The possibilities are endless when you’re planning improvements to your outdoor landscape. Learn from a few local experts how a few simple changes can have an exceptional impact on your yard.
When it comes to improving the outdoor spaces around your home, the possibilities are nearly endless. Even modest improvements can make a big difference to your quality of life.
“In the past five years or so, we’ve seen people really try to maximize their outdoor living spaces,” says Mike Sanders, owner of Crimson Valley Landscaping, Rockford. “Not only huge jobs, but also smaller changes like installing a patio, nature area or a walkway can motivate people to enjoy getting outside more.”
The concept of a “staycation” – fixing up your home the way you like it and relaxing there rather than traveling – remains a popular concept, says Sanders. “It really increases family time because everyone likes to stay home and be here. This is why low-maintenance improvements are what people want most.”
For that reason, ponds are less popular than they once were but pergolas are very much in demand, as are retaining walls, patios, paver walkways, fire pits and relaxation gardens.
“We can do a lightweight and maintenance-free pergola on an existing deck or patio that’s strong enough to withstand hurricane-force winds,” says Sanders. “They can be customized to reduce sunlight from 25 to 75 percent. This can make a sitting area 10 to 20 degrees cooler and if you add an outdoor ceiling fan, the air movement disrupts flying insects. So you can actually enjoy that space even when it’s a hot night in July or August.”
Crimson Valley also installs outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, swimming pools, patios, irrigation systems and outdoor lighting. Sanders gets many requests for relaxation or healing gardens these days. People like having a peaceful place to meditate or just enjoy their coffee in the morning.
“People are often surprised at how reasonable the cost of plant material is,” says Sanders. “There are so many new varieties of plants that don’t require a lot of work to care for. It’s a much better selection than we had even 10 or 15 years ago. What a difference it makes when you’ve thought through your landscaping plan and installed good plants. It really sets your home apart.”
Sanders cautions homeowners to be thorough when hiring a landscaping firm.
“I think most of the landscapers here in town are good people and want to do a good job. But as a consumer, you do need to be careful. It’s important to get a detailed, written estimate with a guaranteed price for a project. Make sure particulars are spelled out, like the size of a patio and the type of material that will be used. There should be a timeframe stipulated and a written payment schedule. Also, make it clear that you want to be notified in writing of any changes along the way that will drive up the cost.
“Note whether landscapers return calls and keep their word about showing up on time. Asking for references isn’t that useful because they’ll only refer you to a satisfied customer. A better idea is to ask ‘What jobs have you done in this area?’ and then go talk to those people.”
Be patient with the design process and consider starting it well before the spring rush, Sanders recommends.
If a job estimate comes in very low and seems too good to be true, it probably is. Make sure the specified materials, sizes and other details are an apples-to-apples comparison with other estimates you receive.
“A good landscaping job increases the value of a home, gives the owner a sense of pride and can make a home stand out that would otherwise look just like every home on the street,” says Sanders. “It’s a good feeling to pull into your driveway and like what you see.”
Joe Taylor, owner of Changing Seasons Landscaping, in Belvidere, enjoys helping his customers make the most of their properties. His company offers hardscaping, lawn care, seasonal cleanups and landscape design/installation.
“When the economy slowed down, people still put money into their homes but traveled less,” says Taylor. “Some of them asked us to develop plans that could be phased in year by year. Sometimes people know their landscapes need punching up but they aren’t sure where to begin. I like to spend time with them and ask questions about how they’ll most enjoy using their yard and then develop a plan for them.”
It’s important to use high-quality plant materials and provide ongoing care, says Taylor.
“Sometimes people think they can buy plants from a big-box store, stick them in the ground, water once and they’re done, but that’s not how it works. There’s a skill to cultivating trees and plants. You have to do it right. Sometimes they need fertilizing or pruning at certain times of the year. If you don’t know anything about plants, you need a guy like me to help with that.”
Taylor says any property can be improved with a landscaping plan, whether lavish or modest in scale.
“We do curb appeal packages. You tell me what you can spend and I’ll find a way to get the most for your money.”
Through the years, Taylor has lived by a tried-and-true philosophy: Keep it simple and do it right.
“We don’t just throw something together for people. We think it through and we use materials that will hold up over time. We also think about the health of your yard and the wildlife it supports. I don’t like to use mulch that’s been dyed, for example. Those dyes can harm the plants and animals. I like to use a hardwood mulch that’s actually good for the plants as it degrades.”
Taylor says that making a nicer outdoor space for people adds to their happiness, which makes him feel good.
“It’s very rewarding to see people have a backyard they enjoy, where they can escape from the tensions of the world. I enjoy working with them to imagine the possibilities and bring their vision to life.”
Mark and Debbie Walter, owners of LawnCare by Walter, Cherry Valley, have been improving lawns for more than 30 years. Their services have evolved from fertilization and weed control treatments to total site management.
“I like to take on lawns that are in really bad shape,” says Mark. “I like the challenge. It’s very rewarding to see how nicely they shape up when handled correctly. We often find ourselves fixing lawns that other lawn care companies have not handled well.”
There’s more to cultivating a good lawn than meets the eye, says Mark.
“We stay up-to-date on the latest technology and solutions to lawn or landscaping problems,” he says. “We meet with our crews to get their feedback and suggestions on how to improve the quality and efficiency of our services. As technology changes, we bring in people who are up-to-date and in tune with the latest.”
Mark enjoys it when customers ask questions. “A big part of what we do is customer education,” he says. “For example, we often find ourselves explaining to homeowners that they should set their mower blades to a higher level. Many people cut their grass too short, which discourages the kind of healthy root system that makes turf thicker.”
The Walters say they compete well on price, but urge potential customers to look beyond the bottom line to overall value. For example, national lawn care chains tend to prescribe more lawn applications than necessary, often up to seven per season.
“That may make sense in Florida, but not in our climate,” says Mark.
LawnCare by Walter uses granular fertilizer and liquid herbicides hand-picked by Mark. The business offers a deluxe lawn care program that includes six treatments with fertilization, crabgrass control and weed control. Other lawn services include core aeration, preventive grub control, finish grading, slit seeding, over seeding and sod. In addition to experienced lawn care technicians, the landscape team offers the know-how to transform any outdoor space.
“We offer free consultations and take the time to understand your own personal style,” says Mark. “Our design team will carefully conduct a site analysis after the initial meeting, and will go on to create a hand-drawn or computer software design of your landscape or hardscape project. To ensure your vision and needs are met, the design process could take anywhere from one to four weeks to complete.”
The Walters believe excellent customer service is what differentiates their business.
“I think that’s one of the advantages of being a local business,” Mark says. “You can deal directly with the owners. We may not be on your lawn with every visit, but our people are an extension of us, and we give them the best training possible. If they don’t know the answer, they’ll right away find out from us.”
Admiring a job well done never gets old.
“That’s what keeps us going,” Mark says. “It’s refreshing and positive to see a property transform, and we just enjoy working with our customers. It’s a good feeling when they take pride in our work.”