Winter Alert: Get Outdoor Spaces in Shape

Warm weather is just a month or two away in many parts of the country. Here are some steps you can take to make outdoor areas more livable during long, sun-filled days.

February 13, 2012

Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean that it’s time for outdoor spaces to be off of home owners’ to-do lists. Now’s the time that seed catalogs arrive in mailboxes and nurseries ready their stores for spring planting. Moreover, more listings and sales occur year-round. A freshly pruned hedge, a tree without scraggly branches but with colorful bark and berries, and bricks freshly grouted in a walk all convey love and attention.

There are other garden trends beyond curb appeal that can help sellers primp houses to look their best and reflect their terrain and climate. Here landscape pros share five that will improve home owners’ odds for selling, as well as their garden enjoyment.

Eco-Friendly Landscapes

Water-wise garden design is becoming more popular across the country, especially in California and the Southwest. The reason? The majority of landscapes in those areas still are not sustainable and have large turf-grass expanses that require 40 to 60 inches of water annually to grow and thrive, says Southern California landscape designer Jean S. Marsh.

The typical yearly rainfall where Marsh lives is just 10 to 12 inches. During drought cycles, it can drop to as little as three inches annually. In contrast, water-wise landscapes reduce or eliminate turf grasses and replace them with hardscape such as pea gravel, crushed granite, or natural stone. These materials allow rainwater to return to the ground and percolate rather than end up in streets and storm sewers. They also reduce the need for power equipment and mowing, says landscape architect Warren Simmonds of Simmonds & Associates Inc. in San Alselmo, Calif.

In addition, water-wise gardens can become living green spaces that welcome native wildlife, birds, and butterflies, particularly when home owners plant vegetables, herbs, and fruit trees and bushes. And rather than feel limited, home owners should be aware of the wide variety of groundcovers, trees, perennials, wildflowers, and ornamental grasses that do this, along with offering fragrances, textures, and colors, says Marsh. “Native plants also handle temperature swings better than non-natives,” says James M. Drzewiecki, owner of Ginkgo Leaf Studio in Milwaukee.

As part of being eco-friendly, home owners should eschew chemical pesticides and fertilizers that harm soil microbiology, Simmonds says. To save money, landscape designer Barbara Stock of Stock & Hill Landscapes Inc. in Seattle says, home owners can contact their local land department, since many offer native plants for free  to reintroduce ecological balance to their area.

Tip: In the first year plants go in, they need to establish themselves and require more water than later on, Drzewiecki says.

Year-Round Sequential Color

“Anybody in our business can make a garden look great in May and June when there’s lots of different blooms and colors; the trick is to do so year-round and in winter,” says landscape architect Alan Burke, ASLA, of Classic Nursery & Landscape Co. in Woodinville, Wash. Burke likes color to pop from spring through fall in flowers, shrubs, and trees, and in winter through variegated evergreen leaves, grasses, berries, and bark.

And even though many perennials lose blooms come winter, many still look attractive because of their foliage and seed heads, says Bolingbrook, Ill.-based landscape designer Robert Hursthouse. “Snow will lay on them and reveal nice textures,” he says. He favors playing up each season’s most predominant palette, such as pastels and whites in spring, deeper and richer jewel tones in summer, and rusty hues in fall. And for those seeking longer bloom periods — sometimes as long as annuals — the good news is that many perennial growers are working to breed new species to do just that, Drzewiecki says.

Tip: Don’t include so many colors that a landscape resembles a “plant zoo” with one of everything, he says.

More Natural-Looking Hardscape

Using natural stone and clay brick pavers in handsome patterns and different colors and thoughtfully mixing a few together adds decorative detailing in the built environment and borrows a trend used more these days in kitchen cabinet and counter choices. Good hardscape design also is akin to making a home’s infrastructure solid, says Drzewiecki, who advises putting in hardscape before plants. For color and pattern, experts advise thinking beyond the box. Even concrete can be stamped, stained, and given different textural effects, says Simmonds.

To make hardscape look softer, Stock likes to fill in between choices with moss, creeping thyme, or a different material like pea gravel. To save money, she suggests checking for materials left from big jobs at local quarries. But choices should also fit a house in color and proportion. “Brick on a walk may fade to pink and not look good against a dark red-brick house,” Hursthouse says. A walk also needs to be the right scale to the home and, for proper circulation, preferably more than 3 feet wide, says landscape designer John Algozzini of LandArt Solutions in Plainfield, Ill.

Back to the Camp Fire

Fire — along with water — has become a key ingredient in many successful landscapes to add warmth, and fire pits are overtaking fireplaces for several reasons. They’re less costly to purchase and install (figure $200 to $300 vs. $10,000 and up), available in prefabricated designs, and permit everyone to sit around it. In addition, they can be moved if home owners sell. It’s important for owners to check with their municipality whether it’s OK to burn wood or if they should use natural gas, Hursthouse says.  

Outdoor Living in Garden Rooms

With home owners wanting to gain more living space but not build, one cost-effective way is with additional outdoor square footage that can be enjoyed for multiple seasons, depending on the climate. What differentiates an outdoor room from a terrace or deck is the inclusion of more elements from indoor rooms, such as:

  • A floor — lawn or stone
  • Some type of wall — stone, green, or fabric
  • A roof — a pergola or vines
  • Furnishings
  • Lighting
  • Electricity, for amenities such as TVs or sound systems

Designers like Hursthouse encourage home owners to tailor spaces to their favorite activities. “I’ve designed rooms for a martini bar, cooking, [a] place to enjoy a cup of coffee and read the newspaper in the morning, or enjoy wine at night,” he says. Ample lighting can extend the use of these spaces, too, especially in winter, and these days CFLs or LED lamps reduce operating costs as much as 75 percent, says Jeffrey R. Dross, corporate director of education and industry trends with Kichler Lighting in Cleveland. He advises home owners to see the effect of the light rather than its source.

For home owners planning to stay in their houses rather than sell but worried about overspending, advise them that garden projects can be phased in — perhaps the front yard first and then the back — or that there are almost always less costly alternatives. Dry-stacking rocks for a wall is less expensive than wet-setting them, Burke says. Or you can install a prefab pergola instead of a custom-designed one. Even a fire pit can be constructed in do-it-yourself fashion from an old truck tire rim and topped by a grill, Stock says.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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