Story and photos by K.C. Fahy-Harvick
A fresh coat of paint or a new roof only goes so far to refresh the picture. As homeowners, we tend to overlook the flaws in our front landscape, either because we are too emotionally attached to our homes to see the problem, or we just don’t know what to do about it. Like an intervention, a stranger’s professional viewpoint can bring improvement ideas to fruition.
The Finger Lakes area has many architectural treasures, and I confess to being a home gawker. I’ve slowed down and drooled over a Federal from the late 1700s that has original hand-rolled (12 over 12) glass windows, a Victorian Painted Lady all dolled up in gingerbread, and a handsomely sturdy Arts & Crafts bungalow like the one pictured here. By the time I hear honking from the traffic behind me, I’ve noticed that the home’s landscaping doesn’t do it justice. The problem reinforces one of my home-design principles: you never erase a first impression. An old and overgrown front entrance gives the impression that the entire home is worn out. It’s not an appealing look, whether you’re selling your home or settling in for the long haul.
You could say that I’m obsessed with home landscapes, and you could say that I’m obsessed with critiquing them as I drive by. However, you could never say that I don’t thoroughly enjoy the rewards of redoing one that’s in dire need of a refresh. When the opportunity presented itself to do a makeover on this Canandaigua home, I jumped at the chance.
Spotting the flaws and playing up the positive
I photographed the area from several angles and then considered the property’s characteristics before I made recommendations. In this case, the architecture played a big role in my decision, and I looked at its strengths and focal points. The charm of this particular bungalow begins at the front porch which, in summer, becomes a great outdoor living space. However, there was asymmetry in the detail: the front door is not centered on the porch’s steps and the columns there are not evenly balanced. I decided to balance the architectural features with a somewhat symmetrical landscape design, while bringing in some more casual pieces (Heptocodium at the far end, and Physocarpus in the center) to soften the look of the square lines.
The owner’s wish list included low maintenance plants and lots of color (always a challenge), but the plantings were not the biggest problem. Together we decided to address the elephant in the front yard: the decrepit stairs and walk.
Walkways that lead to a front entrance are the most important element in making a good first impression. They should be at least 4 feet wide to accommodate two people walking side-by-side, and the higher the stature of the house, the wider the walk should be.
In this case, the home’s walkway began with seven steps from the city sidewalk to the front lawn. True to my experience with older landscapes, they were cracked and worn-out concrete, and too narrow. We quickly agreed that our landscape project would begin with new steps from the street and to the porch, and a new sidewalk.
Stone work (hardscaping) is costly, but it can be an investment that yields positive results. There’s a reason it’s considered a capital improvement.
Rely on professionals
I recommend hiring a reputable firm; first checking out projects they’ve done three or more years ago (that way you can see how well they’ve held up). Hardscape is not something to scrimp on or attempt as a DIY project. Cold winters here in the Finger Lakes produce expansion and contraction of the ground as it freezes and thaws. It can wreak havoc on concrete and stone if it’s not properly installed.
I usually choose pavers, reclaimed bricks, or natural flagstone for my projects, depending on the design requirements. I always work with experienced hardscaping experts. For this project, we used manmade paver stones and real sandstone cap stones on the steps.
The two most common problems with aging landscapes are overgrown shrubs (usually yews) that can no longer be trimmed or reshaped to an appropriate size, and trees that were planted too close to the foundation. The makeover decisions in both of these cases can become difficult. They are not for the faint of heart.
Yews would like to be large trees, so the longer they are trimmed as hedges, the larger the roots get, making them grow back with a vengeance. After decades of growth, these plants can overpower a house; visually shrinking it and impacting the overall impression. Preserving large shrubs by properly pruning and shaping them can be an economical fix, but a 50-year-old shrub that has not been maintained should really be removed. Trees that are crowding the house can be trimmed back but, sadly, most need to be removed.
Hire a professional tree service to remove the overgrowth and grind the stumps. It will make room for new plants to flourish. I always tell myself that the wood chips from the trees and shrubs will be returned to the earth, completing the life cycle of the plants. You can say it, too, if it makes you feel better.
K.C. Fahy-Harvick, a landscape designer, is a sought-after lecturer. Her workshops feature her love of perennials, bird gardening, and water features. More about Fahy-Harvick can be found at gardeningmatters.com or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.