What Is Ranch House Landscaping?

ranch house landscaping

Mardis Coers / Contributor / Getty Images 

Ranch houses first began appearing in California in the 1930s, and were inspired by Spanish Colonial architecture seen in the American southwest. While ranch house style may have begun as a location-specific design in the West, it spread in popularity as an affordable, modest design option. Learn more about the ranch house landscaping style and how to achieve it.

Origins of Ranch House Landscaping

The simple, no-frills ranch house style became hugely popular by the 1950s, as more people moved to the suburbs. Variations on the basic design included raised ranch and split level, incorporating architectural features that allowed more space for garages and entry foyers. Many people refer to these designs now as "midcentury" or "modernist." Some ranch homes were beautifully designed inside and out, such as the "Storybook" ranch houses that became a specialty niche for architects and builders in booming cities from Buffalo, NY to Los Angeles, CA. Sometimes these houses were built into woodland settings for a "hidden in plain sight" effect.

Newer home construction doesn't tend to favor ranch design these days, but many people looking to downsize or move into single floor dwellings are still buying them. Some homeowners update their midcentury ranch homes with new entryways or exterior features like new roof or chimney features. But landscaping can go a long way towards updating and reinventing your ranch house's look.

Ranch houses are usually one-story or one and a half-story homes, and so, unlike larger multi-floored styles like a Dutch Colonial, Victorian or grand Bungalow, the scale and shape of your landscaping design must fit aesthetically with this lowered height. Also, ranch houses are quite angular in design, and so a landscaping plan that incorporates visual curves helps to create a more dynamic look. This can be done with paths, sculptural elements and materials as well as with plantings.

"Storybook" ranch house in pale yellow with black trim
David Quigley, Flickr, CC by 2.0

Trees, Shrubs and Perennials for Ranch Houses

Ranch houses are short and spread out, as opposed to tall, and this means that larger trees and tall shrubs may feel out of place or overpowering. It's traditional with ranch house landscaping to have low plantings in front, so as not to obscure windows, and larger trees on the sides of the house. But of course most homeowners want trees for shade, privacy, and the beauty they provide. If you already have large trees on your property, consider planting smaller trees like Japanese maples, redbuds, flowering crabapples or sand cherry trees to balance out your landscape plan. Also, your large trees might need some plantings beneath them (anchored with mulch) to add interest and also aid moisture retention for the tree's roots.

Shrubs for ranch houses should be round, oval or free form. Clipping shrubs into square hedges emphasizes the sharp angles of ranch houses and draws attention to their rather simple shape. This can look very dramatic, though, with some of the more iconic midcentury designs, and one often sees round shrubs carefully trimmed for visual impact. Likewise, including large groupings of singular plants lends a bold, almost geometric impact that goes well with his design.

Softer, curved shapes and flowing edges can also lend a dynamic appeal and give your property a good visual flow. With this in mind, you may want to avoid planting shrubs that get too large and might require a lot of pruning (forsythia, burning bushes or barberry come to mind here; they need plenty of room to spread). Round evergreen boxwoods or junipers can be planted amid more organic flowering shrub shapes, like hydrangeas, azaleas, roses, spirea, or caryopteris.

Midcentury house with round topped juniper shrubs
seanmugs, Flickr, CC by 2.0

A "Southwest" look is often seen with ranch house gardens, so if your climate is dry and arid you can plant succulents, clumping grasses and cacti. Many desert areas in the western states have plenty of ranch houses, mainly in Nevada, New Mexico, and California. Mixed textures go well with the clean lines of a ranch house: pointed leaves (iris, yucca, hosta) with ferny leaves (ferns, coreopsis, astilbes, Russian sage, yarrow, artemisia 'Silvermound') and round/oval leaves (baptisia, sedum, forget me nots, columbine), as well as unusual shapes like heuchera, snapdragon, dianthus. Spiky grasses can be a good look too, especially if your climate isn't quite right for succulents.

Some owners of ranch homes turn their entire front yard into one big garden palette, lending visual excitement to the classic architecture. If your ranch is in a shaded woodland setting, you could create an enticing look with ground covers. A sunny spot can use gravel or stone for visual texture and an authentic midcentury Southwest look.

Creating Design Interest with Paths

Having a curving path to your entryway is one bold way to create a visual contrast to your ranch house's straight lines. If your path is the one you and guests will use most often (as opposed to, say, a side door off the driveway), make it inviting and practical. Choose a walking surface that will be easy to maintain, like pavers or old bricks. Pea gravel or mulch are options too, but they require a bit more upkeep. Backyard designs could also include paths, perhaps combined with a small patio area depending on needs and space.

Don't forget the backyard! Ranch homes often have sprawling back lots perfect for relaxing or entertaining, so having a solid landscaping plan allows for maximum enjoyment.

Colorful native plants in a sunny California backyard with gravel paths
California Native Plant Society, Flickr, CC by 2.0

You can integrate the paths with perennial beds; keep the plantings low so as to maintain a sense of safety for visitors, but also use color to create an inviting entrance. You can even use the colors of your home as inspiration; connecting colors together from house to garden can create an illusion of space and depth that will emphasize the clean lines of ranch houses.

If your ranch house is in an area with four dramatic seasons, make the most of your plantings to incorporate spring bulbs and perennials, and include evergreens to keep some color present in the snowy season. Your ranch may have old yew shrubs installed when the house was built, as these were common in the 1950s, but many homeowners replace these when they get too big. Consider boxwoods, juniper or other evergreens which are slightly easier to maintain.