While winter still casts its chill, blankets snow, and layers ice in many parts of the country, landscape experts are busy studying garden catalogs, nursery websites, and interior design trends that can work outdoors.
Improving a home’s landscaping offers a win-win-win: greater enjoyment, increased home values, and enhanced curb appeal that may help attract buyers.
To gain the biggest bang for their dollars, home owners should understand their site’s topography, orientation, climate, and economy, as well as their own budget. What’s popular in one city experiencing growth may not appeal where the economy is stagnant, says landscape architect Stephen Wlodarczyk of Botanical Decorators in Olney, Md.
Here are popular trends reported from around the country and tips you can pass on to your clients:
Low maintenance. Busy home owners want to enjoy yards that don’t require a lot of time and effort to maintain. This trend is translating into more low-maintenance, carefree choices for outdoor spaces, such materials for decks, patios, and columns that don’t require repainting or replacing, furnishings that can be left outdoors throughout the year and won’t fade, and plant materials that don’t have to be constantly watered, fertilized, or pruned.
This, in turn, is leading to greater use of perennials instead of annuals in gardens, since annuals require yearly replacement. To compensate for the color advantage of annuals, landscape specialists suggest that color come from accessories such as pillows, placemats, and dishes.
Wildflowers, too, are less labor-intensive than cottage and cutting garden choices, and also less pricey.
Simpler in design and care, yet still pleasing, are gardens that incorporate five to seven varieties of flowers rather than dozens, says Daniel Richards, general manager of design at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury, N.Y. “You can go with one big bank of roses in one color rather than 20 different kinds in multiple colors,” he says.
Container gardens also pare down maintenance, and pots can winter indoors. But the downside is that they need to be watered more frequently since water in smaller containers will evaporate faster than it will in the ground.
Although water features remain popular, these, too, are beginning to reflect the desire for less intense care. More home owners install pools with salt water to decrease the need for chlorination, and some go with natural pools where rocks and plantings cleanse water. Still others opt for small fountains for the soothing sight and sound of trickling water. And if they want a more lavish water wall or cascade, they ask for water to be recirculated for conservation, says Chris Cipriano, owner of Cipriano Landscape Design in Mahway, N.J. The size of pipes can also reduce evaporation, with oversized designs slowing the velocity and loss, he adds.
When it comes to grass, “Grassology’s” grass-like product requires less water and feeding since its roots go deeper than ordinary grass to find water and nutrients instead of depending on traditional methods. The “grass” also doesn’t grow as high, so less mowing is needed.
Entertaining outdoors. Today’s home owners want an outdoor entertainment space, so more are adding patios, decks, or terraces large enough to accommodate comfortable seating; often the finished result resembles an indoor room.
The furnishings selected for outdoor entertainment areas are also sturdier — sometimes indistinguishable in quality and look from what home owners use indoors — and upholstery is more fade-resistant.
Bells and whistles make outdoor living even more pleasurable, whether it’s surround sound, weatherproof TVs, or well-equipped kitchens. While some home owners still find a good grill sufficient, especially if their indoor kitchen is close by, others are ramping up their cooking zones with appliances specifically designed for outdoor use — sinks, refrigerators, beer taps, pizza ovens, and rotisseries. Storage and countertops are also more frost-proof.
To shade those who lounge or dine, pergolas continue to flourish, matched stylistically to a home’s design or favorite vacation paradise — perhaps Tuscany or the South Seas. To shade better, many are planted with flowering vines.
For those who aren’t as focused on saving dollars, water features are ever more lavish and resort-like. Vanishing-edge pools, where water seems to spill over indefinitely, are increasing popular, says Cipriano. “Home owners want to feel they’re going to their own five-star hotel,” he says.
Sustainably savvy. Native vegetation choices have caught on in landscaping because they don’t require frequent watering or as much feeding, fertilizing, and pruning, and these plants know how to survive in their region. They also offer the plus of attracting more native wild life, bees, butterflies, and bugs.
Green gardening also means less lawn for many, and more hardscape that’s permeable such as gravel or brick, so water can seep through and be reused. But be sure home owners understand that all hardscape isn’t the goal either, since some greenness is key to a home looking residential and inviting, says Sacramento, Calif., landscape designer Michael Glassman, whose state has experienced a terrible drought.
If home owners insist on lawn and plants, they should consider going with a choices that can be left more natural to resemble a meadow or prairie, or they might consider synthetic turf, which now looks much more realistic.
Many home owners are also planting vegetable and herb beds to grow more of their own food, which inspired Elizabeth Robinson Edwards and her husband Williams recently to launch their Edwards Yards business to help home owners learn how to amend poor soil and grow food sustainably.
Drip irrigation systems help conserve water better than sprays, which often throw into the air haphazardly, says Jim Drzewiecki of Ginkgo Leaf Studio in Cedarburg, Wisc. For home owners eager to lower water use, they should consider installing rain barrels and other collection methods.
More home owners also want to incorporate local, recycled, and renewable materials, such as stone quarried nearby and reclaimed lumber, says landscape designer Laurie Van Zandt, whose firm, The Ardent Gardener is based in Huntsville, Utah.
Extended use. Better lighting and warmth are key for extending backyard enjoyment into the night and for a greater part of the year (even in colder climates).
For illumination, LEDs are replacing halogen bulbs because of their greater energy efficiency, particularly as their prices come down. These lights are being used not just for eating and sitting, but also to accent specimen trees, garden furnishings, and artwork. Richards says make sure the lighting effect is visible while concealing the source of the light.
Adding a fire pit or fireplace also encourages home owners to use their outdoors as the weather becomes nippier. Fire pits are a more affordable option, but if home owners are planning to stay in their home for a long time, a permanent outdoor fireplace can bring many years of beauty and enjoyment.
Before home owners install either, they should know their community’s regulations regarding having a fire outdoors and how far the structure must be from the house.
A fire bowl offers a less intense flame, but still provides the effect, and several can be placed around the perimeter of a terrace or by a pool, says Glassman.
For those homeowners who prefer going barefoot, he also suggests radiant heat installed under wood boards, in the same manner as indoors kitchens and bathrooms.
All the senses. Attracting bees, birds, and other animals can add pleasant outdoor sounds. And an array of smells from plants, flowers, and herbs also can enhance home owners’ pleasure, says Van Zandt, but try not to have too many that may overpower one another.
Bolder colors outdoors rank high on wish lists, as they do inside, from periwinkle blue to zesty orange, but know that classic white and blue rarely loses its cachet. The Perennial Plant Association named Panicum virgatum, “Northwind,” the 2014 plant of the year with its vertical ornamental grass with blue green foliage forming a clump 4 to 5 feet high and 2 to 3 feet wide, Wlodarczyk says.
More personalized curb appeal. A front yard can become more appealing through a host of features beyond a lawn and decorative walk, says Van Zandt.
Suggest to home owners they use textured plantings, different height materials, some variation in color throughout the year, a piece of garden art or interesting furniture such as an antique bench, maybe a small water feature, and even a painted wall that coordinates with their home’s façade and architectural elements.
And whatever choices home owners consider, advise them to keep costs to no more than 5 to 10 percent of their home’s value, so they don’t over-improve.