Bungalow Gardens


This sun-dappled image really says it all: in the Arts and Crafts garden, God lives in the simple details.

Large or small, [a garden] should look both orderly and rich. It should be well fenced from the outside world. It should by no means imitate either the willfulness or the wildness of nature, but it should look like a thing never to seen except near a house. It should, in fact, look like part of the house.
William Morris
Hopes and Fears for Art 1882

Recently a friend, who owns a charming bungalow in Chicago, wanted to know what is the most important element of good garden design for a small urban garden like his.  I really didn’t have to think before I gave my reply, as the answer is the same for all:  “unity of house and garden.” When architecture and landscape architecture share a similar style, the result is a harmonious marriage in which all sorts of minor sins can be forgiven. But when house and garden disagree, the outcome is inevitably an expensive divorce that cancels the potential of both.  For bungalow onwers, the mission of fostering harmonious relations between house and garden is particularly crucial, as the small scale and clean horizontal lines of Arts and Crafts inspired architecture can easily be overwhelmed by bad planting choices and poor hardscape selections. Here are some tips for making sure that when all is said and done, your bungalow sports a garden that complements, rather than competes with, your house.

Keep it Simple
The Arts and Crafts movement – the progenitor of the bungalow style – valued simple materials honestly worked, and this same basic philosophy should permeate your garden. Although something of an historical oversimplification, the cozy, welcoming nature of the bungalow partially derives from the romanticized vision of an English workingman’s cottage, and replicating the simple, flower-filled landscapes associated with these structures is a good starting point for the modern bungalow dweller.

The key to recreating this kind of craftsman look and feel outdoors is to start with the hardscape. It’s the bones of the garden – the walks, drives, patios, terraces and outbuildings – that really set the tone for the entire landscape, and a conscientious effort needs to be made to make sure that these elements have an appropriate look and feel. You’ll want, for example, to avoid using glaringly modern products like concrete or asphalt for paving, and instead choose brick or stone that matches your home, making sure that the “art and craft” part of the equation is evident by utilizing interesting patterns or shapes to enhance the natural beauty of your chosen materials. Fences (an almost ubiquitous facet of Arts and Crafts gardens) should also be selected to complement the house, which for a bungalow, almost inevitably means some type of wooden fence. Styles consisting of simple, handmade pickets, or ones with wide boards featuring cut-out designs were especially popular.

This plan, taken from California Gardens (1914) dates to the beginning of the bungalow movement in America, and demonstrates the level of craftsmanship expected in gardens of this period, even small ones.

This plan, taken from California Gardens (1914) dates to the beginning of the bungalow movement in America, and demonstrates the level of craftsmanship expected in gardens of this period, even small ones.

In an era before air conditioning, backyard structures such as arbor seats and gazebos were another important aspect of bungalow gardens, allowing the various areas of the landscape to serve as outdoor living rooms. Often built at the same time as the house, these structures deliberated echoed the home’s architecture and often utilized the same construction materials. This same design theory should be followed today.

Keep The Planting In Scale
While modern bungalows are often much larger in terms of square footage than those built even a few decades ago, today’s homes still share the same vertical scale as their predecessors. This means that when it’s time to chose plants for your landscape, it’s particularly important that you select cultivars that won’t outgrow their welcome. Towering shade trees or large, dense evergreens planted next to the foundation will quickly obfuscate the lines of the architecture and come to dominate both house and landscape. Instead, focus on selecting dwarf cultivars of your favorite trees, and for any material to be planted near the house, choose species that at full maturity will remain well beneath the windowsill. Remember too, that when designing a foundation planting, not all the material needs to be evergreen: in fact, one of the keys to creating a cottage style garden is a heavy use of flowering deciduous plants, in the form of shrubbery, perennials and annuals. The seasonal rise and fall of these deciduous plants adds variety to the landscape, and the sparse winter mass of deciduous species counterbalances the dense appearance of evergreens. Finally, with all your plant selections you should try to find species with interest in more than one season: many desirable cultivars feature combinations of foliage, flower or shape that possess year-round appeal. This, of course, is good advice for any style of landscape, but it takes on special importance in the bungalow garden, as plants with attractive and unusual foliage or flower will highlight the “craftsman” aspect of your garden.

Don’t Forget the Front
Bungalows traditionally were constructed on narrow lots with little or no space for side yards, and in an era of soaring land prices this trend continues unabated. Thus, if you’re the owner of a bungalow, chances are much of your available acreage lies in the front yard, and it’s important to utilize this area to the fullest. While most people have no problem envisioning what to do behind the house, the front yard looms as a difficult blank slate for many beginning gardeners. Given the bungalows general homey appearance, you should try your best to enhance this feeling by making sure that your front yard says welcome to both you and your guests.

In many cases, this means minimalizing the blank feeling produced by one of the great banes of the average modern American landscape – the overly large lawn – in favor of a more diversified approach the incorporates the best elements of hard and softscape already elaborated above. Features like a broad front walk with easy access to street and drive; flower-filled, in-scale plantings along the foundation; fences or walls that delineate the borders of the property without denying access – all these make the front yard a place to enjoy rather than just to pass through. A large front porch (another almost ubiquitous feature of the bungalow architecture) attractively decorated with comfortable chairs, container plants and other amenities for outdoor living completes the picture.

Keep in mind that what charmed bungalow owners in the first place– and what continues to charm them today – is the cozy, romantic nature of the bungalow itself. If you strive to ensure that your landscape shares this same look and feel, your role as matchmaker between house and garden is bound to bear ample rewards.

For further reading, check out Outside the Bungalow: America’s Arts and Craft Garden. Also of interest: Outside the Not So Big House


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