A Yard Becomes A Garden

A Roland Park couple has built a botanical beauty from a bare-bones patch of soil.

May 13, 2001|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

Two years after moving into a beautiful but rundown Roland Park house, Sue and Craig Roswell finally felt they had the time and resources to devote to the front yard. It had suffered from years of neglect, and the problems were daunting.

Two huge swamp maples provided shade -- too much shade for the small yard -- and also made the soil so acidic it would be difficult to grow grass.

"I wanted to have them taken out," says Mrs. Roswell, "But everyone said I shouldn't because others [in the area] have died from blight, and these are healthy."

Ivy and weeds had taken over the yard completely, and maple seedlings sprouted everywhere. The ivy was filled with dead maple leaves that needed raking out. The only foundation planting in the front was an American boxwood to the right of the porch.

Like many of us who enjoy gardening, the Roswells could have bought some shrubs and flowering trees and tried to create a front with what real estate agents call curb appeal. But neither is a serious gardener; and with two small children there weren't enough hours in the day to get the ordinary chores done, let alone take on a project of this magnitude without help.

"The reason we hired a landscaper," says Mrs. Roswell, "was that we didn't want to make mistakes. But we also didn't want to spend a fortune on the outside."

In some ways their decision to make over their front yard -- and hire a designer to do it -- was easier than it would have been if there had been an established garden. But some established gardens could also benefit from a professional makeover. Perhaps they don't have an overall plan or shape or contain too many different plants to be harmonious. They may have shrubs or perennials that are past their prime or in the wrong spot to thrive.

A garden makeover can be a smart investment. Good landscape design can add 14 percent to the value of the property, a Gallup survey for the American Nursery and Landscape Foundation found. And Money magazine has estimated that owners may see a 100 percent return on their investment when the time comes to sell their homes.

The Roswells originally planned to complete the work in three stages. Phase one would be the foundation beds. Phase two would be a row of shrubs or trees on one side to screen the back yard, where their six-year-old, Andrew, and three-year-old, Abby, play. Phase three would be to get rid of the ivy, weeds and seedlings and plant grass.

They planned to get bids from several different garden designers. But they liked the first one they talked to, Jim McElroy of nearby Green Fields Nursery & Landscaping Company, and decided to look no further.

"We needed something to bring attention to the front of the house," says Mrs. Roswell. "It got lost in the trees. Jim wanted to draw attention to the architecture of the front porch. We liked that, and we hadn't thought of it."

McElroy suggested starting with young plants to save money. In a year they would grow to a size that would cost twice as much to plant. When his estimate came in for less than $2500, the Roswells decided to have the whole job done at once.

The nursery crew arrived mid-morning and finished the foundation beds by mid-afternoon. It took two more visits to complete the rest of the work. McElroy's plan was to stay with the symmetrical architecture of the Roswells' brick colonial with only a few variations so the layout wouldn't seem monotonous. Undulating beds were cut on either side of the porch to draw the eye to the handsome pillared entrance, and two tons of top soil were added to the beds. The boxwood was discarded because it suffered from lacebug and leaf miner.

The design left some space so the couple could plant annuals if they wanted to, but not so much that the beds would look bare if they didn't. At the moment the space is filled with pink and white impatiens; in the fall the Roswells can replace them with pansies when the maples lose their leaves and the area gets more sun.

Mrs. Roswell asked for a magnolia, her only request, so the garden designer planted a 'Little Gem' dwarf magnolia, an evergreen hybrid that can tolerate the cold this far north, on the far side of one bed. He balanced it with a Kousa or Japanese dogwood on the other end, where there is more sun. Less susceptible to disease than the native dogwood, the Kousa blooms in June after its leaves are out. In the fall it will have red berries that hang like little Christmas balls. The dogwood's spreading branches will eventually form a screen to hide a bare space between the Roswells' and the house next door.

To create a display that would have color ten months a year, McElroy added 'Blue Princess' hollies, which produce bright red berries against glossy dark blue-ish leaves in the fall, just when any flowers would be dying out. One 'Blue Prince' holly is in the mix to pollinate the others.

"Stick it across the street and it would probably pollinate them," says McElroy. "But the closer it is, the more berries."

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