Landscaping for the Old House

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Tastes in landscaping vary widely. Some homeowners strive for a well-kept football field, others wish to create an Amazon jungle. Whatever your preference, however, some general principles should be considered:

• Deciduous trees are particular assets for non-air-conditioned houses, cooling it in summer and, when trees are bare in winter, allowing it to drink sunlight in through the windows.

• Plan landscaping to enhance, not hide, the special features of your beautiful old home.

• Use shrubbery to hide any unattractive features.

• If for cost considerations choices must be made between house repair and shrubbery, house repair should usually take precedence.

• Minimize the number of plants that need constant tending, such as hedges that need frequent clipping, roses, and tender shrubs that don’t overwinter well in your area.

• Plant shrubs and trees well away from wood or stucco houses to minimize rain splash against the house.

• When you plant foundation shrubs, remember how much bigger they are going to be when they mature, and put the root ball at least 4 feet away from the building.

• Trim tree branches that hang too close to the house, especially if they touch the roof or wall in the wind or rain.


If you have no walkways around your property, your may wish to create some. Make some observations of current and desirable traffic patterns before you begin. Once you have decided where walks are needed, consider what materials would be most suitable.

• Use natural materials such as flagstones and brick, laid without mortar, in places where the definite lines of a concrete walk would be intrusive.

• Raise your walk several inches above ground level so that it doesn’t become a river bed every time it rains.

• Increase the thickness of concrete walks that cross driveways so that they won’t break under the weight of vehicles.

• Always use a form to contain the poured concrete, or it will break away where the edges are thin.

Concrete Walks

Poured-concrete walks are safe, long-lasting, easy to keep clean of debris and snow, and fairly simple to install. When purchasing concrete, plan on 1 yard of concrete for every 80 square feet of surface.

Tips on Choosing Concrete



Bagged concrete mix (in 80-pound bags)

For small projects, such as setting a mailbox or a gate post.

Gravel. sand, and portland cement

For medium-size projects, such as footings for two or three posts in the basement; transport it yourself from gravel company in trash cans

Ready-mix concrete

For larger projects, such as walks; check to see if you can share a load with a neighbor—there is often a surcharge on less than 5-5 yards

Preparing Wooden Forms for the Concrete

• Make forms out of lx4s or 2x4s, using cost-free or leftover materials, if possible.

• Place the forms on edge along the line of the walk, and stake them with pegs driven into the ground outside of the forms at intervals frequent enough to hold them firmly in place. The forms are sometimes nailed to the stakes to preserve the right height and prevent the forms from collapsing inward.

• Cut stakes off level with the top of the forms before pouring the concrete so that they won’t be in the way when you level it.

• Make curves out of plywood, staked frequently to force them to keep their shape.

roh-155.jpg Build a sturdy concrete form before laying cement and use a 2x4 to screed, or level the concrete to the tops of the forms with a sawing motion.

Laying the Concrete

• In a wheelbarrow, mix concrete, using 3 parts gravel, 2 parts sand, and 1 part portland cement. Strive for as stiff a consistency as will still allow you to pour: The stiffer the concrete when it is poured, the stronger the finished product. If you run short, you can fill the area with stone or brick and then cover this completely with concrete.

• Using as a leveler a 2x4 that is a few inches wider than the form, level the concrete to the tops of the forms with a sawing motion. This is called screeding.

• Places where the vertical edge of the concrete will show after the form is removed (such as a step) require special treatment Hammer on the face of the form with a big hammer to bring liquid to the surface and free it of any air pockets.

• When concrete is beginning to dry, but still wet enough to show a finger mark, smooth it with a rectangular trowel.

• For a mirror finish, trowel it a second time when it is almost dry, but soft enough to show a mark from a nail or stick.

• Leave the forms in place for two days to cure the concrete thoroughly. Otherwise, corners and edges may break when forms are removed.

Leftover concrete could be a disposal problem: Always prepare a location for extra before you begin the project.

Always wear gloves when handling concrete and mortar. You will have blisters all over your hands if you don’t.

Brick Lawn and Garden Walks

You may be lucky enough to become heir to various bits and pieces of brick of different sizes, which can be made into an unobtrusive walk across a lawn. To lay an informal brick walk,

• Cut a path of the desired width through the sod. (Use the good sod that you remove to patch bare spaces in the lawn. Prepare the bare spot by turning over the earth to loosen it, press the sod firmly in place, and water it well.)

• Lay bricks in either a regular or irregular pattern on the top of the soil. Use whole bricks along the outside edges for stability. Leave 1/2- to 1 1/2-inch spaces between bricks.

• Shovel soil over the bricks, and sweep it into the cracks, leaving surface of bricks clean.

• Sow grass seed over the bricks, and sweep seeds into the cracks.

• Spray with a garden hose set on mist.

• When it dries, you may need to sweep another layer of fine dirt over the walk to fill cracks completely.

• Nurture as you would any new-sown grass, being particularly careful to keep it well watered, and mow cautiously until grass becomes sod and holds the bricks firmly in place.

For a more formal walk, lay bricks on abed of sand, using a level to even the surface as you go. Leave 1/8- to 1/4-inch spaces between the bricks, then sweep a 50-percent mixture of sand and portland cement into the cracks. Finish by sprinkling gently with a garden hose set on mist.

Alternative Walks

Walks can also be made out of flagstones, gravel framed by 2x4s, or wooden walks made of treated 1x4s, 2x4s, or 2x6s laid on 2x4s. Railroad ties make sturdy walks, laid in either lengthwise or, in short sections, crosswise. (Ties are a mess to cut, however, and the creosote in them may ruin your chain saw.)


Avoid the expedient of paving everything with a hard surface such as asphalt or concrete. Such a driveway may look neat and clean as you contemplate the idea, but in reality

• It is likely to kill some or all nearby trees by starving the roots of water.

• It is unnecessarily expensive.

• If you use asphalt, you will have to give it considerable maintenance.

• It may cause or compound drainage problems.

A far better, mud-free driveway is one of gravel or crushed stone. It is cheap and ecologically responsible, and can be improved or even removed at a later date, should you wish.

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