Rethinking The Front of the House

– Posted in: Design, Front of the House, New House, New Gardens

country house with leaf pile

This house does not relate to its environment. It just sits on an expanse of lawn, clutching the shrubs close to its base.

The front of our current house presents a very long surface to the road, having been added onto twice by attaching rooms to the side. It faces the most level land to be found on the entire ten acres, the front lawn. And yet, when we moved in, only a scruffy scrim of shrubbery clung to its exterior walls. The bushes surrounding the middle terrace and kitchen door were overgrown to the extent that we weren’t quite sure where the pathway was supposed to be. The effect was aloof and unwelcoming, daring you to figure out which was the proper door to knock on.
overgrown foundation shrubs

There was just room for a single person to squeeze through originally. None of these foundation plants remain except for the Japanese maple at bottom left.

Better Proportions Needed

To some eyes, the shrubs just needed a good haircut with hedge trimmers. But considering what a large mass the house presented, to my eye there wasn’t enough horticultural mass to balance it out. Indeed, Joe Eck, in Elements of Garden Design says that “borders should extend in width at least two thirds the height of the structures that back them. In the case of foundation plantings, beds should be at least as wide as the largest plants in them are tall.” (p.43) I didn’t take that as a rigid rule to follow, but as permission to remove some lawn in the interest of creating better proportions (and having room to grow more plants, I confess).

I’ve already described my design considerations for the front walk (which was actually created after the path I’m discussing now). I am now considering the front cross path, that goes from the driveway across the front of the house, connecting access to the three doors in front and taking the stroller all the way to the other side of the house.

Who Will Use This Path?

Let’s make one thing clear: if you’ve parked your car in our driveway and you’re familiar with our family, you’re not going to walk to the front of the house. You’re going to enter through the door on the attached garage, as we do. That’s the most-used house entrance and, thanks to the previous owners, it’s the only entrance with a doorbell. So who would be using this path?

  • Strangers who don’t know where the doorbell is or who just assume the front door is the proper entrance for them to use.
  • People who pull into the driveway and see others sitting on the porch and decide to join them.
  • Kids running around the house because that’s what kids do.
  • Anyone inside the house wanting to visit The Secret Garden.
  • A certain someone who, upon leaving the car, wants to see how the garden is doing before entering the house.

This would not receive enough foot traffic to require paving. And then there is the matter of providing truck access to the double set of doors at the end of the house furthest from the driveway. So what I am calling a path has to be wide enough for a truck–but only on rare occasions, like maybe once a decade.

What Should This Path Accomplish?

I want to create a path that

  • Connects the driveway to the front of the house
  • Connects the three front doors to each other
  • Follows foot logic, the natural inclination of walkers (or runners) when they’re not really thinking about where they’re going
  • Allows for nicely proportioned garden beds up against the house
  • Leads the walker to discover the Secret Garden
  • Is not too fussy or formal, because this is not a fussy, formal household

The heavy dotted black line in the map below designates the path I have in mind.

Front cross path map

The path moves across the front of the house, connecting the three front entrances and permits of view of the Secret Garden at the end.

The three entrances would join into this path. By the time you reached the far end of the house, you would be able to see (indicated by the red dashed arrow) the entrance to the Secret Garden, though you would still have to go down a slope and across more lawn to get to it.

I used some old garden hose, saved especially for this purpose (“Mom, why are we keeping this hose if it doesn’t work?”) to mark out the curve I wanted.

Use a garden hose to mark the edge of your garden path.

The garden hose was easy to adjust when I decided it didn’t curve exactly the way I wanted it to.

I didn’t get the curve right on the first try. I laid it out, and then I walked it, keeping my eye not on the path but on my final destination. If I found myself tripping on the hose, I knew the hose had to move. If the line displeased my eye, I adjusted it again. I left the hose there for several days (from one lawn mowing to the next), and I would walk the path at different times of the day, from both directions, and from each of the doors. I left the hose there long enough that the grass grew up around it, leaving a clear imprint when I removed the hose. This made the next step easier.

Following the imprint left by the hose, I sprayed the line with landscape marking paint. Landscape marking paint is basically spray paint in a can that has been modified to spray upside down. It doesn’t come in as many colors as regular spray paint, but you can usually get it in white and fluorescent yellow and orange at a big box store.

Use landscape paint to mark the edges of your new flower bed

You can get a sense of the curve I was going after, although the sharp corners in the foreground were later modified.

Since I intended for this path to remain as a grass path, what I really did was determine the edges of the expanded flower beds. The painted line showed where sod should be cut and removed. The creation of those beds will be the subject of another post.


Since it is a grass path, all that is needed is to re-cut the edges and keep the grass mowed.

Future Improvements

Once I am positively sure that the edges are where I want them, I would like to install more permanent edging. Re-cutting the edges is a chore that often gets away from me, and it is easy for the line to get moved without laying out the hose again, which is a bother.

For the path to really look like a path, it needs a facing border on the other side. Exactly how this border would be shaped is a delicious puzzle that has yet to be solved–and perhaps never will. I am trying very hard not to create more garden than I can manage. And yet, as I look ahead to gardening years where the gardener’s body needs increasingly more accommodation, it does seem like the quasi-level front lawn would be the best place to concentrate one’s efforts, and the front porch the best place to view them from. It may be that there is already enough garden created to keep an aging gardener busy.

This post is part of a continuing series chronicling how I am designing new gardens at my new (to me) house. All the posts are gathered under the category New House, New Gardens. Here is an overview and map of the environs. News Flash! Check out contributor Rundy Purdy‘s guest post on DR’s Country Life Blog.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

Comments on this entry are closed.

James Schiller February 3, 2014, 3:05 am

Wow, you have a nice spacious lawn! It would really add to the beauty of your home if you develop it.

Donna@Gardens Eye View February 2, 2014, 7:30 pm

I love the idea of your path Kathy and look forward to seeing the plan come to life. I too am trying to keep work to a minimum as I age.

Pam/Digging February 2, 2014, 3:47 pm

How fun to plan out new gardens and paths. I look forward to following your progress, Kathy. A thoughtful post, as always.

Diane C February 1, 2014, 10:04 pm

Too bad you couldn’t have unleashed a bunch of kids to run around the house a few times … bet they would have found that same arc as your garden hose! Can hardly wait until you post pictures after all the work is done.

Pat Webster January 31, 2014, 8:05 pm

Kathy, A really interesting and thoughtful post — on the sort of subject I enjoy the most. I’m curious about why you are using a curve for the front edge of the beds rather than a more linear approach (or just a straight line) which, to me, seems more in keeping with the straight lines of the house. I’m not suggesting a single long rectangle but rectangles of different widths that mirror the sections of the house, each section with a straight front edge. Not sure if I’m making my idea clear… wish I could sketch it out!

Lynne January 31, 2014, 8:48 pm

Nature is soft and curvy, and considered highly feminine: Mother Earth, Gaia, Earth Goddess, etc. Curves generally soften and while I agree with you that straight lines could follow the house form, the countryside around in the pictures show ups and downs, so she could emulate those with the curves and even add berms (raised areas) that could shelter other areas. And there’s always rain gardens to put in, to keep water on properties rather than run off and cause problems down the hill. Just some thoughts, and take a look at the current Fine Gardening magazine for 3 rules to break in creating gardens.

Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern January 30, 2014, 5:49 pm

You are so patient and disciplined – I find it so admirable! I am going to try some of your methods when making our path to our garage/workshop – which is a route we walk multiple times each day. I am still making garden and your words “I am trying very hard not to create more garden than I can manage” are something I should heed! You have a nice expanse of front lawn/space – mine is very close to the street/sidewalk and I absolutely hate working in my front gardens.

Lynne January 30, 2014, 4:41 pm

Consider laying out the other side of the truck drive area by using really heavy duty cardboard (egg ship cartons at supermarkets) and then covering those with wood chip mulch (town’s often have them free, mine does). I do this for all my paths and to initially begin gardens ’cause then I don’t have to dig. You can even create planting beds this way . . . it’s called lasagna gardening and there are books at your local library. Though you can plant in the driveway beds mulch, you don’t need to. It just creates a softer view of the house and breaks the expanse up. And Feng Shui is really all about energy and those key 9 rooms in a bagua; it makes sense when you look at it.

george January 30, 2014, 12:52 pm

i just cut some new beds in front of my new house. landscape spray paint is too much fun.

if you get some string, tie it to the can, and use a stake or two you can make perfect circles and ellipses. after moving the stakes around, you can turn that into nice S curves as well. takes some time, but drawing on grass is strangely pleasurable.

i really like the look of perfect geometry at the front, then moving to freeform as you move away from the the front door.

Kathy Purdy January 30, 2014, 4:25 pm

George, you must not be gardening in a cold climate. No grass to draw on here at the moment as it is all covered with snow, and even if it were exposed, it is frozen solid. But I am glad you are having fun!

Kathryn/plantwhateverbringsyoujoy January 29, 2014, 1:48 pm

Kathy, Always interesting to watch your garden unfold. Yet what caught my attention in this particular post was your description of which door you use as your entrance to the house. I don’t know if you are into feng shui, but the choosing of the door as entrance completely changes the energetic perspective of the house itself according to this practice. If you are ever curious you might google the word “bagua” and if you find this fascinating, check out Karen Kingston’s writings, which I have found to be excellent references.

Alison January 29, 2014, 1:26 pm

I can definitely identify with your desire not to create more garden than you can manage (I’ve been guilty of that), and to put it where you will have the easiest access to it. You’ve put a lot of thought into the creation of this path. I like your tip about laying out the hose and then walking the area to see where you might trip over the hose.

JR January 29, 2014, 10:16 pm

Your rethinking is still so constrained, and coventional. What, after all, is a “front lawn”? Why not a full fledged vegetable garden? Where are the chickens? Or sheep? Or fruit trees? We’ve developd this slavery to the English lawn, so wasteful and useless. Your “rethinking” ignores so many greater possibilites. We waste an incredible amount of resources on our front lawns, to no more purpose than the shallow one of neighborhood image Such prime gardening spaces, going to waste. Expand your hoizons…

Kathy Purdy January 30, 2014, 8:19 am

JR, I would certainly like to see more of the front lawn planted in gardens, but, as I said, I am trying hard not to plant more garden than I can take care of. Maybe because we own ten acres I don’t feel like I have to plant every square inch so intensively. After all, we already have two vegetable gardens and apple trees in the back (and chickens), and I have blueberry bushes in the Slope Garden and other bramble fruits in containers. This post was more about mass and space, and less about what to plant in those spaces. The lawn is not fertilized and receives only natural rainfall, and I don’t think it is foolhardy for me to emulate an English garden if I like that look because our climate is not that different during the growing season. (Their winters are milder.) My goal is to make a garden that pleases me without bankrupting me or exhausting me.

Gail January 29, 2014, 11:56 am

Sounds like a good plan Kathy, especially considering the almost flat lawn and porch viewing area.