Before and After: A Front Yard Makeover With Massive Curb Appeal

updated Jun 26, 2019
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(Image credit: Albert and Tisha)

This Bay Area front yard had seen better days, but now it is an urban oasis worthy of major admiration—and envy, especially of their lucky friends who get invitations for sunset cocktails but didn’t have to do any of the actual work. If you happen to have a similar project to tackle, this reader submission has the most thorough process description ever seen in a Before & After post.

(Image credit: Albert and Tisha)

Everything looks so lush and luxurious! Readers Tisha and Albert removed all of the dying and drab plants and replaced them with fresh beauties in a fascinating array of green hues. The entire front yard is much more filled-in, and the vining plants link the garden to the house, creating a welcoming flow.

(Image credit: Albert and Tisha)

This yard is quite typical of front yards in San Francisco: narrow, very steep, and difficult to do much with. It’s easy to look at a home like this and think “You have a yard! And it’s green—great!” but this yard definitely had some issues that these photos don’t fully reveal:

The steep yard had a dying incense cedar as the main garden element along with decades old plants including boxwood, shrubs and ivy. The plant material was not only dated but also desperately at the end of its lifespan. Boxwood running along the narrow driveway frequently scratched our car. The privet hedge and ivy at the edge of the sidewalk blocked views of pedestrians and street traffic while exiting the drive. One low retaining wall near sidewalk offered the only level spot in the yard.

Dead, dying, dated, scratching, and it made pulling out of the driveway more dangerous? Something must be done, and Tisha and Albert tackled the overwhelming job with enviable energy and enthusiasm.

(Image credit: Albert and Tisha)

The improvements are huge. That little stone cage (apparently this is called a gabion wall) is absolutely charming, the multiple levels are elegant, and the bright greens and blues really pop on a foggy day. Once those baby plants have matured and the lower terraces have filled in, this yard will be a showpiece.

(Image credit: Albert and Tisha)

This is really more of a “during” shot, with the old privet hedge, some of the new plants, the new terrace, and the not-yet-filled-in ground cover between the pavers. Oh, and the massive pile of rubble, of course.

As a DIY project, tasks took place during weekends and other time off from work, in fits and starts, over the course of two years. As the builder and designer, Albert was able to hone his experience as a landscape architect with a hands-on design build. The plan was adapted to work with existing conditions and the layout evolved as conditions and materials changed. The planting concept was developed to use what was borrowed, free and gifted. Given the steep incline, we decided that a multi-level approach would suit the area. We utilized 5 cubic yards of “free” urbanite (minus $150 delivery fee) to level the steep slope, incorporating 3 smaller retaining walls for terraces perpendicular to the driveway that now contain native and drought tolerant planting. The smaller terraces increase in height to match the level of the larger view terrace. We have placed a table and two chairs on the larger terrace where we can watch the world go by at 6 feet above street level.

The hired/non-DIY parts of the project were the removal of the incense cedar tree and the service of a hauler to take away leftover urbanite (recycled concrete) that we could not use or give away. The haul was an unfortunate and unplanned expense. The project was completed in three phases:

Phase 1: Dry stack planter walls Three dry stack planter walls were constructed to accentuate the steep driveway. Three beautiful Swans Neck Agave, one in each planter, create a lot of visual impact. They were acquired via a Craigslist free ad. Beach Strawberry softens the large existing curb at the driveway and Blue Chalk Stick ground cover adds texture. The retaining wall below the view terrace contains Pineapple Sage and Pink-Flowered Currant to provide a buffer from the street.

Phase 2: View terrace, fern planter The 18″ high view terrace retaining wall was fixed in place with mortar and a concrete footing, then back filled. The pavers on the terrace were given to us by a coworker. The weathered and natural patina of the pavers give the terrace instant character. One of the pavers is imprinted with the street name and was found discarded on the sidewalk following a curb ramp update in the area. This is significant in two ways: it literally adds a piece of the neighborhood to the project and marks the halfway point milestone in the completion of the makeover. Brass Buttons ground cover fills in the space between the pavers. It is durable and has a nice texture. The planter at the back of the terrace creates a visual connection to the existing path and stairs. A New Zealand Tree Fern was selected here because it can thrive in shade. This part of the yard in mostly in shadow from the neighboring house. Other parts of the yard receive afternoon sunlight. Three vine trellises were built by hand from redwood 2×4 lumber and stainless steel wire to add a soft green screen against what was a large blank wall. The trellises, featuring a variety of climbing vines, are on the neighbor’s property and were installed with their consent.

Phase 3: Adding height to the existing retaining wall and adding a gabion wall The level below the terrace is defined by the original retaining wall and was increased in height by building 8″-12″ of dry stack on top of it. This level now features three Agave Blue Glow plants to further develop the planting concept of architectural forms. Parrot’s Beak Lotus was also recently planted and will eventually spill over the wall. At street level, the old hedge was replaced with a gabion wall that is filled with Lin Creek river cobbles. In hindsight, we could have kept a lot of the urbanite to use as fill in these walls, but there was no place to store it and it was impeding the progress of the yard project by getting in the way of demo. Expanding upon the borrowed part of our planting concept, the neighbor’s giant yucca anchors one side of our yard and has a big presence. The plant material in the lower gabion area takes its cue from the yucca, with gifted Yucca Color Guard and Yucca Blue Boy placed at each corner. A special Nopale from Albert’s childhood home is also part of this bed. This bed was just planted and will fill out more over time.

We spent approximately $2,000 on the yard makeover, little by little. This amount is more than planned. The largest part of the budget was spent on the gabion wall ($750), followed by delivery ( $150) and hauling away the urbanite ($450) and the incense cedar tree removal ($389). The rest of the budget went to furniture, materials and plants.

That is fascinating, since I assumed the bulk of the budget would have been spent on plants and, like, earth moving equipment, because I am utterly overwhelmed at a project of this scale and am amazed someone can just built retaining walls and multiple terraces. I suppose being a landscape architect helps.

(Image credit: Albert and Tisha)

This is such a perfect little seating area. It provides lovely views of the goings-on of the street, while the plants directly below the patio provide a sense of seclusion.

If you’re interested in doing anything similar at your own home, Tisha and Albert were kind enough to provide a few additional tips and tricks:

Look for free materials from friends, craigslist and Don’t be afraid to use materials in unconventional ways. Buy small plants to save money – they will grow quickly. Buy your plants before you need them and if you have the space, allow them to acclimate. We did this in the backyard and transferred them to larger planters as they grew. Use angular fill in gabion walls, it will anchor in the baskets for a better fit than our Lin Creek River Cobbles’ smooth texture.

(Image credit: Albert and Tisha)

This photo really makes it appear that all the hard work was worth it: this is utterly dreamy, and it’s just going to get better as the years go by. Tisha and Albert seem to love the finished product—and even the labor that got them here:

The view terrace expands our living space. We can sit there to watch the sunset, neighborhood activities and fireworks. Our chairs face west and we are at the crest of our street so we have a view of Sutro Tower over the roofline. Hummingbirds love the Pineapple Sage so we watch them come and go. While doing the work, we met a lot of neighbors. Lastly, it has been rewarding to see the plants fill out over time. The only thing we would do differently is use the urbanite in the gabion wall.

Thank you, Albert and Tisha!