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Rate Your Home’s Year Round Curb Appeal

Much emphasis is placed on backyard landscaping. That’s because it’s where we live. Let’s not forget about the front yard, though. It’s what visitors, passersby and neighbors see. Their reaction to your front landscaping is called curb appeal.

Some believe that curb appeal is a real estate term that applies only to houses that are on the market. It doesn’t. It applies to all homes all the time. They say that we only get one chance to make a good first impression. Your front yard is often the first, and only impression visitors and passersby have, and that’s how they judge you and your family.

The photos are from one of our customer’s home. The long rock garden was planted when the house was built 17 years ago. It turned out to be high maintenance and eventually detracted from the curb appeal. The owner had us replace the over gown rock garden with the oval garden around the post lamp. Now this space is attractive year round, even in winter. This was all that was needed to improve the curb appeal.

Now back to your front yard. Take photos now and again when everything is nice and green and in bloom. Take them from the curb but from different angles. Does your front yard look dull, drab or dated? If so, it’s time to spruce it up this spring.

Look for such things as overgrown gardens. unpruned shrubs and trees, grass growing into the sidewalk, driveway and planting beds. Broken, chipped, cracked or heaved pavers can be a hazard as well as unsightly. Overgrown shrubs may be blocking your house. A small tree that your child brought home from school on Arbor Day and planted in the front yard may now have grown so large that you can’t even see the house from the curb.

Overgrown foundation plants can pose a security threat as well as a curb appeal issue. Security and law enforcement agencies warn that these plantings provide burglars and other unsavory characters with cover to lie in wait for you. If these plantings block a window, a burglar could enter your house undetected.

If you would rather not update your home’s curb appeal yourself, one of our designers would be happy to visit your property, look at your photos and make recommendations for improving the curb appeal. If you agree with his verbal recommendations, he will then prepare a design for your approval and for our installation professionals to follow.

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Designing Your Outdoor Living Area

The winter snow and cold weather are holding many of us captive in our own homes. While cabin fever is tightening its grip, you can do more than just dream of living outside. You can begin planning a patio that’s an extension of your indoor space – an outdoor living room and kitchen that contain everything you would want in an outdoor living area.

Outdoor kitchens and living areas continue to be among the most popular landscape features. As a result, our installation crews will be busy, starting as soon as winter breaks right through until Old Man Winter starts breathing down our necks again. To assure that you’ll enjoy a full season of outdoor living, it’s important that you make decisions now, during the winter.

Here’s a recommended process for deciding what you want in your outdoor living space:

• You are indoors surrounded by all the comforts of home in both your kitchen and living room. Who wants to go out in this weather? Take your mind off the weather outside by making a list of the appliances and furnishings you absolutely can’t do without in your new outdoor space. Then make a list of those items that you don’t have indoors that you want outdoors. A wood-fired pizza oven and a fire pit are two items that come to my mind immediately.

• Jot down what style of furniture you like best – modern, traditional, upholstered, rattan. Do you prefer more individual seating or group seating on couches? Remember, your goal isn’t to recreate your indoor living room outside, it’s to complement the inside room by extending the style across the threshold.

• What other outdoor living items would you like to consider? A swimming pool, a hot tub, a sauna, an outdoor gym, or amenities that are uniquely yours?

• Schedule a meeting with one of our landscape designers and bring your lists. Give the designer copies of the lists so they can develop a budget based on your selections.

• Plan on a follow-up meeting to review the budget. Depending on the size of your lists and the amount you’re willing to allocate to this project, you may have to cut some items out or, better yet, prioritize. Have the space built as the funds become available.

We can design your outdoor living space to be built all at once or in stages. If you select to build in stages, the space will be designed so that it looks complete after each stage.

Our outdoor living season is short. You’ll want to spend every minute you can outdoors. For that to be a reality, however, you need to be ready to build as soon as spring arrives. Minimize the time that your precious patio space is under construction by planning ahead.

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Do Outdoor Tool & Equipment Maintenance In Winter

Springtime isn’t the time to make repairs and do maintenance on your landscape tools. A good time to do it is now, during the winter when you don’t need to use them. Come spring, your lawn and landscape plants will burst forth and start growing regardless of whether or not your mower and other tools are ready.

Your mower is, arguably, your most valuable piece of outdoor power equipment, and requires preventive maintenance at least once a year. The best time to do this maintenance is in the fall before putting the mower away for the winter. The worst time is in the spring when you need it to cut grass. If you didn’t do it last fall, that leaves winter – now.

A push mower needs only an oil change, new spark plug, blade sharpening and under deck cleaning. You may also have belts and cables to check on a self-propelled walk behind. Riders are a bit more complicated. Check your owner’s manual for your brand’s maintenance requirements.

On a warm winter day or in a heated garage, doing mower maintenance on a push or self-propelled mower is easy. Start by cleaning the underside of the deck. Tip the mower over on its side and scrape any accumulation of grass clippings off with a putty knife. I do this first because you have to remove the blade to sharpen it, the oil drain is on the underside of almost all mowers and I’d rather work under a clean deck.

To sharpen the blade, remove it, being careful to note where the washers and shims go so you can replace them in the proper order. Place the blade in a vice and file the cutting edge until sharp. Try to remove approximately the same amount of metal from each side since the blade needs to be balanced. You can buy an inexpensive balancing tool at a hardware store or mower dealer. Just place the blade on the balancer. If it isn’t level, remove a little more metal from the side that hangs lower. When the blade is balanced, replace it. Be sure it’s tight. A blade can do a lot of damage to you and your surroundings if it comes loose and flies off.

Next, put a little gas in the mower, take it outside and run the engine until it warms up enough for the oil to flow. Then, prop it up so you can remove the drain plug. Put a pan under the drain, remove the plug and drain the oil. Replace the plug and fill the crank case with oil before you forget it.

Also, open the air cleaner, remove the filter and check to see how dirty it is. If it’s dirty, replace it.

Finally, remove the spark plug. If it still has plenty of electrode, clean it with sandpaper. Read the instruction book that came with the mower for the proper spark plug gap. Check the gap and adjust it if necessary, reinstall the plug, attach the wire and start the engine to be sure everything works.

Don’t forget to check your handheld power equipment like string trimmers. Most of these tools have two cycle engines so you don’t have to change the oil. However, spark plugs get carbon on the electrodes faster than they do in four cycle engines like the one in your mower. So, check the spark plug and replace if necessary. Check the air cleaner and replace the filter if it’s dirty.

If you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, take the mower to a mower shop. But do it now. They get pretty busy as we get closer to spring.

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Include Pollinator-Attracting Plants In Your Landscape

A lot is being written in both the garden media and the mainstream media about the status of pollinators in the environment. These stories all concentrate on bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. They aren’t the only pollinators but they’re the only ones we can help and they pollinate more plants than any other pollinators.

Allergy sufferers know all too well that some pollen is spread by the wind. Most trees are monoecious, which means they produce both male and female flowers on the same plant. The male flowers are at the top of the plant and the female flowers are lower down and gravity and wind take care of the pollination process. We can’t affect either the wind or gravity, so I’ll concentrate on those pollinators that we can help.

Butterflies and hummingbirds are the most attractive pollinators but bees are the most productive. Any of these pollinators need three essentials – food, water and shelter. Beautiful butterflies are the most popular pollinators, followed closely by colorful hummingbirds. Docile, hard working honey bees have gotten a bad rap from some of their more aggressive relatives.

Butterflies need flowering plants. The brighter the flowers the better. When butterflies land on flowers, it’s to extract sweet nectar. While doing that, however, pollen sticks to their feet and legs. When they land on another plant to imbibe on its nectar, the pollen drops on the new flower and fertilizes it. To supplement your flowers, especially when your garden is just getting started, butterflies would appreciate your putting out a dish of half rotted fruit. If you visit a butterfly conservatory, you’ll see this butterfly feast at strategic spots. Hummingbird feeders are also available for your yard.

Butterflies and birds both need fresh water. Birds will use birdbaths but they are too big for butterflies. Butterflies can drown in a birdbath but some garden stores and online garden supply houses sell special butterfly puddling stones. A small, shallow saucer works, too

You also have to consider the diet of immature butterflies – caterpillars – if you want to enjoy the delicate, flitting adults. These will vary with the species that you want to attract. The most common species in our area is the popular monarch butterfly, and their caterpillars eat only milkweeds, so you need milkweed plants somewhere in your landscape.

Special butterfly houses and hummingbird houses are sold by some garden stores and online garden supply houses. But are they used? I doubt it. Butterflies rest in sheltered places like under leaves and hummingbirds rest high in trees and in shrub thickets.

When you establish a pollinator garden, you can’t hang out a sign that welcomes butterflies and hummingbirds and directs bees to go elsewhere. However, you don’t have to put out the welcome mat. If you don’t establish a hive, any bees that visit will likely be from an already established hive. It could be right nearby or a considerable distance away. Unless you really want to become a beekeeper, my advice is to leave that to the professionals.

Speaking of professionals, our landscape designers and horticulturists can design a pollinator garden with just the right plants to attract the pollinators who frequent this area, and our landscape professionals can complete the installation as soon as the weather breaks. All you have to do is enjoy the colorful show that these creatures put on.

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Adaptive Gardening

We’re always on the lookout for new landscaping terms and just came across this one: Adaptive Gardening. We’ve been practicing it for years but the need for it has increased to the point that it needed a name, and there’s always somebody to oblige.

Adaptive Gardening refers to modifications to make landscapes easier on senior citizens. The graying of America has increased the need for adaptive gardening so much that national landscaping trade magazines are taking note. I have read several stories recently that alert landscapers to the special needs that should be considered when designing and planting landscapes for seniors.

There is even a certification that landscape contractors can earn to signify that they know the special needs of aging clients. In response to the Aging-in-Place movement, the National Home Builders Association (NHBA) created a course of study and examination for contractors to earn the Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist (CAPS) designation. NHBA is now expanding the credential to include landscape contractors.

What are some of the landscape changes you should consider as you prepare for your later years?

• Simplify your landscape. Select plants that are easy to maintain, and design your planting beds to minimize maintenance.

• Install raised beds so you can sit down on the job.

• Make your landscape more natural. Informal, natural landscapes are easier to maintain than formal designs that need constant trimming and shaping. Also use native plants and reduce the amount of lawn you have to mow.

• Improve lighting. Be sure paths and patios are well lit to reduce the chance of tripping and falling.

• Make paths wide and smooth with no steps or steep inclines.

• Include shady spaces with places to sit. (See photo)

If you are a do-it-yourself gardener, here are some additional adaptive gardening considerations:

• Take frequent breaks and keep hydrated. Rest in shady places.

• Dress for the occasion. Include a wide brimmed hat and long sleeve shirt, long pants, sunglasses and sunscreen. Wear darker clothes if you don’t want to attract insects,

• Do different tasks for a short time rather than working at the same thing all day.

• Invest in lighter weight adaptable tools with expandable handles and foam grips, knee pads or a stool, and a bucket to carry your tools in.

• Hire out what you can’t do yourself. One of our professional designers can help you determine your needs now and in the future, and design a landscape that you can enjoy for decades to come. And our maintenance professionals can help you with maintenance to any extent that you want. It’s important to know when it’s time to share the fun and call in the pros.

There’s a great blog that can provide you with more detail on each of the recommendations I have presented here plus more. It is: thegeriatricgardener.wordpress.com.

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Plan Next Winter’s Landscape Now

What do you see when you look out your windows these wintery days? Piles of white snow with a few bare, brown/gray trees sticking out or colorful plants piercing through the snow banks? Even if you have the stark example now, you can have the colorful option at this time next year. But now’s the time to begin planning the transformation.

Ornamental grass (to the right behind the wind chimes in the photo) is the most common plant to consider for winter color and motion. It turns a tan color in the fall and stands tall above the snow. Many varieties have seedheads at the top that blow in the wind to add captivating movement to your landscape.

Conifers are also popular. The conical shape and dark green color of pines, spruces and firs evoke images of a country forest scene, even in the suburbs. However, one conifer, the eastern larch (Larix laricinia), loses its needles in the winter. It’s the only native deciduous conifer, yet it provides year round interest from spring green to autumn gold to a beautiful winter silhouette.

In winter, female hollies (Ilex sp.) show off their red berries just in time to be a symbol of the winter holidays. Be sure there’s a male plant nearby, in your yard or your neighbor’s, to provide the pollen needed to produce the berries. There are other plants that also produce berries in winter.

Trees like dogwood (Cornus florida) have textured bark and red twigs that rise out of the snow to brightly dance in the wind against a backdrop of glistening white. Birch trees have interesting, exfoliating bark whose rough texture is in stark contrast to the smooth mounds of snow all around it. While white, or paper, birch (Betula papyrifera) has beautiful white bark, it also attracts deadly pests. River birch (Betula nigra) (to the left behind the wind chimes in the photo) is a good alternative. Its exfoliating yellow-brown bark may not be as spectacular as the paper birch but it doesn’t attract insects.

Take lots of pictures of your yard now, especially the areas that could use some winter color and texture to make the cold, white snow more attractive. Use the images to see where new trees, shrubs or ornamentals would provide more winter interest. Then meet with one of our landscape designers to discuss your ideas. When we have a clear day with no snow, the designer may visit your property to see if the spots you’ve chosen are good places for your plant choices and if there are plants already growing there that were hidden by the snow.

With all this information, our designer can then design your renovations and present them to you for approval. Once approved, the designer can start the wheels turning to schedule installation first thing in spring.

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Companion Plants

We don’t usually think of plants as forming friendships but scientists tell us that they do, indeed. These friendships aren’t like those we humans make. Rather, the plants share mutually beneficial traits.

Scientists call these relationships symbiotic. We landscape professionals call them companion plants. The companion plant phenomenon isn’t a recent discovery. Native Americans here in the northeast realized that planting certain plants together resulted in greater yield from all of them. They planted beans, corn and squash together and called it them Three Sisters.

The three sisters supported each other in several ways. Corn needs a lot of nutrients from the soil and beans enrich the soil with nitrogen. Beans grow on vines and corn provides the support for these vines while the squash, which lays on the ground, suppresses weeds between rows.

There are many flower combinations that can be planted together for various reasons. Research shows there’s a chemical interaction between some. Others may keep weeds down or protect against insect attacks. Edibles, including onions and garlic, planted among your flowers can help control insects. (We don’t have a photo of onions and garlic growing in a flower garden but the photo with this post shows tomatoes.) Still other companion plants help fertilize soil and protect each other from rain, snow and sun.

Some plants actually repel companionship. Black walnut trees, for example, have a substance, called juglone, that’s toxic to many other plants. This gives the trees a clear area around theirroot zones to assure that they’ll have enough nutrients and uninhibited space for themselves.

If you’ve ever tried to grow grass under willow trees, you know that the trees protect their space by growing such a thick canopy that grass can’t get enough light.

When selecting companion plants, first determine what you expect from the relationship. Then research the plants that meet the criteria you’ve established. If you don’t want to do all the research, turn the task over to our designers and horticulturists who are very familiar with the companion plants to select to meet all objectives. Our installation crews can take care of the planting for you, as well.