The Garden Renovation Primer: In the Beginning There Was… A Lovely Old House

So many of you have asked me for advice on how to renovate old rundown landscapes over the years that I thought I would start a new series of postings taking you through the process step-by-step with one of my actual projects. While specifics differ greatly from one garden to another, design criteria and sequencing remain remarkably similar, which will hopefully constitute a valuable guide for anyone considering such an undertaking.

There should be to a certain voyeuristic appeal in this account: garden building NEVER goes precisely according to plan, so in the course of reading these records you most likely get to see both the highs, and the lows, of the process.

This new series will run on and off for the next year – a fairly common time frame for building a complicated garden – and show the creation of the entire landscape, from conception to completion.

The opening gambit: an 1810 Federal house awaiting a new garden. This is the front view from across the street. Notice the mishmash of odd fencing styles currently running along the sidewalk.

PART ONE: In the Beginning There Was… A Lovely Old House

This past summer, I was contacted by a dynamic couple, let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. A, who had recently purchased a Federal-era house near Boston. Their new home, built in 1810, had been moved to its current 1/3 acre urban site in 1910. The house had belonged to several famous academics over the course of its two centuries, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also sits in a well known historic district, a not so minor detail which will have a large impact for our story as we progress, especially for the front yard of the property, which is subject to Historic Commission approval.

The back yard, as seen at our first meeting. The previous owners had had a small vegetable garden near the back door, which may have not been the best idea given the likelihood of high lead levels around an old house. The suggestion of some sort of geometric layout was on the right track, however, and formed the basis for my subsequent thinking. But the wilderness planting surrounding the lawn is both unattractive and wasteful of precious urban garden space.

How to begin? I admit starting a new landscape from scratch can seem daunting to even the initiated. But while the overall number of design possibilities might appear limitless, in reality several basic design tenets very quickly – and helpfully – begin to direct your options.

The first – and by far the most important element to consider – is the house itself. Remember, a plot of land without a house is a field; it’s the addition of the structure that converts plot to lot. The structure in this case, a rambling Federal, had had many additions over the course of the centuries -– some rather quirky –  but still maintained a very classical feel. With strong symmetrical relationships in both the facade and fenestration, my initial thoughts were that the garden should share this fairly linear geometry, to be mitigated with flowing, colorful planting, and the clients, who too were concerned about creating an appropriately styled garden, agreed. (Notice I didn’t use the word “formal” to describe the layout, though in fact that would have been perfectly appropriate here. Many people associate the world “formal” with “stuffy,” but that’s not at all the case. A formal style simply refers to the straight-line geometric nature of the layout, as opposed to a free-flowing, curvy feel of say, a woodland garden. In this particular case, the lesson of what not to do was extremely clear: the lot had been landscaped only a decade ago with a very loose style of woodland garden, which quickly degenerated into an overgrown tangle. It’s important to remember that the second you finish work outdoors, nature immediately begins to obfuscate the line: plants grow over walls, trees rise overhead, moss grows on the brick. In short: if you start with a tumble, you’ll end with a jumble.)

The roof balustrade, with beautifully turned spindles. Architectural details like these should inspire the garden design.

The second important factor to consider is the lifestyle of the owners; how did they plan to use the space? Were there young children involved? (In this case, no; all grown, so no need for play areas, etc.) Did the owners need space for particular outdoor activities, such as a pool or tennis court? (No.) Were they avid gardeners, occasional putterers, or totally disinterested in working the landscape themselves? (Putterers.) This last question may sound strange, but accurately gauging the gardening interest of the principals is a hugely important factor in the ultimate success of the design –  landscapes go down hill very quickly where there is neither the enthusiasm to garden nor the desire to pay someone else to do so. And what about overall style? In this case, the owners wished to have an open, flower-filled landscape that blended indoors and out. (This last was key, as Mrs. A explained: “Having lived for a while in Manhattan, what I missed most was the ability to throw open the French doors and experience the outdoors. The possibility of doing just that is what drew us to this house.”) Mr. A was adamant about flowers: having grown up in California, he missed the fragrance and color of his home state, and wished to create something of that same feel here. Fortunately, the situation of the backyard, protected from the north by a wing of the house, would create an ideal area for sunny gardening.

Finally come realistic discussions about a budget: At this point, I’ve discovered that it’s wise to scare clients a bit: many people don’t have the vaguest conception of what garden-building costs, and are shocked to learn it’s often as expensive as home construction. However, there is clearly no point planning a $75,000 renovation if the actual funds at hand are $20K, so it pays for both parties to be realistic right up front, even if that means losing or postponing a project. No one, least of all me, likes unpleasant financial surprises once underway. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. A, they had previous experience with a large suburban house & garden, so were aware of the cost implications of the project we were discussing, which was in essence a complete rebuild of the front, back and side yards, including entirely new hardscape, planting, and 170′ of custom built historically accurate fence for the front. These wouldn’t come cheaply, they knew. My initial read to them was that the budget would be measured in tens of thousands, not in singles.

While there are some really lovely specimens buried in this jumble, including several spectacular ilex opaca, American Hollies, the planting has been allowed to become overgrown and form a dense, impenetrable thicket. Rustic designs like these rarely work in urban environments.

(How much can you expect to spend on these kinds of total renovation projects? The general rule of thumb is 5-10% of the house’s current value – which you would expect to recover presuming a 5-10 year occupancy. Spending more than that is certainly possible, but if you do, you are spending for yourself, not for investment return.)

So with the designer and clients in agreement regarding the overall look and feel of a new garden, what’s next?

The first generation of plans of course, which will be the subject of part II!


The Garden Renovation Primer: In the Beginning There Was… A Lovely Old House — 1 Comment

  1. Hello,
    I would like to read a 2002 article by Michael regarding gravel walks and drives. I cannot locate a copy of it online. It is Country Living magazine, August 2002 “Gravel Walks and Drives”. Any info on obtaining this article would be appreciated.
    Thank You.

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