I recently received a call from a Wall Street Journal reporter who was doing a feature on preparing a home for sale.
She told me she wanted a landscape designer’s perspective on how homeowners should spend their money to get the most bang for the buck and really put me on the spot in the process: Her deadline was the following morning, and I had to do some fast thinking when her call came in at 8 pm.
It immediately occurred to me that I always ask homeowners whether they are landscaping for resale or for themselves, but the questions she was asking made me think of what I do in a different and clearer way.
The reporter started by asking me about adding hardscape, patios, gazebos and the like, and I found myself steering her away from these items by pointing out that spending on such amenities was not necessarily money homeowners would recoup in a sale, generally because these things cost more than most people believe.
Then we talked about the importance of having a proper irrigation system to keep a yard looking great while being shown and discussed the always-underrated benefit of having an established relationship with a good maintenance crew for the duration of the listing process.
When the discussion finally turned to plants, I wasted no time expressing a pet peeve of mine that homes new to the market are too often freshly planted with hundreds or even thousands of dollars’ worth of annuals. The color obviously draws attention, I said, but from my point of view such plantings say nothing about how well the house has been tended. There also seems to be an assumption that the house will sell quickly!
As we spoke, I found myself driving home a point that had never occurred to me quite so clearly before: I don’t like annuals!
The large category of plants known as “perennials” all share the virtue of living for at least two years. To be sure, some die to the ground each winter and others need to be cut back or have leaves that don’t look great in the winter, but the hardiest of them look great year ’round – including several I use frequently, such as Heuchera, Salvia, Convolvulus and Digitalis.
By contrast, the “annuals” typically last only a few months – generally three to six months at best. Their seeds germinate and grow shoots and leaves and flowers, then the mature plant goes to seed and dies. Most people think of annuals only during the shoots/leaves/flowers stages, purchasing them when they are just beginning to bloom and taking them out as soon as the flowers look spent. In my area, these people are inordinately fond of marigolds, snapdragons, petunias, stock and impatiens.
From a purely practical perspective, I explained to the reporter, life cycle alone makes perennials more attractive than annuals. They are much less labor intensive and, more important in the context of our conversation, they don’t bank on the proposition that the house will sell overnight.
BACK TO WORK
In thinking about the interview after the fact, it occurred to me that I run into two types of clients in designing gardens: those who love all those little plants that add lots of color to their borders (my “annual clients”) and those that can’t stand the thought of having to replace plants every few months (my “perennial clients”).
I completely understand the fondness for annuals. The client walks out into the garden and sees lots of beautiful color and flowers and is filled with good cheer. And I must give them their due: Annuals can produce flower displays more spectacular (yet fleeting) than will perennials, and there are certain annuals that are great for cutting and are perfect for specific spots where nothing else will do.
On top of that, they’re easy to plant and frequently less expensive than perennials that might suit the purpose. I really do “get” all of this, and I can sense the curses flying in my direction from those who love annual colors, but I’m just not enthralled enough by these plants to want to use them as first choices in my garden designs.
Why not? Well, the annuals only last a few months, which means going to the garden center every three or four months (if you don’t want any downtime) and figuring out which new plants to select. It also means ongoing costs for plants, ongoing costs to have them planted, ongoing needs to fertilize and maintain them – more money and work than most care to invest year after year.
In my work, I always approach these issues as a “perennial client” myself, and my first speech to those who would tend to be “annual clients” is that I don’t work with annuals as the core of my designs, as I feel they’ll end up spending too much of the budget on plants that won’t be here a few months from now. Instead, I recommend spending 95% to 100% of their plant budget (depending upon its size) on perennials, shrubs, vines and trees that will last them many years.
I then point out that working with perennials is in no way an aesthetic sacrifice. There are plenty of perennials in all shapes and sizes that can be used to create beautiful color, foliage and floral displays – so many possibilities that the absence of annuals will hardly be noticed.
Yes, I leave open the possibility of planting a few flats of annuals immediately after the job is planted, basically to give the garden a fuller look on the final day of planting. In these cases, I might add a small amount of annual color that will look great right now – and will die off about the time the perennials and other plants fill in.
There are lots of regional variations that determine what can be done and how the palette is balanced, of course, but I tend to work with the hardiest available plants to deliver full and lingering value to my clients.
READY TO SELL
Doubling back to the interview that opened this discussion, let me say that a home well planted with perennials and other hardy specimens gives the impression that whoever owns the home cares about the entire environment, not just the home’s interior.
I may be alone in this opinion, but it seems to me that putting money into plants that last a long time makes a statement that the garden has been just as important a part of the property as its structures. It may be a subtle point, but I think it is one that impresses prospective buyers.
It’s hard to think of this in such cut-and-dried terms, but I think my dislike of annuals extends mainly from the investment angle: Whether you’re fixing up a house for sale or creating an enduring landscape, the money is better spent on plants and other features that will last for long periods of time.
Maybe it’s a lingering effect of my years on Wall Street and simply reflects good investment technique, but I fully believe that putting money into perennials is the smart thing to do.
Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].