The Best Kept Secret to Dramatically Improving Your Curb Appeal

This post is written by Tricia Firmaniuk, my Senior Colour Designer who lives in Edmonton:

Before I let Tricia talk I want to say one thing. Our eDesign department does a ton of exterior colour consulting. And one thing I’ve noticed more than anything else is the overuse of unfortunate looking stone and too many combinations of different siding (for example).

So many people worry too much about the house looking ‘boring’ and end up spending too much on the facade instead of where they should, the landscaping.

You can have a beautifully designed home with great architecture, but if you don’t decorate your home, if it’s missing area rugs, lamps, artwork and accessories, your house will still not have atmosphere.

So read on to find out how easily you too can have a plan that makes you happy every time you drive up to your home!

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The spring before last, a forceful windstorm had my dried out, unhealthy old top heavy spruce trees whipping around ready to fall on the house or the cars on the street. They were at least 60 years old and much too large for our house and yard. They were becoming a hazard.

One had come down a few seasons before (there were 6 in all, a veritable forest) and miraculously, it fell away from the house, between the other trees and missed all the vehicles parked on the street.

But it was a warning.

Taking out 5 gigantic trees is very expensive, and honestly, I love trees and I was reluctant on some level. But that windstorm had me pick up the phone and haggle a bulk deal with a local arborist.

Here is my house with all the trees except the one that already fell. It’s hard to see that there is a house haha.

Curb appeal is more than colour and architecture

It was a shock to see our little house looking exposed for the first time in the 11 years we had lived here. Whereas before, it was hidden from the street, now it was in desperate need of some curb appeal (below).

So I got in touch with Maryanne White of A Garden by Design. She designed Maria’s gorgeous garden transformation a few years ago.

It’s always smart to hire a professional, even if you have some expertise.

It can be really tricky to look at your own home and design dilemmas clearly and objectively, being too close to the forest to see the trees 😉

Consider hiring a professional even if you have a measure of expertise

Before joining Maria, I had a small gardening business with some amazing clients with gorgeous gardens that I had the privilege of maintaining and reworking as necessary. It was so much fun. Creating arrangements in planters, redesigning beds, managing soil and plants to keep things thriving.

Here’s a planter I created along a client’s koi pond

And a couple pics of my own wild back garden.

 

I did a Master Organic Gardener program back in 2011.  It was so fascinating and I can geek out on mychorrizae and compost quite gleefully. All this to say, I know gardens. But that doesn’t mean that I know how best to design a garden layout from scratch complete with hardscaping.

Our house basically looks like a Kleenex box from the outside.

Making the architecture and colour interesting enough to bring the curb appeal would be next to impossible without an expensive redesign. I knew a fabulous landscape design could add the look and feel our little cottage so desperately needed.

Expect a professional to see better possibilities

After sending Mary Ann some simple measurements and the dire before pictures along with pictures of my back garden, she sent me back a beautiful initial drawing that was well beyond my imagination.

Garden Design by MaryAnne White

The first thing you will notice about a professional landscape design (unless it is very contemporary or classical and so deliberately linear and symmetrical) is that there are all kinds of pretty curves. I probably would have run the sidewalk right up the middle. My hubby and I were SO excited when she sent this.

We are planning to build a proper porch in a few years after we get the landscape in, so she drew that in. And she included some small trees to screen the neighbour’s houses and soften the edges of our little box.

The importance of a good foundation planting

One of my biggest garden pet peeves is a scraggly looking foundation planting in front of a light or white house, I had struggled with fixing this issue in some of my client’s gardens, and I was worried about how to create a more polished look. Mary Ann deftly planned for clipped hedges to run along the foundation for a polished and structured look.

This is the idea below:

Architect Barbara Chambers via Gardenista

And a clipped hedge like this doesn’t need to be too formal. Although I wanted the front garden to be more structured and formal than my back garden, Maryanne thought it would be lovely to combine the structure of the hedge with some of the softer, wispy textures I have going on in the back for contrast.

One of my favourite famous garden designers, Piet Oudolf, uses this strategy all the time (below).

Piet Oudolf contrasts structured hedges with wild and wispy natural plantings

And my back garden is a bit on the wild side.  Here are some more images of it below.

I prune all these roses in the spring and then stay out of their way haha

Creating flow and connection

Mary Ann suggested that we incorporate some grasses to create a similar feel that will connect the front and back garden thematically.

One of the particular challenges is that we are in gardening zone 3, so we are quite limited in plant options. Even with hardy plants it’s not uncommon to lose over 20 percent of your perennials after a bitter winter. And good old classic boxwood won’t make it here.

Instead, for the foundation hedge, we decide yews would provide pretty evergreen structure.

Spreading Yew

And here are some other cold hardy plants Mary Ann approved for my front garden.

Prairie Dropseed for soft texture

Via House Beautiful.

White Birch have such a pretty, natural look with striking black and white bark in all seasons (above).

The palette we are going for is purples, green, white and some chartreuse. I may not be able to resist a few pinks, restraint is not my thing.

Allium and Lady’s Mantle reliably show up every year

Siberian Iris and Dogwood. Photo via Tone on Tone 

Limelight Hydrangea is one of the only reliable paniculata hydrangeas in our climate

Sedum do very well here and Russian Sage gives such pretty texture and colour

Karl Foerster Feather Reed Grasses are the tall grasses in my back garden, the provide lovely year round interest

I am so grateful to Mary Ann for providing me with a brilliantly structured plan and direction to reign in my rambling love of planting and all plants. Without her design I would still be spinning in circles trying to decide what to do. I can’t tell you what a relief it is!

At this point, the stumps are out, the concrete laid, and the ground has just thawed. The new lawn and beds will be installed soon. I’m so excited to get planting!

I can’t wait to turn this:

Into something more like this:

Hoom Design

Got a plain house? Get planting

No matter how plain your exterior is, you can make it spectacular with a good garden design. No one will notice a plain house with all these gorgeous plants to look at.

Summer is short here, so the trees, evergreens and shrubs will provide structure and interest in the winter too, and that is an important aspect of Maryanne’s design.

Juggling layout, hardscaping, colour, texture, bloom times, structure and seasonal interest all at once is extremely complicated. With the cost of installing a landscape, it a bit crazy NOT to consult a professional.

And one more thing, there are a lot of hardworking landscape companies offering hardscape and “landscape” designs. However, it’s good to be aware that the plantings themselves are what provide most of the interest, so a professional garden designer is really best and truly the most inexpensive part of the entire project.

Once you have a drawing with the list of plantings you can start planting as fast or as slow as you like.

A beautiful landscape is more than hardscaping

Stone walls, planters and walkways are all fine, but you need someone who knows how to use plants themselves in an effective, architectural way. Trees shrubs and perennials are what give your yard life, structure and interest throughout the seasons.

So just like you can’t expect paint to do all the heavy lifting, don’t look only to the facade and hardscape of your house to provide curb appeal. A beautiful garden is the styling and decor of your exterior, the house itself can really just be a backdrop.

Here is where we are right now, just a pretty sidewalk waiting for the rest of the show (below).

You can find Maryanne here to get you on your way to creating a garden that will be the envy of your neighbourhood.

Happy gardening!

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Thanks Tricia!

Today is Day 3 of my colour workshop in Houston. There’s flooding happening in some neighbourhoods here, I can tell my family doesn’t watch the news because they haven’t called me in alarm to make sure I’m okay!

Houston Specify Colour with Confidence workshop!

One more thing, I was so exited to receive this email from the fabulous and talented Richard Rabel who was the Senior Vice President of Christies for 10 years and now has his own private art consulting and interior design business in New York City (below).

Richard came to Toronto to attend one of my workshops in 2014 and I mentioned him in a very interesting blog post here. 

But wait, read the rest of this post first:

He sent me this note the other day:
Back in October 2014, I decided to attend your Specify Color with Confidence course in Toronto.  All that happened because I felt I needed a better way to see color for my projects, a key component for a young interior design practice. 
I want to thank you for the opportunities this has opened for my business.  This year I’m one of the designers who was selected to do a space for the venerable Kips Bay Showhouse in NYC. This was in part possible because of what I learned from you.
Here is his gorgeous room (below) I’m in love with the flowers!
Here’s some more photos of the show house.
You can buy tickets to see the show house here and for the entire month of May.

Follow Richard on Instagram here

I’m so excited to be able to see the show house the following weekend after my New Jersey Specify Colour with Confidence event which is happening next week starting Tuesday!

There are still a few seats left! Register here.

Related posts:

A Peek into My Spring Garden

The Enchanting World of Atmosphere

Ignorance is Truly Bliss; Before & After

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  1. Tricia – How exciting !
    It is going to be beautiful !
    Can’t wait to see your finished project .
    I’m so glad you removed those trees .
    How did you even see ?
    Hopefully it’s all done before winter soyou can enjoy it this summer !!!

  2. Tricia,
    Wonderful post. A Kleenex box! Practically fell off my chair laughing. Love, love, love your back garden. You’ll have to post pics, both when everything’s done and later, when things have filled out.

    Maria, how terrific about Richard! Whenever anyone tells me about renovations or decorating, I always refer them to your blog and talk you up. If everyone learned from you, there would be a lot more beauty in the world!

  3. Truer words were never spoken.

    My grandparents built a house that had a lot of character on the inside, but was simple on the outside. By the time I was born, their large yard had been beautifully landscaped. It was a wonderland for a grandchild.

    I remember being shocked the first time I saw a photo of the house when it had been newly built. It looked so flat! That was when I realized that landscaping adds so much dimension to an exterior, and there is no other way to get it. It places the house in an entirely different context.

  4. Your yard is going to be wonderful!

    We hired a landscape architect to provide a comprehensive design for the massively overgrown and neglected yard that came with our newly-purchased 104-year-old house. Our tight budget necessitated a plan that could be realized in stages, as funds become available. Our landscape design, I’m convinced, is saving us money. We are working on our garden zone by zone, and we know that at each step we are moving towards the realization of an elegant design. Every plant purchase is part of the final plan; there are no mistakes engendered by undisciplined rovings through nurseries and garden club sales! In my dream world, I would purchase only large, mature specimens. But our budget often dictates that we select smaller plants and let them gradually come to full size in our yard. We consult our site plan to see what plants might be used to fill in the gaps temporarily, and then be moved to their final location in another area of the garden at a later time. The tighter your budget, the more you can benefit from investing in the services of a professional!

  5. I agree professionals can help but I have seen many people pay a lot for something that looks amazing short term but not 5 years later. Most landscaping requires maintenance! Make sure your professional can tell you how to care for the plants and how long they should last. Things can and should evolve, but not neglected. My parents’ neighbours had a beautiful back deck put in with several built-in planters with plants that they promptly completely ignored (containers will require watering at a minimum). Well I’m here to tell you empty planters look dumb, y’all. They would have been better off without them, then buying garden centre plastic planters if they did feel the urge on occasion.

  6. This is SUCH a fantastic post. I’m bookmarking it even though I’m way down in zone 8. The ideas for how to put it all together and the plants themselves are incredible. I’m going to be jumping down the rabbit hole of each picture to see which plants will work in my zone!

  7. I don’t think I ever realized that Tricia is in Edmonton! How exciting (for me!). I have long looked at your landscaping, Maria, and was so impressed, but I didn’t think I would be able to use Maryanne because I live in a zone 3 climate. So to see that she has designed a landscape for Tricia is like a revelation!! Ha! I have a few questions for Tricia — did you get any grief from the neighbours for taking the trees down or were they worried about them potentially falling as well? How difficult was it to get the stumps/roots out, did you have to go down far? Are all of the plantings that Maryanne recommended available here? When we were doing some landscaping, there were specific trees/plants that I wanted that were all suitable for zone 3, but the landscaper/garden centre didn’t have them available. I am thinking that in the next year or so I would like to do our front yard as we have these really annoying Mugo Pines — that were supposed to be miniature but indeed are NOT — that need to be removed. They are being very bossy!!! I look forward to seeing the results of your work Tricia!!

    • Brenda, the pines can be clipped back and kept smaller. I find them pretty, they require almost no water and they are in a good spot for me, close to the road. I also thought I had bought dwarf ones…

      • Oh, yes! We definitely keep them pruned back for sure, but they seem to grow like weeds!! They must be in a really good spot!

    • Hi Brenda,
      The neighbours were absolutely delighted when we took down our forest 😉 Try a good local greenhouse that has knowledgeable staff, in Edmonton, I like Greenland. These are all relatively common plants for zone 3. We got the stumps and roots out with a backhoe, I’m pretty sure it would be an arduous job without heavy equipment. Mugo pines are never minature, haha. For sure get in touch with Maryanne. Thanks for your comment.

  8. Ha, my garden is the envy of the neighbourhood, but I don’t think any of them envy the amount of work it takes!

    I love Hicks Yew hedges, so beautiful and easy care. But here in BC, the deer have ravaged mine for the last 2 years, after ignoring it for about 8 years….looks awful now.

    I have a Limelight Hydrangea, it is nice but I really love Quickfire, see if that one might work for you. It is smaller, I have them close together and thought they would be similar sized.

    Russian sage attracts a lot of wasps, so don’t put it near your porch. My hubby has been stung as it is near our front door.
    Your garden will be lovely !

  9. Forgot to mention, paper white Birch are beautiful, but short lived, so make sure that fits with your vision.

  10. Removing those trees was really good from a Feng Shui perspective too. Your home (and your family) will receive so much more good chi, especially with the meandering walkway! I can’t wait to see the end result. Two suggestions:
    1. At some point (now or after all landscaping has been completed), consider painting the concrete walkway, to look like stone. I did that for my house in MA and it felt SO MUCH BETTER!
    2. Would you consider a little more pop of color for your front door?
    Lovely home! Thank you for sharing this post.

  11. One of my pet peeves is overgrown trees and shrubs in people’s front yards. Especially when shrubs have never been maintained and they grow into some grotesque tree like thing. Congratulations on being brave and taking those overgrown unattractive trees down. I can’t wait to see the finished product. You’ll be saying….why didn’t we do this years ago?!

  12. This was nostalgic for me to read because I taught myself gardening in zone 5, had a wonderful cottage style perennials & roses garden, then moved to a desert climate several years ago and have only recently begun to teach myself a whole new type of gardening. You named some of my old favorites from Michigan and reminded me what good landscaping can do for a plain house.

    • Nice work, all of you! Very good points, too. As I walk the neighborhood, I mentally critique the front yards and homes, then say “well, they didn’t ask me,” LOL. The street I grew up on has some giant non-native trees plus one drop-dead gorgeous native tree. The tree the city planted in ’66 blew over too many times and dad pulled them out on both sides of our corner house, which is too close to a fire zone. Professionals are worth hiring, even if it’s to talk through issues and get a direction, even though you know how to plant like Tricia because you get into the endless possibilities loop. Brava to all.

  13. I think this is my favorite post ever. The author see the utility of hiring a professional even though she is an accomplished gardener herself. This is WONDERFUL. It points out that even though we homeowners may know a thing or two about furniture and/or design, it is really smart to hire someone who REALLY knows the field when dealing with major interior or exterior work. I cannot imagine how difficult it was to remove 5 trees of that size and proximity to a house and street, and knowing how to fill in the blank spaces now is even more difficult to consider. Wonderful post and plan, especially given it is Zone 3, which is unbelievably difficult to plan for. Bravo!!!!!!

  14. Timely post as I too need some new front yard landscaping done. I really like the curved lines making it more interesting. The plan that Maryanne came up with is perfect for your box shaped house. The walkway that you have already poured makes the front look better. The hardest part is like you said, choosing the plants that will grow in your zone. Also you need to know how high and how wide each plant will grow plus how far apart they need to be planted. There sure is a lot more to landscaping to make a beautiful design just like designing your interior. Hiring the right professional is key!

  15. Loved this article! These thoughts really are making a house a home adding beauty and joy to every day. I agree that professional services are needed when designing a home landscape. Even though I am a gardener, I knew I needed help when I moved into my forever home. Every yard has different needs. A professional understands what goes best in different micro climates–wet, dry, shady, sunny, etc. and how to plant the right plant in the right place. As a retiree, I have other garden considerations. I needed a low maintenance garden and one that can be enjoyed from inside my home if it gets harder for me to go outside. No garden is maintenance free, but thought can be given to dwarf plants, plants that don’t require pristine clipping, plants that don’t need a lot of deadheading, trees that aren’t “messy.” (Dwarf plants sometimes means slow growing plants.) Being new to my neighborhood, changing the yard also gave me a way to connect with my neighbors who walked by while the work was being done. If planting a garden in stages, think about installing the hardscape and or trees first. Some trees take a long time to get to the size that you seek. Depending on your plan, hardscaping has to be done first in some cases since trucks or heavy stones can impact an existing landscape. I admire how Maryanne can observe the exterior of a home and tweak the structure which makes a significant impact on the overall home and garden for the best curb appeal.

  16. I just hired Maryanne for our complete landscape makeover because I loved Maria’s yard so much. This post reminded me to just go for it! Can’t wait!!!