Two of the functions of good planting design that work together to marry the house to the site are:

  1. to complement the home
  2. to have the home appear integrated (connected) to its surroundings

There are certainly other functions accomplished by good planting design, like creating spaces, directing views and traffic, screening, etc.   But this “complementing and integrating the house to the site” is so important.

In the picture above, this house is desperate for both hardscape and landscape planting design.  The house dominates the relatively narrow property and to make matters worse, the grade drops off steadily on the right.

We know this house is “off-balance” and the right side is just dominating the view with its tall expanse of siding and windows.

You’re probably thinking what I first thought.  Why couldn’t there be a large shade tree on the right side front?   Can you imagine how that would change the whole picture?

It was not to be.  The new homeowners had come from a previous property that had loads of large trees and they did not want the care & maintenance they associated with them.

So my strategy was to use “ornamental trees”.

Never underestimate the effectiveness of mid-size ornamental trees, especially in close proximity to the house.

The homeowner welcomed the idea of ornamental trees.

I suggested Purpleleaf Plum off the right front corner.  It’s planted approximately 15′ from the building giving it room to develop.  *Note: After 10 years the Purpleleaf Plum became infected with Black Knot (a fungal disease) and removed.  Today we avoid using the tree because of this developed susceptibility.

Continuing on, I recommended Japanese Red Maple for the side of the house.  I know what you’re thinking: “Won’t that get too big?  There isn’t much room for that tree to grow!”

Before you report me to the “Better Plant Use Bureau” let me explain.  Japanese Maple is one of those trees that by shape and form is very “malleable “.  What I mean is the growth habit and branch structure respond really well to pruning.

And one more point to make with regard to using the maple close to the house.  We searched for this plant looking for a particular shape and branch structure.  It stands about 18′ high.

Dave Kennedy, the landscape contractor, used one of his mechanical tree spades to dig the plant and place it in a wire basket.  A skid steer was used to bring it to the planting spot.

The house now has a home.

The two ornamental trees add much needed weight to the right side of the house.  Their height breaks up the broad expanse of  the windows and siding.  Notice how the tree canopies soften the transition from the flat plane of the property to the vertical lines of the building.

I should mention too the improved psychological feeling particularly when you drive or walk down the driveway.  Just having the tree branching reaching out overhead helps immensely to make you feel more comfortable.

The foliage colors, flowering and textures of the trees and the understory plantings complement the home.  Add 2 to 3 years of growth with proper care and this home will be even more integrated with its surroundings.

  • Clair
    12:07 PM, 7 July 2010

    I’m trying to come up with a design for my home that will do what you talked about. I just don’t know where to begin. Any tips for a frugal but well intentioned homeowner? We already took out the old plants.
    Thank you,

    • Roger
      11:16 PM, 8 July 2010

      Where do I begin?! I’m sure you realize just how much there is to consider.

      First, I really think most people have a sense of design. We all buy clothes and dress ourselves, many of us arrange furniture in our homes, and generally, things turn out OK to pretty darn good. Even without knowing specific “rules of design,” have confidence that your intuition (a.k.a. gut feeling) will guide you.

      The other point that I think would help with your design process is “to first think in terms of form (shapes)”. In other words, initially don’t be concerned with details like selecting particular plants and choosing specific materials. Stand back a good distance from your home. Now by thinking just general shapes begin to envision what shapes would help soften the foundation, break the vertical line of the corners, and add height & weight where needed. Try drawing a simple sketch of your house so you can pencil in these shapes and see what it might look like.

      Some garden centers (with knowledgeable staff) will give free advice based on a picture and measurements.

      Remember too, there’s no requirement to do a project like this all at once. Try adding the elements gradually. Oh, and that brings up one other point. Design using groups or masses of like materials. I use the expression “brush strokes” to describe how I group elements together.

      I really need to describe in my articles more of my thinking process as to how these designs evolved. This would be helpful for those interested and it would help me to break the process down for others to learn from.

      Clair, it’s comments and questions like yours that tell me what content would be helpful. Thank you. Please check the category on “Design” for other articles and subscribe via email or RSS for each new article I write.
      Take care,

  • greg
    11:08 PM, 29 May 2011


    I have a traditional colonial style house. I am trying to define my house with the trees I have acquired (ball and burlapped). Kwanzan Cherries(4), thundercloud plums(6), siberian pea(1), several azaleas and lilac bushes along with 2 ginkgo bilobas. I have no idea what to do with them…

    • Roger
      10:05 PM, 30 May 2011

      Most importantly familiarize yourself with each plant in terms of its mature height & spread. This is critical information for you to know when it comes to spacing the plants. Check this post out planning a landscape with plants.

      Generally speaking the cherries and plums are mid-sized ornamental trees that will get approximately 25′ high and 15 to 20′ wide. The siberian pea and lilacs are similar in form and size…approximately 10 – 15′ high and 8 – 10′ wide. The ginkgos will get quite large and should be used for shade trees and upper canopy (aka: ceiling in the design). I don’t know how big your property is, but you have plenty of cherries and plums. You might use some along the borders. You could also plant a couple off the corners of the house to soften the vertical line of the building. Just make sure you space them far enough away to leave room for growth. These trees are also nice out in the open lawn areas to break up the expanse. If the site is big enough you can even group 2 or 3 of the same (spaced so that they someday just about touch).

      The siberian pea and lilac make nice border plants.

      The azaleas might work well in the foundation planting(s). Their mounded form works well under windows (again, space them adequately from the foundation to allow for growth). If I plant an ornamental tree like a cherry off the corner of a building, I’ll sometimes use azaleas under and around the tree. When the tree is leafless the azaleas give year-round weight to the planting.

      You can check out other posts on LandscapeAdvisor for more ideas. Use the Finding Things page for terms that pertain to these topics. And also look in the Garden Galleries for picture ideas.

      Hope this helps.

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