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Suburban Makeover, Part 1

Michael and landscape foreman
Michael and the landscape foreman talk plans after removing two huge yews flanking the front door.

Michael Weishan is redesigning a rundown front yard in suburban Boston — first pruning back, digging up, cutting down — so that a new space can emerge, integrating house with landscape in a way both more beautiful and more friendly.

Stroll up to the Victory Garden's latest garden renovation project on Boston's south shore, and you'll probably have two thoughts — "Great little house. Front yard needs some work though."

With its sensible low-key architecture (the house used to be a general store), including the weathered cedar shingles so typical of coastal New England towns, the 1860s building seems to long for better harmony with its verdant surroundings.

Which is just how The Victory Garden intends to help. Michael's prescribed design concentrates first on correcting a few specific problems with the front of the property, then adds some new features to help the house integrate more naturally with the landscape.

View the landscape plan
Admitting There Are Problems ...
Perhaps most evident initially is the lack of a walkway to connect the front door of the house with the lawn and street. Two overgrown yew shrubs — actually trees — smothering the door from both sides make the entrance even less inviting. When planting yews close to a house's foundation, Michael says it's essential to use dwarf cultivars. Some regular varieties will grow nearly 40 feet in height, requiring that the homeowner hack away at them constantly to keep the shrubs in check, leaving them mutilated. We're replacing the current ones with new plantings with lower profiles to stay in scale with the architecture. Michael's plan also calls for an attractive bluestone walkway.

David Greene prunes a magnolia
Arborist David Greene does some long-overdue pruning to a star magnolia in the front yard.

This new front path, as it happens, will lead directly to the next problem we needed to solve: a badly pruned star magnolia. It's a nice tree, but its owners have tended it sporadically over the years. One big branch overhung the new walkway area and had to be removed as part of a more drastic cutback. As is often the case with proper pruning, bravery was called for, but the results will be a healthier and more beautiful magnolia.

Two other trees in the front yard needed to go altogether. A maple and a chestnut, both venerable old giants, have reached the end of their reign. Arborist David Greene and his team were on hand to assess the trees' condition and, ultimately, carry out their removal. David pointed out that the chestnut showed early leaf-drop, the maple was suffering from die-back, and both had evidence of lichen and fungus growth — all indications that the trees were in final decline. Both were also shading out healthier trees and plants, as well as the house itself.

Grinding down a chestnut stump
Michael and David look on as David's team grinds down the stump of a chestnut that had to go.

David and his team carefully cut down both trees — a dangerous process you shouldn't try doing yourself. It starts with removing the limbs and branches from the bottom up, then removing the trunk in sections from the top down. Finally, David's team used a stump grinder — a machine that looks like a cross between a backhoe and a circular saw — to gradually whittle the stump down to about 8 inches below ground level. Quicker and less unsightly than methods that decompose the stump over a couple of years, the grinder doesn't leave behind any chemicals, and allows the area to be re-landscaped almost immediately. A big benefit if, like us, you've got a lot more work to do yet in the yard.

In Part 2 of this Suburban Makeover, we cover the creation of a more welcoming front garden "room" featuring a new oyster-shell driveway, white picket fence, and bluestone walkway, and the array of low-profile plantings Michael chose for the foundation beds.

trowel icon See our Best Bets for Shrubs That Keep a Low Profile.

This segment appears in show #2823.

Published August 31, 2007