To the Extreme

Features - Design/Build

A Washington D.C. -area nursery and landscape company races against the clock to create a primetime, TV-ready yard for a family in need.

April 9, 2009

At first glance, the project seemed simple enough for the landscape team at Behnke Nurseries. The client wanted to transform a 1-acre lot into a traditional setting befitting a new, Colonial-style 4,800-square-foot home.

Only there wasn’t a budget for materials, labor or time. And once the design was complete, it had to become reality in less than three days. Sound extreme? That’s because it was.

The client – the producers of ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” – was on a mission to surprise a single mother who was raising four kids of her own plus 10 nieces and nephews who had recently lost their mother to cancer. The goal was to surprise the family with the brand-new home for the Emmy Award-winning show’s sixth season opener. The team from Behnke Nurseries, a family- and employee-owned garden center and landscaping company in Beltsville, Md., was approached about doing the project just two weeks before filming began.

Behnke landscape designer Andrea Becerril was charged with designing the site. The producers handed over house plans, a plan for the property and a few basic specifications. “The house is fairly traditional so they wanted a traditional landscape and some plants that were big and nice-looking for the camera but that the homeowner could maintain later,” Becerril says.

After visiting the property, Becerril had about a week to pull together a design that included plantings and a U-shaped driveway in the front, plus a patio, outdoor fireplace and accompanying plants in the back. Her team scrambled to find the materials they needed to get the job done. “We donated labor and time, then we got other companies to donate plants and materials,” she explains.

Normally Becerril draws on the variety of plants in the Behnke Nurseries retail store for inspiration. This time, however, she made use of any donated plants that would look good at the end of June, when constructing and filming took place. “We had lots of different perennials and then a whole bunch of annuals to give a lot of flower color for the camera shots,” Becerril says. 

The chaos of designing the landscape and rounding up materials was nothing compared to what awaited the team when they arrived at the site. The project was behind schedule – the crews already onsite still hadn’t back-filled around the foundation or graded the area that would become the yard. “Our guys got into some of the equipment and started backfilling and grading because nobody was doing it,” Becerril says.

Then Becerril learned the producers wanted to make major, last-minute design changes. Originally, they had insisted on a U-shaped driveway at the front of the house. “I expressed concerns it would look funny and wouldn’t work, but on paper they thought the house was far enough from the road,” Becerril explains. “Once they saw the house built, they freaked out about the driveway.” So she scrambled to redesign the entire front yard and parking area. The new design included a parking pad on the side of the house and a sidewalk that extended from the front door, across the parking pad and down the street, which meant the team had to solicit additional donations of pavers.

Things didn’t move any more smoothly in the backyard, where the producers had insisted the patio be built on a location with a slope. “It was going to be difficult to build on a slope in a short amount of time because we had to build walls, and then the slope ended up being much worse than expected,” Becerril says. Plus, the house plans she had been given didn’t have accurate elevations for doors and hadn’t even included window wells and an egress window from the basement. That meant Becerril also had to redesign the backyard in order to move the patio farther away from the house.

Quick thinking, a lot of hard work on the part of the Behnke laborers, and plenty of volunteer help – Becerril estimates they had as many as 40 to 50 people at some points – ensured the project stayed on track despite the setbacks.

And then it rained. The team had finished installing the stone base for the front sidewalk and driveway when the sky opened. Although they hurried to put tarps over everything, water collected on top of the tarps and washed out part of the sidewalk base. “We had to rip out about half the stone and start over, so that set us back a few hours,” Becerril says. And when you have less than 72 hours of work time on a project that normally takes at least three times that long, that’s trouble.

Still, somehow the Behnke team and volunteers finished the driveway, sidewalks and patio. They rolled out sod. And they even had time to complete a memorial in honor of the mother of the 10 children, complete with a tree and a brick seat wall.

As crunch time neared, the workers also had to deal with the television crews running around. “If they needed to film an important scene, we had to put everything down and move – sometimes for an hour – just so they could shoot a 10- to 15- minute scene,” Becerril says. “We all learned patience and perseverance from the magical world of TV.”

Despite all the last-minute changes, the lack of sleep and the weather, the team was able to complete the plantscaping and hardscaping early on the morning of the “Big Reveal.” At that point, Becerril had worked a 21-hour day and some of the Behnke crew had been going even longer than that.

Which is why, Becerril admits, she wasn’t around to watch the family’s reaction when they arrived to see their new home for the first time. She was at her own home, asleep.

In September, watching the two-hour premiere on television was surreal. Becerril says she was disappointed that none of their work in the backyard made it on TV because the egress window didn’t arrive. But she was still proud of what the team accomplished in such a tight timeframe. “I sat there and thought, ‘Wow, I helped do all that work and gave that family a place to live and the kids a yard to play in.’”

The author is a freelance writer based in Lincoln, Ill.