Smart landscape choices for the long term
Summer is about to reach its zenith. While you've been out firing up the grill, perhaps you've been admiring your private oasis.

Or maybe not so much.

No matter what state your landscape is in, summer offers an opportune time to cast a critical eye out front, in back and along the side yards to determine what might be missing, what needs to go and where you can get the biggest bang for today's shrinking dollar.

"Don't make changes just because something's in vogue," said Bob Hursthouse, president of Hursthouse Landscape Architects & Contractors (hursthouse.com) in Bolingbrook. "Many clients think they need a hot tub or an outdoor kitchen after they go to a home expo, but they may never use them."

Before you start tweaking, Hursthouse says to consider your lifestyle. "Paint a picture of how your family is going to use the space -- whether it's a fire pit, hot tub, vegetable garden, perennial garden, or a place to cook, read or relax. Will you use it and is it right for your home?"

Instead of adding to your garden, sometimes a little editing -- removing the rangy, moth-eaten spruce tree that was planted 40 years ago and now blocks your living room window -- can open up a new look, one that invites hydrangeas, roses or fragrant viburnums with four-season interest.

A few quick and often inexpensive fixes may be all that's needed. "The inside of your home can be a knockout, but if the outside has overgrown shrubbery or the driveway needs to be resealed or the mulch hasn't been replenished, well, all these are no-no's that can detract from your landscape and your home," said Shannon Daily, Realtor with RE/MAX Team 2000 in Palos Heights.

And though you might want to cut corners and do some work yourself, some jobs -- tree trimming, installing a patio or designing a landscape to look good year-round -- may call for the pros, especially if you want to maximize resale value.

"Spend some time quizzing potential contractors about examples of their work and their knowledge of plant materials," said Scott Grams, executive director of the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association (ilca.net) in Oak Brook. "You don't want to hire someone and a year from now bring in someone else to fix their work. Landscaping, done right, will add to the value of your home for years to come."

Tips for adding beauty, and value

Some expert tips for figuring out how to make the most of your home landscape and how best to invest for the long term.

First impressions count. Sometimes a new point of view -- from across the street, not your porch -- will show you what needs tweaking. Cross the street and analyze your home's curb appeal. "If your lawn is in disarray or the brickwork, driveway or siding needs work, these things detract from your overall landscape and home," says Realtor Shannon Daily of Palos Heights.

Dream on. If you don't know where to start, think about your favorite vacation spot, said landscape architect Bob Hursthouse of Hursthouse Landscape Architects & Contractors in Bolingbrook. "We love to camp and canoe, so our backyard is more like a comfortable campground with Adirondack chairs," he said. Large tropical plants placed around a small pond and stone patio remind Hursthouse and his wife of their trip to Polynesia.

It's elemental. A water feature, like a small pond or fountain, can add enjoyment through the summer, but Hursthouse's first choice would be a well-made fire pit that can delight 12 months of the year in our region. If you're thinking of an in-ground pool, though, Daily cautioned that many home buyers are turned off by pools because of the maintenance involved.

Deck vs. patio. Brick paver paths and paver or stone patios tend to have more draw than maintenance-needy decks when it comes to resale value, Daily said. "People are more into a natural stone look these days, although there are low-maintenance decks you can install."

Flattering light. A few outdoor lights placed for safety or to highlight an ornamental tree or architectural feature in the garden will provide interest in the evening throughout the year. One big no-no, said Hursthouse, are coach lights on a brick or stone seat wall that are blindingly bright. Keep lighting subtle.

Sit on it. Consider adding a bench somewhere in the yard where it can serve as a getaway as well as a focal point.

Make it move. Ornamental grasses, wind chimes and moving water are easy and inexpensive ways to bring movement that catches the eye in the garden.

Think long-term. Some choices -- like an attractive shade tree suited to your site -- will get better with age and add to the overall landscape, whereas a wooden pergola or wood picket fence will need ongoing maintenance.

Sustain it. Choose plant combinations that work together and will be there for the long run. The Morton Arboretum and Chicago Botanic Garden Web sites can help you with plant recommendations for the region: mortonarb.org and chicagobotanic.org. On the other hand...

Don't overgarden. Some homeowners and future home buyers are overwhelmed when faced with large flower beds. "The bloom comes off the rose when you're married to maintenance," Hursthouse said.