Kara Gordon stood on freshly laid sod in the backyard of her Glendora home recently, whirling around to see the newly installed sandbox and drinking fountain, expertly pruned avocado tree, carefully spaced roses and flowering hedges and giant two-person hammock. Taking it all in in gulps, she was nearly overcome with emotion.
"'We won't need to go on vacation," she said, grabbing her husband, Dan's, hand. "We can just stay out here. It's fabulous."
About 10 hours before, the yard had looked decidedly different, with its distinguishing characteristic being its carpet of dirt, ill-used space and potential hazards for kids at play. The goal at the beginning of the day was to turn the yard into a family garden, a place where the Gordons' three children could play safely and the couple could relax.
The folks who made it all happen--the landscapers, producer, crew and Susie Coelho, host of Home & Garden TV's "Surprise Gardener"--had arrived early that spring morning with plans and materials in hand. By dusk, the garden was complete, as was another episode of the show, now in its third season.
Each week, the popular cable series, which roughly 400,000 households tune in to watch on a regular basis, features a redo of someone's yard, often one with some fairly daunting challenges. The work, and the filming of the episode, is done within the space of a day, with the final shot being "the reveal," when the homeowner gets to see the transformation.
"It's not like we've been hired to do a job; we really get to be part of people's lives," said Coelho, a former celebrity interviewer and model, once married to the late Sonny Bono, who describes herself as a "lifestylist." "We find out how they live, what they'd like in their garden. And we get to see how pleased they are with what we've done. How rewarding is that?"
"Surprise Gardener," a Tuesday night series that's part of HGTV's do-it-yourself raison d'etre, tackles a different type of yard for each episode, from an odd-sized rooftop garden with no lawn to a mountain retreat with steep inclines. In the Gordons' case, their young sons were constantly tracking dirt in the house from the grassless backyard; a 30-foot avocado tree badly needed pruning; a ledge with a 2-foot drop-off needed a buffer, and Dan and Kara desperately wanted an at-home oasis where they could comfortably kick back.
Aside from planting sod, which immediately warmed up the space, the "Surprise Gardener" crew put in a hedge of fragrant pittosporum to keep the kids in the yard and off the ledge; moved the swing set and put a nonskid mat in front of it; built a pint-sized filtered drinking fountain; put a sandbox in an unused spot, and decorated the wall behind it with a tile chalkboard made from scratch. And, for Dan and Kara, a fully equipped hammock, with a cover and built-in cup holders and magazine racks. Also for aesthetics, petunias, spearmint, fennel, fuchsia and chamomile were planted around the borders of the yard.
While not all the work is done on camera, there are how-tos during each show, in which a particular project is explained step by step, with all materials and labor detailed, so that a viewer can try to replicate the task.
"We take particular care to show each piece--those exact screws and that exact paint," said Coelho, also a former retailer and restaurateur. "We want to make sure that if people do it at home, they'll get exactly what we did. There's nothing that bugs me more than watching a show that's supposed to tell you how to do something, but what you see is only the first step, and then they pull out something they've worked on for four hours. It's a finished product, but you haven't really learned how to get from here to there."
"Surprise Gardener" draws from a pool of experts on landscape architecture, design and horticulture, and has focused mainly on Southern California yards, using a broad range of the region's topography. And because it's a TV show, with production demands, a quiet neighborhood is key. (At the Gordons' hillside home, a couple of wild peacocks made their presence known throughout the day with some ear-splitting shrieks. Each time they called out, they ruined a shot).
"Garbage trucks and grass blowers are not our friends," said Tito Romero, the show's producer and director. Nor, sometimes, are the elements. During winter, the crew starts work at daybreak and often has to race to finish the yard by dark. In one case, when the crew was laying flagstones for a patio, Coelho and others on the set, who had been working in a different part of the garden, noticed the ground underneath had not been leveled properly. As the sun was fading, the patio had to be ripped up, the ground leveled, and the stones put back on top.
"We finished by the skin of our teeth," Coelho said. "We were all down on our hands and knees working as fast as we could."
Many homeowners, who get all the work and materials gratis, are chosen based on their letters to the show. It was Kara Gordon's persistence--punctuated by photos and a video of her home's trouble spots sent to the show's production office, e-mails and phone calls--that brought Coelho and the "green team" to her house.
Gordon said she and her husband had been fans of the show since its early days, and figured "they probably get 8 billion letters, but they have to do somebody's yard."
Along with private homes, "Surprise Gardener" has started to do some community outreach in which the crew plans to beautify firehouses, schools and other public areas. Its first project was at the Five Acres school in Altadena, where the team built a playhouse, painted murals and planted trees and flower gardens. The episode detailing that work is to air this summer. Next, the crew wants to plant a vegetable garden at a fire station.
* "Surprise Gardener" airs Tuesdays at 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. on HGTV.