Panel talk: Making the most of your outdoor space - Ritchie Feed & Seed Inc.

Panel talk: Making the most of your outdoor space

Our outdoor space has become more important than ever, particularly since the pandemic. We’re cocooning, we’re staycationing, we’re interested more than ever in making indoor/outdoor connections and extending our living space to the outside.

With that in mind, All Things Home put together a panel discussion for the recent Ottawa Home & Garden Show to explore the importance of our outdoor space, how to make the most of it and things to consider.

Who are the panel members?

ottawa home and garden show panel anita murray lana doss welwyn wong michael willis
Panel members from left to right: Anita Murray, Lana Doss, Welwyn Wong and Michael Willis at the Ottawa Home & Garden Show. Photo: Shaun Mitchel Photography

Moderator: Anita Murray, president of All Things Home. Anita is a veteran journalist and the former Homes Editor at the Ottawa Citizen. She has covered the housing industry since 2011.


Welwyn Wong: Welwyn is a multi-award-winning certified landscape designer and owner of Welwyn Wong Landscape Design.

Michael Willis: Mike is an aquatic landscape and backyard designer with Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes. He is also heavily involved with Landscape Ontario.

Lana Doss: a.k.a. The Fine Gardener, Lana has worked in horticulture for most of her career and is currently a garden planner with Ritchie Feed & Seed.

(This is an edited transcript of the panel discussion.)

Outdoor space today

outdoor space Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes ottawa backyard
Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes.

ATH: Today’s landscape for outdoor space is not what it once was. What’s changed?

Lana: Over the past 20 years, we’ve become more interested in creating outdoor rooms, making them appealing and extending their season. And that has driven the industry to create more specialists: Other than handy people and general labour for yard work, there has been increased demand for horticultural specialists, arborists, hedge trimming, landscape architecture, project specialists for patios, deck and fences.

Then COVID hit and instead of travelling, people were investing in their home spaces. That created a soaring demand that led to shortages of material, especially for stone, fences and decks, as well as plant material. This also drove prices up. And I have seen many more people interested in learning to garden and grow food on their own.


ottawa backyard pool Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes
Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes.

ATH: How much should you spend on your outdoor space? Is it true that if you’re planning to sell in five to 10 years, then your landscaping should cost about 10-20 per cent of the value of your home, not including a pool?

Welwyn: A study by Laval University in 1999 looked at homes that had gotten their front yard professionally landscaped versus the same home, in the same neighbourhood, that didn’t. Those homes that did get professionally — and tastefully — done could fetch 15 to 25 per cent more and they sold faster. That’s been our go-to for clients, unless they really want to spend more, but I advise them to try to stick within that range of 15 to 25 per cent of the value of their home.

ATH: What kind of outdoor projects give you a good return on investment or hold their value?

Mike: Curb appeal’s important, so landscaping for the people coming up to your house holds its value. Some people say pools don’t hold their value, but we’ve proven with quite a few Realtors that they do — for the right buyer. Having nice indoor-outdoor living features, fire features, things that are nice for entertaining are also a good idea.

outdoor space Welwyn Wong Landscape Design ottawa backyard lounge
Welwyn Wong Landscape Design.

Welwyn: If it’s designed to meet your needs, no matter how many decades later, it should function beautifully from when you first built it until now. To me, and this is very biased because I’m a designer, if it’s designed correctly, it would outlast years and years of trends.

Lana: And trees as well. Trees year over year continually add to the value of your home. Just get some guidance on the size of tree and how close or far away to put them around your house.

ATH: If budget is an issue, does it make sense to do an outdoor space in stages? What kinds of things are important to invest properly in?

Mike: Definitely you can do it in stages. Some projects are pretty elaborate and the dollar value creeps up. You want to look at what makes sense and is not going to add recurring expense, like having to replace or repair the grass again in each stage.

Lana: And get all your hardscaping features out of the way before you do the softscaping. A lot of plants are going to be very delicate so do them last, as a finishing touch.

Welwyn: You can start at the furthest part of your yard if you have a plan and work your way to the front so that you have better access and don’t have to redo what you’ve already done.


Ritchie Feed & Seed pool garden ottawa landdscaping
Ritchie Feed & Seed.

ATH: When should you start planning, particularly if you want to be able to enjoy the work that you’ve had done in the same year, or is that even realistic?

Welwyn: You want to start early in the season. You can even do your planning in the winter. We will often start planning in the fall, doing measuring, pre-planning, and work through the winter with clients — when we’re not as pressed for time — and then, come spring, they’ll already be booked with a contractor who’s going to be able to do the work.

Lana: Being here at the home show, gathering information and inspiration — that’s a huge part of the planning process. And the season before, if you know you’re going to do work the following year, start taking pictures of spaces you really like.

Mike: It’s definitely important to plan because it’s a short season. When you start looking at adding a pool and landscaping, you’re adding a lot of time. Everybody wants to be first in line, which is often not realistic.

ATH: What order should things be done in? Can you walk us through this outdoor space:

outdoor space Welwyn Wong Landscape Design ottawa backyard fire pit
Welwyn Wong Landscape Design.

Welwyn: This is looking from the back of the property where we have a sunken fire pit lounge. That’s where we started. And we put in the steps that go up to a path that leads you to the house. Later on, they did the patio. And later again, they did the final phase, which was the deck and the hot tub. The planting got added as we went.

ATH: There’s a lot of zones in this project. Is it important to create zones?

Welwyn: It’s nice to have what we call different “rooms” in your landscape. This one (above) was a typical backyard, not something super big, although it does look big. We used the grade, so it slopes to the back and that’s how we got a different level for the fire pit lounge. If you’re going to bring a patio out to the very back of your property, you need something to attract you there. Fire and water are great attractions for us, we innately gravitate towards them.


ottawa garden trends butterfly pollinators
Pollinator gardens are popular.

ATH: What is popular in gardens right now?

Lana: There’s a great interest in collecting water on your property, whether that be through creating a rain garden that includes plants that can stay moist for a day or two while water percolates down through the soil or diverting your downspout through a channel that will slow down the water and remove pollutants.

There’s such a renewed interest in edible landscaping and just adding different types of food to your garden, whether it be in an ornamental and very decorative way to your existing flower beds or adding fruit trees, vegetable gardens, adding herbs with your flowers. It’s really interesting what people are coming up with right now.

One of my favourites is pollinator gardens; we’re so much more interested in supporting pollinators.

Also, a lot of homes being built don’t have a lot of space for big shade trees, but we also want to take advantage of some of the awesome benefits of trees, like providing shade, lowering temperatures, pulling carbon out of the air.

So, if you don’t have space for a 60-foot maple or oak tree, there are quite a few other dwarf shade trees now that breeders and growers have come up with. There are also some native trees that are only 20 feet or so. One of my favourites is a serviceberry; it’s a native plant that supports a lot of pollinators as well. But we’re seeing a lot more smaller trees that we can take advantage of in small spaces.

ATH: Pools became a hot ticket when the pandemic hit. Are they still in big demand?

outdoor space ottawa backyard Welwyn Wong Landscape Design Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes
Welwyn Wong Landscape Design / Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes.

Mike: For sure. Like Welwyn was saying, we naturally gravitate to water. And there’s so much you can do with a pool and have a staycation in your backyard. This particular pool (above) has a nice water feature that gives a visual experience, plus you have that soothing sound of flowing water.

ATH: What else are you noticing?

Mike: Being able to maximize your space and having multifunctional spaces is becoming key — and a lot of that is in the planning and seeing what will work in the space.

Welwyn: Using natural and classic materials is another. And that relates to what we’re doing with interiors; we tend to then translate that to the exterior. And the exterior has always been that way if you think about it; they’re just coming back to us.

Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes ottawa backyard
Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes.

Mike: Smaller pools are definitely trendy, simply because many don’t have a backyard to accommodate a huge 25-foot pool. So, a lot of pools are smaller, with a constant depth and with more features incorporated like bench seating and sunken loungers. Plunge pools are also more popular.

Welwyn: Because people have been cocooning and doing staycations, one of the trends is to bring the spa to your backyard.

Mike: Fire features are also popular. In some areas, they can be wood burning, natural gas or propane. It’s not just to have that warmth and sit around the fire, a lot of clients use them for the visual aspect. Nothing is nicer at night than having a fire feature illuminate the landscape.

Simple updates

ATH: Not everyone has a big budget, but they want to create impact. What would you suggest?

Welwyn Wong Landscape Design ottawa sideyard
Welwyn Wong Landscape Design.

Welwyn: We all have side yards and in the suburbs the distance between neighbours is tight. What I sometimes suggest is to get together with your neighbour and do a garden together. You’ll have more room together to do a wider path than you would on your own and it allows you to have plantings on both sides.

Drainage can be a challenge due to the swale between the two properties on the property line but, if designed properly, you can keep the drainage while still creating a stepping stone path.

The requirements for light will be different on either side of the path, but the plantings don’t need to match. In this way you can share the cost with your neighbour and both get to enjoy the effect.

Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes ottawa backyard lighting
Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes.

Mike: One easy thing to do is to define your garden edges by using an edging stone, which brings an interesting element to your space but also makes it easy for maintenance — it’s much easier to weed up against a garden barrier or to trim grass.

Lighting is a huge feature. We use our outdoor space often in the evening, so doing simple landscape lighting is definitely a good idea. And the beauty of landscape lighting is it’s low voltage so you don’t require an electrician.

backyard bench

Lana: Start by creating a small sitting area where you can enjoy your morning coffee. One that’s easy to do on your own is a small flagstone patio with a bench, maybe a little water feature, an ornamental tree, especially if you’re just getting started and still have planning to do.

Focus on your front yard and if you don’t want to drag the lawn mower to the front, make the whole space a low-maintenance garden.

Another simple update is to add a small tree. Even if you’re doing a large project and you have a plan and know where those trees are going to go, there’s an advantage to getting them in early and it adds so much.

And if you want to just start “somewhere,” why not create a small garden bed, perhaps in a corner, that won’t impact future projects?

Extending the season

outdoor space Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes ottawa backyard
Roger Willis Pools & Landscapes.

ATH: What can we do to get more of the season out of our outdoor space?

Mike: The season is short, so when it comes to a pool, you want some kind of heating — solar, natural gas, propane — that allows you to maximize your swimming time and usability of the pool. We also recommend an automatic pool cover, which helps conserve energy, keep heat in the pool, keep debris out of the pool and there’s also a safety element as well.

Fire features are another way of extending the season.

ATH: What is important to know about regulations regarding fire pits?

Welwyn: You’ll need to contact your fire marshal. They’ll tell you the distance needed between combustibles. You’ll also need to know the distance requirements for your fire element itself, which will have safety requirements for how far away the flame is, especially above it. Typically in the city, you cannot use a woodburning fire pit, but you can use a gas one, either propane or a natural gas source. On the outskirts and in some pockets of the city you can use wood, but you will need to get a fire permit and every time you want to use your fire pit you’ll have to call in to let them know and to make sure there is no open fire ban in place. (Permits are also required for campfires, outdoor fireplaces and burn piles in the areas where they are allowed.)

Welwyn Wong Landscape Design night lighting ottawa backyard
Welwyn Wong Landscape Design.

ATH: What benefits are there to creating a planned nightscape in your backyard?

Welwyn: It will extend the use of your yard, and not just from day to night or in the fringe months where we have nights early, but also in winter. With nightscaping, you get to see some of your landscape structure and it’s a really nice way to extend the use of your space.

ATH: What’s the difference between night lighting and nightscaping?

Welwyn: Night lighting is just the function of what we call lamps in the industry, or fixtures. A nightscape involves preplanning where all those fixtures are going to be placed and, as the build goes, we add the wire. I like to layer my nightscape so you have foreground, middle ground and background. At night, when it’s all dark, we lose that focus so it’s nice to expand it back out again. I’ll do that with fixtures, but also with candles and fire pits. We can use other things besides just the fixtures.

ottawa backyard gardens tulips

Lana: When it comes to extending the garden season, our winters in Ottawa are long, so it’s also nice to start the season as soon as you can. You can plant spring bulbs in the fall to see them come up early in the spring. Take pictures during the season and use those in January, when it’s snowing outside, as inspiration to plan your season. You can also start seeds inside.

ATH: One final question — why are our outdoor spaces important?

Lana: I firmly believe that we are a part of nature but we’ve tried to remove ourselves from nature, so anytime we’re back in it is good. Spending time outside grounds us, it makes us feel a little more “right” and allows us to get that distance from our technology and our chores and just enjoy it.

Welwyn: There are some things in our home that we have to do, like we have to do the roof when it needs it, but what we do outside in our landscapes is like vitamins to us, it’s good for us. We don’t necessarily have to have vitamins, but it’s certainly good for our mental health.

Mike: You have to look at your landscape — whether it’s a patio, terrace, fire feature, pool — it’s an extension of your home, it’s really like another room. It’s having that indoor/outdoor approach and that’s so important.