Two years after moving into a beautiful but rundown Roland Park house, Sue and Craig Roswell finally felt they had the time and resources to devote to the front yard. It had suffered from years of neglect, and the problems were daunting.
Two huge swamp maples provided shade -- too much shade for the small yard -- and also made the soil so acidic it would be difficult to grow grass.
"I wanted to have them taken out," says Mrs. Roswell, "But everyone said I shouldn't because others [in the area] have died from blight, and these are healthy."
Ivy and weeds had taken over the yard completely, and maple seedlings sprouted everywhere. The ivy was filled with dead maple leaves that needed raking out. The only foundation planting in the front was an American boxwood to the right of the porch.
Like many of us who enjoy gardening, the Roswells could have bought some shrubs and flowering trees and tried to create a front with what real estate agents call curb appeal. But neither is a serious gardener; and with two small children there weren't enough hours in the day to get the ordinary chores done, let alone take on a project of this magnitude without help.
"The reason we hired a landscaper," says Mrs. Roswell, "was that we didn't want to make mistakes. But we also didn't want to spend a fortune on the outside."
In some ways their decision to make over their front yard -- and hire a designer to do it -- was easier than it would have been if there had been an established garden. But some established gardens could also benefit from a professional makeover. Perhaps they don't have an overall plan or shape or contain too many different plants to be harmonious. They may have shrubs or perennials that are past their prime or in the wrong spot to thrive.
A garden makeover can be a smart investment. Good landscape design can add 14 percent to the value of the property, a Gallup survey for the American Nursery and Landscape Foundation found. And Money magazine has estimated that owners may see a 100 percent return on their investment when the time comes to sell their homes.
The Roswells originally planned to complete the work in three stages. Phase one would be the foundation beds. Phase two would be a row of shrubs or trees on one side to screen the back yard, where their six-year-old, Andrew, and three-year-old, Abby, play. Phase three would be to get rid of the ivy, weeds and seedlings and plant grass.
They planned to get bids from several different garden designers. But they liked the first one they talked to, Jim McElroy of nearby Green Fields Nursery & Landscaping Company, and decided to look no further.
"We needed something to bring attention to the front of the house," says Mrs. Roswell. "It got lost in the trees. Jim wanted to draw attention to the architecture of the front porch. We liked that, and we hadn't thought of it."
McElroy suggested starting with young plants to save money. In a year they would grow to a size that would cost twice as much to plant. When his estimate came in for less than $2500, the Roswells decided to have the whole job done at once.
The nursery crew arrived mid-morning and finished the foundation beds by mid-afternoon. It took two more visits to complete the rest of the work. McElroy's plan was to stay with the symmetrical architecture of the Roswells' brick colonial with only a few variations so the layout wouldn't seem monotonous. Undulating beds were cut on either side of the porch to draw the eye to the handsome pillared entrance, and two tons of top soil were added to the beds. The boxwood was discarded because it suffered from lacebug and leaf miner.
The design left some space so the couple could plant annuals if they wanted to, but not so much that the beds would look bare if they didn't. At the moment the space is filled with pink and white impatiens; in the fall the Roswells can replace them with pansies when the maples lose their leaves and the area gets more sun.
Mrs. Roswell asked for a magnolia, her only request, so the garden designer planted a 'Little Gem' dwarf magnolia, an evergreen hybrid that can tolerate the cold this far north, on the far side of one bed. He balanced it with a Kousa or Japanese dogwood on the other end, where there is more sun. Less susceptible to disease than the native dogwood, the Kousa blooms in June after its leaves are out. In the fall it will have red berries that hang like little Christmas balls. The dogwood's spreading branches will eventually form a screen to hide a bare space between the Roswells' and the house next door.
To create a display that would have color ten months a year, McElroy added 'Blue Princess' hollies, which produce bright red berries against glossy dark blue-ish leaves in the fall, just when any flowers would be dying out. One 'Blue Prince' holly is in the mix to pollinate the others.
"Stick it across the street and it would probably pollinate them," says McElroy. "But the closer it is, the more berries."
To hide the house's foundation he used ilex crenata 'Wight's Compacta,' an evergreen shrub that gets no bigger than four feet. It and many of the other plants were chosen because the Roswells, like many homeowners these days, wanted a low-maintenance garden. The compact shrubs are hardy and won't need trimming.
The designer decided on mostly evergreen shrubs and trees deliberately. "You don't want a lot of stuff that loses its leaves in front," he explains. "You don't want to have a big bare bed around the holidays when people are coming to the house."
Much of the color this time of year will be provided by six 'River Mist' azaleas. These azaleas, compact with large pink blossoms, should do well in the Roswells' yard with all its shade.
When customers come to the nursery to buy azaleas, the first thing McElroy asks is "sun or shade?"
"If they say full bleaching sun and put in an azalea," he explains, "it will fry like a pizza."
Two 'Otto Luyken' cherry laurel, a compact shrub with shiny green leaves and furry white blooms, flank the porch steps. Liriope, a perennial that in late summer will have lavender blooms, forms a border. If the Roswells don't get around to recutting the bed each year, the liriope will suggest the curve. The designer had nothing against using plants that were already in the yard, so much of the liriope was transplanted from the back yard.
For the second phase of the project, the nursery crew planted Norway spruce, which grow about a foot a year, on the right side of the house to block the view of the back yard. McElroy chose them because they do well in shade and because the neighbors next door has a fully grown one in the corner of their yard.
"You don't want to put in stuff that doesn't go with the neighborhood," he says.
As for the final phase, McElroy advised against trying to get rid of all the ivy and planting grass, which he felt would be a losing proposition. Instead the crew created a buffer zone of grass between the foundation beds and the ivy, but most of the ivy is still there. The maple seedlings and weeds have been pulled up and the dead leaves raked out so it presents a much neater appearance.
"We're just thrilled with the results," Mrs. Roswell says. "I'm always afraid with something like this that the results won't be as good as how I imagined it. But we're thrilled."
Green Fields, like many nurseries, guarantees its work for a year. At the moment, the only upkeep the Roswells need to do is water--particularly the new grass that's just coming up, but also the shrubs, trees and flowers. The foundation beds will need little care once they're established because the plants are disease-resistant and compact. The shrubs shouldn't have to be pruned much, and the amount of shade in the yard will mean less watering.
The Roswells can apply an organic fertilizer like Plant-Tone in the spring and fall. The liriope will need to be cut back in the early spring. For neat-looking beds they should recut the curves once a year with an edger or a shovel and mulch once or twice a year to keep weeds down and retain moisture during periods of drought. It's just about as much gardening as an attorney and a busy mother of two can handle.
The Roswells' next outdoor project will be a makeover for the back yard.
"But as long as Andrew is playing ball back there," says Mrs. Roswell, "That can wait."
Advice from the professional
* Stay with the architecture of the house.
* "Don't be a packrat," McElroy urges; be willing to discard plants that are well past their prime.
* Buy plants for how they'll look when they aren't blooming, which may be most of the time.
* Consider what plantings are common to the neighborhood, so yours will look as if they belong.
* If money is a consideration, buy small trees and shrubs and be patient.
* Most people buy azaleas and plant them when they're blooming--the worst time, says McElroy, because all their energy is in their flowers.
* Mulch once a year for horticultural reasons; twice a year for aesthetic ones.
* Ninety-nine percent of plantings are lost because of watering, McElroy estimates--either too much or too little.
* Stick your finger through mulch to see if a bed needs watering.
* If your azaleas look droopy, probably the whole bed needs watering.
Hiring a landscaper
If all you need is to replace an azalea or two, you probably don't need a landscape designer. But if a number of plants aren't doing well or you want your yard to have a certain look, hiring a professional may be a good investment. Here are some ideas to get you started.
* If you see a front yard you love, find out if it was professionally done, and if so, who did it.
* Ask your friends and neighbors for recommendations. Word of mouth is usually the best advice.
* Have a clear idea of what your priorities are (low maintenance, lots of color for much of the year, an outdoor living area) and the look you like (spare and clean, English country garden).
* Be ready to tell the designer what your budget is. Most landscapers think long term and are willing to draw up a plan and do the work in stages.
* Remember that a professionally planned and installed garden may save you maintenance and plant replacement costs in the future.
* If you choose a designer from the Yellow Pages or an advertisement, ask for references.
* Get estimates in writing from a couple of different companies unless you really click with the first one.
* Ask about guarantees.
* Get as much information as you can about taking care of your garden afterward.
* If the landscape designers you talk to are too busy to get to your project any time soon, keep in mind that autumn is the best time to plant many shrubs and trees.