Site Assessment: A Photo Case Study

By knoxred (knoxred) on March 12, 2010

Photos and analysis from an actual client site.
I would like to thank my clients for use of the images in this case study. Readers, to protect the clients' privacy, please understand that I cannot offer any information as to client identity or location.

If you were driving up to this property, what would be your first thoughts?

Curb appeal

It's an upscale residence, impeccably maintained, in a beautiful family-friendly community.  The style is traditional and somewhat formal, with tightly trimmed shrubs, and well-defined bedlines.  The builders had actually done a very nice job in the initial design, with visual balance and a variety of textures in the plantings. 

The owners had proudly told me on the phone that they enjoyed doing their own yard work, and were willing to do whatever it took to fix the property. Did I just say "fix"?  Yes, they were desperately hoping to correct the problem that had them considering selling the house. Obviously, it was time for a closer look.  Let's walk the property with the owners. 

As we walked up the driveway, the wife quickly pointed out the iris in the beds.  "I really don't like those since they're unattractive most of the year, but it'd be a shame to throw them out."   Problem one, but a very easy one to remedy.  I gave her the number of the local Master Gardeners association, who was willing to come dig up the healthy plants for their plant sale.  Problem solved.  Next!

Heading up the front sidewalk yielded the second problem.  A camellia was clearly in distress, suffering in the unrelenting heat. It really didn't appreciate the high pH and reflected heat from the house and sidewalk, either. It would be easy enough to swap it out for something else. 

Then came problem number three.


All the shrubs were shredded! The owners admitted that learning proper pruning techniques was on their to-do list.  They weren't actually trying for topiaries here.  They just wanted to keep the shrubs away from the sidewalk and not blocking the windows, but the shrubs grew really fast. The mangled shrubs were the result of constantly hacking back the shrubs with hedge trimmers to restrict the size of the shrubs.  The owners were also tired of getting scratched by the holly each time they needed to reach the hose in the corner.


The shrubs were simply too large for the space.  It was time to pull out and replace many of these mature foundation plants.  This fix was a little more difficult and expensive, but certainly doable.  The owners assured me the budget and willingness were there to make this change, with the right guidance on plant selection. 

Moving along to the front door, the fourth problem became evident.  (please pardon the terribly stitched-together photo)

The built-in planters were empty. The owners had pulled out the dead plants in advance of my arrival, and were hoping to learn what would survive in that situation. They didn't use the front door very often (hence the forgotten newspaper), and they just didn't notice that things in those planters needed watering until it was too late.  Besides, they didn't want to climb into the shrubs to reach the hose anyway.  Picking drought-tolerant plants like sedum that could withstand the intense heat of a brick planter in 95 degrees, coupled with some water-retaining crystals in the soil was the answer here.

Okay, so we had found a few very fixable issues.  Why the desperation?  "Oh, wait until we go around back!", they exclaimed.  So, around the side we go.  The husband noted, "Watch your footing here, it's always muddy."  I took a moment to snap a photo of the view back up the side hill before entering the back yard.  There were some runoff issues here from the neighbor's exuberant watering practices, and even in the severe drought we were in, this shady area always stayed moist.  Note the mildew on the fence.  Some drainage adjustments and some minor hardscaping, along with a quick chat with the neighbor would fix this area right up.  I noted the funny look that passed between husband and wife when I mentioned the neighbor.

As we entered the backyard, the big problem was clear.  It was the swimming pool.


It was a beautiful in-ground pool with nice stonework, which just needed a few finishing touches.  A little landscaping could really soften it up, but overall it was very attractive and inviting.  Summer was just around the corner, and this new pool was sure to get constant use.  So what's the problem?  Allow me to show you the same pool, but from a different view. 

Here's the view from my client's deck.

The pool belonged to the afore-mentioned sprinkler-happy neighbor.  Said neighbor was out there a significant part of every day, and often had rowdy guests over as well. My clients were NOT looking forward to a summer of watching their neighbor parade around in his Speedo, and didn't feel comfortable even being on their own deck during the festivities.  Privacy was clearly going to be the number one priority for this landscape design.  Without privacy, their whole backyard was unusable for them and their small children.

We rounded out our tour with a few other issues.  There was this tree that stuck out like a sore thumb.  The owners hated both the tree and its placement in the yard, but didn't want to remove it because of the shade it provided.  Sometimes you take the second best solution.  In this case, removing the ring of daylilies around the base would help by not framing a bad view.  In this photo, how can you not look at the tree?

Another small tweak would be along the fenceline, to straighten out the bedline now that the small tree has been removed.  Not having grass go right up to the fence was a very smart decision that lessens maintenance with the weedeater.  The owners were doing a lot of things right.


Finally, there are a couple small issues in this photo.

There was no place to put a tray of food or BBQ tools for the smoker, so this table was often repurposed as a grilling stand, which meant it wasn't available to use as a table.   The chairs then became toy holders.  While there was plenty of toy storage in the garage, the kids played under the deck where it was cooler, and didn't want to drag all the toys back up the hill to the garage.  Having toy storage where the toys were used was the right answer.  Outdoor storage and entertaining needs are definitely things that should be addressed in your design plan.

Except for the privacy issue, which was a glaring problem, the owners hadn't identified what the challenges and opportunities in their landscape were.  On some level, they knew that they were doing a lot of maintenance, and having to fight the oversized plantings, and their flowers were dying, and they were having to nag the kids to put away their toys, and they couldn't use the muddy side yard, but they could see only the privacy issue until they were shown the actual photos of the other areas.  These things all added up to a landscape that wasn't working for them. Solving just the privacy issue (the solution will be revealed in a future segment) would not have given them a landscape that met their needs.  It took an objective assessment, through a set of photos and a fresh set of eyes, to spot their opportunities.  Do the same for your property. 

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Comments and discussion:
Subject Thread Starter Last Reply Replies
To be continued? dave Mar 20, 2010 8:12 PM 3
Re: Site Assessment: A photo case study marsue Mar 18, 2010 1:02 PM 2
Assessing valleylynn Mar 18, 2010 12:34 PM 0

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"The most serious gardening I do would seem very strange to an onlooker, for it involves hours of walking round in circles,
apparently doing nothing. What I'm doing is forcing myself to evaluate certain areas....
Only during these quiet moments does a good idea suddenly occur."
~ Helen Dillon, Irish garden writer