A few years ago, when Alicia Morgan-Cooper and her husband Fred decided they needed more space for their growing family, several items on their house-hunting list were non-negotiable.
"We wanted plenty of trees and greenery, a large backyard for the kids, and it had to have a garden," says Morgan-Cooper, a pediatrician and mother of two, with a baby on the way. "I'm an avid gardener, and my garden is my sanctuary."
In spring 2005, the couple moved into their dream home, a six-bedroom colonial situated on half an acre in the city's Guilford neighborhood. Soon after, they launched a series of home improvements, starting with the landscaping.
"We totally revamped the landscaping," says Morgan-Cooper, who worked with a professional landscape architect, Plant Genie in Towson, as well as a landscaping contractor.
They planted nine flowering pear, crabapple and other trees, had two flagstone patios built off the kitchen and sunroom, complete with a walkway, and filled the flower beds with colorful azaleas, daylilies, rosebushes and much more.
"At first, there was a lot of mud," says Morgan-Cooper, who said the overhaul was motivated in part by property damage due to past flooding. "But now we love it. I'm not ever leaving."
All said, the project cost about $90,000 -- money the couple says was well spent. After purchasing their home for $750,000, they say it's now valued at more than $1 million.
While professional landscaping was once viewed as a luxury, more homeowners are beginning to recognize that planting a perennial garden, installing a pond or building an arbor, may have more than only aesthetic value. Many experts say landscaping -- which runs the gamut from so-called softscaping (such as turf maintenance and planting) to hardscape installation of patios and walkways -- can increase the value of one's home, and in a tight housing market, help attract potential buyers.
"Studies have shown that landscaping can increase the value of your home by 15 percent," says Vanessa Finney, executive director of the Maryland Nursery and Landscape Association Inc., an industry trade group whose members include nurseries, garden centers, landscapers, arborists and suppliers.
"It's about curb appeal," says Brent Flickinger, a Realtor with City Life Realty in Baltimore, referring to that intangible factor that makes a prospective buyer want to look beyond the "For Sale" sign. "Years ago, people were fighting over houses. Now, houses are sitting longer, and the longer they sit, the less desirable they seem to people," he adds. "Landscaping helps your house stand out. It can help the real estate agent get showings, get people inside the house. If they don't get in the door, it doesn't matter."
James McWilliams, a co-owner of Maxalea Inc., a landscape contractor in North Baltimore, says he often fields calls from homeowners desiring to spruce up their houses before putting them on the market. "They may need to clear plants that are overgrown near the house, or edge and delineate the flower beds. Sometimes we are checking for insects or diseased trees. We address all sorts of things."
Three generations of his family have worked in the horticultural business since the 1920s, and today, Maxalea employs some 80 horticulturalists, architects, landscape designers, groundskeepers, nurserymen and others.
McWilliams says their clients typically spend between $5,000 to $50,000, but it's not unheard of, he adds, for higher-end clients to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars landscaping their mansions and estates.
"When you spend that much on a home, you don't want 20 random plants," he says. "You need a plan, and a professional who can help you design a landscaping layout that will be beautiful."
To that end, his team members will schedule consultations with homeowners to discuss everything from "form and function" to plants, materials, color schemes and whatever signature look the homeowner is seeking. They then sketch out a plan and draw up a budget.
McWilliams, who says he favors a "clean" landscaping style with crisp edges, minimal mulch and repetitious grouping of plants, also keeps pace with the latest trends. For instance, he's noticing a move away from wooden decks, toward more fieldstone and Formstone patios. Another hot trend is the outdoor kitchen and living area. "People are entertaining and extending it outside," he says.
Indeed, when Lauren Quattro and partner Marichi Capino want to entertain at the home they share in the Mayfield community near Lake Montebello, they simply walk out back to a yard that's been transformed by landscaping.
"This is the house that I grew up in," says Quattro, a nurse who returned to her childhood home in the early 1990s after her mother died. "I'm pretty sure my parents would not recognize it now," she says with a chuckle.