Kevin O’Brien is like a lot of other professionals whose busy lives leave little time for fussing with their landscapes. But O’Brien’s case is different in a fundamental way… he designed the landscape himself.
Unlike the proverbial shoemaker whose children go without shoes, O’Brien, a professional landscape designer, wanted his family to enjoy an expertly designed, aesthetically pleasing landscape. That his property earned the Judges’ Grand Award for Residential Landscape Maintenance for his employer Lifestyle Landscaping, and the Project of the Year in the 2015 Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association Landscape Awards program, bears proof he succeeded.
Remarkably, the landscape at his Amherst, Ohio, home is 10 years old. Most landscapes that age — especially those installed as part of a new-home package — need a major redo and often a tear-out.
Apart from O’Brien’s “experimentation” with different plant material (mostly flowering plants) on his property, the landscape design is essentially the same as when he installed it a decade ago. The recent ONLA recognition justifies his initial vision of providing his family with a relatively easy-to-maintain landscape in which the beauty and utility grew as the plant material matured.
O’Brien says he wanted to make his landscape remarkable. He boldly designed a large planting bed at the public sidewalk and broke up the expansive use of front lawn by placing a low curvilinear boxwood hedge to separate the front yard from the street.
In his design, O’Brien paid attention to the selection and siting of trees, shrubs and beds to keep maintenance and expenses manageable. That meant selecting and placing plant material to allow it to grow to its natural state. “The character of each plant is why we picked it in the first place. Why ruin that by having to beat it into submission with pruning?” he says.
The placement of O’Brien’s house on his property, not perpendicular but at an angle to the façade (street view), offered a design challenge. He improved the street view by siting plants, woodies and evergreens to direct attention away from the garage to the home’s entrance. He also incorporated a semi-private front patio for relaxing with his family and friends. O’Brien admits (and not sheepishly) that he wanted his front yard to be the nicest in his neighborhood — “a model of what a front yard could be,” he says.
O’Brien does not baby his yard. His landscape is not irrigated and the drought-resistant tall fescue lawn (on a sandy-loam soil), trees and ornamentals have to make it on their own. If they don’t, they’re replaced with hardier material that does not require regular pruning. He views his front yard as a living laboratory. While he retains the original design, he does not hesitate to change out the “color” to see what hardier, often-underused, varieties and cultivars look like and how they perform. “I want to make sure I have a good understanding of how plants work and how much maintenance they really require before recommending them to clients,” he says. Increasingly, clients are opting for low-maintenance landscapes that look natural, he says. “Some clients (especially Gen-X-ers) do not want their dad’s yard,” says O’Brien, “preferring native plant material (or their cultivars) that attract and provide food for pollinators such as butterflies and bees.”
O’Brien, who got his first taste of the green industry working on a golf course as a student at the University of Montana, admits he enjoys (and sometimes gets amused) at the attention his yard attracts. It’s not uncommon for him to look out a window and see someone stopped on the road checking out his yard. Often, random strangers park their car and stroll through the garden to get a much closer look at his beds.
Though O’Brien likes lower maintenance plants, his landscape is not maintenance free. Each spring 32 man-hours are required to remove debris, edge and put down leaf humus mulch. Also, twice a month a Lifestyle Landscaping PlantCare team member visits his 1/3-acre yard to cutback and deadhead bloomers, prune ornamentals and spray weeds. An employee spends about eight to10 hours a month keeping his property beautiful.
ALL PHOTOS: KEVIN O’BRIEN