Home sweet outdoor home

Extreme landscape makeovers

Landscaping and its delights can be seen as the purview of the well-to-do, and even though that’s far from the absolute truth — as anyone with even a modest acquaintance with the well-tended neighborhoods of Minneapolis can attest — it’s also true that residential landscaping is a discretionary item in the household budget.

As Nan Gane Arundel of Southwest-based Landscape Love notes, “Landscaping is something you invest in after you’ve taken care of the essentials such as the home water heater.”

In terms of landscape essentials, many people don’t know quite where to start. Especially if their goal is a radically pleasing transformation of their property. Minneapolis, like most mature cities, is chock-full of landscape-challenged yards. That is, yards that have not seen much in the way of real change since the Carter administration, or perhaps even the Eisenhower administration.

Local landscape design pros like Arundel, along with Ron Beining of Associates & Beining, recently shared some of their insights about landscape transformation with the Southwest Journal. Each designer has recently completed work on one or more major landscape renovations in the Southwest Minneapolis, so their observations are fresh and relevant.

Every yard has unique culture

Uniformity serves some sectors of society well, such as airline sky crews, security guards and baseball players. It is not a trait common to or much-appreciated by landscape artists and the people who love them — or at least pay them to think about making their yards more beautiful and user-friendly.

Most people want a landscape that is personalized to their particular taste and needs. They may not know exactly what they want, but they do know what they like when they see it, according to Arundel. She encourages clients to explore the living museum of landscape in their neighborhoods.

Take pictures of what you like. Such expeditionary studies can be mightily inspirational, she says. She’s also a big believer in searching out ideas in magazines — “Sunset Magazine” gets high reviews from her, despite its dreamy California bias. Design conversations always get off on the right foot if a client has a picture or page from a magazine illustrating a look they’d like to achieve, she says.

Think big, and think long and hard about whether you want to tackle the project yourself, or leave the heavy lifting to the professionals. In our three examples here, we look at projects that were professionally handled every step of the way. They’re big, complicated and extremely time-intensive. But as Arundel says, even on a big project homeowners can always choose to do some portion of the work themselves. It’s often a matter of time, budget and personal inclination.

Go gently into that good Lake Harriet landscape

Hardscape features both decorous and functional were also incorporated into the landscape overhaul that accompanied the extreme makeover of a house at 4623 Humboldt Ave. S. in Minneapolis.

The 1920s vintage house, set on an expansive lot just a stone’s throw from Lake Harriet, was transformed inside and out by new owners Nick and Wendy Brown before they moved in in 2009. Ron Beining, whose landscape design business is based out of the Kenwood neighborhood in Southwest, was called in at the very start of the makeover project by architects Rehkamp-Larson Architects, also of Southwest.

It’s a bit unusual to get a landscape designer involved at the start of a major remodeling project, admitted Ryan Bicek, project manager for Rehkamp Larson. Usually the landscape design comes into play after the remodelling job is well underway — but in this case, the architects, builders and designers all conferred as a team from the start.

The Browns purchased the house with the intention of remodeling it from top to bottom. No small job that: the entire house was first gutted, then redesigned — including a significant expansion of the living space, according to Mark Larson, the project architect. Changes were made to the exterior of the house too — a large covered porch was added to one side of the house, perfect for dining al fresco in virtually any weather situation, and a front porch was added as well. But the new owners wanted to preserve the essential character of the property, which blends perfectly with its surrounding neighbors in one of oldest and most elegant areas of the city.

Beining’s creative response included replacing the existing driveway, which cut into the center of the backyard, with a new concrete strip running parallel to the north side of the property line and straight back into the yard, where it terminates at a new covered garage.  

The driveway also opens up into a circular, courtyard-like space with ample turnaround room for cars. It can also serve as a kind of courtyard, perfect for larger outdoor gatherings — such as the annual Mexican-themed party that the Browns throw for friends, complete with a local taco truck that the family rents for the occasion.

Beining also prescribed a stone patio immediately to the back of the house, adjacent to the concrete driveway and interspersed with elongated rectangular strips of plantings — geysers of blue-tinted ornamental grasses and straight-backed Ivory Silk lilac trees (a Japanese variety) that add depth and visual charm to the flat-surfaced hardscape.

Those same visual elements lift the eye toward the outer reaches of the yard, which gives way in gradual strokes to the elevated garden area. Behind the garden, and abutting a wood-frame privacy fence at the rear of the property, is a most curious sight: a genuine English potting shed.

Designed by HSP Garden Buildings in the United Kingdom, the shed — a term of endearment in mannerly old England — does indeed serve as a space for potting plants and gardenly activities best carried out in a covered environment. HSP dispersed a crack team of UK shed assembly specialists to the Twin Cities to erect the structure, a task which took all of six short hours according to Beining (he has the Upper Midwest franchise rights to HSP products.)

For all the changes, the Browns’ house still looks as if it “belongs” to the neighborhood. That too was by design.

So when it came to putting in a buffer zone between their property and the one to their immediate south, they elected to go with a low-rise wall constructed of Chilton Wallstone, with a burbling water fountain at the midway point. The wall acts as a friendly divider between their yard and that of their neighbors. Chilton stone was used along the foundation of the veranda-style covered porch added to the home during the remodeling work.

Remaking a residential landscape is a formidable task, no matter whether it involves the sprawling immensity of the grounds of a Lake Harriet manse or the tiny backyard haven of a house on a crowded city block. It’s also not for the faint of heart. Mistakes can be difficult and expensive to fix, heart-breaking to live with. Good planning and design, along with a carefully constructed vision of what the finished project will look like both immediately upon completion and in the years to come as nature take its course, are essential for success.

Freelance writer Doug Hovelson lives in South Minneapolis, from whence he maintains constant vigil on the ever-changing landscape of the city.