Successful Scenes: Why Bother?

By Elinor Bennett Markle

Last week my friend David, a member and advocate for the National Association of Home Builders, asked me to give a presentation to a local chapter. He wants me to discourse on and discuss some landscaping issues to enlighten and persuade chapter members to install better landscapes. Homebuilders sometimes lose their focus after the house itself is complete, and do not pay attention to finishing out the project in a nicely done but perhaps generic way.

Perhaps you as landscape and irrigation contractors occasionally face the doubtful builder who remains skeptical about the need for quality landscape and irrigation installments. How can you assure such a client that your professional installation will show him immediate returns on his investment?

A builder’s task after building is to make a quick sale, and he knows that having better curb appeal gets him quicker turnaround. Initial appearance of a house is critical for the potential buyer, but the house is not all there is to a property. How that beautiful house connects to the land is a very important part of the big picture the homebuyer will see. As professional landscape contractors, you know that good landscaping adds value through visual interest and physical amenity to any site. Realtors substantiate this fact and suggest that owners invest 10 to 15 percent of the cost of a home in a professionally designed and installed landscape. They know that a well-conceived and installed landscape adds more value than its cost of installation. A builder, as a homeowner, should accept the worth of that suggestion and add basic landscape value through good materials selection, good design and good installation. Our task then is to make our contribution to the home’s curb appeal an absolute necessity in the builder’s eyes. We must assure and prove to him that our work is practical and cost-effective.

First, realize for yourself and your builder-client that the landscape should unite house with yard, and that placing all plant material against the building is not how to achieve that goal. Show him how a section of fence or an arbor, or a length of hedge can create a sense of entry into the property that sets his house off from the adjoining property. This establishes a boundary and shows the expanse of the land on which the house sits and helps a buyer realize the potential of the outdoor portion of the property.

Then, point out what the end users will appreciate. For example, some attention to screening a view to the neighbors might be in order, or something as simple as stepping-stones through the lawn to a service area, or a flowering tree close outside the kitchen windows could differentiate this home from any other. Educate your builder to the typical homeowner’s landscape needs: individual identity of their home, seasonal interest, child friendliness and a low-maintenance landscape that gives the owners room for self-expression. Go inside the house with the builder and look at the views from the exterior doors and the windows. Is there a view to preserve, enhance or hide? Point that out to your client, explain how you can solve a bad view or enhance a feature of his home and he should agree that your landscape plan address more than foundation frills. After installation, he, in turn, can point out those thoughtful qualities of your landscape to his buyers.

The number one landscaping asset directly related to curb appeal is well-placed, large trees. You should try to reason the builder into including large-caliper shade trees in the landscape design. It is your job to know if the lot can accommodate large trees, and to site them far enough from roof overhangs and overhead utility lines so that at maturity they will not interfere with the integrity of the house or utility. If the house placement and lot simply will not safely contain a large shade tree, look at the vast array of ornamental trees that are tolerant of the site conditions. In order to offer a distinctive landscape to your builder, use an ornamental tree that is not available in the landscape department of the big box stores. Let the builder know that this plant is special and unique to the landscape of his house.

There may be existing trees that the builder saved. Make it a part of your landscaping service to inspect those trees and remove damaged limbs according to proper International Society of Arboriculture techniques. Trees may have branches that are so low that one could not easily mow under them. Or they may be located next to a driveway and be too low for larger vehicles to pass without scraping branches. Decide which would be a better design for the property to limb up that tree so that maintenance and access can occur around it, or to prepare a mulched and irrigated landscape bed under it. If an existing tree is downright ugly or in a bad placement, make it a part of your plan to remove it.

Short-lived annuals add the least value, and are more costly per square foot than evergreen groundcover. Although the builder may ask for annuals to provide color in your landscape plan, remind him that those flashy annuals are only a temporary plan, and that his well-built house deserves the structure of more permanent plantings. The more effective value is upsizing the trees in his plan, or adding two or three panels of low height fencing that matches the style of the house.

Help the builder realize the potential of every house to settle attractively into the larger surroundings while becoming individually appealing. Help the builder earn the reputation for finishing out homes that meet the homebuyers’ needs, both inside and out. Make the comparison to the homebuilder that amateur landscaping can give only a fraction of its potential value, in the same way that an amateur builder can waste materials and turn out a poor product. Bottom line, your professionally designed and installed landscape adds full value to the professionally built home.

Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at


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