01: Impressions — published on May 30, 2008

Ways to imorove Curb Appeal

Cosmetic fixes that can put a prettier face on a plain-Jane home will pay for themselves – and then some. Just as every mother believes her son is a handsome devil, homeowners tend to see the best in their houses – or at least become comfortably familiar with the way they look.

But let’s face it, to the objective eye, not every man is George Clooney and not every house is a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. There are a lot of drab, even downright gloomy facades out there – especially among homes built after World War II, when many builders abandoned traditional architectural styling to streamline costs and mass-produce housing.

Thankfully, the cosmetic surgery required to put a beautiful face on your home won’t hurt a bit. It doesn’t even require a big-ticket construction job. “Creating curb appeal isn’t about trying to transform the house from, say, a plain-Jane ranch into a grand Victorian,” says Charlotte, Vt. architect Ted Montgomery. “Just changing one or two little details is all it takes.”

You can find your inspiration by looking at similar houses in the neighborhood – or by hiring an architect to offer suggestions ($300 to $500) and maybe sketch a plan (add $300 to $500). You’ll boost your home pride, endear yourself to the neighbors and generate a lot more interest from buyers someday when your house goes on the market.

Subtract Flaws Assuming the house and yard are already well maintained, job one is to get rid of unsightly blemishes left by a penny-pinching builder or the misguided remodeling efforts of previous owners.

Replace the garage doors. The most prominent facial feature of many homes is a pair of big garage doors – which all too often are flat, lackluster slabs of steel or vinyl. Trade them for more visually appealing doors with moldings, windows or an old-fashioned carriage-house look ($2,000 to $5,000 a door, including labor). See designerdoors.com and clopaydoor.com for examples.

Remove siding. Sometimes ugliness is only skin-deep. “Peek under dreary aluminum, vinyl or asbestos siding and you may find well-preserved wood clapboards hiding underneath,” says Asheville, N.C. architect Jane Mathews. If so, remove the siding, repair the old wood and give the house an attractive paint job ($10,000 to $20,000). If not, you could paint the siding or replace it with fiber cement siding (see image), a no-maintenance product that looks like real wood ($15,000 to $25,000).

Lose the funky railings. Swap out bad porch or stoop railings – such as black iron bars and chunky pressure-treated decking components – for visually interesting banisters and spindles that are worthy of their prominent placement at the front of the house ($1,000 to $3,000).

Add Character. Like a dimple or a cleft chin, the addition of an interesting architectural element can give your house some distinctiveness.

Install a salvaged door. The typical postwar front door is decidedly dull, but the entry should be the focal point of your house, says Corvallis, Ore. architect Lori Stephens. For interesting replacements, troll an architectural salvage yard (the directory at buildingreuse.org can help you locate one). Consider a recycled mission-style oak door, a six-panel colonial with blown-glass windows, or arch-top French doors ($200 to $800; more if you’re converting to an arch top).

Add moldings. Many newer homes lack exterior trim; the siding just butts up against the windows and doors. A contractor can give the house a more sophisticated, traditional look by cutting back that siding and slipping in wide, flat moldings around the openings and possibly at the corners of the house and between its stories ($3,000 to $4,000). Consider using a synthetic product like cellular PVC for your moldings, which looks like wood but will never rot.

Enhance the roof. A straight, un-adorned roofline makes a house look about as interesting as a shipping container. So consider adding one or more windowed dormers (gabled peaks) or extending the eaves (the roof overhang) a few feet beyond the front of the house with detailed moldings on the under-side ($2,500 to $6,000 per dormer or eave extension). This is major surgery though; do not attempt it without first getting an architect’s input.

Multiply the Effect. Invasive procedures aren’t always necessary. Just adding the right accents can transform your home’s outer look – not unlike a pair of stylish new specs or a good haircut.

Replace light fixtures and hardware. Lose generic shiny brass or black house numbers, mailbox and porch lights (especially bare-bulb fixtures) and substitute something unique and substantial, perhaps made of antiqued copper, bronze or brushed nickel ($20 to $75 each). For ideas, see rejuvenation.com and restorationhardware.com.

Plan for a nonstop flower show. Most of the flowers in your yard probably bloom in the late spring, which makes for a beautiful May – or whenever the big show happens in your climate – but leaves you with a bland yard for the other 10 or 11 months of the year. A local nursery can help you choose and plant additional bulbs, shrubs and trees with different bloom times (as well as plants with colorful autumn foliage and winter berries), so there’ll always be something performing in the yard ($50 to $250 a shrub, $500 to $1,500 a tree).

Add color. A paint job ($2,000 to $10,000) in pleasing hues can make any structure appealing. “But don’t choose a bright, high-contrast color scheme – that only exaggerates a house’s flaws,” Montgomery warns.

For subtler suggestions, check out the book “House Colors” by Susan Hershman ($23 at Amazon.com) or go for the colors of nature – muted greens, deep reds or pale yellows – and keep the body and trim close in color. That will give your home a friendly, peaceful look rather than making it say, “Hey, look at me.” Sort of like an average-looking guy choosing a simple charcoal suit instead of a flashy powder blue one that only a Hollywood star could pull off.

01: Impressions — published on May 30, 2008

Flowers for instant curb appeal

The experts all agree that curb appeal is one of the most important aspects to consider when selling your home.When selling, it’s the appearance from the street that will very often determine whether potential buyers come in to see the inside, or never get out of their cars.

Flowers are one of the easiest and least expensive ways to make the front of your house look inviting and instantly increase the curb appeal of your home. Without any real landscaping at all, flowers can transform a rather drab and dreary looking front yard into one that looks colorful and lush. Especially during spring and summer, you should take advantage of the season by planting pots and flower boxes.

You should choose colorful flowers that will be in bloom during the time you’re selling your home. Planting the flowers in planter boxes and pots is easier than planting them in the ground and lets you more easily place them where they can have the most visual impact. You don’t need to have a green thumb, or spend a lot of money to get great results either. Visit your local home improvement center or nursery and they will be happy to advise you of the best flowers and plants for your purpose. You can put together several very nice planter boxes and pots of flowers for well under $100. And it’s easy!

One of the nice things about using flowers in this way is that you’ll see the results immediately. And so will buyers visiting your home.

01: Impressions — published on May 26, 2008

Beyond Curb appeal

The “For Sale” and “Open House” signs are popping up like dandelions in Toronto area front yards. Home buyers are buzzing through neighbourhoods to check out the new listings. Curb appeal is the nectar that beckons buyers to stop and sniff the flowers. Peeling paint, overgrown shrubbery and an unkempt appearance is a buzz kill. Buyers read “keep out” when the message should be “welcome.”

Prospective home buyers usually make up their minds about viewing a home less than 10 seconds after seeing the exterior. If they don’t like what they see outside, nothing a real estate agent says or does — short of dragging them kicking and screaming — will get them inside.

Even if the interior has been redone, they don’t want to stop and go in. People want to be excited about coming home to their house every day. It sends a subliminal message when a potential buyer drives up and sees everything is neat, clean and in its place. That says ‘this is a great home’ and sends the message that if the exterior is taken care of, probably they’ve cared for the interiors, too.

Make the front entry as welcoming and warm as possible. That front door needs to be clean, the glass sparkling, the porch cleaned up, and when you open the door, no clutter and no odors.

Beyond curb appeal:

One of the biggest errors is trying to mask an odor rather than get rid of it. Too many scented plug-ins and candles from room to room is just as bad. If there are pet odors, some people won’t even go through the door because of allergies.

The better dressed your home, the more people want to see it. Make it inviting. Repaint, hose down the siding, make sure the landscaping is trimmed back and presentable, put a wreath on the door. Step back and be objective. Ask yourself, ‘Would I want to go into this house or would I pass it by?’

But a seller’s efforts don’t stop at the front door. It’s the “little things” that can make or break a sale, particularly odor, cleanliness and clutter. Some real estate agents suggest a teaspoon of vanilla poured on a cookie sheet and placed in a warm oven will fill the house with a light, appealing fragrance before a showing. Just remember to turn off the oven before leaving the house.

If a home isn’t sparkling clean and uncluttered, especially the kitchens and bathrooms, the woman is going to walk out the door. Thoroughly scrub bathrooms and kitchens. Replacing worn, corroded fixtures can give older sinks and tubs an inexpensive facelift. Remove small appliances and give counters a clean sweep to clear counter space. Clean off magnets, photos and take-out menus from the refrigerator door.

You want bathrooms and kitchens looking their best because those are the rooms that will reap the most rewards. Also, if you have old carpeting throughout the house and hardwood floors underneath, remove the carpeting and get the floors cleaned up. Let them sing. If the carpet is in good shape, have it cleaned.

De-personalize the space by removing the family photo gallery off the walls. Prospective buyers should picture themselves living in the home.

Pack up salt-and-pepper shakers, velvet Elvis paintings and Precious Moments collections and put them in storage. Clean out and organize basements, garages and attics. Ask children to help out by removing posters and glow-in-the-dark stickers from their bedroom walls. Paint rooms to freshen the space. Have a garage sale to get rid of stuff you don’t want and have been meaning to ditch for years.

Don’t over-decorate. “People would rather see more of a blank slate so they can envision their own personality in the house. Toss down personal colors. Take down those family pictures — a buyer doesn’t want to feel they’re moving a family out, they want to envision themselves moving in.

Declutter closets. If your closets are jammed full of stuff, if you’ve got shoeboxes and sweatshirts stacked 2 feet high, even if it’s a huge closet or a walk-in closet, you’re giving the buyer the thought that closets aren’t big enough.

Rearrange furniture and remove pieces to aid traffic flow. Minimalist — that’s the thought process … if you have too many chairs or your furniture is large, a buyer is going to think the rooms are too small because all the furniture doesn’t fit. If somebody is truly thinking about buying a house and get into a home and every corner is full, it’s going to discourage the buyer. Unconsciously if they like the house, a buyer’s eyes gravitate to an empty corner and they start arranging their own furniture. If they don’t have that empty corner, they’ll move on.

Inside and out, tackle chores on the “honey-do” list. Unfinished projects are red flags to potential buyers. Wives often say, ‘Sure, you’ll fix that for the realtor but I’ve been after you to finish that for the last 10 years’. If you’re selling your house, you can’t live in it like you normally would. It’s all about presentation.

If possible, remove pets from the home during a showing. It will make for happier pets who may feel threatened by strangers, and a better showing.

Homeowners should leave during showings. Otherwise prospective buyers won’t feel free to ask questions and the real estate agent can’t effectively do their job.

07: Market Value — published on May 21, 2008

Curb appeal counts when selling

It’s important that your home look tidy outside as well as inside. You’re ready to put your house on the market. Inside, it is beautifully decorated and sparkling clean. That bit of peeling paint on the porch and the bald spots in the garden won’t bother prospective purchasers, right?

Maybe not. And then again, they may drive by, see these flaws and take your house off the list of houses they plan to view. First impressions count.

What real estate agents call “curb appeal” is the impact your house makes when seen from a car or the sidewalk. If the exterior of the house and the yard are tidy and well maintained, prospective purchasers walk in with a pleasant feeling of expectation that the interior will match up. If the lawn is shaggy, the windows are dirty and the doorbell doesn’t work, they will be on guard for problems inside.

Here’s a short list of things you can do to increase your home’s curb appeal:

  • cut and rake the grass and water frequently enough to keep it green; fill and seed any bare patches.
  • wash windows and replace any cracked glass.
  • weed and edge the garden.
  • bridge gaps in foundation plantings with bright annuals in containers.
  • remove flaking paint and stucco from the steps, porch or deck, door, trim and storage sheds and repaint.
  • keep the lawn and porch or deck clear of bikes, toys, gardening tools, flyers and other clutter.
  • keep the pool immaculate.
  • make sure the front door opens and shuts smoothly and the doorbell functions.
  • tuck garbage containers out of sight.

It’s a good idea to ask your listing agent to take a tour of the exterior, note any flaws and tell you what you need to do to make your home more saleable.

If you don’t have the time or skills to make repairs or spruce up the garden yourself, consider hiring a handyman, gardening service or pool service to visit your home a few times before you list and while it is on the market. Check out ads in the local paper or ask neighbours or your agent to recommend people who can help you at a reasonable price.

Try to think of your home’s appearance as a form of advertising. The few hundred dollars you invest in increasing its curb appeal can mean more viewings, a quicker sale and – possibly – a better price.

07: Market Value — published on May 13, 2008

Be the belle of the block

Curb appeal is crucial in Toronto’s changing market

Never mind the vernal equinox or visions of blooming tulips and budding leaves. May in Toronto has to be the harshest month when it comes to curb appeal, whether we’re selling our homes or simply living in them.

Gone are the snows of winter leaving our homes wearing a drab overcoat of a winter’s worth of dust and grime.  Not to mention those green doors.

In times past, it didn’t matter if your house had a pink front door, it sold for more than the asking price.  Now, buyers are being very picky.  If it’s not your home they buy, it will be one of the other 124 on the market that are just like yours — the same square footage — but $10,000. lower in price.

A year ago, it wouldn’t have mattered that buyers saw your green front door as tired and dated — but it does now.

Last year, there was always a limited inventory available. This year, the total inventory is up, which means more selection for buyers. It is important that sellers understand that they’re in a much different marketplace. Buyers can now take the time to find their dream home, instead of having to snatch up the first available place in their price range before someone else beats them to it.

So, sellers need to present their home in the best possible light … and they need to price their home accordingly, in keeping with local market conditions.

Putting on a Fresh Face

Curb appeal isn’t going to sell your property if the price, location or amenities aren’t right for the buyer, but it can help you achieve both a faster selling time and a better price in any market. When the buyers drive up and see grass a foot high, they assume the whole house isn’t well maintained.

By creating curb appeal, you create an emotional connection before the buyer even enters the home. Try to create a message about what you want the buyer to know about your house and your neighbourhood.

For example: paint the trim and the door if they’re in need of it; replace the mailbox, lighting and hardware such as door handles; clean your walk and deck; switch on exterior house and garage lights; ensure keys work smoothly in locks; add fresh mulch to the garden beds; and re-edge the beds and sidewalks.

Going Beyond Cosmetics

Some very expensive homes have very basic things wrong, such as doorknobs that are loose or not working properly. It might sound cosmetic, but the cosmetics are important. If for example, you don’t keep up with painting or staining your window trim, you’ll be needing to replace those windows soon.

It’s also important to ensure your steps are level, your sidewalk is in good shape and your trees or bushes are pruned. Those are little things that make people feel more comfortable when you’re coming into a house. If everything is clean and organized, it appears that the owners have looked after the house.

As for the green doors, taking the usual television show advice to paint your door red to create punch could be a mistake. If you have green trim around a red door, it just doesn’t work.

So figure out a great colour that complements the hues already on your home including the trim — maybe it’s green.

Planters — published on May 7, 2008

Growing Plants in Containers

Tiny yard, or no yard at all? No problem. Try these techniques to add a little greenery to your outdoor space.

Even if you have some yard space, you might not have enough for a garden. Growing plants in containers might be a solution.

Give Your Plants Their Space

Use big enough containers that your plants will have plenty of room to grow. Ask your local nursery how much soil each plant will need. Although scientists have developed vegetables that don’t require as much growing space, some still need a lot of soil. For example, you would need at least a 19-liter container for a single tomato plant.

Stick to Potting Soil

Use potting soil in your containers rather than soil from the ground. Potting soil is lighter, drains better, and is sterilized to kill weed seeds and diseases that could hurt your plants.

Find the Right Fertilizer

Use a slow-release fertilizer in pellet form. Since you need to water container plants frequently, a regular fertilizer would tend to wash right out of the soil. But in pellet form, one application will release the plant food slowly and last for several months.

Don’t Drown Your Plants

Don’t over-water your plants. Make sure that you thoroughly soak the entire container each time you water, but pour away any extra water that fills the saucer underneath the container. Making the plant sit in water encourages root rot. Since the signs of rot include wilting, many people think that the plant needs more water, which does even more damage. If you’re not sure whether the wilting is from too much or too little water, gently pull the plant up out of the container. If the roots are brown and slimy, it’s root rot. Water it less.

Use Baskets and Plastic Pots

Even if you’re in a high-rise apartment and live far above the nearest soil, let alone gardening space, you can still grow plants in containers and hanging baskets.

Keep Watering in Mind

In high-rise buildings, balconies can get extremely hot and dry from sunlight reflected off the building, so you may need to water your plants every day. Since you’ll probably be carrying water from your sink or tub faucet, keep this chore in mind when you’re planning how many plants to grow.

Pick Plastic Pots

Use plastic pots rather than clay pots. Plants in plastic dry out less quickly because the pots aren’t porous like clay ones. Put 5 centimeters of an organic mulch on top of the soil in the container to reduce water evaporation from the soil.

Hang Smart

When you’re planning for hanging baskets, consider how you’re going to water them. Can you safely stand on a step stool and water with a watering can? Will you get tired of taking the basket down to water it frequently?

Add Water Releasing Crystals

If you travel a lot, and are worried about your plants, a fast, affordable, and practical solution is to stock up on little crystals that soak up and then gradually release water. Specific brands include Water Crystals and WaterSmart Crystals, which are sold by garden centers. When you add water to these polymer granules, they absorb many times their weight in water. By mixing them in with the soil in your plants’ containers and then watering, the crystals soak up and then slowly release the water to keep your plants watered while you’re gone.

Be sure to follow directions on the label, because putting more crystals in a container is not necessarily better. Since they expand when wet, too many crystals can swell up and damage your plant or push it out of the pot.

Source: rd.ca

Decks — published on May 7, 2008

Long Life For Your Deck

Sweep for Long Life

Sweep your deck clean on a regular basis—weekly or more often if leaves, pine needles, or other debris tends to collect. It’s the simplest, most important thing you can do to prolong its life. Debris collects moisture, and moisture promotes rot and encourages termites. So pay particular attention to nooks and crannies where debris can collect, like the bottoms of posts. Get the broom bristles between the deck boards to remove debris that can collect on top of the joists below the decking.

Select the Right Cleaning Solution

Deck cleaners are designed to clean away grime and to remove loose wood fibers on the surface of the deck boards and railings. There are a variety of formulas to choose from at your home center or hardware store. Some cleaners contain only detergents; others may contain oxalic acid or bleach or a combination of these ingredients. Unless you have mildew, moss, or berry stains, you won’t need a cleaner that contains bleach (sodium hypochlorite). Avoid the bleach if you can; heavy concentrations of it can damage the wood. Read the labels and choose a cleaner that best suits the discoloration or staining problems on your deck.

Your Deck: To Finish Or Not To Finish?

You can be taken aback by the variety of deck-finishing products that you’ll find at the hardware store or home center. But just like the 30 varieties of yogurt you find in the supermarket diary case, there really aren’t many variations in suitable wood finishes. In fact, you really only have three choices:

One choice is to apply no finish. This is a perfectly valid choice if you live in a relatively dry climate and you don’t mind the deck turning gray.

The most popular finishes for decks are clear penetrating wood finishes, sometimes called sealers. These usually darken the wood’s natural color in a way most people find pleasing. Clear finishes contain a water repellent—usually paraffin wax, as well as a mildewcide and ultraviolet stabilizers to slow deterioration from the sun. Clear finishes need to be reapplied each year. It’s easy—just use a paint roller attached to a pole for the deck boards and a natural-bristle brush for the railings and anyplace else the roller can’t reach. Use a roller designed for textured paint finishes—it holds the most finish.

If you want to change the color of your deck, you can use a semitransparent stain. The major difference is that the pigment in the stain provides more protection from the sun than a clear finish can provide. You’ll need to recoat only about every two or three years. To apply, use the same technique as for a clear finish.

Don’t Paint Your Deck

Paint and solid-colored stain (essentially thinned paint) form a film on the surface of wood rather than a penetrating layer. This is fine for vertical surfaces like the side of your house, and it provides the most protection from the sun. It’s also okay to use these finishes to add some color to the railings of your deck. But they are not a great idea for deck boards. Foot traffic wears away paint and solid-colored stain, and these finishes become unattractive in a hurry. Water eventually finds its way under the finish, causing it to crack and peel. Worse, the trapped moisture promotes rot. There are paints, usually labeled “porch paints,” that are designed to stand up to foot traffic, but these should be used only on surfaces that will be protected by a roof.

Vent Your Deck

Water dripping from the roof can cause deck boards to rot with surprising speed. The best solution is a gutter to carry the water away. But if that is not possible, consider installing a grill vent along the drip line to let the water drip through.

Keep It Tight

When your deck was built, the wood probably wasn’t completely dry—especially if pressure-treated wood was used. As the wood does dry over several years, connections that have been bolted together (beams or joists to posts) or nailed (deck boards to joists) can become loose. Besides being disconcerting, a deck that wobbles and creaks can cause parts to break eventually. Plus, loose connections collect debris that stays wet and causes rot. If you have this problem, get underneath the deck and tighten every nut and bolt you see. Tighten nails with a couple of hammer whacks, using a nail set to avoid denting visible areas of deck boards and railings.

Flip Deck Boards

Deck boards getting worn, weathered, and splintery? Just take them up, flip them over, and reinstall. You might still have to replace a few, but it’s a cheap way to double the life of most of them.

Source: rd.ca

Lawns — published on May 2, 2008

Lawns 101

Much has been said and written about whether or not we should rethink our passion for the home lawn. There is general agreement that where summer rains are adequate and a well-adapted variety of grass is grown, a lawn makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, summer rains are becoming less adequate to support a lush, green stand of grass in the Toronto area.

While acknowledging the validity of these points, no surface is better suited to outdoor living and game playing than a grass lawn. And few (if any) are more beautiful. Viewed from that perspective, the bigger the lawn, the better! The most practical and thoughtful opinions have suggested that a lawn is well worth the energy and expense it requires, if it is actively used as a surface for outdoor living and playing.

If, however, you do not intend to use the lawn for game-playing and entertaining, by all means consider planting another type of ground cover, one well adapted to your area. Once ground covers are established, they require far less maintenance than a lawn. Ground covers make perfect sense when all you require is an even visual expanse of green to fill in the area between the house and the fence.

If you determine that a grass lawn makes sense for your yard, planting the right variety of grass at the right time of year will go a long way in making yours a healthy, easy-care lawn. If the healthiest, best-looking lawn with the least amount of maintenance is your goal (and why shouldn’t it be?), here’s some guidance.

Practical, Eco-Friendly Lawn Maintenance

If you’ve decided on the traditional lawn, there are four steps you can take to reduce its high-maintenance requirements and all but eliminate any negative environmental impact.

Instead of bagging the lawn clippings, let them compost in place, right on the lawn. Research has shown that leaving the clippings on the lawn actually benefits the soil and the lawn. As the clippings decompose, they improve the structure of the soil and return nitrogen to the lawn.

The shorter the clippings, the more easily they fall to the soil (as opposed to lying on top of the grass), and the more quickly they decompose. Optimally, you should never cut more than one-third off the total height of the grass. This means you may need to mow your lawn on a slightly more frequent schedule, but it’s a small price to pay for improving the health of your lawn while eliminating the effort involved in bagging and hauling clippings around the yard.

Second, never apply too much fertilizer at once, and use only slow- or controlled-release fertilizers. Look for a high percentage of “WIN” nitrogen on the bag (that stands for “water-insoluble nitrogen”), or chose fertilizers from natural sources, such as manure. Other forms of nitrogen may provide a quick green-up, but they are so highly soluble that much of the nitrogen leaches through to the soil without the grass ever having a chance to use it. These soluble forms of nitrogen, such as ammonium sulfate, have caused problems by polluting groundwater and nearby streams and lakes.

Relax your standards somewhat regarding what you consider to be weeds. No less than the great American horticulturist, Liberty Hyde Bailey, wrote in 1898: “The man who worries morning and night about dandelions in the lawn will find great relief in loving the dandelions. Each blossom is worth more than a gold coin, as it shimmers in exuberant sunlight of the growing spring, and attracts the bees to its bosom. Little children love the dandelions: why not we? Love the things nearest at hand; and love intensely.”

Instead of trying to achieve that nearly impossible perfect grass lawn, completely free of dandelions, crabgrass, clover, and whatnot, why not leave the herbicides on the shelf and simply enjoy what you’ve got? A lawn with a few weeds in it is not going to stop anyone from having a grand time playing touch football, badminton, or hide-and-seek. Leave perfection to the greenskeepers and their putting greens.

Finally, if insect pests become a serious problem in your lawn, opt for a natural control. Great strides have been made in the science of organic pesticides. Today there is an effective, natural control product available for every lawn pest. These products make sense not only from an environmental point of view, but from a personal one. All you have to do is imagine the number of times kids fall facedown in the grass during an active game of volleyball or football, or just how close babies or toddlers are to the lawn as they crawl or wobble across the grass, and the choice of insect remedies becomes clear-cut.

The All-Important First Step

Nothing, repeat nothing, is more important to the successful growth of any plant than proper advance soil preparation. Skip this all-important first step, and you’re asking for trouble. Abide by it, and you’ve taken a huge step in ensuring a thriving, easy-to-care-for lawn or garden.

Briefly stated, no matter what type of soil you find in your yard, from the sandiest sand to the heaviest clay, a liberal addition of organic matter works miracles. The organic matter can be anything form compost to well-rotted leaf mold, fine fir bark, or peat moss. Almost every community lays claim to some indigenous, inexpensive organic material, readily available to homeowners for free, the material having been made from the leaves gathered by municipal crews in the fall.

The amount of organic matter you add should be equal to the depth that you intend to turn the soil. If you’re preparing the soil to plant a lawn, whether from seed or sod, the minimum depth you should till is 6 inches; 8 or 12 is that much better. This may contradict some traditional advice, but experience has proved it to be very successful. If you intend to till the soil to a depth of 8 inches, then you should add 8 inches of organic material on top of the soil before you till to incorporate it to the full depth. This takes some doing, but it helps develop an extensive, healthy root system, resulting in a hardy, vigorous lawn that is able to withstand periods of drought and is more resistant to disease and pests.

Depending on the type of lawn you are planting and the characteristics of your native soil, you may want to add fertilizer and lime as you incorporate the organic matter. Explain your situation to your local nursery staff to find out if such additions are necessary.

After tilling the organic matter into the soil, rake the area smooth and sow the grass seed or roll out the sod. Keep the soil moist (but not wet) for a week or ten days. You’ll be amazed at the growth the lawn puts on in such superior soil, even in the first year, not to mention its long-term vigor, in both good years and bad.