Sunday, July 21, 2013

A quick pre-sale garden spiff up

My husband is handling the sale of his parents' home on behalf of his siblings.  During our initial meeting with the real estate agent, she said that the back garden felt overgrown and expressed concern that prospective buyers might see it as smaller than it actually is.  My husband agreed and, as the family gardener, I was assigned the task of sprucing up the backyard. Complicating the situation was the short timetable set to get the house on the market, the fact that there was still a lot of packing and clean-up required inside the house, and my conscription for jury duty.

Frankly, the idea of doing anything to my mother-in-law's garden struck me at first as something close to sacrilege.  While she'd spent less time personally tending to the garden as she got older, in my view the garden was very much her creation and fiddling with it felt, well, like an intrusion.  A professional designer put together the original design and oversaw the installation and subsequent maintenance but she was very involved in the initial plant selection and all later decisions about the garden.  I can still remember some of our early discussions about plant choices.  Her focus, then and always, was on utilizing plants that supported the birds she so loved.  While she certainly considered color, shape, size and texture, what was really important was whether the plants served the birds - by providing food, cover, nesting material, and the like.  Earlier this year, months before she became ill, I wrote a post about her garden (which you can view here).

As we cleaned out and emptied the house, it came to feel like a shadow of the family home it once was.  I accepted my assignment to spruce up the garden and, once I was sprung from jury duty, I got to work.  My husband and I spent one full day just trimming back trees and shrubs.  It's a good-sized yard as backyards in Southern California go but the volume of foliage diminished the sense of its size.  Among other things, we took out 3 scraggy mid-sized Artemisia and a misshapen 'Iceberg' rose.

Before picture of bed adjacent to the main patio

After selected plants were removed and the bed was replanted

More sun-exposed "after" picture

Our real estate agent wanted to create an open flow from the patio to the raised area beyond the planting bed so I selected plants that didn't obscure the low stacked wall (created from concrete cut from the front driveway during the original garden installation).  The plants I added here were Trachelium 'Lake Michigan Violet' with purple, dome-shaped flowers and reddish foliage; low-growing annual Cuphea purpurea  'Firecracker' with red and purple flowers that will coordinate with the existing red-flowered Callistemon (bottlebrush) nearby; Vinca 'Cora Cascade Polka Dot', a very short, trailing plant with white flowers accented by a reddish pink dot at their centers; and white Alyssum.  I'm afraid it still looks bare but then I've noticed this is common in the gardens of newly listed houses.

I also cleaned up and added color to the large circular bed that previously held a solar-powered fountain.  My mother-in-law liked it so much that she got others for my sister-in-law and for me.  My solar control burned out and the base of by sister-in-law's fountain was damaged by some large night-visiting creature so she and I each took pieces of my mother-in-law's fountain, which left an empty hole in the middle of the bed.  I cut the large Coprosma back, moved a succulent planter my mother-in-law had created to the center of the bed, and added plants to address the real estate agent's request for more color.

Before picture

Fuzzy "after" picture with succulent planter and new plants

On both sides of the succulent planter I added Echinacea 'Pow Wow Berry', Lantana camara 'Lucky Sunrise Rose', and a few Coreopsis grandiflora 'Early Sunrise' as filler material.  This Lantana is supposed to be a low-grower.  I like the way the Echinacea picked up the color in the existing Loropetalum on the right and may try the same combination in my own garden.

I also added some color to a shady area off to the side under the canopy of a large pine.  I trimmed and neatened the existing orange-flowered cigar plant (Cuphea ignea) and added 9 New Guinea Impatiens (Impatiens x hybrida 'Painted Paradise Pink Improved'), as well as Scotch moss (Sagina subulata 'Aurea'), along the path.


After, still a bit bare

The rest of the work in the backyard consisted of trimming to open up the space, clear pathways, and improve the general appearance of existing plants.  We could have cut many of the shrubs and trees back further but we didn't have space in the green bins to dispose of additional garden debris before the start of the open houses.  The plants also didn't have sufficient time to recover from a hard pruning at this stage.

Before picture of Arbutus unedo and Leptospermum

Picture of Arbutus after it was limbed up and the Leptospermum was cut back

Before picture of overgrown shrubbery (Camellias, Pittosporum and Raphiolepsis) below the kitchen window

After relatively light pruning used to create nominal separation between the varieties of shrubs

I feel as though I should have done more to make the backyard shine but there just wasn't time.  And, as my husband cynically commented, the new owners are likely to yank out everything I added, as well as my mother-in-law's established bird-friendly plants, to put in grass.

In the front yard, all I did was to add 2 pots by the entrance to the front door.  Both pots were planted up with the same mix: Cordyline 'Renegade', Pelargonium peltatum 'Pink Blizzard', Calibrachoa 'Cherry Star', and Alternanthera 'Yellow Joseph's Coat'.  The Cordyline is a particularly nice plant and, as I could find only 2, I'm planning to take at least one of the pots home with me once the house is sold.

Front doorway with new matching pots

Close-up of one pot 

The listing went up on Friday night.  The first open house was held yesterday and another is scheduled for today.  It's currently a seller's market in this area and we're hoping for a quick sale.  It will be a relief for both my husband and myself to shift our focus back to our own home.  However, on a sadder note, the sale also marks the end of an era in the family's history.  


  1. Under the circumstances you performed a miracle here, Kris. Time constraints aside, this couldn't have been easy. If I ever decide to sell my house, a backhoe will most likely have to be brought in to raze most of the garden so lawn can be installed.

    Here's hoping for a quick sale and maybe some closure to boot.

    1. The first thing I did at our old house was take out the backyard lawn and I've been removing sections of lawn one at a time since our arrival at our current home. I keep hoping that more people appreciate the value of a lawn-less house, especially here in drought-ridden SoCal, but, sadly, that still seems uncommon among house buyers.

  2. Good luck with the sale, you did a good job, hope the new owners will keep some of the planting.

    1. I hope so too, Christina, but I'm not laying odds on that!

  3. Congratulations on a hard, in many ways, job very well done. When I was getting my Portland house ready to go on the market in 2007, my Realtor brought in someone to clean up the front, grassless garden. At first I was appalled at the idea, but I didn't have time to do it myself, though I just couldn't help myself and did do some pruning. I was happy with the results and it taught me some lessons about any future gardens. Hopefully the new owner will be someone who loves birds and plants and is thrilled to have such a lovely background to their new home.

    Barbara H.

    1. I do hope that the new owner does something to support bird life in the area. My mother-in-law's garden was always flocked with birds but, with the gardener and the feeders gone, there's a lot less birdsong now.

  4. I think the garden may sale the house! You did a great job, without taking away from the original plantings. Selling our parents' home was also difficult; so much to do and so many raw emotions attached to it all. I hope the house sales quickly, to a gardener!

    1. Well, the good news is that we already have 5 offers, all above the listing price, so this story is indeed coming to an end.

  5. Hopefully, someone with an appreciation of her garden will buy the house. I thought you did a great job with the clean up. Everything does feel more spacious. I'd keep a pot, too. :o)

    1. Now that we've accepted an offer and the house is in escrow, my husband is questioning whether I should take the pots. At a minimum, I'm going to collect one of those Cordyline 'Renegade'!

  6. I do know how that feels, I had to prep Mom and Dad's house of 30+ years for sale after they were gone. It was agony in a lot of ways, though their home was immaculate so the work was mainly selling off/giving stuff away. That was emotionally rough. The new owner changed a lot but LOVES the home, and that is enough, that it is lived in and loved once again.

    Most probably your family is handling it better than I did. The garden looks great, obviously since you already have offers. Wow, five offers in three days. That's got to be a relief.

    1. My mother-in-law (the opposite of my own mother) kept a very neat, well-organized house but we still had to sort through 20 years of stuff. We were "lucky", I guess, that my in-law's former home burned down or there would have been more. The whole family, as well as a few of my MIL's friends, gathered for the initial pass but my husband and I were left to handle the rest. I found that the strangest little things, like 2 bird salt-and-pepper shakers, could put me in tears...

      The house enters escrow this morning so the chapter is drawing to a close.