THERE WAS A TIME WHEN AN IDEAL HOME LANDSCAPE MEANT beautiful gardens, grounds that invited a leisurely stroll and perhaps a bench where one could sit and enjoy the view. Now, residential landscapes have become much more.

When today’s homeowners invest in professional landscaping, they have high expectations. Many want functional outdoor spaces that add usable living area to the home. Others want gardens and landscaping practices that save water and contribute to a healthy ecosystem.

Whatever the goal, when clients spend money on their backyards, they usually want more than good looks. In a tough economy it’s more important than ever to understand these trends and be ready to deliver what customers are looking for.

Living the good life outdoors

A 2008 Home Design Trends Survey from the American Institute of Architects contained a bright spot for landscaping professionals. According to the report, architects noted a growing interest in outdoor living, even as interest in new homes and larger homes has decreased.

This interest is reflected in everything from traditional patios and decks to complete outdoor “suites” including backyard kitchens, living rooms and dining areas. Homeowners view these outdoor enhancements not just as something beautiful to look at, but as improvements that add real value to the home and contribute to quality of life.

“For some, the feeling is that they aren’t going to buy a new home or a vacation home but they can improve the home they’re in,” says Phil Cleland, president, Chicago Specialty Gardens. “Instead of upgrading to a bigger house, they might be adding a roof deck for example. It’s like adding a room—a very nice room.” Cleland’s company, a full-service garden design/build firm based in Evanston, Illinois, specializes in urban landscape design. His work frequently includes rooftop gardens and other outdoor improvements that make the most of smaller lots. “Chicagoans really value their summers because we put up with winter,” he says. “We want to get the most out of our time outdoors.” Cleland helps clients maximize their outdoor time by adding state-of-the-art outdoor kitchens, comfortable outdoor living rooms, spas, wet-bars, fireplaces and other amenities.

He attributes some of the growing interest in outdoor living to the wide availability of high-quality outdoor materials and furnishings currently on the market. From the multitude of distinctive pavers and wall systems to high-performance grills to outdoor cushions and carpets, designers have many more options for creating gorgeous open air rooms.

“Every part of the landscape industry is coming out with new materials,” says Cleland. “Manufacturers are making comfortable furniture designed to exist outdoors without getting soggy. There’s also a whole new generation of lighting components that allow us to extend time in the garden well into the evening.” And many of these products are moderately priced. “A great garden used to be the province of the really rich,” says Cleland. “Now it’s available everywhere, with higher-end materials than before.”


Clients want to enjoy their outdoor spaces, not fuss with them. This is reflected in the rising interest in low-maintenance landscapes. This means lighting comes on when it’s supposed to, irrigation systems function as they should, and outdoor kitchens make cooking and clean-up easy.

“People are gone during the day and when they get home,” he says, “they want to be outside and have a glass of wine or dinner. They want a beautiful, tranquil space that takes care of itself so they can come home and chill out.”

Specialty gardens are another growing interest area. Meditation gardens, Zen gardens, labyrinths, and fragrance gardens are just a few of the other ways homeowners are making their outdoor spaces uniquely theirs.

Environmental responsibility

While the trend toward outdoor living is on the rise, the trend toward green living is booming everywhere, including the residential landscape. More Americans are looking for ways to enjoy their outdoor environment and be kind to it at the same time. This is welcome news for landscaping professionals, many of whom were drawn to their careers in part due to a love and respect for nature.

“More clients are making sure their gardens are working well with the environment,” says Maria von Brincken, principal, Maria von Brincken Landscape Garden Design, Sudbury, Massachusetts. “Years ago, this wasn’t a big deal to people. I talked about it, but customers would look at me like I was a bit nuts. Now they bring it up to me. A lot of this is due to more stringent community bylaws. There are water bans every summer. There’s concern about runoff and the use of chemicals.”

She says more consumers in her area are looking for better irrigation practices. As a designer who has always planned gardens with water conservation in mind, she finds this a refreshing trend. Von Brincken uses an organic approach, works at building healthy soils, groups plants with similar watering requirements together and often includes native or wildflower gardens that will eventually be weaned off irrigation.

“Automatic irrigation is a wonderful tool for homeowners but the irrigation industry sometimes shoots itself in the foot,” she says. “Flower borders need irrigation to look good but they don’t always need as much as some irrigation companies lead clients to believe. Even here in New England, we have droughts in our communities every year.”

Von Brincken enjoys bringing her clients environmentally sustainable, low maintenance gardens. “I try to set it up for homeowners so they understand the best use of the technology available. The end goal is to have a beautiful, lush landscape that feeds the soul but is easy on the environment.”

Travis Leicht, president of Plant-It Landscape, a design/build and maintenance firm in Sarasota, Florida, says many of his clients are trading traditional lawns for a more tropical Florida landscape.

“With the sustainability movement, we’re starting to see more yards that use palmettos and other plants that naturally thrive here in Florida,” says Leicht. “The name of the game is often how much turf we can reduce on the property. People are also trying to convert to zoysia grass, which looks better with less water.” Conversion to alternative fuels has also been a major focus for Plant-It in recent months. The company’s trucks now run on biodeisel that Plant-It makes in-house from waste vegetable oil obtained from local restaurants. The company is also experimenting with using solar energy to power maintenance equipment.

While Leicht embraces strong environmental values himself, he also knows these practices present unique advertising opportunities and carry a lot of weight with environmentally- conscious customers. He says cutting-edge solutions like these are an important way for his company to differentiate itself among stiff competition in a challenging economy.

In Chicago, Cleland is also seeing increased demand for environmentally-friendly landscapes. “Many clients are looking for environmentally benign materials. We incorporate native plantings, drip irrigation, solar panels to power fountain pumps and irrigation, sustainable woods like bamboo and ipe, and low VOC-paints and sealers.”

A major focus of the company’s efforts this winter will be devoted to building a rooftop garden showroom. This 1,000 square-foot outdoor room will be on display at the Chicago Flower and Garden Show and will then be relocated as a permanent showroom to the company’s headquarters. “This will show visitors all that is possible in a rooftop garden,” says Cleland.

Many companies, especially those in urban areas, are becoming involved with green roof installation. Green roofs offer a number of benefits that are quickly catching on with private and commercial consumers. In urban areas, green roofs help mitigate the heat-island effect. They also offer a great way to absorb and filter stormwater, and they actually help protect the roof. They do all this while adding aesthetically pleasing living space. Cleland frequently uses modular green roof systems such as those offered by LiveRoof, LLC, Spring Lake, Michigan. This system features all the components needed for a green roof—including the soil and vegetation—in easy-to-install modular units constructed from recycled materials.

Suggestive sales

Successful green industry professionals not only understand the trends, they know how to market them, too. “I remind people that one of the great things about investing in your landscape is that it improves the quality of your life now, and when it comes time to sell, you already have curb appeal,” says von Brincken. “Investing in landscaping is good for homeowners and their bottom line.”

Reminding customers of the possibilities is also important. For example, some might not think about spending more time outside until you suggest ways to make them more comfortable there . . . maybe a screened-in patio to keep the bugs out or a pergola for shade or an outdoor fireplace for warmth.

“Most people come to me because they don’t like the way their yard looks,” says von Brincken. “They want the outside to look as good as the inside. Through the process of consultation, we start to suggest things beyond just the solutions to immediate problems. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities they never thought of.”