Landscaping a midcentury house: Beware the sideburn hedges

landscaping mid century houseTGIF, so we are guessing a lot of readers will be outside, working on the garden and the lawn and landscaping in general. So today, a simple before-and-after landscaping photo that makes a dramatic point about reconsidering those classic midcentury sideburn hedges.

Reader Shann owns a lovely coolonial. All the vintage hedges — they got a major haircut.  In their place and in addition:  Low lying plantings… a window box… a trellis… and some front yard hardscaping — most notably, the sidewalk. Looks like Shann also got a new roof – dark, to play up the shutters.) Trim the hedges and now: We can see the pretty facade of the house.

Folks, those classic midcentury box hedges chucked right up against the foundation and left to grow and grow and grow, choking the front of the house? Well, I don’t think they were  a particularly good idea.

Want to improve your curb appeal? Get those hedge hogs out of there. Or, cut ’em ‘way down below the windows at least. Layer other plantings in front of them. “Pull” your landscaping out about as deep as the height of the first floor wall of the house. Add some hardscape. Etc. Nicely done, Shann — what a lovely house you have — classic!

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  1. Diane in CO says

    I’m a professional landscape architect with a vintage sensibility. The “before” photo with “foundation plantings” grown above the windows (obscuring the architecture) is not only inappropriate for that period home (there is no “foundation” to hide, which was the original incentive for the so-called “foundation planting”) but it’s inappropriate in that it covers the lower half of the windows — i.e., compromises the architectural features of a very lovely house. C’mon folks. Visual priorities alone would dictate ripping out that outdated hedge.

    However, I would have approached the new design very very differently…. But, being able to see the entire window outline is a definite improvement.

    Architecture may be forever, but landscape elements are not. They grow, change, die out… Don’t be afraid to rip out the bad you have inherited from a previous owner.

  2. LuAnn says

    Love, love the new hardscaping and window boxes on the second photo. IMHO, the hedges would look better around the perimeter of the yard. Up against the house, they kind of remind me of a turtle neck sweater that’s slowly swallowing the wearer’s face. :)

  3. Scott says

    Its all about finding the balance. Sure, you don’t want shrubs that look like they are ready to devour your house but you don’t want a look appropriate to a contemporary new build either.

    I compromised and left a few of my old giants in place then gave them major surgery, taking then down several feet (in a series of operations) and reshaped them into upside down gumdrops instead of blobs to lighten them up. Keep in mind it might take a few seasons to get these older, larger plants looking exactly the way you want them but if you can have the patience to work towards this there is something that feels good about the continuity of having things the original owners put in still be a part of the house.

    Then to lighten things up installed some curvy shaped beds with some mid-size and lower plants.

    My best tip: Remember and use your favorite trees, bushes, and flowers were from your own yard and grandparents yards when you were growing up and you are always going to have a yard you love and love to work in and one that will look appropriate to an older house.

  4. effika says

    When we moved into our 1963 ranch, the previous owner had left two sections of box hedges (nicely trimmed) and a hodge-podge random garden. (I can’t do any better, so it was fine.)

    During the summer, some holly branches appeared. Investigation revealed three stumps that had lost the rest of their foliage to an axe some time ago. I was impressed that the bushes were trying after losing so much, so I let them grow.

    Three years later, those three holly bushes are vigorous and thriving. I have to prune them back twice a month, else they’ll take over the whole front of the house!

    Nothing else grows very well in the garden due to the shade from the lovely mature oak trees, but those holly bushes are in heaven!

  5. brenda says

    My suggestion is always the same regarding landscaping: Plant NATIVES! Better for your yard (less maintenance), better for the environment (no pesticides/herbicides) and better for the wildlife! Eliminate as much lawn as possible and plant natives! OK…I am getting off my soapbox now. lol

    • says

      Absolutely agree. Even if you want a more garden-y look, you can accomplish that with natives. Help the bees, butterflies, and other critters.

  6. Kelly Montano says

    I love period landscaping. However, I made a deal with my fiance. He gets to decorate outside and I get the inside. He likes a more meandering, native, weedy, xeriscape look, which is the responsible thing to do here in Colorado as it is so dry. I have to hold myself back from running outside and sculpting all our bushes into topiary shapes while he is at work and lining our center walk with annuals, which is totally NOT his thang, so the super tall grasses, weedy looking flowers and the haphazard wild gardening stays. A deal is a deal. I can’t say it looks terrible. it is pretty in a Colorado mountain meadow sort of way. I just would rather go to the mountains to see it rather than my front yard. :)

    • Carl Youngblood says

      I’m with you. I live in Colorado but I just don’t like that “weedy” landscaping. I like minimalism. To avoid having to water a lot of grass, I used wood chips and rocks in some areas and planted some of those sculptural-style evergreens. Since the entire front of my house is glass, I did the lawn all the way up to the foundation with no plants there at all. I do like the idea of using Asian-style landscaping that is mentioned in another comment.

  7. Mary Beth says

    Another trend that lit like wildfire in our ranch neighborhood was to use pergolas either parallel to the foundation or to achieve carports and walkway covers. Let the vines scramble over to soften or hanging baskets of seasonal blooms for color. Free standing trellis and or a run of fence, again parallel ( tethered to the house usually 5′ away to avoid drip line) to provide privacy keeps the vegetation at bay. In southern climes I’ve seen decorative concrete block used effectively for this purpose set in crushed stone, sort of floats the look of the house.

  8. Claudia Rainey says

    I’m a landscape designer, and I think Midcentury homes do well with either modern (very simple and textural) landscapes or oriental style, or a combination of the two. Many, including my own, come with overgrown hedges and foundation plantings. Mine was all boxwoods. I have moved and replaced most of them and have planted a flowering cherry and some native muhly grass so far. The key is to keep the plant palette simple and focus on texture and year-round interest rather than flowers.

  9. says

    I am a native plant advocate myself. Our house originally had box shrubs that over time nearly enveloped the whole front of the house. Besides covering the natural look and lines of the house they also create other problems – places for animals to hide out, prevent easy access to parts of your house, etc. I’m in the midst of a re-landscaping our house now with much more lower profile shrubs and flowers in the hopes of it not overgrowing as significantly in the future.

  10. Janet says

    Hedges next to the house, junipers in particular, are serious fire hazards. If they catch fire, the flames go up right under the eaves and catch the roof on fire.

  11. Christa says

    A big section of my mid century house is hidden behind enormous rare varieties of camellia trees. I’m debating taking them out. They’re so pretty but they take up a lot of room in my little yard and really are out of scale to the house. I wonder if there is some sort of plant exchange out there or some landscaper who would want to come and take them to use on another project.

    • Scott says

      If they are still good looking trees, and more important structurally solid, I’d think about what those trees do for you as far as protection from the elements and sun. Could removal of the trees cause your summer AC costs to skyrocket?

      Also keep in mind new trees of any reasonable size are astounisingly expensive not to mention the cost involved in removing the old tree and its roots which is a pretty messy and invasive procedure for your yard as well.

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