Landscapers' Challenge

We paired four top-notch landscapers with two homeowners who need help sprucing up their barren yards. The following pages prove that a well-designed plan can morph a beautiful home into a stunning estate that'll turn the neighbors green.

Most people envision their new dream home set on a flawless, emerald-green lawn accented by mature trees, shrubs and well-tended flower beds, complete with a deck or patio, maybe even a pool out back.

The reality, of course, is quite different: a sea of mud surrounding a house devoid of even the most basic of foundation plantings.

We recently selected two readers who want backyard makeovers for their new homes and introduced each of them to two different local landscaping firms. The assignment was simple: Transform the homeowners' large, sparse lots into lush, landscaped yards — at least on paper.

Kevin and Andrea Beard — Medina

The hill that rises from the front of the 2-acre lot on which Kevin and Andrea Beard's 3,900-square-foot transitional colonial sits didn't seem all that steep when they first checked out the property in June 2003. Both remember walking up the wooded knoll, which crests at the neighbor's roofline, and thinking, Oh, it's not that bad. Then, the contractor dug the driveway: 125 feet of concrete that snakes its way from the street to the garage.

"It never clicked that we were going to have that driveway," says Andrea, a 29-year-old corporate accountant. Camouflaging the resulting gash in the hillside — too steep to cover with grass that needs mowing or beds that require routine care — is now the Beards' most pressing landscaping issue.

"If it's affordable, I'd like a natural rock bed instead of a retaining wall," says Kevin, a 30-year-old business development manager for a brokerage firm. "If doing the rock beds on the sides of the driveway is going to be a long-term project, I'd like something temporary that will make the hill look nice." He'd also like to add a row of Cleveland Select pear trees on either side of the drive. "In the springtime, they flower, and they provide a lot of shade."

No. 2 on the landscaping to-do list is installing a lawn — something Kevin never got around to doing between putting in two flower beds out front and a patio off the bilevel deck out back after the couple moved in late last summer.

Other short-term projects the couple is considering include the installation of additional natural-looking flower beds, ideally incorporating rocks found on the property, pockets of evergreens to screen the back yard from view of those who will inevitably build homes on the left side of their abode and a fire pit. Andrea would also like to add a pool to the back yard at some point in the future.

"We do a lot of entertaining," Kevin says. "I'm hoping to entertain more than we have in the past."

Whatever landscaping plan the Beards decide to adopt, it will have to be something that requires minimum care because Kevin is on the road so much for his job.

"One of the few sources of solace and peace for me is cutting the grass," he says. "My dad always had a golf-course-green lawn, was out there every other night watering. My goal is to maintain it myself."

The Plan — DTR Associates

"One of the things that really attracted Kevin and Andrea to their lot was the wooded nature of it," says Matt McCue, a landscape architect with DTR Associates in Chagrin Falls. He therefore recommended a combination of low sandstone boulder outcroppings and plants — junipers, cotoneasters, ornamental grasses, goldflame spirea, shrub roses, serviceberry trees — rather than prefabricated retaining walls for the steepest areas flanking the drive. The result is less expensive than a retaining wall, easy to maintain and more in keeping with the lot's original appearance. Instead of placing rows of Cleveland Select pear trees on both sides of the drive, McCue opted to place a trio of them at the entrance — two on the left-hand side of the drive, one on the right.

"The steepness of the hill on that right side of the driveway didn't allow for that traditional look," McCue says. "As Kevin pulls into the driveway, he can still have that feeling of pear trees on both sides of it."

The beds fan out halfway up the drive to reveal the front lawn. Perhaps the biggest landscaping change in McCue's plans is at the front door. He replaced the standard concrete sidewalk with a wide, curving sandstone counterpart; swapped the plain stoop for a trio of wide stone steps; and created a natural courtyard by enclosing the rectangular area in front of them with a hedge of green velvet boxwood. The interior contains an oval "reflecting space" and beds punctuated by shrub roses as well as the azaleas and weeping cherry trees included in what used to be Kevin's flower beds.

The arrangement redirects the attention of guests, who step out of their cars in front of the side-load garage, to where Kevin and Andrea are waiting to greet them.

"I like to pull interior spaces out into the landscape," McCue adds. "The little courtyard pulls the entry foyer out into that area."

Behind the house, McCue fashioned an undulating yard space using the desired screening "pockets" of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials. A line of pine trees planted about 90 feet in front of the wood line was relocated to the beds — a move that McCue says opens up the view into the back of the yard and the woods behind it — and a handful of trees original to the property were incorporated into a single bed so they no longer appear to be "floating" in the middle of the yard. He and Kevin discussed the possibility of using sod in the area bordered by the driveway, front walk and front woods line to achieve a finished look immediately. But he definitely recommends using more affordable seed for the rest of the lawn, front and back.

Plans for the back yard also include a terrace that extends beyond the deck and patio, a walk that runs from the terrace to the top of the drive and a pair of stone walls with gates on either side of the house — an attractive front to the fence that zoning codes require with a pool. McCue says all would most likely be installed with the pool, which resembles the abbreviated top of a grand piano. The straight edge is a nod to the architecture of the house, the curves to those in the back yard.

The Plan — Impullitti Landscaping

When it came to reclaiming the scarred hillside on the Beard property, Dan McClaren, director of design at Impullitti Landscaping in Chagrin Falls, also chose natural stone boulder outcroppings — in this case, a series of alternating concave and convex curves terraced on the right-hand side of the drive — instead of a retaining wall to do the job. "I don't like seeing [prefabricated] retaining walls in a residential setting," he says. "They have a very industrial look."

The stonework is repeated in areas throughout the property, including a bed parallel to the street on the left-hand side of the drive, where McClaren installed a half-dozen callery pear trees, just as Kevin had envisioned. "It gives you the nice feel of an entranceway," McClaren says of the result. The plan calls for installing a pipe in the swale, or ditch, along the street to the left of the drive so it can be filled in with dirt, a move that will reduce the severity of the grade change.

McClaren echoed McCue's suggestion of using seed instead of sod for the lawn. "It can take at least a full season, sometimes up to two seasons, to really get established and to really look good, but it's worth the wait. The lawn is a lot hardier, a lot more durable." He also recommended installing the irrigation system needed to maintain that "golf-course-green lawn" of which Kevin speaks so fondly — something he hadn't planned on doing.

"If we get into a drought situation, which we commonly do in this part of the country, things tend to brown out," McClaren observes.

He spruced up the front entrance by adding a brick rowlock border to the existing sidewalk, stationing trios of decorative containers filled with annuals at both sides of the door and incorporating a cedar lattice panel in the bed to the left of the stoop. "It breaks up the wall, softens it a little bit," he says of the lattice panel's effect. An arbor flanked by cedar lattice panels located at the end of the drive — and at the beginning of a walk that leads to the patio and deck — serves as an entrance to the back yard and conceals the air-conditioning unit, vent pipes and electric meter located at the side of the house.

One of the more immediate changes McClaren proposed was extending the patio another four or five feet into the back yard. He points out that the area needed to accommodate traffic flow from the deck steps to the French doors in the walk-out basement, which open onto the patio, takes up the lion's share of the space. He also added a circular area surrounded by a barnstone sitting wall to accommodate a fire pit or a table and chairs. Curving beds of evergreen and deciduous plant material at opposite corners of the house and at the woods line ensure privacy on both the patio and deck.

The row of pine trees in the back yard — an arrangement McClaren compares to "a row of tin soldiers" — was relocated to the back woods line, where the evergreens were alternated with deciduous counterparts. Plans call for the mound on which the pines were planted to be leveled to better accommodate the pool Andrea wants to install at some point.

"Right now, the yard is all chopped up," McClaren says. "It's wasted space."

Elizabeth and James Sosan —Solon

It was the woods and designated wetlands at the back of the property that sold Elizabeth Sosan and husband James on their 1-acre corner lot in a fledgling Solon subdivision.

"Nobody will be building behind us," says Elizabeth, a quality engineer for an Akron-area manufacturer. That's something relatively few owners of new homes can state with such confidence. One back corner of the lot, however, had been stripped of its trees, completely exposing the back of the proposed home and offering a decidedly less-than-bucolic view of the street that runs beside the lot and the just-built houses on it.

"When you came down that street," Elizabeth notes, "you'd have no choice but to look straight into the house."

To remedy the situation, the Sosans built their 4,000-square-foot contemporary abode at an angle on the lot so that the many back windows overlooked the woods and wetlands and the back yard was more private. But much of what should have been the back yard is now on the side of the house, still next to the street and in plain view of the neighbors.

Practicality supersedes privacy on Elizabeth's list of landscaping priorities. First is grading the lot, followed by selecting a landscape plan and installing an irrigation system. ("You have to have a good design and know what you want so the sprinkler system is located in the right places," she points out.)

The next step is building a deck and patio so the family will have someplace to spend time outdoors this summer. Only after the heavy equipment and construction workers leave can Elizabeth begin thinking about putting in a lawn and landscaping the front and back yards. Her aesthetic requirements are simple: a small fountain hidden by the front door that welcomes visitors with the sound of water, maybe a cutting garden out back and plenty of trees — preferably ones that flower in the spring or have interesting bark and branching habits — to replace the ones that were taken out during construction.

"I want something that makes the house feel like it belongs on the lot," she says.

Like the Beards, the Sosans want a yard they can take care of themselves; in their case, with the help of their two sons. Although Elizabeth and her husband enjoy gardening, they don't want to spend every evening and weekend working in the yard.

"I like to get up early in the morning on a Saturday, cut some flowers, do some weeding, clean it up and I'm done," she says.

The Plan — The Pattie Group

The backyard deck that senior landscape designer Linda Pattie and landscape architect Dave Ketz, both of The Pattie Group in Novelty, designed for the Sosan home is what Ketz describes as "a large landing" with four or five deep steps that run the length of the deck.

The deck connects all of the back doors of the house and serves as a safe, graceful transition down to the curvilinear patio. To the left of the circular fire pit is a naturalistic water feature accented by a couple of rhododendrons, a weeping hemlock, a Japanese lace-leaf maple and two small crabapples.

To satisfy Elizabeth's penchant for trees that provide visual interest, Ketz and Pattie also added an October Glory maple, which turns a brilliant scarlet in the fall; a river birch, known for its exfoliating bark; and a couple of serviceberry trees, which flower in the spring and bear fruit that attracts birds. Large spruce trees do double duty, screening views from the house of both neighbors' garage doors and providing that much-desired privacy in the back and side yards. Aside from the screening plantings, the side yard was essentially left alone.

"Elizabeth wanted the side yard open for a play area," Pattie says. She notes that the Sosans wanted a formal yet simple landscape design for the front of the house.

"They're pretty proud of their house and they wanted to make sure that we didn't hide much of it with trees," Ketz says. He and Pattie persuaded the couple to let them add a trio of pear trees to the front yard — two at one of the entrances to the horseshoe driveway and one near the garage — to "ground" the big structure on the lot.

"Pear trees grow in a formal fashion, in a pyramidal shape, and they keep a neat appearance," Pattie explains. "They won't block the house, but they will be large enough to help soften it a little bit, to make a little bit more of an impact." The same goes for the sweet bay magnolia used to camouflage an expanse of bare brick wall underneath a half-dozen small, square windows and the false cypress stationed at the end of the foundation bed near the garage.

"It won't get overwhelmingly huge like a spruce tree," Pattie says of the latter.

Pattie and Ketz located the small fountain Elizabeth requested at the foundation near the left side of the front stoop. "It's a little thing, but it's going to look like an extension of the foundation," Ketz says of the 4-by-4-foot, custom-built structure. They also created a semicircular courtyard across the drive — essentially a bed defined by a low arc of boxwoods and filled in with rosebushes — to better define the front entrance.

"There are a couple that we like to use that are very low maintenance, but very free-flowering," Pattie says of the rosebushes. The courtyard, Ketz says, can be added as the Sosans' budget allows.

The Plan — J.F.D. Landscapes

Joe Drake, president of J.F.D. Landscapes in Auburn Township, designed a larger, modified U-shaped deck with a spa on one side, a dining area on the other and a circular "entertainment patio" with a stone grill and fireplace.

"The angle of the deck, which is different from what most people have on their house, really works nicely on this house because you have a set of steps that come off the left side of the deck to a small path that leads to the garage and driveway area," Drake says.

Another walkway extends from the patio to the drive on the other side of the house. Together, they provide access to the back yard without ever stepping foot on the grass, no matter where guests park.

"That side yard could become no man's land," Drake observes. "The walkway lets people access it."

The back yard is screened from view by massive brackets of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs at diagonal ends of the property (that is, on both sides of the house) to unite the back and side yards into a one continuous recreational space. Only the triangle of a front yard is left open to public scrutiny.

Like Ketz and Pattie, Drake created a semicircular bed — in this case, an arc of cotoneasters, junipers and flame grass surrounding a low, squat, stone wall with pillar caps that mimic those on the roof and an optional garden sculpture — across the drive from the front door to "bring the other side of the yard into the house."

"It really forms a destination in front of the house," he says of the result. He also employed ornamental trees —a flowering pear and weeping European beech in the front yard, a dwarf Korean lilac on either side of the front stoop, a crabapple underneath the six square windows — to soften the appearance of the house and "bring it down into the lot."

The plan even includes space for a freestanding water feature somewhere to the left of the front entrance. But Drake added a crucial element to the front landscape: a pair of low mounds on either side of the semicircular bed — one larger, one smaller — that give the house the appearance of being nestled into the property instead of simply plopped on top of it.

"It's subtle," Drake says. "It'll be a little bit unusual, a little bit different, from what most people have in front of their houses."

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