P. Allen Smith: Planting Paradise

Gardening guru P. Allen Smith, author and host of his own syndicated and PBS television shows, shares creative ideas that you and your clients can use to beautify the great outdoors.

July 1, 2011

Real estate practitioners know that curb appeal is important, but what landscaping features have the most visual impact?

You can spruce up a lawn by overseeding, but you need time for a new lawn to grow in. For homes on the market, I recommend easier fixes. If there’s an unsightly view of a neighbor’s home and yard (what I call “retina irritants”), I suggest adding a screening hedge of hollies, spruces, or arborvitae. Color can be a big eye-catcher, so I suggest a large seasonal bed in front, giving life to an area where shrubs may be old and tired. Color can be added at a mailbox as a focal point.

How much can home owners spend on a yard and still get a payback?

 It depends on the home’s value. If the house is worth millions, I’d suggest investing 10 to 12 percent, but if it’s $100,000, maybe 8 percent. An outdoor living area, with a fireplace, kitchen, pergola, or water feature, is a great way to enjoy a home without adding to it structurally.

So many people make landscaping choices because materials look pretty at a garden center. Then they discover that the flowers, plants, and trees don’t thrive in their yard.

I recommend hiring a professional, which saves money over the long haul, rather than spending $400 to $800 at the start of each season without proper planning. People need to go for good bones and first get in foundation or screening plantings around the house that may also enclose outdoor living areas. Then, they should add secondary or flowering plants. At my houses, I planted holly to establish rooms; in shaded areas, I used rhododendron, azaleas, and Japanese Pieris. Think organic and build in quality soil by doing research about what’s in yours and amending it. Mine had too much clay.

Should a garden reflect a home’s style?

 Yes, it should bow to the architecture. If it’s Colonial-style, a cottage garden might look best; if a Victorian, maybe old-fashioned roses and weeping cherries. You can research what was popular by looking at period gardens or calling a historic garden society.

Despite having an interest in conserving water, many people desire a water feature in their yard. How do we reconcile this?

Pools and fountains that recirculate water don’t use a large volume—and they don’t have to resemble Lake Superior to offer nice ambience. It’s more important to have something that fits the home’s scale and can be maintained.

Many home owners want colorful sequential blooms all year, even in a cold climate. Is that possible?

Many trees, shrubs, and grasses offer colorful stems, berries, and bark. Winterberry or golden twig dogwood add color even during Midwestern winters.

Your new cookbook, Garden to Table (Clarkson Potter, 2010), showcases your family’s vegetable gardening efforts. What do you recommend for home owners who want to get in on the trend of growing their own food?

Anyone who’s planted a garden knows how much you can grow in a small space, such as herbs in containers and salad greens and tomatoes in raised beds. If home owners are beginners, they should avoid growing too much. Perhaps stick with some flat-leaf Italian parsley and basil. 

Going green is a hot topic today. What are the best ways to create an eco-friendly garden?

Conserve water by buying a manual timer. Avoid pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides. And plant native, easy-care, drought-tolerant materials.

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).