Our Readers’ Favorite Landscapers Share Their Top Tips

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From planting roots in Chapel Hill to design philosophies and how to add curb appeal to your home, these landscapers share their wisdom

By Marie Muir

Amy Strunk and her team transformed the exterior of this home with a fresh coat of paint and a landscaping refresh. See the finished product below.

While Amy Strunk’s friends were getting their first summer jobs as lifeguards, she chose to work at Merrifield Garden Center in northern Virginia. Her fascination with sun and soil led to a landscaping career in Washington, D.C., where she planted the seeds for a growing clientele. Small-scale residential installations evolved into large-scale commercial projects over the years, and Amy even co-hosted a local television show, “Merrifield’s Gardening Advisor.” Amy and her two children moved to Chapel Hill in 2014, where she founded Amy Strunk Designs the next year.

With 26 years of experience, Amy helps residents add value to their properties with sustainable landscape designs and functional outdoor entertaining spaces. “Many [of my] clients are becoming more focused on sustainable options like water management and using native plants and pollinators,” Amy says. “Which is an area that I am passionate about.”

One of Amy’s recent clients wanted to expand the natural habitat that already surrounded their property. She enhanced the landscape by removing nonnative plants such as nandina and barberry and adding native plants such as woodland phlox and perennial geranium.

Amy added value to another local resident’s property by designing a paver patio and built-in fire pit. The project extended the client’s space by approximately 300 square feet and gave them the opportunity to invite friends and family over for socially distanced gatherings.

“With such long seasons, a fire pit is a great investment in this area,” Amy says. “I just added one to my backyard, and my kids and I have been enjoying our evenings catching up after dinner and of course, s’mores!”

Brian Popp’s father taught him how to landscape, and he has since carried on the family legacy by teaching his own sons, Julian Popp and Luke Popp, how to work with the land. He has owned and operated Landscape Logic for 30-plus years, offering services from aerating and seeding to landscape redesign and renovation.

Brian takes great pride in the recommendations he gives clients. “Generally when I am helping a customer prioritize needs and making recommendations based on the condition of their lawn or landscape, I thoroughly enjoy educating them to the facts and exactly what they’re up against from an economic and practical standpoint,” he says. Brian’s philosophy allows customers to make their own informed decisions. He will only accept payment when customer expectations have been met.

Today, Brian is in his 41st season working in the landscape industry, Luke works alongside him and Julian recently started his own landscaping company in Pittsboro.

The outdoor space of this home was transformed from a drab screened-in porch to an inviting, functional dining area by the O’Mara Landscaping & Lawn Care team.

James O’Mara
’s love for landscape design was cultivated at an early age. Born in Ireland, James practically grew up in the vegetable garden, harvesting food for his family and selling leftovers to the local grocery store. After completing his horticultural studies at Warrenstown College, James taught an agricultural studies curriculum at a high school in Swaziland, Africa, through the Agency for Personal Service Overseas.

In the mid-1980s, James married his wife, Kate O’Mara, and they moved to the U.S. where he worked for a small lawn care company in Chapel Hill. He and Kate purchased the business upon the owner’s retirement, and O’Mara Landscaping & Lawn Care was established in 2000. Twenty-one years later, James leads a team of 35 employees and a fleet of 21 trucks.

James considers curb appeal from two different perspectives. The first, and the most obvious, is the view of the landscape from the curb, and the second is the view of the landscape as a whole. “Landscaping is not only about the customer’s personal enjoyment, but it’s also about creating an area that is functional and beautifies their abode; particularly in the backyard where they can create an outdoor living space for visits with family and friends,” he says.

To achieve this, O’Mara Landscaping wields a wide selection of perennials, shrubs and trees. “Seasonal plantings can provide blooming bursts of color throughout the year, along with textured leaves of various shades of yellow to red to green,” James shares. He also says outdoor lighting can accentuate the beauty of the landscape by highlighting hardscapes, shrubs and trees.

Catherine Ward is a groundbreaker. She was the first woman to become a licensed landscape contractor in North Carolina and has owned and operated Ward Landscapes & Hardscapes Inc. since 1976. Catherine’s love of plants and the outdoors attracted her to the male-dominated industry. She has worked with many Chapel Hill residents over the years, installing stone walls, designing patios, sculpting pathways, potting plants and more. But her favorite part of the job is creating beauty where there was none.

“When I design a yard, I have always done it with this in mind: If the property owner had an unexpected dinner guest, they could walk out into their yard, no matter the season, and cut something to make an arrangement for the table.”

Catherine’s business motto, “right plant, right place,” guides her work. She begins a project by assessing the client’s soil quality and drainage systems. “Chapel Hill has heavy clay soil, so we usually plant in raised beds,” she says.

She holds herself to a certain standard, thinking long-term. “I want the job I do to look as good in 10 years as it does when we leave,” Catherine says. “That means not planting a shade-loving plant in the sun or planting [something] that will grow to 8 feet tall in front of a window, so it is constantly needing to be trimmed.”

Tim Wright and Jeremy Wright’s shared passion for landscape design and tree protection led to the establishment of Wright Brothers’ Tree Service in 2008. The brothers’ business focuses on the care of trees within the landscape, and they accomplish this by helping property owners understand their health, vulnerabilities and value.

“Trees add substantial value to a property while also providing beauty and shade in the landscape,” Tim says. “We often assist potential homebuyers with a tree assessment prior to the closing. This allows them to understand the benefits and potential risks of the trees on a particular property.”

The Wright brothers also offer pruning and science-based care to ensure that a tree will be less susceptible to pests and diseases and more equipped to coexist with a house, driveway or sidewalk. These assessments help trees to reach their full potential.

“The right tree in the right place will add curb appeal [to a property] and will also be enjoyed by future generations,” Tim says. “We love helping clients choose the right trees to beautify their properties.”

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