By Elinor Markle
It has long been said that “home is where the heart is,” and home is often where the most of our monetary assets are gathered. It therefore makes good money sense for property owners to enhance and maintain a good looking home, including the yard between the home and the public right of way. The familiar phrase “curb appeal” is self explanatory; it means that a home and land have visual appeal that is apparent from the public space, which is usually the street.
To create curb appeal for a property, start by going to the street and taking a critical look. I make a series of photos from this vantage point that allow me to accurately remember the view, and plan my design accordingly. Those photos also remind me of the colors in use in the house materials, the placement and scale of the windows, the height above grade of those windows, and any telling details of the client’s style preferences, which may be obvious in fences, and front porch lighting and flower pots.
Removing the ugly elements is the critical second step. Visual blight includes diseased or badly pruned trees, overgrown or badly pruned shrubs and a poor lawn. The ugly trees and shrubs should be removed if remedial pruning or pest management cannot immediately repair their looks. Lawns should be renovated to provide a smooth, healthy and uniform appearance. Utility meters, transformers or overhead wires that distract from the home’s appearance can be made less obtrusive by creating high interest in other areas. Only a little bit of “shrubbing up” is allowed, to help them disappear into the larger landscape. I advise against spending much effort in trying to disguise these unfortunate necessities for two reasons: the utility company will not treat the landscape nicely if they come to service the boxes and have to hack their way through prickly branches; and we are trying to draw attention to the front of the house, not the utility boxes or poles. So spend the budget on really emphasizing the front door and the walkway to it.
Depending on the depth of the front yard, landscape islands between the house and the street may be appropriate. On a yard with 30 feet or less between the face of the house and the street, the bed may be rather thin and contain an ornamental or shade tree and a bed surrounding it that is filled with evergreen groundcover and a small piece of art. For a really large front yard you might place groves of trees strategically that visually connect the neighbor’s plantings and also point toward your client’s fine home. These trees may or may not be placed in beds, depending on their maintenance and growth requirements. In any case, the lines of the bed edge should send our view toward the front door or an equally important feature of the house such as a massive glass window in an A-frame-style house, or the turrets of a Victorian estate.
Many homes have a sidewalk from the street and you can make the walkway inviting by making it wide enough for two people to comfortably walk side by side, and by using a hard surface that does not pose a slip or trip hazard. Stained and scored concrete is a simple walkway surface, and pavers or flagstone set in sand are rich in detail and satisfying to the eye. The path should curve only if it has, or you create, a reason for it to curve. Do not use gratuitous curves in an effort to make the walkway interesting. If you create a landscape bed between the house and the street, you can curve the walkway around it, or through it, placing a specimen plant in the bed that would seem to be the reason for bending the walkway around it, rather than continue in a straight line.
Connect the house to the lawn with well edged planting beds that allow plenty of space for at least three height layers of plants, and refrain from the outdated look of a straight line of shrubs stretched across the face of the house. Your goal is to create emphasis with bed lines that cause the viewer’s eyes to look toward the front door with enough interest along the way for a good impression to form. I prefer beds that are edged with brick or natural stone, or a clean “V trench,” or natural edge. After your plant installation and art placement is complete, mulch these beds with premium-quality pine straw or pine bark mini-chips. These products keep their fresh color and stay in place for many seasons, needing only periodic light topdressing to maintain a good look. While getting the mulch finished, be sure to apply a preemergent weed preventer according to the manufacturer’s recommendations. This helps keep your work looking sharp for many weeks after the project is completed.
Choose the plants for the installation wisely. If there is a winter season, use some plants that exhibit great form and or color when there are no leaves. I like placing one main tall plant type for the winter focal point, such as a Winter King Hawthorn. I use that plant where it is easily visible from inside the home, and serves the purpose of creating interest and accentuating the view toward the front of the house. If the “great plant” is a shrub, such as a Cotoneaster, I use it in a mass that follows the line of the landscape bed, leading all eyes to the front door. Spring, summer and fall provide plenty of blooms and leaves for color and textural interest, but do not overdo your use of them. Keep the front yard simple so that the plants accentuate the looks of the house and are not cluttered and busy looking. This is not the place for a collection of one of every sort of plant, or one of every color. Pick a couple of plants that really look great in each season to keep the landscape dynamic and create year-round interest.
Annuals are generally a high-maintenance sort of plant, but the constant blooming of a small mass on either side of the front doorway is a delight for anyone who sees the property and will bring instant interest and focus on the front entrance to the home. Annuals also are great in flower boxes at the face of the home and create a cozy look. Annuals will need daily watering, especially if the front of the house is in full sun so your client must be prepared to spend some time keeping the plants happy.
Create nighttime curb appeal as well; find three elements within the landscape to grace with low-voltage lighting. This trio might include the area near the front door where you have placed a small piece of art, an up-light on a plant within view of the living or dining room that has a striking winter silhouette, and the area at the juncture of the front walk and the driveway. There is no need to line the entire walkway to the front door like a landing way at the airport, but simply to highlight some of the interesting features you have created for the homeowner.
Curb appeal is helpful to homeowners whether they are planning to sell or planning to stay. Among all landscape projects, a front yard with curb appeal raises property values the most reliably. It welcomes the owner to the home, complements the overall appearance of the neighborhood, and inspires yard envy among the neighbors. If that doesn’t warm your heart, I do not know that anything could.
Elinor Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.