The mud started it. Our three dogs kept tracking it in from the yard. The yard was muddy because the lawn wouldn’t grow. The lawn wouldn’t grow because we had too much shade. We had too much shade because the large oak needed pruning. We shouldn’t prune the oak, because it was nearing the end of its life and should come down, one arborist said. If a professional didn’t take it down, Mother Nature would. Then mud would be the least of our problems.
My husband, DC, and I considered our sorry lot, drank wine, and weighed our options, as the dogs tracked in more mud. We could: 1. Do nothing and live under the canopy of imminent disaster and doom. 2. Deny reality, prune the tree, put in new sod, and pray (my vote). 3. Open a professional mud-wrestling arena (the smartest option). 4. Remove the tree and re-landscape.
When DC and I moved into the Happier Yellow House two years ago, we agreed that “someday” we would like to redo the backyard, which was, mud aside, nothing special. The ho-hum fenced yard consists of a covered patio, some overgrown trees and shrubs, and a downtrodden lawn. Though the yard has potential, digging it out would be like trying to find the Statue of David inside a chunk of marble.
As with so many areas of my life, I needed professional help.
This was how we found ourselves sitting at the patio table overlooking our mud pit with landscape designer Tony Evans, owner of Orlando Landscape Designs. “You stand at the edge of the patio and feel like you’re at the end of the Earth,” he said, as he pantomimes falling off a cliff. “Nothing draws you out.”
He’s right. We flip through his portfolio, where before and after photos show yards transformed from abandoned crack lots to oases.
“What do you guys want from your yard?” he asked.
We sputter a series of disconnected answers: I want a fountain. DC wants a fire. I want a small pool. DC does not.
“Do you guys want to watch TV outside?”
We answer in stereo: Me, no. DC, yes.
We agree we want an end to the mud.
We give Evans half his design fee up front and hope that’s enough to cover the couples therapy he’ll need to provide. He leaves and DC says: “That’s one expensive mud puddle.”
“A lot of people don’t understand what landscape architecture is,” Evans tells me later when I express appreciation for his profession. “I don’t fault them. When I started majoring in it in college, I didn’t know either.”
Evans describes his field like this: “Whether for a public space, a riverfront, a neighborhood development or a home, landscape architects take outdoor spaces and make them pleasing for people to be in.”
He has his work cut out for him here. Two weeks later he’s back with a plan, more beautiful than we could have imagined, which is, after all, why we hired him.
Meanwhile, I learned this about why and how to work with a landscape designer:
• Money well spent. Paying a designer, whether for interior or outdoor design plans, I’ve learned is a worthy investment. A designer can make the difference between a good result and a great one for not that much more, plus give you a big picture and help you avoid costly mistakes.
• The no-plan plan. “Too often builders or homeowners throw in a patio or a pool without planning, and miss what could have been,” said Evans. “Pool companies often offer free design services, which is how you end up with pools jammed up against the house, creating a barrier to the yard, and the dreaded three-foot band around the pool, where all you can fit are a few chairs. What’s inviting about that?”
• Design with a purpose. While in school for landscape architecture, Evans said, whenever he presented a project, his professors required that he be ready to defend every decision with a solid reason beyond, “I thought it looked good.” Intentional design employs scale, proportion, texture, balance, function and aesthetics, and is the difference between a cohesive plan and a hodgepodge. “That was drilled into me.”
• Find an expert. When looking to hire a landscape designer, look for someone with higher education in the field, who ideally doesn’t own a business with a conflict, such as a nursery, paver company, pool company or lawn maintenance service. Ask to see photos and check referrals.
• The fees. Most landscape designers charge a flat design fee, often less then 10 percent of the total project cost. Then owners are free to pay for their own contractors to do the work, or have the designer oversee the project for an additional percentage.
• The wishlist. Before meeting with a landscape designer, imagine your dream yard. Would you like a playhouse, outdoor kitchen, firepit, putting green, hammock, hot tub? But don’t over direct. Let the designer take the vision from there.
Join me next week as we explore the plan’s features and options.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go and the just-released Downsizing the Blended Home – When Two Households Become One (Sterling Publishing, Dec. 2019). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.