Perspectives Online

Right plant, right place: CALS alums landscape an eco-friendly yard for ‘Extreme Makeover’ home

The team prepares to start landscaping on their first day of work at the “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” project in Jamesville. Preston Montague is third from left, and Maury Beckmann is at center.
Photos Courtesy Preston Montague

When the May 3rd episode of the ABC network’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” taped this past March, alumni of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at N.C. State University were key players in the landscape design portion of a home renovation in Jamesville, N.C.

Preston Montague -- who graduated in December 2008 from the Department of Horticultural Science’s landscape design program and won the Outstanding Senior award -- answered a call from fellow CALS horticulture alumnus Maury Beckmann (’08) to help build the landscape for the Jamesville home being “made over” on the show. Also lending a hand was ’07 horticulture graduate Paul Hesselbad.

CALS alumni Maury Beckmann (left) and Preston Montague discuss landscaping strategy with the contractors.
It all began, Montague said, when Beckmann was asked by Ulanguzi, a local design company, to help Edenton Builders build the landscape for the home. Edenton Builders and Beacon Architecture were the local firms hired by the show to design and install the home. Beckmann, who started a landscape design/build business after graduating from the Horticultural Science Department “had created a fantastic Web site and was clearly interested in creating unique outdoor rooms,” Montague said.

Beckmann was responsible for getting all of the materials donated. “That means plants, mulch, dirt, irrigation, boulders, lumber, lighting and manpower,” said Montague. “Maury asked me to join his team, because I have a background in fine art, a passion for thinking green, and I am already an experienced landscape designer.”

Typically an “Extreme Makeover” project takes about a week to totally renovate/rebuild a home for a family in need. Luckily, Montague is a veteran of the curriculum taught by Dr. Will Hooker, CALS horticultural science professor of landscape design. “Will's notorious 'Blitz' week helped us prepare for five consecutive 20-hour days,” Montague said.

Montague, Beckmann and team enjoy a moment on the “Extreme Makeover Home Edition” set in Jamesville as cameras roll in the background.
The builders’ concept for the Jamesville home was a log cabin for the family, Montague said.“The husband, a veteran, is a civil war buff and had a cannon and an antique bell, which had to be incorporated into the design. So we decided to make the front yard a showcase for the house, cannon and bell with a theme of ‘amber waves of grain.’”

Montague’s style of landscape design is “very much influenced by set design,” he said.“That was important, because we had to focus on having a finished look for the cameras.”

However, in March, few plants are out of the ground, “so we looked around and realized that all around us were fields full of this gorgeous tall grass that was orange and blew beautifully in the wind,” he said.

After securing permission, the team “removed a small sample of the local ecosystem and surgically transplanted it in front of the house. We wove some ornamental plants and some well-placed boulders throughout the scene to complete it,” said Montague. “Not only did it flawlessly incorporate the house into the larger landscape, but it's drought-proof and ecologically appropriate.”

However, “the backyard was a more challenging venture, because the design was much more complicated there. Also, it had to be ADA-compliant and thus totally wheelchair accessible,” he said, noting that the backyard incorporated an enormous trellis that weighed roughly six tons and had to be craned in.

“The important elements in this part of the yard were, first, the trees,” he said.

The colorful plants and ease of accessibility planned for the backyard landscape are apparent in Preston Montague’s concept drawing.
Preston Montague
To help manage the temperature around the house, Montague reforested parts of the yard --strategically placing deciduous trees that would shade the house in summer and allow warm sun in the winter. He then made an edge around the yard of native fruit-producing shrubs, such as blueberries and serviceberries, which could feed the family, as well as wildlife. The next layer included drought-tolerant perennials like herbs and strawberries, Montague said. “The trellis was built to resemble the house and had muscadine grapes -- native to N.C. and edible -- growing up it to provide a leafy ceiling that bore fruit.”

Last, instead of a fence (which neighbors had requested), he built a hedge of fig trees in the hopes that the neighbors could meet and chat while harvesting figs but still enjoy their privacy.

Both the front and backyard will be irrigated exclusively with well-directed rainwater from the roof, Montague added.“All you have to do is design the grade to take water where you want it, then choose the right plants that can tolerate the ebb and flow of seasonal rain events -- basically, right plant, right place.”

What’s important to know about the backyard, he said, is that it takes from the model of the local environment and then “artfully arranges the succession that would naturally take place anyway.”

“Weeds aren't a problem in this kind of situation, because they will either get smothered out or will simply blend into the design without offense,” he said. “That means less Roundup™ and less work.”

The landscape team also reduced the turf around the home to a tenth of its original coverage “so that the family would use the gas-guzzling lawn mower as little as possible,” Montague said.

Native grasses, ornamental plants and the homeowner’s cannon are part of the landscape plans shown in Montague’s concept drawing of the front yard.
Preston Montague
Finally, he said, the plants are arranged so that the trees will drop leaves or fruit and fertilize the shrubs, and then the shrubs will do the same for the smaller perennials, and so on. “That provides an annual mulch that is as local as it can get. No need to truck in mulch from far away places. Basically, it's following a sustainable model based on the local ecosystem,” he said.

He then added, “I should mention that many of the green innovations that I plugged into the design are inspired by Will Hooker's playbook.This type of visionary landscape is the result of his progressive attitude towards landscape design.”

There were some challenges to the project, however.

“The house had some hang-ups while it was being built, and suddenly we didn't have a week to install,” he said. “We only had a few days because the yards were so choked with workers. We would jump in there and install part of the yard... only to have to rip it all out again to accommodate underground wiring. Then we'd build it back and have to tear it out again, because someone needed to drive a huge crane in.We did this routine the entire week, every day getting just a little bit more done, but working ourselves to a death-like exhaustion.”

But on the last day, he said, “the producers cleared the set as best they could, and we exploded into action. We did in six hours what it would take a foremen and crew of six to do in a week. Thankfully, we had dozens of volunteers who dutifully followed us around and did whatever we asked. After the show was done, many of the project managers and stars of the show personally thanked us and said that we were one of the hardest working crews on the project and that our design was one of the most ambitious and environmentally friendly that they had seen in a long time.”

Also assisting on the project was Montague’s friend Erin Weston of Weston Farms in Garner.“Erin uses ornamental plant material to make gorgeous products which she sells out of the farmers market. Her farm, now a specialty tree and plant farm, has been a staple at the farmer's market for years. She used her decorative plant material to add a finishing touch to several elements of the yard and helped turn it from a 10 to an 11,” he said, adding that Erin’s father, Noel Weston, “is a famous horticulturist and a local legend.He worked for the city of Raleigh for many years and helped design Pullen Park.”

In the end, Montague said, “Maury and I were very pleased with what we had accomplished, and we were also pleased that we had worked so well together.”

They were also excited that they had created a landscape that addressed key issues, Montague said:

  • Water: “Wise use of water was planned into the design, and we designed the yard to be irrigated exclusively by rainwater. Also, the yard was designed to filter storm water runoff before it ran into the sewer.”
  • Energy: “Careful placement of plants helped manage the temperature of the house on the inside and the surrounding porches. We helped reduce their bills in their new, enormous house by using only the landscape. Reducing turf (which is a fertilizer/water glutton) and using the right size native/drought tolerant plants in the right place reduces the need to run petroleum hungry landscaping tools like the lawn mower (top on the list of polluting household devices) and weed whacker.”
  • Food: “We were able to achieve a robust and fully realized landscape that focused on food-bearing and native plants. The family now has a more secure access to nutrition and vitamins and will even have enough to can and sell if they decide to get into it that much. That provides them with an opportunity to glean a small income from their landscape.”
  • Fitness: “The yard is designed to encourage incidental exercise by path layout, food gathering opportunities and is fully wheel chair accessible.”

Not long after the “Extreme Makeover” project wrapped, Montague – whose mural in Kilgore Hall was featured in the Spring 2008 Perspectives -- was accepted into N.C. State’s College of Design, where he plans to get his master’s degree in landscape architecture, while remaining active in CALS. “I will be assistant teaching in the Horticultural Science Department, as well as the Landscape Architecture Department,” he said, “and help be a bridge between the two departments through education.”—Terri Leith

“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” airs Sundays at 8/7c on ABC. Preston Montague can be reached at