Strategic pruning and planting to beat the bland

Dalit Lev-Arey Margalit and her family put a lot of effort into fixing up their Fair Oaks, Va., house in the past two years. But now that they want to sell, will anybody step inside to see the result of their hard work?

"The house is hidden," said Trish Atkins, of Jordan Honeyman Landscape Architecture in Washington. Overgrown trees mask the front, and a monochromatic tan and brown paint scheme makes it even blander. It's a common problem in the neighborhood, she said. "All the houses are so similar."

Here are some of the suggestions Atkins and her colleague, Steve Daigler, offered to help Margalit's home stand out. The work they propose would cost about $4,500 and would take a couple of weekends to complete, a reasonable sum given that houses in the neighborhood have recently sold for $540,000 to $680,000. Most of the work is do-it-yourselfer-friendly, though the tree work would be best left to a pro.

— Clean up the trees. A specimen Laceleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum) needs selective pruning, "so it's not just a big blob," Atkins said. A kwanzan cherry needs thinning.

— Restyle the asphalt entry. Now, it's "very pinched," Daigler said. "It disappears from the road." A wider walk of random rectangular bluestone is more welcoming. A terra cotta pot with mixed annuals set in Liriope (Liriope muscari "Big Blue") adds color. A small table next to the wooden rocking chair already on the porch sets a relaxing scene. Otto Luykens laurels (Prunus laurocerasus "Otto Luykens") added next to the house play down the foundation and provide a backdrop for other plants. A wooden arbor with goldflame honeysuckle (Lonicera x heckrottii "Goldflame") could top the garage.

— Break up the brown. Daigler suggests trim colors to pick up the shades in the bluestone. Because the house is going on the market in the fall, Daigler and Atkins suggested plants for late-season color, including Tuscarora crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia x "Tuscarora") and "Blushing Knockout" roses.

— Unify plantings. Instead of alternating red and white azaleas, put them in single-color masses in a larger, curved bed. They'll feel more connected, Daigler said, "instead of looking like lollipops."

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