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RISMEDIA, June 11, 2010—(MCT)-Homeowners love their yards. They plant gardens, create cozy areas for entertaining, and install decorative elements that they’re as happy to look at from the kitchen window as they are from their chaise lounge.

And despite a weak economy, Americans are expected to continue this love affair with the world outside their door—and perhaps spend a little more time in it as they plan to spend their summer vacations at home.

About 94% of residential landscape architects polled by the American Society of Landscape Architects earlier this year said that outdoor living spaces, including cooking and entertaining areas, would be popular in 2010. That said, improvements are expected to have few frills as homeowners stick to the basics in this cool economy.

“Homeowners want to create a sense of place for their family, friends, and neighbors to enjoy outside, but an uncertain economy means many will dial back some of the extra features we’ve seen in past years,” said Nancy Somerville, executive vice president for the group.

According to the survey results, some of the most popular features this year include: outdoor seating and dining areas, including benches and seat-walls or weatherized outdoor furniture, as well as fire pits and fireplaces, the classic outdoor grill and outdoor counter space. More lavish outdoor kitchen appliances, including refrigerators and sinks, are expected to be less popular, as are stereo systems and outdoor heaters. Survey results found a growing interest in low-maintenance landscapes and native plants. There’s also a continued resurgence of the home garden.

While consumers may be planting more as a way to have fresher produce or so they can know where their food is coming from, there’s also an economic driver: According to the National Gardening Association, a well-maintained food garden yields an average $500 return, considering a typical investment and the market price of produce.

A growing market
The interest in spending time outside is likely to beget more products designed for indoor/outdoor use in the near future, according to Rob Tannen and Mathieu Turpault, of Bresslergroup, a product-development firm.

One of the products they imagined: a tray container system that people could take into the garden to collect fruits and vegetables, adapt to fit the sink for cleaning the produce and slide into a refrigerator as you would a crisper drawer. Another concept was a grill with seating built around it, allowing cooks to entertain friends as they work.

Technology will likely play a larger role outdoors, too, Tannen said. It’s not far-fetched to imagine a shed with solar roofing panels that allow you to charge pieces of large lawn equipment, as easily as you might dock your Dustbuster inside the house. Or using iPod apps in the garden to learn how to best take care of a plant, he said.

Already, technology has entered some gardens. EasyBloom, a product that hit the market in 2008, is a sensor that you stick in the ground to collect information about the soil. You then connect it to a computer via a USB port, where collected information is analyzed to help determine what plants will thrive in that area. The tool also can diagnose problems with an existing plant. “People get bummed out when a plant is not doing well,” said Matt Glenn, chief executive of PlantSense, the company that sells EasyBloom. “If you have a rose bush, put the sensor next to the rose bush and the sensor will look at the world the way the rose does.” You’ll quickly learn, for example, if it isn’t getting enough sunlight or has been over-watered—which can be useful for the growing ranks of novice gardeners.

Adding appeal
When designing any outdoor area, it’s important to create a series of places that you can inhabit, whether it’s a covered space to entertain in or a vegetable bed to attend to, said Sarah Susanka, an architect and author of The Not So Big House series of books. Don’t forget your garden’s view from the inside either, she added.

“When I was designing my garden, I designed a view from my kitchen window,” so it could be enjoyed while standing at the kitchen sink, she said. “If you can see something that you find attractive day after day, you’re much more likely to sit out there,” she added.

And while many homeowners are making these outdoor improvements to their homes so they can enjoy them—especially in a real estate market where moving to another home is financially difficult for some families—a well-planned and maintained garden and outdoor area will serve an owner at the time of resale too.

“When you have a beautiful garden, someone will fall in love with it. In fact, it’s what they’re purchasing—more than the house even,” Susanka said.

Arbors, water features such as fountains, pergolas and decks are expected to be the most popular outdoor structures for homeowners this year, according to the architects group. And making an investment in a deck, for example, might set an existing home apart from a newly constructed one, said Edie Kello, director of marketing for Fiberon, a company that manufactures composite decking material.

“Fifteen to 20 years ago, most builders were putting on decks. A lot of construction builders these days aren’t building decks,” Kello said. “I think it’s a cost factor,” she said, adding that when builders were mass producing during the boom years—building as quickly and cost-effectively as possible—home buyers would often get only a stoop outside their door.

(c) 2010, MarketWatch.com Inc.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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