By Elinor Bennett Markle
I will never forget my first impression of the first house I bought, 15 years ago. The yard was a quagmire of mud, and the landscaping was poorly conceived and poorly maintained. A badly placed tree obscured the view of the front porch from the street, and there was no sidewalk to the front door. The house itself was merely plain, but the landscaping dragged it down to “just plain ugly.” Doubtless other house hunters had thought the same thing or it would have already sold before I finally got around to looking it over. First impression? “This house is unloved and needs a makeover.” Reality? That house was unloved needed a makeover.
The point is, the front yard plays a huge part in the first impression of a home, and the front entry landscaping is the crown jewel or missing front tooth of the composition. As with all landscaping, there is a combination of needs in play at the front entry: it must be beautiful to our senses, and it must function beautifully as well. The front entry landscape should comfortably and safely direct people from the street or driveway to the front door and make a statement about the style of the owners.
Begin with your understanding of the function of the exterior space at the front door to a home. There will be a path from public property or driveway, and a gathering area so that people may wait for your client to open the front door or to say goodbye at the end of a visit. The area needs lighting and safe surfaces. It is as basic as a space can get in terms of function. There are embellishments and exceptions to the rule, of course; in the case of my niece’s home in San Diego, meals are often served in the front entryway. I have also seen parking courts that double as outdoor dining areas for casual entertaining in the front entry.
The building footprint and site layout of the front door, driveway, street, other porches or door, the neighbors or utility easements play a large part in how you will arrange planting beds, sidewalks and lighting of the scene. However, the essential elements you will include in the space are generally the same for any front entry landscape. You need hardscape for walking and gathering spaces; light fixtures in the plant beds, at the street, or shining on the house front; focal points; seating opportunities; borrowed views; and the plant materials that will anchor the composition to the rest of the yard and to the neighborhood.
More than any other area of the property, the front entry must relate to the architectural style of the house and the context of the site. The front entry is on public display 100 percent of the time, and is not used as a retreat or fantasy escape in the same way as the backyard. This small area is the source and constant provider of curb appeal. Therefore, the architectural style of the building and the physical surroundings of the overall property are as important a consideration as the taste of the clients. In a perfect world, the two styles will easily find commonality and the architecture will already have an appropriate relationship to the physical environment. That is to say, the house plan will fit the lot and the topography in a well functioning and pretty way. At the very least, the owners probably chose that house in part because they admire the architecture of it and it “suits their style.” Our job as landscape designers is to enhance that statement even further. It is as though we are explaining, with landscaping, what the owners like, and what they value. Decide early in the process which architectural feature or which style to visually tie the landscape to, and base your other style choices on that.
Regardless of floor plan, no two homes are alike. The relationship between the occupants and the house creates a unique environment for living, and changes a house into a home. You may gather some clues about the preferences in style of the occupants from the vehicles they drive, their occupations, hobbies, monetary resources, pets, children and friends. Different people like different things, and the front entry landscape is a place for richness of detail. It is a place for unique and original combinations of site furnishings, hardscape, plants and art that express the personality of the people who live in the home. The varieties of detail in seats, light fixtures, water fountains and bowls, gate and fence hardware, paving materials and plants attract different people, as each client has his or her own preference for textures, forms, colors and sizes.
Balance and unity are especially important in the front entry landscape because of the need for a clean and attractive appearance (again, curb appeal). Visual balance at the front entry landscape can be a challenge. Many homes have a driveway to the side, which throws a lot of visual weight to the driveway side of the project. Counteract that with a strong focal point on the opposite side of the house, and with plenty of ground plane interest leading to the front door on the non-driveway side. Symmetrical balance (like a person’s face, right and left halves look identical to the other) is a perfect technique for the front entry if the architecture allows for it. If the house front is not symmetrical, the space may be a bigger challenge for you. In either case, all styles can be expressed equally well. Do not let a symmetrical front entry look uptight if the owners’ style is casual or whimsical. Conversely, if they are traditionalists, do not let an asymmetrical front of house cause you to give them a cottage style.
Unity can be addressed with both hardscape and plant materials. Hardscape for sidewalks and gathering spaces should be of a different material to distinguish it from the driveway. Stone, wood or brick edging for the landscape beds should repeat or relate to the building construction materials. Use one basic plant for the background or foreground, and arrange the other plants for seasonal interest among them. The one main plant, usually an evergreen, gives consistent form and mass to the composition regardless of the season, and provides visual unity versus a cluttered appearance.
Focal points for visual interest are the final changes. These are specimen plants or artwork used sparingly at just the right location in the composition. For example, place a moderately sized specimen plant in the line of sight as we are looking at the house from the street. This might be an ornamental tree (15 to 25 feet in height). Even if you go symmetrical at the area immediately adjacent to the front door, do not use more than one specimen for the view from the street. Pick a place and only one place for that type of tree. Then make a focal point for the view as we walk up the sidewalk to the front door. This one can be a smaller plant of interest, a piece of art, or an interesting bench. Third, provide a focal point for the walk back to the street or driveway. This time it might be a group of flowering plants on either side of the sidewalk and a lamppost at the driveway that we walked past as we first came onto the property and began our walk to the front door.
When the first impression is strong enough, it also becomes our lasting impression. That role is too important to just leave to chance. Be an advocate for your client’s best impression by understanding his or her style, developing a plan and a subsequent landscape that reflects that style at the front entry. Bring your talent in composing an artistic landscape with balance, unity and interest that provides the function of getting to the front door.
Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org