that the soil had been compacted to an extreme, we dug into it with pick axes and shovels.  We would eventually work some compost into the soil, but I subscribe to the idea that plants will thrive if they like the existing planting conditions.

elliptical-fountains.jpgA pair of half elliptical fountains would be installed in the center of the garden. As much sculpture as fountain, they provide a focal point for the landscape. They could be planted with water plants, or not.



The big gestures are strongly horizontal, in contrast to the strong vertical lines of the house.  Once the arcs of Hicks yews adjacent to the house have a chance to settle down and grow in, they will be maintained at a height below the ground floor windows. The gravel path from the drive to the front door is already invisible from the street. The yew, boxwood, and a pair of DeGroot Spires arborvitae will provide evergreen interest over the winter months.

lawn.jpgThe garden adjacent to the lawn features plants that grow three feet tall, or less.  This garden will be dominated by peonies.  Beautiful in bloom, the make compact and glossy leaved shrubs that look good all summer.  The plants are spaced such to permit the additional of taller growing annual plants.

landscape-design.jpgThere is a mix of plants. The outside garden will be taller, once it grows in.  The Little Lime hydrangeas grow 4-5 feet tall, as will the roses. Russian sage and shasta daisies are bordered in the interior by stachys hummelo and Visions in Red astilbe.    This garden will provide a sense of privacy and intimacy for the inner fountain garden.  Adjacent to the sidewalk, a buffer of lamb’s ears and moss phlox. On the lot line, a single Vanderwolf’s flexible pine, a few magnolia stellata, and a grouping of fothergilla gardenii.  A few lilacs, a favorite of the client, were placed where they would have room to grown.  The lilacs are faced down with lespedeza.   Euonymus “Moonlight” is planted behind the yews.  A stand of “Goldner’s Bouquet” daylilies were planted on the south side of the house.

elliptical-fountains.jpgBordering the fountains, a frame of sedum John Creech will help to keep the lawn mower at bay.  Interestingly enough, it is remarkably tolerant of the overspray from the fountains.  This landscape has only one organizing idea.  But rather than a beginning and an end, there is a roundabout.

schematic-=landscape-plan.jpgA schematic landscape plan is a simple series of shapes that indicate what goes where, and how one travels from one place to another.  If the landscape plan works well on a structural level, then the additional of the plants will bring a sculpture to life that is pleasing to the eye.


  1. An inspired design that gives people something interesting to see and do on the way to/from the front door.

  2. This is an interesting and instructive post. Your analysis of the situation seemed spot on, and led to simple and effective solutions. The design elements and plant selections work well together, and the fountains offer a lively focal point. Congratulations.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Pat, like any landscape, this will evolve and grow-and change. I am pleased with the placement of the structural elements. I think they will work for a very long time. We’ll see how the client handles the rest, over time. Thanks, Deborah

  3. I would have put a small tree where each fountain is and 2 very huge flower pots on the front porch. And yews to hide the house — really? This isn’t you.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Pat, the house is very tall out of the ground. There needs to be a taller evergreen presence that the yews provide. (they will eventually be trimmed lower than those windows.) My pictures don’t show it, but those yews curve sharply away from the house. There is a big space behind them. Two small trees would have been smack in the middle of the view from the interior windows to the outside. Like living blinds that they could never roll up. I should have said this, but my client specifically requested a fountain for the front yard. But I am interested to hear how you would have handled it. Thanks for writing, Deborah Yes, this is me and my opinion!

      • Pat Moore says

        Deborah, I love your work and your blog — my days are not complete without the blog. And l love you and would never intentionally offend you. Thank you for the extra information.
        Pat Moore

        • Deborah Silver says

          Dear Pat-I am not in any way offended!! I rather like having a lively discussion in the comments section. Everyone has their own point of view-and they are entitled to it. My work is not really my work-what happens is a lot about how a client feels about things. Thank you so much for reading-I treasure that. Deborah

  4. Silvia Weber says

    Dear Deborah, Your design for this property is interesting, creative, unique, and very appealing – we love it! Again, fortunate, indeed, is this homeowner who engaged you to design their landscape. Good for them!

  5. I like your design and ofcourse the fountains!! Was there any discussion regarding window boxes, especially for the 2nd floor? The house with its hieght feels empty with warmth when your eyes move upward from the first floor.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Laura, there was no discussion of window boxes, but it is an interesting idea. Thanks, Deborah

  6. Silvia Weber says

    Deborah, what is the paving material for the center walkway?

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Silvia, the walkway is limestone, with a border of granite setts. Thanks for writing, Deborah

  7. Richard K says

    This is absolutely BRILLIANT! I love how efficient yet elegant this is. A unique solution to a common problem. Keep up the good work! Thanks for taking the time to post and educate your readers. We really appreciate it.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Richard, I like efficient, and elegant. I am happy you think I got there. Many thanks for writing, Deborah

  8. Nice idea including the fothergilla. Hopefully the owners will be WOWED by the color come Fall. I’m actually starting to see some autumn-bloomers get started in my own garden. Looking forward to fall this year for some reason.

  9. erin bailey says

    Hi Deborah,

    I love this design, You successfully broaden the property and balance the height and mass of the house, a really elegant solution to a difficult problem. Kudos!

  10. Dear Deborah,
    even if I don’t comment so often I am always following your blog….today as I saw your last project-report I thought :that’s amazing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I love the project and the planting, very very good Deborah! I really think you should teach Planting Design…
    In September I will start my second and last year of my master in Landscape Architecture at the Greenwich University, I am excited but I also know my student Life is going to end soon and I will work somewhere (I hope..), cross your fingers for me that I will find a good job…ehehe Greetings from Italy, your Giacomo

  11. That looks absolutely stunning Deborah! The ellipses look great, as do the fountains!

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