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Wednesday, October 12, 2016


No, this is not our front yard (I wish), but it spectacularly displays
the possibilities in turning at site's major liability into an asset.
Virtually every day I spent up to an hour trying to decide what to write about. Today, in pondering the possibilities, I suddenly realized the answer was right in my own front yard. Back in 1977 when we chose a location for our new home we wanted a wooded area. The only problem was that virtually all wooded areas in our area had long since been turned into productive farmland. About the only wooded land available was that which sloped too much for farming. So, we chose about two acres of wooded hillside. We called it "Slopewood." I've never regretted our choice but a sloping lot brings with it a number of drainage problems. Some we recognized and dealt with as I drew up the plans for our "dream house." Some, unfortunately, I didn't. Once the house was finished our contractor worked to level our front yard and slope it slightly away from the house. That solved one problem (drainage) but created another one. A more steeply sloping area some twenty feet in front of the house where the topsoil had had been scraped away leaving a bald spot where nothing (and I do mean nothing, not even weeds) would grow. I've long hated the looks of the hillside but until recently, lacked the wherewithal to do much about it. The solution, of course, was a retaining wall, and not just a modest little line of stones, but one some 42 inches tall in the center section, and stretching out longer than our house itself (below).
Our front yard shortly after the first round of landscaping.
The bald, problem area is circled in red.
Except perhaps for something like the magnificent example at the top, retaining walls are not rocket science, at least insofar as designing them is concerned. Ours evolved in my mind long before I put anything down on paper or started spray painting orange lines on the ground. Having set the design in stone (figuratively speaking) I turned to our landscape designer, Jim, to make it happen. He's no rocket scientist either, but he knows about everything there is to know about turning front yards into works of art. Although I would consider my contribution a work of art, the real artist is the landscaper. A wall simply facilitates a growing area. We have a front yard that ranges from entirely shaded to sunlit most of the day. Jim chose plantings suitable for such a site. His crew also removed a large blue spruce (a former Christmas tree) which had grown to be some thirty feet tall, only to have the misfortune of losing about half its height when one of his arboreal neighbors fell on it causing a long, agonizing death. Jim replaced it with a youngster which I belatedly found would one day grow as tall as its predecessor (we plan to keep this one trimmed back to about ten feet).
The new wall is the upper one. The lower wall was built some ten
years ago. The upper wall will eventually age to match the lower
one. Notice that the wall under the balcony has changed little.

Historians tell us Rome wasn't built in a day. I presume that goes for its walls as well. Our wall took two men the better part of two weeks. Construction started with a six-inch deep trench filled with compacted limestone (not con-crete) as a footer, upon which was laid the all-important first course of concrete stones. No mortar was used during the entire process, though the capstones were glued into place. Because of the topography of the area, each end of the wall petered out to just two or three courses of stone. The central part, however, rose to seven courses with a three-inch capstone on top of that (below).
The wall in profile along with
typical choices as to stone and
patterns. The top row is natural
stone, the others are cast using
tinted concrete.
The height and placement of the wall was limited by the
existing trees which could not survive with topsoil rising
above their original base.
With flat building sites at a premium these days, many homebuilders have chosen to cope with the problems inherent in a sloping lot. Although there are various means of dealing with the negative elements of such a site, the most common is some form of a retaining wall. One of the best ways of revealing the manner in which creative landscaping can overcome a worrisome or nuisance slope is in studying "before and after" photos, and the manner in which other homeowners or landscape designers have overcome such obstacles to actually add curb appeal beyond what might be seen with a flat lot.
Keep in mind, the cost of elaborate walls and landscaping can
quickly add as much as fifty percent to construction costs.
Our own before and after photos illustrate what a radical change our serpentine wall has made to our front yard. Though not cheap, studies show that professional landscaping can add twenty to thirty percent to the value of the home. The straw area will eventually be grass (I hope). The driveway gets paved later this fall. A new curved, (fake) stone sidewalk is the next phase of the project, hopefully next year.
Some landscaped slopes add character to the home,
turning it from bland to interesting. In other cases, such
site adjustments become a virtual necessity.
One of the key factors in landscaping, and especially designing a retaining wall, is knowing when you're in over your head. A project like ours was relatively simple. However, once you begin contemplating steps, lighting, pools, ponds, and waterfalls, it's best limit oneself to the role of homeowner, making suggestions, limiting costs, approving plans, and knowing when to say "no." Below are several creative solutions to frequently encountered problems involving sloping lots. None of them were designed by the homeowners.
Retaining walls--part art, part science.
If money is no object (rarely the case) a landscape architect unleashed to not just solve a problem, but to create a masterpiece (below) is truly an rewarding experience for both the homeowner and the designer. I have to wonder, if the backyard displays such extravagance, what must the home overlooking it be like?

In unleashing a landscaper, keep in mind that artistic endeavors only add to a home's value up to a certain, after which the "law of diminishing returns" applies.
I would be remiss to suggest that all walls bearing plants must be made of stone, or some manmade equivalent. Not so much anymore, but for many years, heavy timbers (below) were frequently used in creating retaining walls. Likewise, good, old-fashioned, concrete (sometimes called "cinder") blocks, if carefully engineered and constructed, will also suffice. Best of all, they can be "decorated" at some time in the future with a number of stone veneers (bottom, either natural or manmade) so as to be virtually indistinguishable from other such materials used alone.

Timber retaining walls are somewhat less expensive.

A stone veneer over block. This is not a
do-it-yourself undertaking.

What happens when you hire an
artist to build a wall.


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