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Advice for HomeownersBefore and AfterCurb AppealPurple

How to Make a Plain Exterior Fabulous? Design a Garden

By 06/28/2020July 1st, 202014 Comments

Give your plain home exterior fabulous curb appeal by designing a garden. A garden does to your exterior what artwork, lamps, pillows and accessories do to the interior – give your home a look and a feel. Here’s an excellent example of how this thoughtfully designed garden made a plain exterior fabulous.

Tricia Firmaniuk, my Director of eDesign, is my guest blogger today with her garden reveal! I believe that your landscape design is equally as important as your interior in creating a home that you love and that fills you with joy when you arrive!

Yes, this means we’re talking about MaryAnne White my landscape designer, again. She has designed many of your gardens over the years since she helped me with mine (7 years ago, can’t believe we’ve already been in this house 8 years), and I love referring her to my readers because her experience in landscaping is the same as mine for inside!

When I send her a photo of an eDesign exterior I might be working on and ask her why it’s not working, she instantly knows why and what it should be.

One thing I’ve learned in 20 years of helping people choose exterior colour and claddings is that people focus way too much on the exterior itself instead of the landscaping.

Just like for the interior. So many people think ‘When I get my new kitchen or bathroom, or crown mouldings then, I’ll be happy’, but you still don’t have a look and a feel if you don’t leave enough money for art, accessories, LAMPS, area rugs, etc.

Okay, read on to see Tricia’s sweet house surrounded by so many pretty plantings.


When my husband bought this little house in 2006, the real estate market here in Edmonton was going crazy. He couldn’t secure any house he put an offer on except this little neglected one. It was completely obscured by giant overgrown spruces and had a charming field of thistle in place of lawn in the back.

I moved in later that year, and we proceeded to make the interior cute, because that is where we spend most of our time in this wintery climate. Here’s a look at my pink living room, my dark and moody bedroom, and my classic bathroom makeover.

When the trees started falling dangerously in storms a few years ago, the front yard became a priority. Down came the trees and the front of the house was visible for the first time in several decades.

Best tips for improving your home’s exterior

Yipes! Our naked little cottage was in desperate need of some charm. Here are my best tips for improving your home’s exterior.

Think beyond stone embellishments

I know a lot of homeowners will think that we need to add some stone or something to this facade to give it more character or interest. So, I photoshopped the idea of adding a stone skirt below to show that it really is not the answer.

I see this all the time. It’s bad because it just feels like stone was slapped on to add value and interest, but failed to deliver. Stone overpowers a little cottage like this. It looks heavy and chunky and doesn’t add anything.

When you have a small house with NO architectural interest, the ONLY way to give it live is to plant a fabulous garden.

A garden does to your exterior what artwork, lamps, pillows and accessories do to the interior.

More advice from Maria: Already have stone on your exterior? Here’s what siding colour looks best with stone. Or, maybe you need help choosing stone for your new build exterior?

To make your exterior fabulous, design a garden

Maria’s garden designer, Maryanne White, helped me with a design plan and we installed it late last summer. It’s still very new, the plants have not filled in yet, but I am so excited about how it already looks this spring and I couldn’t wait to share it with you!

My early spring garden

Garden Design by MaryAnne White

Even with the plants still not filled in, it looks so much better! Everyone asks us about our cool “fountain” but it’s really a steel sculpture by local artist Susan Owen Kagan. It is called “Tea for a Mantis”. Maryanne’s concept was to surround it with grasses. They will look amazing in the fall!

Plan a garden for all seasons

And since this is a climate with loooong, snowy winters, winter interest was carefully considered in planning this garden. The sculpture and grasses will show up all winter long. And there are yellow twig dogwoods that stick out of the snow behind the clump paper birch. The birch will develop striking black and white bark that will be beautiful year round too.

>> See Maria’s 500 tulips blooming in Spring.

Tall ornamental grasses provide winter interest

Behind the bed with the sculpture, we have left space for expanding the landing into a porch – that’s our next phase! The original metal railing, steep concrete steps and light all need to be changed out. But who’s looking at that when there’s a pretty garden catching your eye?

Choose a colour palette

There is still too much mulch showing as we (impatiently) wait for the plants to fill in, but this yellow flowering Lydia is so vibrant right at the front of the walk. The colour palette is greens, yellow greens, purples and some yellows in the spring. And in the fall, when the grasses are mature, they are a golden straw colour and the sedum and rudbeckia add warmer autumnal colours just as the fresh purples of the spring garden fade.

To create a really beautiful garden, consider the colour palette carefully. It will look more intentional and coherent if you stick to a limited palette. Famous master garden designer Piet Oudolf does schematic drawings of a garden’s colour palette throughout the seasons before installation.

Piet Oudolf planting plan for the Queen Elizabeth Garden at the Olympic Park, London, 2012

To make sure I had some early season interest, I enlisted a good friend to help me plant 100 allium bulbs in the fall and it was so exciting to watch them emerge this spring! It’s like a little gift to myself 😉

Design your garden before you install your hardscape

Above is a shot of the yard when the sidewalk was freshly poured and before the lawn and garden went it. It was already such a big improvement from the old skinny walk that went straight from the step to the curb in a sad, unimaginative way. Unless the design is very modern, a garden designer would never specify a walk that lacks elegant curves that meander through a garden. It’s so important to have a design for your garden before laying the hardscape.

The curvy sidewalk Maryanne designed is really the piece that defines the pretty rounded shapes of all the garden beds. I find that too often, garden beds are only a few feet deep, and that’s really limiting. A garden bed should be a minimum of 5 to 6 feet deep so you can layer at least two or three types of plants together. Plants are like colours, they look best in the company of other plants. You get richness from layering different shapes, textures and colours. But if your bed is only one shrub deep (3 ft), the look will fall flat.

Plan for generously wide garden beds

Take a look at how deep this flower bed is with the sculpture. This is a drone shot earlier this spring so the plants are just emerging (below).

The hedge doesn’t show yet. Boxwoods aren’t hardy here so I planted yews instead. They are lovely, but slow. It will take a few years at least to get a nice clipped hedge look, so I photoshopped it in below to give an idea of how it will look when the structure of the hedge defines the foundation planting.

There is also a golden hops vine that will be trained up the corner of the house on this side, but the trellis we ordered hasn’t arrived yet. (Below).

Landscapes are often designed for the curb side view of the whole, framing the house and walk. But it’s important to create a garden that you can enjoy close up too. There is nothing like the feeling of being surrounded by a pretty garden.

Our yard has come a long way from the forest of dried out spruce and field of thistles. Here is an overhead drone shot of the back early this season.

Connect your front and back gardens

The deck is large and exposed, so the trellis supports a couple of very exuberant golden hops vines that provide shade for our table where, since summer here is so short, we dine al fresco almost daily. The low patio made of simple concrete blocks is much nicer because you feel like you are in a garden.

The back garden also features a similar colour palette and lots of tall grasses for continuity. It informed the choice of plants for the front garden.

Here again is the before with our little house looking like a lonely Kleenex box.

And here it is after with our new garden already beginning to take off.

Because we did most of the labour ourselves, this whole garden came with a similar cost to slapping some stone along the foundation. It adds so much more charm, and we get to watch it change throughout the seasons. In a couple of years it will be lush and mature and I can’t wait!

If you’d like to learn how to choose the right colour for the exterior of your home, check out my Exterior Masterclass here.

My eDesign department couldn’t be busier! Our smaller packages are currently on SOLD OUT status, but you can still purchase the bigger packages, such as the exterior bundle here, and the new build or renovation package here.

I’m in my studio a lot this summer!

My subscribers will be the first to know when ALL packages are available for purchase again.

Related Posts:

Add Instant Curb Appeal with the Right Fence Colour: Before and After

Maria Killam’s White Garden Transformation: Before and After

Your Yard May be Scaring Off Potential Home Buyers

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  • KellyH says:

    What is the charming color combo on this home’s exterior? The front door is delightful!

  • Vicki says:

    I see some hostas planted…a few daffodil bulbs planted near them would give you yellow flowers in the spring, too. The growing hostas will hide the withering daffodil leaves.

  • Lovely, thanks for sharing an Edmonton garden! and btw totally agree that stone isn’t always the answer!

  • Julie S says:

    This is great! I love that you acknowledge the best and perhaps only way to make a small plain box of a house better (without extensive costly renovations anyway) is with great landscaping. It does make SUCH a difference to the feel as you arrive or pass by. I’ve done this sort of transformation on one basic ranch house years ago and now have another such home to work on.

  • Kim says:

    Tricia, your hard work has certainly paid off! Your garden is just beautiful. Well done!

  • Susan says:

    A very lovely garden, Tricia. I love alliums, sedum and rudbeckia, too, and have them in my garden. I may plant 100 alliums. I think I have 7. I didn’t realize you live in Edmonton! I thought you were in the valley, near Maria.

  • Gina says:

    What a great post, Tricia! I’ll be making a call to Mary Ann, too. Enjoy!

  • Fran W. says:


  • Stephanie says:

    Gorgeous! So agree with you on the garden vs the stone and the decor vs the extra crown moulding (interior comparison)!

  • Susan says:

    It looks lovely, both the house and the garden! Lots of good ideas.

    I was wondering about adding a window box under the window on the left, with a view to making it appear the same size as the window on the right, for balance.

  • Lin says:

    I think some shutters would add a lot of charm

  • Carol says:

    AMAZING transformation!!!!! Inspiring!!! The backyard is wonderful too! Thanks for

  • Fran says:

    What a transformation! It’s hard to believe you planted last year. I will be curious to see how you redo the front steps and add the porch in the future.

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