Monday, October 8, 2012

Relandscaping the front yard

My parents like to say that they are "talent in search of a project."  When it comes to landscaping, that couldn't be more true!  My Mom is a Master Gardener with a keen eye for design, and my Dad has an affinity for getting his hands dirty, as well as innate knowledge of plants.  We lovingly call them "the botanists" even though they really have little formal training in botany.

{One time my husband and I had both sets of parents walking through Capitol Hill in DC.  My parents were remarking about the trees, and were especially impressed at how many Elm trees had survived the Dutch Elm Disease epidemic.  My in-laws were spotting luxury cars, and really loved the Range Rovers.  At least they all had fun!}

So anyways, my parents came to visit us at our new house with the goal of spending much of their time helping us tame the yard (kind of like Yard Crashers).  Our first step was a trip to the hardware store for a short-handled flat shovel.  This is my Dad's favorite tool.  As soon as we got home, he set to work sharpening it.  He told me the sharper the better, as this makes it easy to slice through roots.

We also dropped by the in-laws to borrow their pick-up truck and a larger assortment of shovels, rakes, tarps, and chainsaws.  If you aren't blessed by nearby in-laws, you really only need five tools to do most landscaping projects.  We did have a chainsaw, but we could have done all the work with just the tools mentioned in that recent post!

So here's what we were starting with.  We had some randomly placed bushes, a yew tree blocking the front window and placed too close to the house, a small patch of grass we're responsible for mowing, and some annual flowers that were nearing the end of their season.  Overall, the house looked unbalanced and a little plain.

We started by removing the rocks.  I posted them for free on Craigslist, and they were gone in a matter of hours!  Better already!

Next, we went after the tree.  I really like trees, and it hurt me to have to kill this one.  But it was too established to transplant.  And it was just too ugly, in the way, and close to the house to stay.  Unfortunately, it had to go!

Finally it seemed like the house could breathe a little!

We did some non-plant maintenance, like changing the hose out for a black one (in the hopes it would blend in better and disappear).  Our home inspector suggested having the gutter drain at least eight feet from the house, so we extended the gutter and buried it - this will protect our foundation.  It also looks a lot better!

Next up, the grass.  One of the primary reasons we wanted a townhouse instead of a single family home was the reduced maintenance we'd have to do.  After we moved in, we found out that landscaping maintenance isn't included in our HOA fees.  Taking care of 120 square feet of grass (or paying $10 every week to have it cut) just wasn't appealing.  I don't mind trimming bushes and watering, but I didn't want to cut grass all the time.

My Dad has been digging up grass as long as I can remember (mostly so he can expand his flower beds).  He's got the method down pat!

First up, he cuts the grass into squares that are the same size as the length of the shovel.

Then he digs it up, one row at a time.  He gets the shovel parallel with the ground, and separates the grass and roots from the soil by forcing the shovel between the grass and soil, about one inch under the surface.  I gave it a try, and it's really hard!!!  This project is best left to someone with strong arms.

We stacked up all the grass, with the intention of giving it away.  Unfortunately after three days, there were still no takers, and we ended up taking it to the dump.  On the bright side, our dump recycled all yard waste into mulch that they then give away for free!  So it's not a complete waste.  I was bummed it couldn't be put to better use though.

Then the guys dug up the remaining bushes, making sure to salvage the root ball so they could be transplanted to the back yard.

And then it was time for the fun part!  Selecting new plants and getting them in the ground!

We visited three different nurseries, two local and one big-box.  There is a huge difference in pricing and knowledge from nursery to nursery.  In the end, we got plants and advice from all three, and I think we ended up with a good mix.

It fits in the FIT!

My Mom designed the focal point of the yard to be a medium-sized tree with seasonal interest.  We narrowed the options to a cherry, dogwood, maple, or redbud.  These all offer their own seasonal perks, from bright flowers to fall color.  We chose the redbud for its large leaves, spring and fall color, smaller stature, and disease resistance.  The guys planted it slightly off-center to the front windows, and farther away from the house than the previous tree.

We followed up the tree planting with the foundation plantings.  Foundation plants show off the perimeter of the house.  We wanted evergreens, but interesting ones!  Boxwoods are super popular in our neighborhood, but they're pretty boring, staying a dark green year-round.  We ended up selecting a new breed of large-leaf Azalea called an Encore Azalea.  They bloom as many as three times throughout the summer and fall, instead of just once in early summer like typical Azaleas.  The medium-tone green will contrast nice with our bricks, and the pink blooms will jazz up the yard throughout the summer and fall.

They look kind of dinky right now, but they should reach a nice size in the next year or two.  For the price differential, we were willing to settle with smaller plants and wait a while for them to develop.

try out the placing before digging your holes

We also planted a tall evergreen to the left of the front door.  This will help balance out the house and differentiate our house from the neighbor.  The neighbors have a beautiful yard that blends into ours, so we left it as-is, but this new tree makes our yard look a little larger.  It's a little dinky this year, but it'll grow quite tall, perhaps to the roof of our house!

Then we added color to the yard.  Mums come back every year, and will add great color in the fall.  We chose Redskins colors for them to get the hubs excited about the yard.  The walkway will be flanked with annuals, so I can change them out often.  We put in multicolored pansies so they'll last through the winter. 

I also planted a peony stob.  It's just a root ball right now (so no photos), but it should produce a small bush in the spring.  These were my wedding flowers, and I'm looking forward to having a special plant I can dote on.

We finished everything off with a truckload of mulch (free from the dump!) and lots of water. 

Here are the after photos!
The real secret of gardening is patience.  One month later, and the yard is looking fabulous!

I added a hummingbird feeder so we can watch them from our kitchen

Let's finish up with some good side-by-side before and afters, shall we?

Now our yard is low-maintenance, colorful, better suited for the house, and healthier for the foundation.  We're loving it!!!  With our fabulous helpers the labor took one full work day.  All the new bushes, trees, flowers, hose, and gutter cost about $350.  Stay tuned for the backyard!

We finished up the weekend by treating ourselves to a trip to Great Falls.  Thanks Mom and Dad and Katrina!


  1. Hey, I love it! It didn't seem like such a huge change while we were working on it, but seeing the before and after photos is very striking! Of course there is lots of room for more plants and room for them to grow, but I feel like the house can breathe and it's a new look for the new owners! I bet some of the other neighbors will step up their game now! :)

  2. You guys are hard workers to get all that done in a day. Congrats! I like the mulch; low-to-no maintenance and it looks terrific.

  3. I'm so glad you planted peonies. I wish we could grow them down here.


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