Come midsummer, many gardeners feel they can relax a little. Annuals planted in the spring require only weekly soaking and regular deadheading to continue bursting out all over until the first frost. “Pinching, cleaning, pruning, and watering,” says Ricky DiGiovanni, owner of Ricky’s Flower Market in Somerville. “It’s all about just engaging and checking on the overall condition of your plants every day or every other day. They’ll respond gloriously if you take care of them even just minimally.”
Spring-flowering bulbs, trees, and perennials needn’t go into the ground until fall. You might want to start some vegetable crops — leafy greens, carrots, and beans in late July, and beets and root vegetables in August — but otherwise, your biggest chore is simple maintenance. But if these lazy days are beginning to feel humdrum and you’re itching to up your gardening game, now’s a good time to get started on a hardscaping or habitat project. Here are a few ideas:
Cost: $150 to $1,500
Time required: One to two days, including shopping
With 29 bird species listed as threatened, endangered, or “of special concern” in Massachusetts, our feathered friends need all the help they can get. And attracting birds is easy, as long as you know what they need. “Shelter and water are the main things,” says Kathi Gariepy, education and volunteer coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Oak Knoll sanctuary in Attleboro, along with the “flowers and shrubs that are going to feed them with seeds and berries.”
Start with a birdbath as the centerpiece; if your yard is large enough, you might want to use more than one. Place it in the sun or in partial shade within view of the house and away from fences, shrubs, and trees where cats can perch. Consider a heated birdbath for winter, since the plantings and feeders you choose can keep birds coming to your yard all year. Be sure your bath is no deeper than 3 inches and has a gradual slope with some texture to it so birds won’t fall in when they’re just stopping by for a drink; placing clean sand or gravel in the bottom can also create more secure footing for the birds. A bubbler, too, can be helpful, since the sound of running water is attractive to birds — hummingbirds and warblers in particular are drawn to drippers and misters. Change the birdbath water at least every other day and plan on cleaning it out once a week.
Dust or sand bathing is something birds do in the wild; flopping around on the ground cleans their feathers and helps repel parasites. If you plan to incorporate such a spot, make sure there’s a sunny bare place with fine soil that isn’t reached by the sprinkler or hose. Contain the area with a ring of stones from a craft store or the aquarium section of your local pet shop (clean them before putting them out).
As for plantings, choose native species, which your garden store can help you select. And think about what the plants can do for birds. Shrubs that provide protection from the sun and from predators as well as food for birds include shadbush or serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis), red chokeberry, winterberry, and spicebush, while less dense flowering shrubs like viburnum not only feed the birds but also provide nectar for bees and butterflies and food for the larvae of several species of moth. Coneflowers, sunflowers, asters, and some grasses also provide food; the key is to have a mix of seed plants and berries, short and tall plants, and variety in feeders, too. “Birds feed in different ways,” says Gariepy. “Some are ground feeders. Some will eat at a perch, and the seeds will be different. And then there are nectar feeders like hummingbirds and orioles. And suet attracts woodpeckers.” Make sure to provide food year-round, since “once you attract them, they keep coming back,” master gardener Gariepy says. “It’s almost as if they go and tell their friends.”
WALKWAY OR PATH
Cost: From $2 per paver at big-box stores up to $20,000 for professional installation
Time: A few hours to four days
A good garden path or walkway can really pull a home’s look together, says Maria von Brincken, a landscape designer in Sudbury. “A path can make a huge difference in layout, in shape, in the way the flower beds connect and frame” a house, she says. “All of these things are working together to create a harmonious whole. If you have things that are piecemeal or a walk that is hodgepodge-placed, you wonder why the feeling is not great, even if you’ve invested in good materials.”
According to the trade magazine Remodeling’s annual Cost vs. Value Report, increasing your home’s curb appeal provides one of the highest returns on investment among home improvement projects.
“Curb appeal projects do tend to have some of the higher ratings. Manufactured stone veneer has the second highest cost-to-value return of any product in the whole shooting match,” says Craig Webb, the editor of the Remodeling report. “And we also talk to realtors, who say curb appeal projects are among the best.”
A well-sited, well-integrated walkway is part of that. “It sends an unconscious psychological message that the house is well built and well maintained,” says von Brincken.
There are many possible looks. “The things you think about are not only the aesthetics and the texture,” von Brincken says, “but also the style of garden, the style of the house — how formal or informal it is. Is it more classic? Country style? Contemporary? Do you want the path to curve or be the straightest line to the driveway or street?” Adding a slightly meandering path can work, she says, as long as it’s in the right place. If it’s not, “people will take shortcuts through your beds, and then you’ll have little bare patches.”
Other points to consider: Is there enough space for plantings beside the walkway? Don’t cramp the walk, von Brincken says, or it could make you feel claustrophobic. What kind of lighting do you need, not only for aesthetics but also for safety? Does the slope of the path require steps? Will the walkway need shoveling in winter? If so, a stone walk with tight joints set in a herringbone or basket-weave pattern might be preferable to a path with tufts of moss pushing up between the stones. And don’t rule out pavers just because the octagonal pink cement ones you see in big-box stores aren’t very attractive; suppliers like Techo-Bloc (techo-bloc.com) have gorgeous versions that can be used in all sorts of configurations.
With the possible exception of informal walkways in country gardens or backyards, where steppingstones can be laid with spaces between them, walkways are not a DIY project. Digging a base, grading the slope, laying and compacting the gravel and sand, and leveling the stones is hard work best left to a mason with experience and access to serious machinery. And if you think hiring a landscape designer for layout advice is too expensive, ask one who works by the hour for a short consultation rather than soup-to-nuts service; it can run you as little as $150 an hour.
As von Brincken points out, a good path can really take you places. “Part of the garden is the journey,” she says, “and what happens along the path is as important as where it leads you.”
POND OR FOUNTAIN
Cost: $200-$20,000 (and up)
Time required: An afternoon to several days
Water features have been popular at least since ancient Greek and Roman times, and it’s hard to imagine a formal European garden without them. They’ve been on the regular menu of home gardeners in the United States for decades, with prefab pools and fountains making it easy. Today there are as many water-feature options as there are gardeners to conjure them, ranging from simple DIY projects to pro jobs, and in styles from reflecting pools to trickling fountains and waterfalls.
The easiest type of water feature for a homeowner to install is a fountain: You simply level the ground or hang some screws in a wall, plug it into an outdoor outlet, fill it from a hose, and sit back and enjoy. Restoration Hardware has some nice, if pricey, styles, from classical to modern. New England Garden Ornaments in Sudbury has loads of options, including wall-mounted fountains, pool surrounds to make your fountain a centerpiece, and salvaged cisterns. For the slightly more ambitious, almost any glazed pot or metal container can be wired with a pump.
Ponds are more complex, not only to build but also to design and, depending on your skill level, may require a professional. Landscape designer Andrew Grossman of Seekonk makes a clear distinction between man-made and natural-looking ponds in a garden. “I don’t like faux-natural crystal-clear water features that are pretending to be natural but look man-made and are sited in places where a natural water feature would never exist,” he says. “They look like something from Disneyland or a mini-golf course.” He emphasizes that if your landscape doesn’t lend itself to a truly natural-looking pond — if you have a large, flat suburban yard, for example — you can still have everything you want in a water feature, including moving water, lilies, and goldfish, in a square, rectangular, or round design. Site it so that it’s visible from windows so you can enjoy it from indoors, too; in a small city yard, placing it on the periphery can create a focal point that draws you into a corner you otherwise might not use much.
If your space allows for a natural-looking water feature, Grossman recommends making it at least 2 feet deep and having varying degrees of wetness in the soil around your pond for plantings. Liners are available online in sizes from 80 to 300 square feet or more; they’re essential to keeping your pond from disappearing into ground water and can be covered with sand, soil, or stones to maintain a natural look. Grossman advises against overcleaning ponds with infrared or ultraviolet light. “Think of European water features,” he says. They might have algae and weeds, he adds, “but that makes them look like they’re part of the environment.” For fauna, Grossman chooses goldfish over koi because they’re hardier. “I went to the pet store and bought some super cheap goldfish and had them for like 10 years,” he says. “They got huge and bred like crazy. I was giving them away, I had so many of them.”
FIRE PIT, GRILL, OR OUTDOOR OVEN
Cost: A few thousand dollars and up
Time required: An afternoon to several days
Another component of the modern outdoor space that continues to grow in popularity is the fire feature; today it’s gone beyond chimineas and store-bought fire pits to Old World-style masonry hearths and even wood-fired pizza ovens. “Anything you have inside can be brought outdoors and made to withstand New England weather,” says Giuseppe Ventriglia, owner of StoneFire by Design and Terrascaping & Construction, both in Westborough. In fact, he asserts, food cooked outdoors actually tastes better. “There’s a smoky flavor to it naturally, and once you get used to doing it, which is very simple, anyone can be a pro at using the ovens.”
The first thing to consider: the fire and building codes for your particular city or town. Boston, for example, prohibits outdoor patio heaters and fireplaces that use solid fuels, including charcoal or wood pellets. The city, however, allows certain space heaters and fire pits with piped-in gas or refillable propane tanks but limits where they can be used and how fuel is stored.
If you’ve never had a fire feature before, Ventriglia recommends buying a $100 unit from Walmart or Home Depot as a test to see if you like it. Fire lanterns and torches also require virtually no setup time and can add drama to any garden. But “that’s a starting kit,” he says. “In a couple of years, you’re saying this is not enough. I’m building a fire-pit cemetery for all the upgrades we’ve done.” Fires are so relaxing, Ventriglia maintains, that people who sit down for a few minutes can end up spending two or three hours there.
If you think you want a larger heat source or cooking area and you have the space — anywhere from 400 to 2,000 square feet — an entire outdoor kitchen is possible. Obviously, this is a job for the pros. They’ll design the “room,” excavate the area, lay footings and a concrete pad, and install a grill and an oven — Ventriglia uses stainless steel or heavy clay dome-and-hearth kits from Europe. Faced with stone veneer and supplemented by counter space, lighting, and plantings, the setup is good to go or ready for add-ons. “You’d be amazed if you had an outdoor sink or fridge,” he says, “how much you would use it.”
It isn’t cheap, and expert estimates of your return on investment for an outdoor kitchen are shockingly wide-ranging — anywhere from zero to 200 percent.
Ventriglia says he had a house in Westborough that sold in three weeks in a tough market after the buyer told him the backyard cooking area was the deciding factor. “It’s not as important as the bathroom or kitchen inside the house,” he says, “but it’s definitely an upcoming approach that I think will last for quite a while.”
Making sure your outdoor cooking space is on the high end of the return-on-investment range means not overimproving for the house or the neighborhood — a basic island design can fit everything you need without seeming grandiose in a more modest area of older homes. Take New England weather into account, too; while you might not mind grilling in a parka and snow boots, not everyone enjoys it. “If you grill a lot,” Ventriglia says, “put a grill set closer to the kitchen and put the fire feature
away from it so you can look at it from inside the house. You can do a beautiful stone creation, put a nice wreath on it in winter, and go inside and still enjoy the fire.” He tells of one family that liked its outdoor hearth so much the family made a snow couch in front of it and cozied up in toasty blankets.
“It just makes people smile,” he concludes. “They say I can’t wait to get home tonight so I can use my grill or oven. The novelty doesn’t wear off; it gets better every year. People tell me it pays off just in the enjoyment they get from it with family and friends. I enjoy hearing it, because I think that’s what life should be all about.”
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.