Expert Advice on Landscape/Exterior Home Design

It’s common for homeowners to try and spruce up the front of their home. But there are so many options available that it’s difficult to know where to begin. And the last thing you want to do is make a landscaping mistake that actually decreases your home’s value instead of increasing it.

So we turned to David Childers of SignatureLandscapes.com for advice on some of these issues. Here are his answers to our questions.

If people want to improve the value of their homes, what areas of their exterior should they focus on?

I have received calls from real estate professionals over the years asking why no one wants to even look inside of various homes. Aside from location, the next most important issue in residential home sales is street appeal. If they intend to live there, it must look and feel like home.

Where you should concentrate depends on what you have. If you are in mid- to high-end suburbia, you have professional maintenance, so adding perennial color and texture are the most requested softscape additions. Ornamental grasses add a variety of color and texture with almost no maintenance. I’m working on a 4-acre historic renovation, and we are trying to reduce the lawn to less than half of what it was. Some of the trees are over 100 years old, so we can add shade-tolerant ferns and groundcovers as well as the sun-loving perennials. We will be converting over an acre to a wildflower meadow and setting up a state-of-the-art irrigation system using well water.

Also budget and time are related, because if you have more time, you can start with smaller plants and allow them to grow. This is an example of how “money grows on trees.” Mature trees add value and scale to the property and make a house seem like home. If you have no trees, this will add the most value per dollar spent, assuming you give them time and space to grow.

What are some of the state-of-the-art tools or processes you use to design exterior landscaping?

A decade ago, we were remodeling our kitchen and the designer used software to stack the cabinets together in a crude 3D model that we could look at from each vantage point. It was so helpful that I searched for software to bring that benefit to my design process. It has been a great tool that allows me to offer online “walk-through” and “flyover” presentations with my client in real time, as we speak on the phone about a sketch or screen captures of the model. Many people select me because of how useful this unique service has become. If we do make major changes, I leave an unfinished model so we can go in another direction if they like. It’s not the same as putting pictures of plants on top of a photograph. This is actually building a virtual model of the shell of your home and adding hardscape elements — such as swimming pools, outdoor kitchens, etc. — and being able to virtually walk around similar to a video game.

What are some concepts to keep in mind when designing the exterior landscaping of a home?

What is your tolerance for fuzzy edges? Symmetry or balance? Angles or curves? Hedge-clipped or hand-trimmed? Most prefer curves to angular, but many of those prefer clipped hedges to natural-looking plants, and nearly everyone prefers mechanically-edged weed-free lawns. That’s why landscape maintenance companies make everyone’s place look as identical as possible.

What are some common DIY mistakes made while altering the exterior landscaping of a home or property?

I earned my way through Landscape Architect school by designing for a nurseryman who over-planted for immediate effect, without regard to the problem he was setting in motion. Whatever you do, don’t ask a clerk at your local garden center for a fast-growing tree. Fast-growing means short-lived and a host of other problems. This is the biggest and most costly mistake that homeowners, nurserymen, and novice designers keep making year after year. Do you remember Bradford Pear trees? They were the rage for several years — until the first ones planted starting splitting in half.

What exterior landscaping tips can you provide for the budget-minded homeowner?

If you only have a few dollars to spend, plant annuals or tender perennials in pots. We visit the various garden centers every year looking for new and different annuals and tender perennials to fill our self-watering urns and pots.

A horticulturist came to our door wanting cuttings. I found out how easy it is to root coleus and others in party cups of moist potting soil. We have spread them out front and back and still have enough coleus to give away every year.

How can a homeowner improve the appearance of his or her roof or gutters?

If it’s time for a new roof, there are many new colors and textures available to complement your brick or stone. Standing seam roofs are also being offered in new colors and will last many years. Clogged gutters are an eyesore and cause the fascia to rot. Either install the new gutter guard products, or do without gutters if you have a mature landscape that won’t erode from the roof drainage.