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Garden + Landscape Roundtable

If you’re dreaming of a beautifully designed garden or longing for landscaping that oozes curb appeal, you’re in luck. We sat down with some of the leading landscape architects and designers in our area and we picked their brains on everything from saving money on plants to minimizing maintenance. With all that talent gathered in one room, we dug up ideas that are sure to help you create an inspired outdoor space.

At The Table: Susan Cohen, Landscape Architect; Roberto Fernandez, Roberto Fernandez Landscaping; Brandon Jones, Glen Gate Pool and Property; Jordy Scott, Glen Gate Pool and Property; Dan Mazabras, ODD Job Landscaping; Heather O’Neill, ODD Job Landscaping; Keith Simpson, Landscape Architect; Jim Waters, Earthscapes Landscape Management; Kate Hogan, editor; Amy Vischio, creative director.

AMY VISCHIO  It’s springtime, and our readers are excited to get outside and refresh their spaces in big and small ways. Can you share your thoughts on boosting curb appeal?
KEITH SIMPSON “You frame the view of the house from the road. You never get another chance to make a first impression.”
SUSAN COHEN  “You are leading the eye where you want the eye to go. You really don’t want the eye to go to the garage door; you want it to go to the front door and make that as gracious as possible.”
JIM WATERS  “It’s important to create a sense of arrival.”
KEITH  “Invest in a good front door.”
SUSAN  “And a new walkway. I usually say two people side by side with a child between them is the right width for a walkway.”
HEATHER O’NEILL “Simplicity is important. Sometimes people will ask, ‘What should do with this?’ and I’ll say, ‘You know what, you need grass. You need more grass around this bed.’ The color, the cleanness, and the evenness of it. Sometimes, that’s the answer.”

What are some ideas to make a home’s entry and front yard more welcoming?

HEATHER “Container gardening at the front door and along the walk makes the house look like someone lives there. There are plenty of times I drive by a house and I think they need to throw a New York Times and a Big Wheel in the driveway, just to make it look like someone lives there.”
JIM  “You need to bring warmth into it. Hardscaping involves very cold materials and has the sense of being cold. By bringing some of the materials and a color palette from the inside of the house outdoors, you will make that space a warmer place to be.” 
JORDY SCOTT  “In some cases, you may have a lot of mature trees that are interrupting the views. You can accomplish a lot just by removing plant material.”
SUSAN  “The goal is to help people come home from a busy day, a stressful day, and drive up to their own house and smile. If you achieve that, if you change the landscape so it brings a smile when people come home, then you have accomplished a lot.”

What are some ways to minimize property and plant maintenance?

JIM  “Reduce your lawn size and replace some lawn areas with sustainable native plants. From a design perspective, I do like grass (I use the term green belt) because it moves your eye around the property. But if you’re looking for a way to cut your maintenance, then reduce the lawn and add more planting area. If you have the right plant, in the right place at the right time, that’s sustainable and it needs very little maintenance.”
KEITH  “Many times, the best plants are already in the front of the house or around the house, but they’re overgrown. They are readily transplantable. So you kill two birds with one stone. By taking them to a place where they will thrive, at the same time you are opening up the front of the house.”
HEATHER  “Having the right person maintain the landscape is important. The wrong person may ruin what the designer planned.”

So maintenance is as important as the design?

ROBERTO FERNANDEZ  “Yes, if you’re going to invest in the landscape, be prepared to invest in the maintenance.”
BRANDON JONES  “You’re usually designing with a goal in mind, whether it’s screening or having a backdrop. And the way a plant develops and evolves is going to affect that original design intent. We do maintenance, and I’ll spend time visiting properties I’ve designed and spend time with my maintenance crew explaining, ‘This is what we had in mind. This is the vision.’”
ROBERTO  “Maintenance people need to listen to your designer or architect because he or she has a vision about how those hedges should be trimmed or perennial borders maintained.”
JIM  “When someone asks whether I can design a low-maintenance landscape, I say yes. But bear in mind, this is living plant material. A no-maintenance landscape is concrete!”

What do you see as the biggest trends in landscape design and outdoor living?

JIM  “The new movement that’s a real trend is sustainable landscapes. About two years ago, it was just a catchphrase, but now it’s really caught on and clients are asking for it. But sustainability doesn’t have to be more expensive. Some of the best native plants are less expensive than some of the exotics.”
SUSAN  “With the emphasis on sustainability, I hope that people understand that using great, strong, high-quality materials from the very beginning of a project is an easy way to be sustainable—because those products will really last. How many of us have been to a terrace that wasn’t built correctly, that doesn’t have good drainage and has to be redone? Definitely not sustainable.”

What recommendations would you make as far as sustainable materials go?

DAN MAZABRAS  “Quality plant materials are key. But you can’t put a $500 tree into a 50-cent hole. You have to prepare the soil properly. A lot of people don’t do that. ”  
ROBERTO  “Drainage is important. Irrigation is very important too.”

With regard to irrigation, what is the best time of day to water?

DAN  “If you water in the morning, the sunlight hours will give things time to dry out.”
ROBERTO  “Don’t water in the evening because the excess moisture on the plants can lead to diseases and fungus.”
JIM  “Rain harvesting is going to become a big part of it. Instead of moving the rain off the property to a storm drain system that’s handled by the municipalities, you can capture that water and use it throughout the irrigation system.” 

Any other trends you’re seeing?

BRANDON  “People are taking a look at their properties and smaller portions of their properties—for example, a pool space—and bringing them up-to-date. They’re adding elements that help them extend their season—a firepit or outdoor fireplace, for instance.” 
KEITH  “It’s gone up a whole level in terms of sophistication.”
JORDY  “People want to spend more quality time with family and have more reasons for the kids to stay home, for the grandkids to come visit. The more appeal you add to the property, the more you’re going to get out of it. So people are focusing on all the different elements that will help them enjoy their properties. They are putting a higher-level value on home time.”
HEATHER  “The outside is the forgotten room that has great potential. Some people’s home’s are beautiful and decorated down to every detail but the outside is a wreck.”
KEITH  “Materials that may work well on the inside of the house, will not work well outside. It’s a really specialized field.”

If I’m going to be working with a landscape architect, at what point should I call you, and what should I expect? Are there ways to spread out the costs? 

ROBERTO “Nobody pays attention to the outside until the grass is green and the flowers bloom. Then the pressure is on—rush, rush, rush!  We want to open the pool, summer’s here. It’s much better to plan ahead. Ask questions, create a master plan, and decide on a budget. Then, be realistic, if you can’t afford it all at once, phase it out.”
SUSAN  “It helps when clients have a wish list. An exciting thing happens when a professional designer comes along and says, ‘You know, if you moved your driveway a bit and got it away from the front door,’ or ‘Have you ever considered putting in a couple of fruiting trees or old fashioned plants?’ and you might make a suggestion that just resonates with them. It’s a spark that makes the project special.”
JIM  “I often get clients who call me when they’re thinking of buying a property. They’ll ask me, ‘Would you like to come out and take a look?’ It’s so important. Also, I recommend that clients spend some time in the natural, existing landscape. Spend every season in a landscape—winter, spring, summer, fall—absorb it, take time to digest that property before you start running through the process of trying to make quick decisions.” 
KEITH “A big part of our job is to ask the right questions. With new houses, we are frequently involved in the siting of a house. If you deal with the drainage problems ahead of time, before the foundation is put in, you can save an enormous amount of heartache later on.” 
ROBERTO  “With a renovation or new construction, there may be trees that people want to preserve, and the landscape designer needs to be called in ahead of time to protect those trees before you start the whole construction.”

Is there a rule of thumb about how much people should spend when landscaping their property? A percentage of the home value?

JORDY “They should be looking at, What’s my lifestyle? What am I looking to get out of this? Rather than, How much should I spend?
What about return on investment?
JORDY “When it comes time to sell, if a home and property are well designed and things are well constructed, you may or may not get back dollar for dollar, but that will be the first home that gets sold—and sold for the asking price.”
DAN “When people ask, ‘Will I get my money back?’ I ask, ‘Are you doing this for the buyer or for you?’”
KEITH  “If it’s well designed, you’ll get your money back. The astute buyer will recognize that.”

How would you recommend staging a project. You start with a wish list, then what?  

JIM  “Priorities, budget and logistics.”
JORDY  “We had a client who bought a large home in New Canaan and he knew he didn’t want a pool for at least five years down the road. And we talked about how they want to use the property five to ten years out. First step was creating a level lot for the kids to play in; second year, when they were old enough to use a swingset, developing a gazebo area; and in a year or two, when the kids have had the swimming lessons, we’ll add in a pool. When you phase a project, you literally start out with, ‘When we’re all done, how do we want to use our property?’”
DAN “I have a client, and we were going to landscape and the only access was the driveway. And the builder decided to pave the driveway before we brought in tons of plant material. Big mistake—we had to redo the driveway.”
BRANDON “Sometimes we have to tell clients to slow down and let things evolve. You need to do steps one and two first.”
HEATHER  “Trust your designer or architect, because if you don’t have that relationship, the project won’t be as successful. One of the biggest mistakes is rushing in.”
KEITH “All of us stage properties regularly. A very high percentage of our projects are multi-year projects and it’s a very, very nice way to work. It’s a continuous process with the client.”

So readers should not feel that they are putting someone out if they can’t do it all at once?

JIM “I find that the clients are much more likely to have buyer’s remorse when they’ve owned the home for only two months. When we build the landscape in phases, at the end, the client is usually much more content.”
SUSAN “What we have to offer as a profession is vision. Once I had a client call me when she hadn’t even closed on the house. The woman said, ‘We’re about to sign papers, and we’re really nervous. We want a swimming pool, but we don’t have a flat yard.’ I looked out the window and said, ‘There is a way to do this with terracing, and you could have a small swimming pool.’ I said that if you really love this house and you want it, just know that it is possible. And this was a very successful collaboration.”
Can you give us examples of mistakes you have had to fix?
DAN  I had a client in Darien who put in a very large patio, and there was an eight-inch pitch from the patio to the house. And they were having a tremendous water problem in the basement. And the whole thing had to be redone. The flagstones had to come out and many were damaged. We had to go down another 18 inches to make it level.

Do you attribute that mistake to hiring the wrong person?

DAN  “Absolutely! I’m sure there’s not one person in this room who would have done that. You wouldn’t have a landscaper build your house. So don’t have a builder do your landscaping.”
ROBERTO  “Some people try to go with the cheapest way instead of listening to the person who has real expertise.”
JORDY  “If homeowners parcel out the project themselves, then they become the general contractor. And if something goes wrong, the lawn guy can blame the irrigation guy, the irrigation guy can say it’s a bad batch of sod. One way to preempt all of that is to hire someone you trust, and have complete ownership over it. Almost always, if it’s something that’s within their control, they will step up and make it right.”

Any final thoughts or tips for our readers?

HEATHER  “Pay attention to the soil. It may cost a bit more to get the best soil, but it’s really worth it in the long run.”  
ROBERTO  “If you are going to buy a spec  house, ask the builder not to landscape because he’s just going to buy the cheapest stuff and it may get ripped out anyway.
JORDY  “Don’t forget about regulations from the town. For instance, in Weston, you’re not allowed to have a fence on the property line—as weird as that may seem. One family I know had a wonderful fence built and installed, and it had to be completely redone. Be sure to have your professional review the regulations for each town.”
ROBERTO  “I agree. There are times you go to a property with a client and he’ll say, ‘Well, my broker told me we could put a pool here,’ but in reality, the setbacks don’t allow it.”
KEITH  “The regulations change from town to town. We often get asked by a client, ‘Can you put a tennis court on this property?’ or ‘Can you put a pool on this property?’
A professional can get you the right answer. When I walk onto a property, I can always tell right away if a professional landscape architect has been there.”