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Room That's A View 

To many self-guided gardeners, replacing plants and trying whole new schemes in a flower bed every few months are not uncommon strategies. A bit of professional help and a step-by-step game plan, however, not only can save money and frustration but also can convert an undynamic yard into an outdoor living room.

Beverly Katz, a landscape designer and owner of Exterior Designs Inc. (by appointment, 866-0276), specializes in helping homeowners make that metamorphosis by showing them how to use "dead" space or deal with so-called "problem" areas in front, back and side yards.

"Correcting unusual problems is what I've become known for," Katz says. "In correcting the problems, unique designs often come about. The awareness is there that we have not in the past used our most valuable space: our yards. Because property today is so valuable, you want to use every square inch to its best advantage."

In addition to solving specific problems with standing water, small areas or sprawling yards with no real focal point, Katz leaves the homeowners with a plan they can implement in steps as resources become available. She also instructs them about how to maintain their landscaping -- pruning, weeding, mulching -- so that it looks neat and well-tended, even during dormant periods.

"You can save money in the long run by planning it out in the beginning," Katz says. "Even if it's not me, hire a professional to lay out the whole scheme so you don't forget stuff for future lighting and irrigation that you can't afford now. That way you don't have to break it all up to add it later. The idea with good professional planning is it never looks piecemeal. It always looks like it was all done at one time. You may never get all of it done, but what you do get done looks great and works."

Part of the planner's job is to lay out reasonable stages for accomplishing the final goal, recommending what should be done first and what can wait until later. One of the secrets, Katz says, is selecting the proper plants they will grow to the right size over a five-year period.

"You have to select plant materials that aren't going to drive people crazy in two-to-three years," she says. "Maintenance is the key. If you don't prune the plants to help them grow like they're supposed to they'll get leggy and overgrown. You also need to keep them disease free. [Shoddy] maintenance can ruin the whole concept.

Katz, who began practicing her craft in 1972, specializes in New Orleans courtyards and swimming pool areas, but also performs refurbishing (replacing plants) and will help people with placement of their furniture, potted plants and decorative accessories.

"My business is designing outdoor rooms," she says. "Today, the courtyard is more a room, an extension of the house. It's a space people use more than they did before. People are more aware of flowers and plants because they're staying at home ... and utilizing their homes more than ever. They're realizing they have a space that's not utilized properly."

The hectic pace of modern life also is awakening an appreciation of yards as havens. "People are appreciating nature more than ever," Katz says. "It's therapeutic. It's a comfortable feeling having lush shade, running water (in a fountain or pool). You lose your problems when you're there."

And in this area, if you plan properly, you can be there almost every day because of our climate. Gazebos, arbors, outside fans, plants and trees can provide enough shade to be comfortable even in summer, and people are responding, Katz says. "People like to go outside today and have breakfast, coffee, a cocktail. It's therapy. People say they need a place to relax."

There are many ways to develop such a space, whether a homeowner has a large yard that needs an intimate touch or a small area that needs opening up. Not only will a landscape design improve the quality of life for the family who enjoys it, it also adds value to a home.

"It increases the value of the home much more so now than ever," Katz says of landscaping. "It will help a home sell. A wonderful exterior space ... can be the climax of a house." Even when customers want to improve their yards for personal instead of financial reasons, the landscaper says it is well worth the investment.

"I really try to work with their budgets; you certainly can afford my time at least for a plan," Katz says. "People think it's worth the money. They feel better -- I hear that all the time. I get letters from people ... that tell me it's made a difference in their lives."

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