Real Estate

Design in a day

Express makeover offers speedier, less-expensive alternative

When Kathy Popovec wanted to redo her admittedly "plain" front and back yards to match her contemporary-looking home in Mountain View, she was faced with an unpleasant reality.

"We had a few landscape architects come out and to be honest, it was really pricey," she says.

One architect recommended Popovec contact landscape planner Julie Orr because of her "express garden design," a service designed to be quicker and less expensive than a regular yard makeover.

Before meeting in person, Orr asked Popovec and her husband True Tourtillott to choose designs from landscape books to give her an idea of their preferences.

Orr then sat down with the couple over an afternoon and completed a design that day. The actual remodel was completed four months later.

Popovec's original front yard consisted of a plain front lawn raised above street level and held in by a small retaining wall.

One of her priorities was to add a path that connected the front door to the sidewalk. At the time, visitors would have to walk up the driveway in order to reach the path to the front door.

The new paths consist of large, rectangular concrete steps that lend the yard a modern look. Along with a stone veneer attached to the retaining wall, these pieces of hardscape were the most expensive items to install.

Popovec was also stumped with what to do with a corner of the lawn that would be hemmed in by the two paths.

Orr filled the spot with low-lying, fuzzy green lamb's ears, spiky blue fescues and a large Peruvian lily, whose orange flowers are complemented by its large pot of the same color.

The back of the front lawn also posed a challenge. Popovec wanted colorful plants in front of the house, but didn't want to cover up stonework on the bottom half of the house.

Orr suggested kangaroo paws, whose fuzzy red flowers are held aloft by thin stems.

Popovec says she loved the result.

"They're interesting, they lend color, but you can also kind of see through them," she says.

Most of the plants in the front are new, with one notable exception being a large hydrangea. Popovec, who grew up in the house, said she kept it because it was one of her mother's favorite plants.

Popovec said its pink and white blooms don't necessarily fit with the rest of the plants, which are predominantly green, orange and red.

"But it's a garden," she says. "You have to have some whimsy."

The backyard was less complicated than the front, with the couple wanting a space to host parties. Prior to the remodel it was simply a grass lawn.

The remodel included installing an area of flagstone outside the backdoor for tables and chairs and plants along the perimeter of the lawn.

Tourtillott previously lived in Hawaii and wanted to have tropical-looking plants in the back. Orr helped choose pineapple guava trees, apple trees and western blanket flowers.

One thing Popovec says did not go according to plan was the type of agaves that were planted in the front lawn next to the retaining wall.

She had envisioned large, round barrel agaves and was surprised when the landscape installers showed up with agave gentryi, which have a more jagged appearance.

"The layman doesn't know that there's a ba-zillion agaves. It's generic, like a rose ... A lesson learned would be if you want something specific, have a picture and point to it and say 'I want this,'" she says.

The cost of Orr's express design starts at $650 for a front yard and $750 for a backyard, compared to an average of $3,000-$6,000 for a full-service design, which usually takes a couple months to complete.

Orr says the express service is appropriate for simpler yard designs whose installation costs are generally less than $30,000. But she stressed the price of installation can vary dramatically depending on chosen materials.

Orr also says the amount of customization a client wants, such as an outdoor kitchen or pond, will also determine whether an express or full-service design is appropriate.

Besides providing a design, the express service includes Orr recommending a landscape contractor and overseeing plant installation if the recommended contractor is hired.


Landscape designer: Julie Orr, Menlo Park, 650-468-8020,

Landscape contractor: South Bay Design and Landscaping, San Jose, 408-452-1270,

Goal of project:

Connect front door to sidewalk; beautify yards with more plants

Unanticipated issues:

Confusion over plant selection, mottling of concrete steps

Year house built:

1955 (remodeled 2008)

Size of yard:

1,500 sq ft in front; 1,800 sq ft in back

Time to complete:

1 day to design, 4 months to finish

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