Marrying Elegant Design and Sustainability

Sustainable materials remake a bland driveway into a beautiful garden space.

January 15, 2013

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a homestead as “the home and adjoining land occupied by a family; the ancestral home.” You don’t have to be a back-to-the-land farmer, shear your own sheep, or live off the grid to have what I call a new homestead. This is a place that utilizes time-honored, earth-friendly practices as well as up-to-date technologies and materials, arranged and structured using principles of good design.

Unlike the rambling and purely functional farm compound that might be typically thought of as a backcountry homestead, today’s new homestead incorporates a definite sense of style. It could be as small as an urban rooftop filled with vegetables and herbs growing in pots, or a suburban property with a deck constructed of sustainably harvested wood, native plants around its perimeter, and a vegetable garden in the front yard. Another new homesteader might live, as I do, in a rural setting on a property with solar panels, a drying yard, a huge vegetable garden, and an orchard and berry patches.


Your homestead is a reflection of your particular lifestyle and the set of values that you hold dear. It’s the concept of the private garden married to global responsibilities. Homesteading means looking backwards in order to move forward: reviving old-fashioned skills and principles while utilizing the most up-to-date energy-efficient resources available. Thanks to the internet, several lifetimes’ worth of gardening wisdom is available at the click of a mouse. A city dweller with no farming experience or a suburban mom who wants to grow fresh food for her family can quickly become proficient at a range of new skills. But people need beauty, too. The new homestead is a place that feeds our deepest longings.

No matter your location or budget, there are ways to go green while incorporating your personal style into the home landscape. For example, the tiny urban plot shown on these pages was transformed from a raw utilitarian area—the driveway—into a multifunctional, sustainable outdoor room.

With a small site, every square inch must count. On this Boston-area property, which belongs to a client of my landscape architecture firm, the entry vestibule and one-car garage were located on the basement level. To make the narrow, dark space feel less confining, we used curving walls that arc in and out along the property line. Although we considered using brick, concrete, or stone to face the 7-foot retaining walls, we decided instead to create a living wall of soft and verdant shade-loving plants. The predominantly native plantings include Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), small Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum), woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia), and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). Now this north-facing space functions as an outdoor entryway, a driveway turnaround or parking spot, a protected place to read a book, and also a living and highly tactile work of garden art. No one can resist running a hand over the soft, inviting textures.

The Silver LEED-certified house has four stories, and working closely with the architect, we planted native birch trees (Betula papyrifera) in the entry planters to add a forest feel while veiling the height of the structure. Handsome planks of New York bluestone are set into a sea of pea gravel that together make a permeable surface able to bear the weight of cars while letting water filter into the ground rather than the storm drains. The bluestone continues as an apron along the garage opening, becoming an overflow parking space and entry terrace while doubling as a path to the garage door. The same paving material leads through the cedar fence to the in-law suite and a garden that surrounds the house on the other three sides.

Some sustainable and easily deployed features a new homestead might include are obvious, like vegetable gardens, rainwater-collection systems, and the use of native plants and compost. Less obvious ones are the proper placement of shade and protective trees; use of low-impact driveway or decking materials; root cellars; low-maintenance lawns and gardens; recycled building materials; solar or photovoltaic panels; and geothermal, hydropower, or wind energy systems. All of these can be incorporated in imaginative and aesthetically pleasing ways, and we’ll be exploring these in future articles.