Landscaping 101 for Split-Level Homes

What is the purpose of landscaping?

Beautification? Style? Creat curb appeal? All important, yes, but none get at the very heart of landscaping. The most basic, underlying reason for landscaping a home is to create a smooth transition from the outdoors to the indoors. Landscaping (growing stuff) and hardscaping (stuff like steps, decks, walkways) combine to create this transition. When it’s done right, the transition is beautiful.

Unless this concept is the basis for your landscaping efforts, your landscaping efforts will look amateurish. In fact, most landscaping professionals aren’t even aware of this. But through experience, or perhaps an innate artistic sense, a good landscaper creates this transition or segue as a matter of course.

Because most true splits are in mature neighborhoods, exterior landscaping is usually mature as well. If the overall appearance is pleasing, congratulations: you have little to do beyond maintenance and seasonal chores. On the other hand, if the landscaping was originally done amateurishly and you find yourself grimacing as you drive up the street, you have some work to do. The good news is that the recipe for landscaping the average three level split is simple and straightforward.

simple diagram shows typical exterior triangle created by the average three level splitVisual “triangle” the typical split creates
Of all the divided entry homes, the three-level is the easiest to create a pleasing appearance with. The house itself creates a “triangular” form. Often the driveway and walkway create a triangular formation with the house. And if your original landscaper had even half a brain, your front yard should have a large tree set to one side that creates yet another triangle with the house. If you think in terms of triangles, you generally can’t go wrong with a three-level split.

simple diagram shows typical exterior triangle created by the average three level splitThis diagram shows the simplicity of triangular curb appeal. The blue triangle shows the visual created by driveway, walkway and house; the red triangle shows simplicity of landscaping with one overpowering element to create triangulation. It isn’t necessarily a tree, of course. In a Mesa, Arizona split, for example, the large tree could be substituted with a saguaro cactus.

The “large item” triangulation isn’t a hard and fast rule. Perhaps your home has a long, beautiful front yard. In that case, anchoring the most distant corner with a small arrangement of shrubs will do the trick. Or, you might use a line of fruit trees opposite the driveway to create the same effect. You might have something as simple as a mailbox with some tasteful plantings; the possibilities are virtually limitless. And you don’t necessarily have to be “married” to the concept of triangulation when landscaping a three-level split — it is merely an easy way to simplify the process. If your split is set 100 yards from the street, triangulation is thrown out the window.

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Another important key to landscaping a three-level split is to visually lower the picture window. Most true splits have that large living room window on the middle floor, and it is often higher off the ground than the eye expects. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have your middle floor at ground level — and many are — this window begs to be “connected” to the ground. Spend the money on mature shrubs, bushes, whatever you can use to make this happen. Even a climbing vine on a trellis will help. By “tying” the window to the ground, your house blends more fluidly to the surrounding landscape. The stark, “stand alone” look is OK for new construction, but it doesn’t work for a finished house, and looks downright dreadful with a 40 year old home.

Here’s a brand new split. Notice that even the pricey, arch-topped living room window on this split looks “unfinished” without something to anchor it to the ground. We’re happy to report that it didn’t take much for the homeowner to transform these grounds into a showpiece.

Same drill for your walkway. (Now we’re discussing hardscaping) Lower entry or “raised” splits tend to have a doorway right at the driveway level, but the majority of three level houses have some sort of walkway and/or staircase leading from the driveway to the front door. On many older splits these are hideous concrete creations. Brick or wood look more appealing, but don’t rush out with a sledgehammer if you have concrete. You can often revitalize the look of concrete by adding slate to the top, bricks on the sides, etc. But whatever your walkway, it is terribly important to “connect” it to the surroundings just as your picture window needs to be connected. The walkway and front stoop are the “transition” from the world outdoors to the world indoors. It should be a smooth transition, softened by plantings, gardens, or whatever…not a harsh, sudden change. Even stones can do the trick. If you look at the house at the bottom of this page, you’ll notice that it uses plantings to create a transition worthy of a royal garden. If you need another example, take a look at the one or two splits in your neighborhood that have the most curb appeal, and you’ll see these concepts first hand. Another resource I recommend isThe Complete Idiot’s Guide to Landscaping by Joel Lerner. I don’t usually care for the titles of these “Idiot” books; in fact I don’t like them at all. But the content of this book really clarifies a lot of landscaping techniques. (If you click the link, you’ll be at, which I recommend for two reasons. First, you can return anything, and they ask no questions. Secondly, you can often find used versions at a fraction of the new book price, and you can even return those if the book doesn’t do it for you.)

Specific suggestions for each type of split level home are offered on the individual primer pages: Split-Level or 3-Level Primer, Bi-Level or 2-Level Primer, or Raised Ranch Primer.