The Wilks family live in Baltimore and was selected to receive a backyard makeover from The Nate Berkus Show. They will appear on the TV show on Monday, May 2. From left to right are M’Salla Wilks, Sarai Wilks, 7, Selah Wilks, 10, Felicia Wilks and Nate Berkus. (Julie Holder, Sony Pictures Television, Baltimore Sun / April 29, 2011)

Before "The Nate Berkus Show" arranged for a dramatic makeover, M'Salla and Felicia Wilks and their two daughters were prisoners of their own backyard.

"The grape arbor was the most terrible thing," says Felicia Wilks, who lives with her family in Northwest Baltimore.

"We didn't really get when we were supposed to prune or how much, and after a couple of years, grapevines took over the whole back," she says. "We also have a trumpetvine with these beautiful, bell-like flowers, and it took over the whole front."

Even though the family live on nearly an acre of property, they could use only small parts of it.

"The kids were restricted mainly to the porch," Wilks says. "We didn't even let them go out back, because we thought maybe there were wild things living in it."

So when the family was told they'd been selected for a landscaping redo valued at $30,000 to $40,000, they were thrilled. The results will be unveiled Monday on the NBC show hosted by the interior designer known for his appearances on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

"It's still surreal," Wilks says. "Every day when we get home, I rush straight out and make sure that our new backyard is still there. Every minute it's not raining, we're outside. The other day, the girls ate breakfast in their new treehouse."

The lot, which is partially shaded by walnut trees, hadn't always been an eyesore. When the young family purchased the property in 2002 from a pair of avid gardeners, the house was surrounded by a garden paradise, with a grape arbor, beds of lilies and mature fruit trees.

The yard was beautiful — but high maintenance.

"We're not gardeners," Wilks says. "I'm originally from Baltimore, so I had a little experience cutting the grass. But my husband is from New York, and he'd never taken care of a yard."

In addition, both parents work full time; M'Salla is a personnel officer for the state of Maryland, and Felicia is a diversity director for an independent school. They also are raising two bursting-with-energy daughters: Selah, 10, and Sarai, 7.

The Wilkses quickly found they couldn't maintain the yard by themselves. But they also couldn't afford to pay someone else to plant, weed and prune.

Finally, in desperation, Felicia Wilks posted an SOS on the website of her favorite design show. Berkus' staff was horrified at the photographs of the Wilkses' yard — but intrigued. The lot had great potential.

"I found out [on a] Monday that our backyard had been picked for a makeover," Wilks says, "The crew was out here four days later. I was scared they would take one look and say, 'Oh, never mind.'"

But the eight designers and a dozen laborers weren't easily frightened. The first day, they filled five Dumpsters with weeds, vines and pruned branches from the back yard alone.

They planted drought-resistant, low-maintenance shrubs, such as butterfly bushes. They built a deck attached to the house consisting of three outdoor rooms, plus a treehouse for the girls.

"They tapped into some strange sort of intuitive stuff," Wilks says.

"They picked up on the fact that I'd always wanted a weeping-cherry tree even though I didn't say so. I came home and found they'd planted three. They also put in four purple hostas. That's the same flower the bridesmaids carried in our wedding. There's no way they could have known that."

Within four days, the new yard was finished. Best of all, keeping it looking tip-top shouldn't take more than an hour a week, even during the height of summer.

"My oldest daughter has a birthday in June, and she always wanted to have a party in the yard," Wilks says.

"We kept saying, 'Maybe next year, maybe next year.' Now, we won't be too embarrassed to invite people over."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com



On TV



The Wilks family will appear on "The Nate Berkus Show" at 9 a.m. Monday on the digital channel WBAL-DT2.

  • Text NIGHTLIFE to 70701 to sign up for Baltimore Sun nightlife and music text alerts