With attention to detail and composition you can create an outstanding front yard with considerable curb appeal

Story and Photos by PJ Gartin

Curb appeal: We think we know it when we see it, but does this term – first coined by realtors in the mid-1970s – have an objective definition, or do we all pretty much agree that perceptions of street-view attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder? [Editor’s Note: Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines curb appeal as “the visual attractiveness of a house as seen from the street.”]

While the focal point in this formal setting is the fountain, scattered plantings of sago palm (Cycas revoluta) lend softness to the overall design.

Perhaps curb appeal’s subjectivity explains why some gardeners become anxious whenever they ponder ways to add pizzazz to the front of their property. Because reliable information is scant, and quick-fixes, such as sticking a flag next to the mailbox or planting identical shrubs at the end of the driveway, aren’t much help, the mere suggestion of curb appeal can drive even devoted gardeners into the out-of-sight safety of their backyards.

Shrubs clustered along a country road lend curb appeal to this sylvan setting.

Some of this anxiety also comes from the misperception that only architecturally magnificent homes with professionally designed landscapes have curb appeal. This misguided assumption causes many of us to merely hope that as long as the plantings next to the house look tolerable and the flowers blooming along the front steps look nice, then no one will bother to look too closely at the rest of their property.

Autumn-blooming Cassia adds seasonal interest to this driveway.

However, foundation plantings and posies play only a small part in the overall attractiveness of a landscape. Instead of focusing on individual aspects, it’s important to analyze the front yard from a comprehensive point of view. This is because curb appeal encompasses all of the land seen from the street – from one side to the other and back to the house. In order to achieve a stunning effect, everything that grows or stands within the perimeter of that border must neatly fit together.

Fortunately, there’s a photographic technique that can assist gardeners readjust the visual balance of a landscape. Although it’s not an app or program, it’s a little like mounting a painting, but without the hardware. When used thoughtfully, “framing” can greatly help someone make the front of their property more attractive to passersby. While it doesn’t offer solutions to color selection, style, or plant selection, framing draws attention to a landscape’s positive and negative qualities.

Sometimes achieving curb appeal takes a neighborhood. Several gardeners tend the plantings along this narrow alleyway.

Grab the camera and walk across the street. Shoot from every possible angle, stand up and sit down. Make sure to capture what pedestrians see as they pass your house. If the property is on a corner, what comes into view as you make the turn? Remember to take photos from both directions.

After downloading and studying the photographs, reverse the images. If your photo-editing program doesn’t have this capability, use a mirror. Studying reversed images often enables one to see imbalances and imperfections that were not obvious when viewed from the “right” direction.

While not every landscape has a grand tree, this homeowner increased curb appeal by surrounding this live oak (Quercus virginiana) with azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) and Loropetalum.

The next step is to critique your property with the help of Google Street View. Simply open Google maps, type in your street address, city, and state. Sometimes street view immediately pops up, or you may have to change the “view.” Why bother to do this if you’ve already taken photos? Because when we look through a camera lens, our eye has a tendency to subconsciously direct us to familiar or meaningful subject matter, such as an interesting shadow that falls across the lawn or a favorite ornamental. However, an automated Google camera mounted on a vehicle traveling down the street doesn’t do this. This impartiality offers a more accurate – albeit sometimes unflattering – picture of what people see when they drive past your home. Yes, there’s some distortion when you move the cursor, and the photo might be slightly outdated, but it is useful just the same.

Delight and surprise passersby by planting on the street side of a fence.

Your photographs and Street View images visually framed your front property. Chances are you’ll discover some pleasant and not so pleasant surprises about your landscape. But now you should have a better idea where adjustments and enhancements are needed.

For example, a mature hardwood tree growing near the street becomes more visually important when viewed from a pedestrian’s angle. Thanks to Street View, you may realize that with a little shaping and limb removal, the tree could become the front yard’s main feature. The same might go for scruffy or scraggly shrubs along the perimeter. Or maybe you’ll discover that a grouping of evergreen shrubs and a small tree might hide the less-than-perfect view of a nearby outbuilding. Weedy or patchy grass also seems to pop out in photographs. Maybe now is the time to address soil issues before re-seeding or sodding.

This formal garden along a public sidewalk was intentionally designed for passersby.

If replacement or additional plants are needed to boost your curb appeal, focus on all four seasons so that there is something of interest in the landscape throughout the year. While spring-flowering trees are gorgeous, remember that some, such as dogwood (Cornus spp.) and redbud (Cercis spp.), can become a bit scruffy due to summertime heat stress if not planted properly. Also consider versatile shrubs such as holly (Ilex spp.) and Viburnum. If a new tree is in order, resist the urge to purchase one simply because it’s on sale.

Before making frivolous “quick-fix” impulse purchases, look for simple, yet permanent, ways to make improvements. For example, sometimes we fail to notice that waste bins are visible from the street, or that the garden hose dangling under the bay window distracts from an otherwise picturesque view of the front yard.

While the blue siding accentuates the saucer magnolia’s (M. × soulangeana) pink blooms, the evergreen Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) behind it provides a backdrop for this late-winter view.

Finally, some gardeners are under the impression that proportion and balance cannot be attained without symmetry (unless a garden design is so formal that it demands perfect symmetry). Mother Nature isn’t symmetrical; rather than planting identical shrubs on both sides of a structure, consider the potential look of clustering a variety of different species. This arrangement is often more interesting than even numbers of the same plant in straight lines.

Achieving curb appeal doesn’t happen overnight, but with attention to detail and composition, you can create an outstanding front yard with considerable curb appeal.

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