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Suburban Makeover, Part 2

1860s shingle house
A simple picket fence and an oyster-shell driveway enhance the historical feel of this 1860s shingle house.

Following some heavy pruning, tree felling and shrub digging, Michael Weishan and crew progressed through the punch list of improvements at the Victory Garden's suburban landscape project south of Boston.

Michael emphasized early on in the redesigning process the importance of selecting materials historically appropriate to this 1860s New England house. New hardscape elements combine with new foundation plantings to give this traditional little house a look of stylish harmony with its surroundings.

New Front Walkway
In that spirit, mason Michael DelSesto set about laying — where no path existed before — a new bluestone walkway to make the house more inviting, and to facilitate use of the front yard.

View the landscape plan
To do this, a 12- to 18-inch-deep path was first bulldozed between the front door and the road to excavate the existing grass, loam and soil. A sub-base mixture of 3/4-inch crushed stone and sand was compacted in, and covered with a layer of stone dust. DeSesto prefers this material, made from stone filings and dust, over sand because like concrete, stone dust compacts well with water to form a strong base that holds the stones in place and won't heave up in frost.

The bluestone pavers have a natural finish with ridges and valleys, which DelSesto says should be placed with the flatter side facing up. Starting at the house, he proceeded by setting each paver in place, checking its grade and adding more stone dust underneath, wherever it was needed to level up the stone. For proper water drainage, DelSesto recommends establishing a grade that drops away from the foundation at a slope of 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch per foot. He also notes that, as always, the first course of pavers is the most important since it serves as a guide for laying the rest. That done, DelSesto swept a layer of stone dust over the whole walkway, watered it and repeated until the stone dust was well packed into the joints.

Todd Skulsky builds a fence
Michael takes a fencing lesson from expert Todd Skulsky (center) as the posts and pickets get snapped into place.

New Fence
Another structural addition was a fence running around the front perimeter, uniting house with landscape to create an inviting garden "room." To select a style, fence expert Todd Skulsky showed Michael a number of white picket options, all about 3 to 4 feet high. As with any other outdoor design element, it was important to select a fence appropriate and in scale with the style of the house. So for this simple cottage-style house, Michael chose a simple narrow-picket fence over other options that sported busy lattice, grand post caps, or ornate turned spindles.

But the most interesting feature common to all Skulsky's fence samples was their construction. Though you might not know it right away, they are made totally from vinyl. That fact alone offered two crucial benefits: ease of installation, and almost no long-term maintenance. All Skulsky's team had to do was set the posts in the ground and snap the fence modules together, no fasteners needed. The fence's other noteworthy feature is its curved entrance, an old-fashion element called a "carriage-alight." Much easier to accomplish with vinyl fencing than wood, these semi-circular indentations around the gate were originally used as space for guests to alight, or get down, from their carriages. It's a nice accent that's handy as ever in making room for a car door.

Oyster shells
Several days of sun and traffic will bleach and grind the oyster shells to a fine gravel.

Oyster Shell Driveway
Rounding out the major additions to the hardscape is a convenient new front parking space, which Michael included in his renovation plan so visitors could safely park away from the busy street nearby. But to cover the space Michael opted for what may seem an unusual material: crushed sea shells. A hundred years ago, this practice was very common in New England as a means of recycling byproduct of the seafood industry. Like other historical New England touches added to this 19th-century home, it remains a sensible and attractive choice today.

After excavating about 12 inches of loam from the area, landscape foreman Steve Clarke laid down two 6-inch lifts of crushed stone, compacted them, then added the shells on top. As you might expect, the shells do have a certain whiff of the sea about them when they first go in; over a few days though the sun bleaches them out, removing the odor. Regular traffic then works its magic, gradually reducing the shells to small shards resembling broken crockery.

New Beds, New Plantings
Finally, the new 8-foot planting bed around the foundation of the house is what really ties this whole makeover project together. To separate the lawn from the plant-bed area — for a tidy appearance and ease of mowing — Steve's team installed steel edging. Aluminum, plastic, brick, cobbles and field stone are all decent choices, depending on the application. In some instances a more decorative edging material might be desirable too. But for this project, steel strips were a perfect choice. They lock together easily with stakes, can still be bent around corners, and are extremely durable and long-lasting.

Michael and Kip, planting
Michael and Kip perfect their plant positions in one of the new foundation beds.

With the edging in place, master gardener Kip Anderson got down to preparing and enriching the soil to receive new plants. When doing this it's crucial to make sure the soil is of equal quality throughout whole bed, he emphasizes. The existing soil at the project house was a sandy loam, making this step relatively easy. Kip started by topping the bed with peat moss (other organic materials will also do fine, depending on the application). Next, Kip dusted the soil liberally with fertilizer, choosing a water-insoluble variety to prevent run-off. (This step overrides some prior conventional wisdom that you shouldn't fertilize in the fall; it's now considered a good idea.) The last step was to mix it all in with a roto-tiller and leveling the soil with a rake — taking special care to stay well clear of any buried power or gas lines entering the house.

Then came the plants. With Kip's help, Michael chose a variety of low-profile shrubs for the new bed, including Fothergilla major 'Mt. Airy', Buxus sempervirens, Hydrangea macrophylla, and Weigela 'Wine and Roses'. The key to all these plants is that even as they reach full maturity, they won't outgrow the scale of the house they're meant to adorn.

What's left now is for this homeowner to finish repairing the lawn and plant a few vines to weave their way among the pickets. In only a few short weeks, this property was transformed by a lot of prudent pruning, and the addition of much-needed hardscape elements and a few new plants — all on a relatively modest budget.

So if you've been thinking your lawn and garden could do with a redo, get out there and start digging ....

In Part 1 of this Suburban Makeover, we cover the pruning back, digging up and cutting down that went into preparing the front yard for a complete landscape renovation.

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This segment appears in show #2824 and #2825.

Published August 31, 2007