- Homeowners can divide their yards into separate, functional, quasi-rooms for organization and as an extension of indoor living.
- Drought-tolerant native plants have higher survival rates in their climate and attract pollinators, butterflies, and birds.
- Shade from trees provides climate control for homes and yards.
After the pandemic began, many homeowners planted vegetable and herb gardens to avoid supermarkets or to start a new hobby. Gardening offered safe exercise and stress relief in fresh air versus indoor gyms.
Then came the surge of pools as another avenue for outdoor recreation when many people curtailed travel. However, the number of requests for pools resulted in long waits for installation, sometimes beyond a year. Costs for in-ground pools also soared, says Sacramento, Calif.-based landscape designer Michael Glassman.
Now, as the pandemic enters year three, gardens and pools are still popular, but homeowners are stepping it up a notch. Many are creating an extension of their home outdoors, with more purposeful areas to work and socialize.
“Most of my clients want ‘everything,’ including pools—indoors and outdoors—oversized swim spas, hot tubs, kitchens, mini orchards, vegetable and herb gardens, putting greens, and bocce ball courts,” says landscape designer Laurie Van Zandt of The Ardent Garden Landscape Design in Huntsville, Utah.
Others want more land for privacy, which is the case for many of Angela Mayfield’s clients in Charleston, W.Va. “They want at least a half-acre to enjoy with children and pets,” says Mayfield, an agent with Better Homes & Gardens. This trend is also reflected in a recent Harris poll commissioned by the TurfMutt Foundation, which found nearly three-quarters of home buyers say a spacious yard is at the top of their list.
Whatever yard projects homeowners decide to take on, what matters most is good design and installation, says Joe Raboine with Atlanta-based Belgard Residential, which manufactures concrete pavers and retaining walls. Southampton, N.J.-based landscape designer Steve Chepurny of Beechwood Landscape Architecture and Construction, adds a third essential: good organic compost soil.
With spring at our doorstep and the buying season heating up, here are some outdoor elements real estate pros can mention to their home shoppers.
1. Providing a better view.
As the work from home trend continues, more landscape professionals are receiving requests for gardens that clients can savor from inside. Evanston, Ill.-based landscape architects Ryan and Claire Kettelkamp have received two requests this year from clients who want to have a pleasant view from their home office window.
“The birds become their co-workers, and one client asked for bird feeders,” Ryan says. Sometimes, all it takes is a big window with few or no mullions to bring a garden into focus—inspired by the worldwide View From My Window Facebook group that started during the pandemic, Glassman says. Good lighting with LED bulbs also allows for night views while paring energy.
2. Working in fresh air.
After two years of working indoors, more homeowners are itching for a new home office—and as the weather warms up, they’re venturing outdoors. To make an outdoor workspace functional, Kettelkamp recommends a Wi-Fi booster. Landscape architect Marc Nissim of Harmony Design Group in Westfield, N.J., also suggests outdoor electrical outlets, a comfortable worktable and chair, a pergola or pavilion for protection, and a TV and speakers if warranted.
An accessory dwelling unit is another option for those who want a more structured work area in their yard that offers some privacy, says Paul Haden, founder and owner with son Jack of C2 Collaborative Landscape Architecture in San Clemente, Calif, who says California has made ADU approval easier.
3. Planning a pool.
Despite costs doubling and tripling in some areas, interest in pools continues. The most sought-after style remains a classic rectangle, which Nissim refers to as a “Hamptons look.” It’s considered best for swimming laps and fitting with an automatic cover. Other homeowners prefer custom in-ground gunite designs. More affordable options include vinyl, fiberglass, or shipping containers, which may shorten the installation timeline.
Pool lighting has become a more integral part of modern landscape design—sometimes with lights floating in the water, says Greenwich, Conn.-based landscape architect Janice Parker. Coping is key for underfoot comfort with Nissim preferring bluestone or marble, often interspersed with grass. An adjacent spa or “spool”—a larger version of a spa but not pool size—allows a different kind of water enjoyment, Glassman says.
4. Seeking less maintenance.
Many homeowners are asking for easy-to-maintain hardscape and landscape materials that afford them time for other pursuits. Examples abound: A steel overhead cover requires less care than wood. Though it can be expensive, faux wood such as Durawood doesn’t require painting, and lightweight aluminum can substitute for wood. Masonry posts in stucco or brick also need less care, Glassman says.
Many hardscape floor choices also don’t require repainting like wood does or the removal of moss, which is a problem with bricks. Larger format pavers require less grouting and are easier to install, helpful now with a labor shortage in some markets, says Raboine. For this reason, Chepurny favors porcelain tiles. “They also reflect a clean, contemporary look and are available in large format sizes,” he says.
Nissim offers the caveat that many communities limit how much impervious hardscape can cover a yard since it may increase water runoff and flooding. Another way to pare upkeep is with an irrigation system managed from an app or by water sensors.
5. Focusing on entertainment.
As homeowners look to return to regular socializing, their outdoor spaces may prove the best option, says Parker. “Before everyone wanted to entertain indoors to stay away from bugs and inclement weather; now everybody wants to entertain outdoors to stay away from unhealthy indoor air,” she says.
The trend is to separate outdoor spaces into functional, quasi-rooms. Depending on budget and area size, a cooking zone might include a grill or more bells and whistles such as a pizza oven or fireplace with an Argentine grill to cook on an open fire, says Kettelkamp.
For outdoor relaxation, Parker says more clients request “fun” furniture with built-in illumination, fire pits, fans, and water misters. Nissim also sees the use of more bistro lighting, strings installed on their own electrical system that create an instant party look. There are also more “toys” that stay outdoors, from ping-pong tables to big-screen TVs, Chepurny says.
As part of the trend toward healthfulness, an area of the lawn may be set aside for meditation and yoga, says Raboine. Nissim had a client ask for a labyrinth to walk. To avoid pests, Patrick Abbott of the green company, Ecoshield Test Solutions, recommends fogging or misting treatments and mosquito buckets rather than harmful pesticides.
6. Incorporating sustainability.
With garden professionals emphasizing climate control and biodiversity, there’s greater interest in using drought-tolerant native plants that have a higher survival rate in their climate and attract pollinators, butterflies, birds, and beneficial insects. “There used to be a mindset that you had to give up your garden to do the right thing but now there’s recognition you can have it all,” says Haven Kiers, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Davis.
San Clemente, Calif.-based landscape designer Jodie Cook is seeing a more maximalist, biomimicry approach that imitates nature through diverse plantings rather than the former monocultural repetition of a single plant. “It’s healthier, more attractive, and uses less water,” she says. To achieve this, she recommends a garden feature with 70% native plants and 30% other choices and replacing the lawn with permeable concrete pavers, decomposed granite, pea gravel, or other surfaces pervious to water. Cook, who focuses on ecological design, says artificial grass isn’t a wise substitute since it’s bad for sustainability because it can’t be recycled, it creates urban heat islands, and it removes live plants that absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Besides choosing low- or no-water plants, Cooks says the amount of water needed can also be cut by harvesting it from rooftop water collection systems and reusing it via swales and rain gardens, which eliminates municipal water irrigation.
How sustainable gardens look varies by climate and site. In Van Zandt’s high-desert area, she often designs it to blur a property into its surroundings by strategically placing boulders, creating winding paths around existing native trees, and mixing native materials—from grass seed blends to ornamental grasses, perennials, and shrubs like sage and red twig dogwood. In the Northeast, Nissim says he might use low rustic, pea gravel paths, hardy, deer-resistant allium millennium, and deer-resistant carex groundcover.
7. Personalizing beyond plants.
Plants aren’t all that’s showing up in gardens. Jim Charlier, an avid home gardener and co-author of GardenWalk Buffalo: A Celebration of Urban Gardens, says many of the gardens on his city’s annual July residential tour—the largest nationwide and about to celebrate its 27th year—incorporates art, pottery, statues, and quilts to personalize spaces.
Cook also sees homeowners incorporating antiques and statuary in surprising ways for placemaking. Some choices may also reflect a client’s heritage, a trend Van Zandt has made. For a client of Greek ancestry, she designed a modern landscape with classic statuary and a tiered fountain.
8. Bringing in added structures.
Screened porches are hardly new but have become more popular since they eliminate the presence of annoying bugs while offering outdoor enjoyment. Modern designs use unobstructed screens, motorized shades, sometimes heated floors, and even heated furnishings, says Parker.
Chicken coops let homeowners experience farming. “Once you taste fresh eggs, there’s no going back,” Parker says. However, not all communities allow these animals in yards, so homeowners should inquire, Nissim says.
A greenhouse lets plants thrive in a controlled environment. Prefab kits are replacing pricey custom designs, and can be outfitted with a sink, vent, fan, mister, and even a chandelier, says Glassman.
9. Watching for new ideas.
Homeowners should talk to their local nursery staff who know what grows well in the area. Also, advise clients to wander their neighborhood to see what’s thriving. Tell them to keep their eyes open for new trends. The pandemic has spurred entrepreneurs to create pop-up plant nursery trucks, the equivalent of food trucks, that drive through neighborhoods, Kiers says.
10. Developing a budget as costs soar.
Designing a garden has become a costly undertaking as costs rise. Van Zandt says plant and material prices have shot up 20% to 30% over the last year. “Just about any landscape I design seems to start at $60,000,” she says. “Throw in a greenhouse, Corten steel beds, fencing, a bocce ball court, or a gas-fired pit or fireplace, and it really goes up.” Nissim is seeing the same price escalation in his New Jersey area and says concrete has climbed 20% and a fireplace now may cost $25,000 or about five times more than a fire pit. Raboine has seen costs at his paver manufacturer business climb by one-third.
Many experts suggest homeowners set aside 10% to 20% of their home’s value for outdoor work and ongoing upkeep, which means a $500,000 house might call for between $50,000 and $100,000 on yard improvements, excluding a pool.
One of the best ways to control a budget is to work from a master plan. Van Zandt says she generally charges between $1,800 and $3,800 for a design depending on project size and complexity. Once it’s bid out to contractors, if too high, work can proceed in phases. Less costly products can be chosen, such as gravel rather than stone for a patio or smaller rather than large mature plants, shrubs, and trees, she says. Sprinkling native seeds is another way to start affordably, says Kiers. “They are so much less expensive than full-blown plants, and it’s healthier to start that way,” she says.
11. Understanding the value of trees.
Trees are a vital part of the landscape, giving scale to a home’s architecture and offering fruit, color, and drama, whether a single tree or grove, says Glassman. When buyers move in, suggest they reach out to a certified arborist to assess the health of existing trees, prune and feed them, and advise on new ones to plant based on soil and light. Trees should never be planted too close to a house to stop branches falling on its structure, animals from using branches to enter a home because the roots can spread and cause damage. Trees also help provide climate control since their canopies can shade a house, outdoor areas, and shade-loving plants, such as dogwoods, ferns, and azaleas, Glassman says.
Kiers says it’s smart to buy smaller trees that will remain healthier and grow faster rather than big pot- or root-bound trees, which can girdle or strangle the trunk as the tree grows. In drought-prone areas, she encourages homeowners to continue watering their trees even if they must curtail watering their lawns. “They need some deep watering to survive,” she says.
12. Shared spaces change, too.
More efforts are underway to provide outdoor spaces beyond yards. Landscape architects Paul and Jack Haden are working with developers and city agencies to create Wi-Fi-friendly “tech pods” in public parks, allowing people to work outdoors in a sheltered space with a laptop—and bring along a cup of coffee and maybe a dog.
“Many of these parks are maintained by private funds, such as one in Playa Vista,” says Jack Haden. The tech pods can be used by one or several people, he says.
The Hadens, a father-and-son partnership, also have designed master-planned communities that take greater advantage of outdoor space in new ways. Playing golf surged during the pandemic as a socially distanced outdoor activity. But in prior years when the sport had waned, some golf course communities switched out their fairways for other uses. The Hadens redesigned a plan for Miralon Palm Springs, turning the 309-acre site of an abandoned golf-course community—which failed during the Great Recession—into an agrihood with developer Freehold Communities.
Wellness real estate has also grown—now a $275 billion industry, according to 2020 data from the Global Wellness Industry. Wellness is a particular interest of C2 Collaborative. The Hadens replaced the golf course with open space and added a trail system using decomposed granite for walking and bicycling.
Unlike many of the other 200 or so agrihoods sprouting up nationwide, which include variations on agricultural produce, the Hadens’ more novel decision was to plant 7,000 olive trees and set up oil refineries. “We learned after doing a water analysis that olive trees require little water. They also help deflect wind and produce fruit that can be converted to oil on-site,” says Paul Haden, CEO. “Some of the oil will go back to residents and some will be sold, helping to reduce homeowner association (HOA) costs.”
There will also be traditional community and vegetable gardens, a clubhouse, dog park, yoga lawn, pools, bocce ball, and 1,150 modern-inspired, energy-conserving residences constructed by three builders. About 30% of homes have been built and sold, and phase two’s landscape amenities are expected to be completed by 2024.
“You can live well and be well in the same location,” says Jack Haden.