Putting Landscapers to the Test

What happens when you take four landscapers with big ideas and two homeowners with barren yards — and then add budgets to the mix?

They say shoes make the outfit. But when it comes to a home, it's the landscaping that adds the finishing touch. Without it, even the most stately home looks forlorn and displaced.

We found two Cleveland Magazine staffers who'd recently moved into new homes — one in Avon and one in Bay Village — but hadn't yet had time for landscaping, and asked them to work with top designers in the area to come up with a plan for their front and back yards.

Our Avon staffer and her husband met with Yard Smart Inc. of Olmsted Falls and Naturescape Inc. of Chagrin Falls. Impullitti Landscaping of Chagrin Falls and The Pattie Group of Novelty assisted our Bay Village staffer and his wife.

The resulting plans, captured in the color renderings on these pages, illustrate how well-designed landscaping can change a facade, giving a home the kind of curb appeal that can't be gained by haphazardly planting a few bushes here and some pines over there.

"One of the most important things on a landscape installation is not what plants go in, but what the plants go into," says James Arch, a landscape architect with Impullitti.

Although home-improvement stores, HGTV and the Internet give homeowners a sense of horticultural empowerment, Arch points out that it takes a professional's expertise to prepare soil, which is literally the foundation for a flourishing landscape.

Aside from the technical aspects, creativity also goes into a great design and what it brings to a home. "It's peace of mind," observes Joe Super of Yard Smart. "It's tranquility."

Bay Village Beautiful

Cleveland Magazine publisher Frank Bird and his wife, Deb, moved into their Bay Village colonial in September, leaving little time to landscape before winter set in. After consulting with Impullitti and The Pattie Group, the couple identified their priorities: install a lawn, set up flowerbeds and improve the view from their back patio.

"We are looking for a template that certainly has a good start to it, but at the same time, areas where we could dabble a little bit and plant some annuals and perennials and different things along those lines as we see fit," Frank says.

The Pattie Group: Prudent Planting

When Dave Ketz first set eyes on Frank and Deb's house, he devised a plan for improving the view from the street: Direct the eye away from the house next door, which is still a work in progress.

Ketz, a landscape architect and project planner with The Pattie Group, used a detailed questionnaire to uncover Frank and Deb's other needs, wants, likes and dislikes. Founded in 1968, the company prides itself on creating low-maintenance installations based on clients' preferences.

—┼árank and Deb enjoy entertaining and relaxing on the back patio, and sought Ketz's expertise on how to see more green and less of their neighbors' homes from the back yard. Ketz helped them determine how much professional prepwork they wanted on their flowerbeds and how much labor they wanted left for their gardening hobby. The couple also had in mind some specifics, including a decorative tree for the front yard and lilacs to scent the property.

"I grew up with them. My mom had them. My grandmother had them," says Frank. "For us, it's just a way of life."

The following week, Frank and Deb received renderings of Ketz's proposed layout for their front and back yards. The color drawings feature a lawn throughout the property, as well as plantings and a sprinkler system for the front yard. With flowerbeds sculpted for visual interest, the total comes to slightly more than $15,000.

As the couple requested, Ketz planned for a "semiformal" landscape in the front yard. Along the front walkway, he placed an ornamental bird's-nest spruce, which grows up instead of out, so as not to clothesline guests as they head for the front door. To disguise out-of-place electrical boxes, the design calls for spirea little princess and shadblow serviceberry beneath the tree. A similar arrangement sits on the other side of the garage to achieve a symmetrical, semiformal style.

"Usually, in the front, we try to keep mostly evergreen at least 70 percent — because you have to look at it year-round," Ketz says.

A viburnum carlesi near the front door provides a fragrance similar to that of lilacs, for which Ketz could not find a feasible place.

For the back yard, the couple wanted a more casual feel. Although additional landscaping would exceed their budget, Ketz's design details a plan for a modified back patio, an in-ground fire pit and lighting. A red oak and three Canadian hemlocks provide shade and privacy without completely walling off the neighbors or obstructing Frank and Deb's view of the woods. Other trees, such as the magnolia virginiana, live the design year-round color release and highlight Deb's favorite season: fall. Ketz estimates that these extra features would cost an additional $23,000.

"Phase one is probably a three-day project," he notes.

Frank and Deb are pleased that The Pattie Group's plan provides a basic landscaping framework while still allowing the couple to get their hands dirty.

"The Pattie Group addressed all the needs we discussed in our first meeting," Frank says. "We would like a walkway along the west side of the house, but that wouldn't come until the second stage."

Impullitti: No Stone Left Unturned

When Dan McClaren and James Arch meet with new clients, they give them the third degree.

"We try to pick their brains a lot, because usually people have ideas of what they want, even if they don't necessarily know where they want it or how they want it," says McClaren, director of design for Impullitti Landscaping Inc. Founded in 1952, the company strives to create outdoor spaces that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

To get inside Frank and Deb's heads, McClaren and Arch paid a visit to their Bay Village home. The landscape team asked a series of questions, from the couple's favorite outdoor activities to the likelihood that their8dog will wander off if the property remains fenceless.

They also toyed with the idea of a jungle gym for the couple's 1-year-old daughter, but Frank and Deb hesitate to invest in anything elaborate. "It has a very short-term life," Frank observes, "so I don't think we'll go with anything big."

The team also noted that the front of the house faces south, which could affect the positioning of plants.

By the following week, McClaren and Arch had drafted a landscape plan that fits within the couple's budget. For around $15,000, Frank and Deb can have an irrigated lawn throughout the property, and flowerbeds and large trees installed. In the front yard, the landscape team suggests a heritage river birch, whose decorative bark provides year-round visual appeal. A Tanyosho pine helps camouflage those pesky electrical boxes. Steppingstones would lead to the back yard, where a Colorado blue spruce and sweet bay magnolias provide privacy and visual appeal.

"The stone walkway to the back yard was a nice touch," Frank says. Additional steppingstones lead to a back corner designated for the couple's vegetable garden.

Once the backbone of their landscape is in place, Frank and Deb may consider additional phases to take their property to the next level. In the front yard, the landscapers recommend ornamental grasses and a butterfly bush to increase visual interest and further disguise the electrical boxes. They would also replace the existing cement walkway with a wider, brick path that creates space for an additional flowerbed and allows visitors to walk side-by-side to the front door.

"One of the things I typically don't like to do is line the walkways with lights. It looks like Hopkins runway, the final approach," McClaren says. "The way I handle lighting, I just say less is more."

In the back yard, a garden pond provides added tranquility without making much extra work for the homeowners. "The small pond idea really worked for us with the gurgling water sound, which is really relaxing," Frank says.

A cedar lattice panel intertwined with climbing hydrangea serves as a "living fence" and conceals an air-conditioning unit at the back of the house. These extra features would cost Frank and Deb anywhere from $22,600 for lower-end materials to $44,500 for top-of-the-line products. But right now, those add-ons are just a twinkle in the homeowners' eyes.

"We know for phase one we are going to get the basics — lawn, flowerbeds and some of the major plants — which seems fair given our budget," Frank says.

The View from Avon

After sweating out every detail of her new home — from paint shades to window sizes to flooring — Cleveland Magazine senior editor Colleen Mytnick and husband Gary Smitek had little energy left for landscaping. So when they met with Yard Smart and Naturescape, they left all of the specifics to the green thumbs. "Neither of us knows a lot about plants," admits Colleen, "and we didn't want to limit their creativity by giving them overly specific instructions." The only firm goal they had was to improve the view from their sunroom, so that they look out at nature rather than their neighbor.

Yard Smart: A World of Choice

An amenable customer is not as easy to work with as you'd think.

Yard Smart landscape designers Joe Super and Jen Skitzki learned this lesson firsthand at Colleen and Gary's house when they found out the couple had very little idea of what they wanted in a yard.

In order to overcome that obstacle, the designers paid three visits to the Avon home. At the first, they asked lots of questions, walked the yard and took photos. Super encouraged the couple to think big, even if meant adding landscaping in phases. "It doesn't really cost you much more to dream on paper," he says.

At the second visit, the designers presented nearly 20 concepts for the front and back yards, paying special attention to see which elements of each plan the couple liked. Some were quite formal, with hedges and brick columns, while others offered a more casual, natural look. Nearly all of the plans were accented by special touches, such as water features, a bar-style eating area on the back patio or a fire pit.

A week later, the landscapers returned again with a final plan that incorporated Colleen and Gary's reactions to the previous round of ideas. At a total cost of about $28,000, the plan was designed as a master scheme for the property. As Gary had requested, it called for plenty of trees in both the front and back, including red maple, ash, Norway spruce and sour gum.

In the front yard, three low brick walls mimic the right angles of the home's facade, while a host of trees, shrubs and perennials form gentle curves. "It's kind of a combination of free-flowing and structured," Super notes.

In the back yard, the landscaping winds around the patio and the side porch, flaunting weigela, boxwood, spirea daphne, astilbe and tiger lilies. The focal point, however, is a back-border privacy planting that blends the existing half-dozen mature trees with Norway spruce, viburnium, forsythia, star magnolia, rose of Sharon and perennial beds.

While Gary admires the strategic planting of trees, Colleen especially likes the plans for the porch, including a climbing hydrangea on a trellis, a stone path leading from the porch to the patio, and the idea of using leftover bricks from their home to custom-build a grill. "At every stage of this process, Joe and Jen came up with these brilliant, creative ideas," says Colleen.

But what exactly can the couple get for their $10,000 budget? Scaling back the front planting and eliminating the stone walls reduced the plan's price considerably. In the back yard, the couple say they would opt to do all of the planting around the patio and porch over time and focus now on the privacy planting, which costs about $6,000.

Though they couldn't get the whole plan for the money they wanted to spend, the homeowners did get exactly what they needed: "A vision for the yard," says Colleen. "We now have something to guide us as we plan our yard over the years."

Naturescape: An Intelligent Design

Joe Adams likes to get inside a homeowner's head — and their house — before designing any plans. While it's nice to add curb appeal to your home, Adams says it's equally important that you like what you see when you look outside. "Enjoy your landscaping from the inside first," he advises.

When Adams, a landscape designer with Naturescape, and owner Mark Osinki met with Colleen and Gary, they surveyed the property and then asked a battery of questions, ranging from technical aspects such as rear-yard drainage to flower and tree preferences.

A week later, Adams and Osinki returned with two versions of a plan that detailed each plant to be used in both the front and back yards. The first would cost $29,261 to implement and included everything the homeowners said they would someday like their yard to feature. The second, at a cost of $10,000, was scaled back to meet their budget and did not include the front-yard islands or the lush backyard privacy buffer of trees and shrubs.

Both plans were designed to provide year-round color and interest. In the front yard, Adams says, the goal is "continuity, not balance." That, he adds, is accomplished by repeating plants in different parts of the yard, not clumping all plants of the same type together. To that end, he and Osinki planned a menagerie of Japanese yew, dwarf Korean lilac, boxwood, weigela and miscanthus, to name a few. A front perennial bed flaunts — among other beauties — delphinium, pink rock cress, hidcote lavender, Siberian iris and creeping phlox. "I want to drive in and get a sense of one whole affair," explains Adams. "It's like one big hug."

In the back yard, Naturescape planned a sweeping buffer island, featuring eight blue spruces for privacy, as well as a colorful assortment of red twig dogwood, winterberry holly, forsythia, Miss Kim lilac and peegee hydrangea. While the buffer is exactly what the homeowners would like to see in their rear yard, it was not included in the $10,000 proposal and would cost an additional $8,706 to plant.

Technical details were not sacrificed to beauty. Osinski points out that only deer-resistant plants were selected. He also explained where drainage tile would be needed and even noted that special care had to be taken in choosing a plant to locate in front of the dryer vent.

While they admire the artistry of the plan, Gary and Colleen say they are also impressed by the amount of detail in the proposal. If they ultimately choose to hire Naturescape, they say it would be easy to pick and choose from the different elements of the plan to come up what they feel is the best use of their $10,000. "We'd do what we can now and then use this plan as a guide to do more later," says Colleen.

The homeowners were also impressed by Osinski's technical knowledge (he quickly identified trees in need of life support, as well as drainage issues). "If we went with them," says Gary, "I know our yard would not only look great initially, but would have the expertise behind it that would allow it to look better and better as it matures."

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