Articles by Jim Gainan

As published in the Billings Gazette

Enhancing the curb appeal of your home

Every house has one. The question is, what feeling does it evoke? I'm talking about the front door, and as you can see from the 'before' photo, I had a real challenging design issue.

For years, our house had a thicket of trees that protected it from a pretty busy street. In fact, I have lived in the tree-street area for many years and never noticed the house that now shelters us.

After we purchased the house, I learned that people considered the house scary. While it was being built over a period of four years, birds flew in and out of the openings in the sandstone, revealing the dark (scary) unfinished interiors.

The house was built by a Billings Polytechnic Institute (now Rocky Mountain College) professor of engineering who accepted sandstone blocks as his salary. He enlisted the help of students to help during evenings and weekends for the long building process. I learned while working for Rocky from 1991-1998 that Billings Polytechnic was one of the only colleges that taught the trade of shaping sandstone from its own quarry, located on the rimrocks. Those stones were used to literally build the college piece by piece and later a few homes including ours.

A large snow storm toppled two tall trees in our yard and everything in their path, including the privacy thicket that was over 60 years old. The process of cleaning out the thicket was painful because some additional trees had to be removed. They had been partially damaged and wouldn't blend with the new landscape design.

The initial problem was obvious. The main entry to the house was too exposed to the street and the approach to the house was confusing. It was hard to tell where the front door was and it completely lacked privacy.

Our goal was to create privacy that was present twelve months a year, but also create a distinct welcoming walkway and auto court for guests. Piece by piece the plan was implemented over a period of one year. The design goal was reached with the following additions:

A. The rickety-looking fence made of several materials was replaced with a cedar privacy fence running east and west with a top stringer that stayed level from the street to the house. That move alone created more stability and consistency for the area. The stain is dark to match the trim on the house and to distinguish the area from the many feet of silver grape stick fencing that surrounds the entire property.

A north/south short jog with a pass-through door for recycling bins added privacy in the winter for the window that previously looked right out to the street. This created the interior shade garden court that is very private and welcoming when you make your way toward the house. A tall Greenspire Linden peeks up over the fence and will eventually completely shade the garden. It also leads the eye away from the flat-roof portion of an addition that was made in the 1970s, which isn't particularly attractive, but very functional for the sunroom it covers.

B. Existing 'Bridal Wreath' Spirea were trimmed back and fertilized to create a diagonal buffer and transition where the jog in the fence ends. My plan was to remove the spirea, but my wife tied herself to the bushes in protest; it was really cold that day and I knew she would stay out there as long as it took to change my mind, so I put away the chainsaw. Happy wife, happy life - right?

C. While at market in Atlanta I happened across an "urban arbor", which had distinct craftsman design elements. The arbor was placed and then I realized that the metal arbor top perfectly complemented the pergola-style beams that protrude out all around the house.

D. The 'Canada Red' Cherry, one of my favorite trees, was added opposite the Greenspire Linden is. In fact, every house I've owned in the last 20 years has at least one in its front yard. The tree is wonderful because it changes color three times a year, is very manageable and disease-resistant.

E. 'Karl Foerster' Feather Reed grass pokes through the landscape like fountains.

F. In front of the Cherry tree is a hedge of 'Diabolo' Ninebark bushes which create the backdrop for the reed grass. The bushes were chosen because of their dark red color tones which complement the tone of the fence. They also grow quickly and provide great privacy.

G. 'Indian Love Call' Daylily are the centerpiece of the privacy bank, and provide bright green foliage and beautiful blossoms all summer long.

H. New topsoil and sod were added to shrink the size of the limestone-covered parking area. It softened the entry and also blends it into the existing grassy open space to the north.

I. A 'Red Emily Carr' red shrub rose adds a pop of color. We have planted these roses throughout the yard for consistency.

J. A Dwarf Peegee Hydrangea tree anchors the bed and produces beautiful blooms that dry in place after the tree has defoliated and stay on the tree until early winter. It was chosen because it will not overpower the area, which makes it a perfect choice for an entry area.

K. The urban arbor base has a planter on each side, filled with red geraniums, white bacopa and sweet potato vine. These plants thrive on sun and heat. Each year different annuals can be planted to create a color theme for the year. Usually, my color scheme is determined by what didn't sell that well at the garden center but, this year I grabbed the red early to ensure I'd get them.

L. Patio grade sandstone was placed on a sand bed with a brick edge. After the leveling process the joints were filled with locking polymeric sand which expands and contracts in the presence of heat and water. It doesn't have the smooth look of cemented joints, but without a concrete underlayment, it's the only option. My plan is to plant small plugs of Thyme in-between the sandstone pieces if this doesn't hold up. I'm actually excited to shovel the walk this winter - did I say that? If you have ever tried to shovel snow off of gravel, you know why!

M. Exterior low-voltage light fixtures are placed every ten feet to light the path to the front door.

The enormity of the project and the cost of having a proper driveway, sidewalk and pergola extensions added to the house led me in this direction. My purpose for sharing it with you is to show you with certainty how plants can create privacy and a welcoming introduction to your home. Also, you can do it yourself!

It was a lot of work, but a tremendous amount of fun and most of all, a learning process. Now it's your turn. Take a 'before' and 'after' picture and send it to me. I'd love to admire your work!

Jim Gainan is VP/Shareholder of Gainan's Flower and Garden Center in Billings.

Questions or comments? Email Jim Gainan @