Green Scene: Landscaping can make potential buyers feel right at home

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, July 24, 2010; E04

If you are trying to sell your home, you can rise above the competition by designing curb appeal into your property.

Landscaped homes have more appeal to buyers. You can -- and should -- give buyers an impression of a comfortable entry and a well-maintained space as they view your home for the first time.

One way to accomplish this is by making sure paving is smooth and well maintained, the joints free of weeds and the paving edged, presenting a clean appearance. Gutters, paint, roofing, entries, mailboxes and landscape lighting make important first impressions. A comfortable entry is one that leads people to enter the house efficiently and without confusion. It should not be overwhelming. Walkways should have no more than a 5 percent grade with a width of at least 42 inches.

You might want to consider redesigning paved areas if they are in poor condition. If steps are necessary, always plan on having at least two. A single step is a "trip step." Build each riser a maximum of six inches high and make the part you walk on -- the tread -- at least 14 inches deep.

Use lighting for aesthetics, security and safety. Illuminate entries in aesthetically pleasing styles. Install down-lighting from trees and shine a few lights against the house and on plants that have interesting growth habits. This helps invite buyers to experience your property in the evening, offering a completely different atmosphere.

Trees add the greatest value, according to the American Nursery and Landscape Association, so install them first. And color in the landscape -- especially delivered by flowers -- gets properties noticed.

Take pictures of the garden at its showiest times of year. Clients have told me that, when sellers have passed along photos of their garden, along with information about the plants' requirements, they found that to be as useful as any other information they received about their new homes.

Here are other landscape design suggestions:

-- Balance the front of your property so it is equally weighted -- a large tree to one side and shrubs to the other. Ornamental plantings should highlight the entire front yard, not hide the house. Sweep beds wide, across eight to 12 feet, around the front corners of the house, with a vertical element, such as a holly, hinoki false cypress, water lily star magnolia or chindo viburnum, planted about eight feet off the corners, anchoring the house to the landscape. This adds an expansive appearance to the property. Large plants placed tightly against walls will make houses seem smaller.

-- Design beds so plants are sequenced with low flora in the front and tall ones to the back, with two feet or more open to the house walls. Large beds are very effective, allowing room for a wide variety of foliage and color. Selections of plants can be installed in groupings for impact.

The front of the bed could be edged with pulmonaria if the location has filtered sun, backed by several very compact, dwarf weigela, which have maroon foliage. Back these plants with Iroquois or Oneida viburnum bred for their flower, berries, attractiveness to birds and fall color. Fill in with assorted groupings of shade-tolerant perennials and annuals that flower at various times throughout the growing season. This type of arrangement needs a bed 12 to 15 feet deep to accommodate mature plants.

-- Color, texture and form get your property noticed. Use sweeps of the same or similar colors for the greatest impact. Use shrubs with interesting architectural form and texture, fall color, berries, flowers, summer leaf color and foliage variations. Choose shrubs for their year-round ornamental value, especially if you don't know when you will be selling. Some shrubs and trees offer 12-month interest, such as kousa dogwood, with spring flowers, edible summer fruits, fall color and a winter bark that is mottled tan and brown. Virginia sweetspire has at least three seasons of interest. It displays deep maroon stems in winter and thick-textured, maroon fall foliage. Its white fragrant, eye-catching, horizontally growing panicles open in spring.

-- Repeating plants in mass, using the same colors in large sweeps, has an eye-catching effect. So if you're planting black-eyed Susans in full sun, for selling over the next several months, plant them in groups of three to five in several open, sunny beds on the property. Purchase mature plants in flower now. They seldom fail to catch your eye and you can assure the buyer that they will return annually. Bath's pink dianthus is another good plant that yields fragrant flowers in the spring. It provides an evergreen mat of blue-green foliage that, in four years, has spread six feet in diameter over asphalt and flagstone on our property.

Beds in full sun can be filled with masses of petunias now and mums in the fall.

-- Containers can enhance any entry and wow a prospective buyer. Almost any plant that can be placed in the ground can be grown in a container. And virtually any object that will hold soil can serve as one, whether it's a clay or foam pot or any object in which holes have been punched for drainage.

Think of containers as you would a garden. You can install trees, shrubs, annuals, perennials and most fruits and vegetables, provided the container is a proper matching size for the plants. You can have plantings in places they wouldn't ordinarily grow, such as on a deck, patio, balcony or roof. They can provide a garden around homes with no space for a traditional one and will help overcome problems of poor soil aeration and drainage.

The greatest risks of container gardening are soil drying and drainage. Container plantings are much more susceptible to drought than flora planted directly in the ground. Watering at planting time is essential. Containers, especially in hanging baskets, might require watering every day during the summer if they are in the sun.

Although clay pots are more aesthetically appealing from a design standpoint, plastic or fiberglass that looks like clay will be far better for moisture retention. Plastic containers don't "breathe," so they won't need to be watered as often as clay. They also are lightweight and easy to move.

-- Position a piece of outdoor art or feature a specimen plant near the entry, but use only a piece or two. The sculpture can serve as a contrasting element with the garden and serve as a focal point to set off the entrance. Design plants and sculptural elements in proportion to the size of your home or property. A large home can accommodate larger plantings than a small property.

Remember, the first step is developing ideas. Look for what will invite a buyer to your home by researching combinations of plantings, structures and paving, and dress up your front yard according to these theories and guidelines.

Well-maintained landscaping shows prospective buyers -- and your neighbors -- that you care about your property.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park.

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