First Impression

Landscape designer Todd Dorlon refreshes an overgrown, lackluster front yard into one that causes passersby to slow down and admire the details.

What dates a landscape—particularly this one?

Overall, the biggest issue making this yard look tired was not the plant choices. Instead, it was the lack of thought that went into designing this space on the front end, paired with years of being poorly maintained. If you invest in a design, it’s critical to invest in upkeep. 

How did you manage all of those boxwoods?

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In smaller spaces like this one, repeating the same plant in varied shapes and sizes helps provide a cohesive look while still adding visual interest. Boxwoods are a great tool for achieving that and are one of my favorite plants. Here, we removed some of the larger boxwoods and replaced them with smaller ones that have now grown together to form a low hedge along the retaining wall and around the large containers. 

How did your client’s needs shape this new design?

The owners needed additional parking, so a pad was added on the side connecting to the alley. Doing that required the addition of a retaining wall, so the courtyard idea evolved out of a functional need. In this particular project, the brick used on the original sidewalk was one of the only elements I felt made sense to carry over into the new design. We kept the existing sidewalk layout and expanded on it by adding another walkway that runs perpendicular to the original sidewalk, connecting all points of entry to and from the courtyard space.  

Any tips for great-looking border gardens?

I have a pretty relaxed approach when it comes to flower beds. I worked for a larger landscape company for a couple of years after graduate school, and they had very specific rules regarding flower bed layouts. In my opinion, the end result fell short when following those guidelines. I prefer not to worry as much about what the tag says as far as plant heights and proper spacing. I do pay attention to those things to some degree, but I have found that sometimes working taller plants into the front of a border or crowding annuals closer together than recommended can yield very successful results.

Do you have a favorite color scheme?

I do have seasonal favorites and tend to gravitate toward a combination of purple, blue, and white, mixed with multiple shades of green. However, beds at my own house are never the same twice. Whether it be a revised layout or a change in plant material and/or new color combinations, something is always different with each seasonal planting.

What are some other plants you use to balance out formal structure?

Even though I like the clean, simplistic look of large hedges or rounded boxwoods, the looser, sometimes messy elements are what can really bring character and interest to a garden. Vitex trees have a number of redeeming qualities and can be found on many of the properties I’ve had a hand in designing. They are low-maintenance and fast-growing with a fairly long bloom period. The biggest reason I gravitate toward them, though, is the fact that as they age, their knarled, sometimes disheveled appearance provides a nice balance to other neat and tidy plant material.  

Why are containers important in this design?

The combination of the containers and trees in each corner of this courtyard adds a vertical element and frames the view of the beautiful front door. The trees, ‘Winter King’ Hawthorn, soften the look of the house from the street. Because they are in such a visible spot, the tree selections needed year-round interest. These bloom white in the spring, show red berries in the fall, and have an attractive bark and an interesting branching pattern that’s most evident in winter.

How important is landscape lighting?

Aside from the fact that it can help you navigate safely through the garden when it’s dark, it also adds interest and ambience to a space and can highlight the best features of a home and garden.

Tell us about the front parking pad.What an amazing transformation!

Originally, there was asphalt in that space which made it read as part of the street since it was the same material. It caused the yard to feel even smaller than it actually is. Working with such a small space, I had to think through every little detail to maximize impact and elevate the look of the front yard. The new parking design certainly provides additional visual interest over what was there before, but additionally, the white pavers tie in to the color of the house. Plus, the use of sod (Emerald Zoysia) in the joints helps connect the parking pad to the lawn.

Todd Dorlon

Dorlan has been designing exquisite landscapes in the Birmingham area for past 18 years.  He graduated from Birmingham-Southern College and went on to receive a degree in Enviromental Design from the school of Architecture at Auburn University. When developing outdoor spaces, he works closely with clients, integrating the landscape and the architecture of the home to create a space that is both timeless and customized to each client’s needs.  Todd lives in Vestavia Hills with his wife, Kathryn, and their two children.

Resources: Landscape Design: Todd Dorlon, TMD Landscape, Architect for renovation: Long & Long Design, Exterior color selection and door design: Jan Ware, Renovation construction: Francis Bryant Construction,

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