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Setting a Front-Yard Stage

 

By Bruce Zaretsky

Last time, Bruce Zaretsky discussed the importance of making a good first impression with a home’s landscape, starting with defining a pathway to the main entry.  Here, he picks up that discussion while setting a broader front-yard stage.

Today’s homes have many entries:  front doors, service entries, back doors, garage doors and more.

As a landscape designer, it is always my goal to  communicate with all who approach the house, be they trick-or-treaters, new friends, neighbors, longtime friends, out-of-town visitors or professional guests.  I want them to know that they are expected to come to front door -- that is, the home’s main entrance point -- when visiting for the first time. 

In doing so, I try to leave no doubt about where anyone should go to notify the homeowners of their arrival and await a greeting.  This is why, when meeting a prospective client for the first time, I make it a point to go to the front door even if I see an open service-entry door:  I want to express to my client that this is where the action should be and establish a foundation for discussing the importance of the front entry.

Over Land and Under Foot

When visitors approach many homes today – especially those with large driveways and big garages – they can readily see more than one way to approach the home to seek entry.  Quite often, for example, there will be a service-type entry near the garage for ease of access, and the main front entry is some distance away, perhaps even around a corner.

I want to draw guests and other visitors to the front door rather than the service entry, so I deploy a couple of simple design techniques to establish a proper path – and keep them on it.

As I discussed last time, defining this pathway is a key organizational element in front-yard design.  To distinguish it from alternative approaches such as the service entry, I generally make distinctions through thoughtful use of paving materials.

If, for example, I have used brick for the main walkway, I might use Bluestone steppingstones for the service pathway.  Or I might use Bluestone as the main walkway material, then border it with a soldier course of brick -- and use brick alone on the path to the service entry.  In some cases, I’ll use the same material for both paths, but focus greater attention on the main walkway by making it wider than the service-access path.

(As a general rule, landscape architects are taught that the main walkway to a home should be five feet wide so two people can walk side by side without falling off the edges of the walkway.  While I agree with this in principle, I always let the site, the architecture of the home and my instincts dictate these dimensions and try never to let conventional thinking drive my designs.  That said, I rarely make a main walkway any narrower than four feet wide.)

Dressing Things Up

Beyond the practicalities of pathways, plants have a lot to do with how the front entry will be perceived. 

Although any sort of planting is nice, I tend to be more ambitious and will, whenever a site allows, do what I can to create that very satisfying feeling of walking through a garden (rather than proceeding around its perimeter) as one traverses a path or walkway. 

Using flowering or small trees to create an allée, for example, or formal plantings to frame guests’ approach to the front door both work in this context.  I also like to surround these entry areas with lush plantings, using perennials and grasses to lend texture, color and fragrance to the scene. 

Of course, the home’s architecture must be considered.  A more formal home (a Colonial, for example) calls out for formal gardens, which is why I often use lines of Boxwood or Hebe or other shear-worthy plants to border walkways or frame entry-garden spaces or terraces. 

Fragrance is an underestimated player in these settings – one I use as often as possible because the sensations that odors create are among the most powerful to humans when it comes to memory formation.  When visitors get out of their cars or walk up the driveway, I want them to be enveloped in a cloud of lavender or lilac fragrances before they ever see the plants themselves. 

And while I appreciate the fact that all elements of the front-yard composition must be balanced and must involve equivalent levels of concentration and thought on my part, I also recognize that plants can and should be the invariable stars of the show and accordingly use them to their fullest potential.  Large sweeps of plants, whether they are perennials, evergreens, grasses or even annuals, will make large and lasting impressions on guests as they approach a home’s front door.

Safe at Home

Although this discussion has focused primarily on the way guests perceive or use a front entry, I want to stress that they are, in a way, the last and least of the people I consider when designing for a client.  After all, no matter how much homeowners entertain, no matter how many guests come and go, the clients themselves are the most frequent experiencers of the entry garden – and that thought is never far from my mind as a design comes together.

Even if they never set foot on the entry walkway (and most likely won’t if they commonly drive into the garage and enter the house from a pass-through door or via the service entry), they nonetheless will see the main entry every time they come home. 

This, to me, is what matters most:  I want this entry to welcome my clients.  I want it to begin the process of melting away the stresses of their daily lives.  I want them to notice the colors and textures and fragrances of their garden spaces, and I want them to get a sense of how comfortably this stage embraces their friends and other visitors.  In sum, it’s all about the drama, and I do all I can to bring strong, dynamic touches to these settings.

In optimal circumstances, where I have room to work with and have the opportunity to include a long driveway, I’ll do my best to curve its path and line it with trees.  Who doesn’t love the feeling of driving down a lane shaded by flowering trees?  That’s an entry that literally hugs homeowners and says, “Welcome home. You’re safe here.” 

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Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y.  You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  

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