Editor's note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Scene magazine's July 2021 issue. Pick up a free copy at area hotels, visitor's centers, chambers of commerce or at the Record-Eagle building on Front Street. Click here to read GT Scene in its entirety online.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, people have been investing into their outdoor living areas like never before, according to the owner of a local landscaping company.

Bob Drost is the founder and owner of Drost Landscaping in Petoskey, which customizes residential outdoor spaces around northwestern lower Michigan.

Drost said his company currently has seven clients waiting for a hot tub or pool to be installed at their home, after the company had previously only done approximately 10 such projects in its 30-year history.

“We’re so backed up,” Drost said.

He said fire pits and outdoor fire places have also been very popular recently.

“It extends your outdoor living into the evening,” Drost said. “And people just feel the safest at home. And there’s nothing greater than an outdoor kitchen, where you can grill a burger, and you’re not bringing it in and out of the house. And a lot of them have refrigeration, ice makers and sinks. It’s just an amazing deal. We’re talking (about) people who will put $150,000 into outdoor family space.”

Drost said he recently completed a project for a well known individual in Traverse City.

“He just decided that he wanted to make sure that his two daughters’ first choice was to come home with their friends and not be out someplace else,” Drost said. “So he kind of built an atmosphere that would draw these teenagers home at night and with their friends, and I think he was very successful.

“It would blow your mind,” he added. “This thing is just a drop-dead perfect outdoor kitchen. You could cook a meal for a reunion on the thing, and then go in the stone hot tub when you get done.”

When done right, Drost said upgrading one’s outdoor living space is a good investment when it comes time to sell the house.

“When you go to sell, people are just taken back by that,” Drost said. “Let’s say you bought it (a house) for $150,000 and put $50,000 into the landscape, now you can probably sell it for $225,000. It’s not like buying an expensive vehicle, and then the next year it’s worth $10,000 less … Landscaping done correctly is always a good investment.”

Drost said the latest trend is outdoor sound systems that are weatherproof year-round and controlled by one’s smartphone.

“It’s just fantastic,” Drost said. “Again, it just increases that outdoor living.

“And they’re not terribly expensive,” he added. “Our technicians from the irrigation and lighting division install them, and it’s everything from tweeters and subwoofers. And God, the sound just blows you away.”

Diane Bell, owner of Ciao Bella! Design & Interiors in Petoskey, said she is seeing more and more folks wanting to extend outdoor living into the colder seasons in northern Michigan.

“People are spending much more time (outdoors),” Bell said. “They get here now in April or they get here in the first part of May … We’ve got a lot of people that have moved up permanently and have become year-round residents. And you still want to be able to enjoy that outdoor feel.”

Bell said outdoor infrared heaters allow people to be warm outdoors in almost any conditions, unlike gas heaters.

“I’m sure you’ve been to a restaurant where they’re eating outside in October and they’ve got all those posts with these gas heaters — well, the wind takes that heat and just blows it away, and so people are still chilly,” Bell said. “Infrared heats the person, not the air. So when it is 20 degrees outside, and you want to eat outside, you can. It’s wonderful.”

She said outdoor firepit tables have also become quite popular.

“We sell quite a number of those, because people love to have sort of a chat circle around, but they want it closer to their house,” Bell said. “They may want it on their deck, and you can do that.”

She said outdoor kitchens are in vogue now too, aided by improved technology that resists weather year-round.

“It used to be when you built an outdoor kitchen, it was heavy and immobile and you were stuck with maybe something in stone or whatever,” Bell said. “However, there’s a company … where all of the cabinetry is aluminum and it’s powder-coated. And it has gaskets around it, and it’s airtight. So animals can’t get in. Doves can’t get in. It stays out year-round. And it’s very modular. And you could actually move it, if you needed to.”

She said powder coating is an desirable feature for patio furniture as well.

“Everybody thinks they need to put their patio furniture away in the winter — you do not need to do that, if you’ve got good patio furniture and it’s powder-coated,” Bell said. “I’ve had my patio furniture outside for 20 years and it looks like the day I bought it, because in the winter time, we cover it up. We have all these covers for patio furniture, and all we do is put bungee cords around them. And they get less abuse than if you try to store them and stack them on each other somewhere.

“And almost I would say 85-90 percent of all really good patio furniture that is (made) out of metal has been powder-coated well, which means it doesn’t fade, it doesn’t chip,” Bell added. “If you’ve got something in metal and it starts to look like it’s chipping, that is a bad product, and it’s not worth the money you even put in it, even if it was cheap … So you really get what you pay for in outdoor furniture.”

She said wind-sensor retractable awnings are also extending outdoor living into bad-weather situations.

“If you’re in town and all of a sudden the wind comes up, it automatically retracts,” Bell said. “It’s almost like creating an outdoor room. And it really extends the living space. “You can go and still have your dinner out there and it’s raining,” Bell added. “There’s a lot of possibilities.”

For something relaxing at home, there’s nothing better than a koi landscape in one’s backyard, according to Cliff Both, owner of Authentic Lawn and Tree Service in Cedar. Both said a koi landscape is centered around a pond containing Japanese koi fish, which he said are very unique creatures that often live to 75 years.

“They’re also fish that actually recognize their own owner,” Both said. “They recognize characteristics of different people. They’re literally smart. They can be trained to ring a bell or to actually feed themselves. They’re intelligent … You can actually train them to feed right out of your hand, and no other fish will do that — other than the shark, of course.”

Along with the pond, Both said a koi landscape can also include other features such as a waterfall and zen garden.

“You can implement whatever parts of the Japanese culture you want, that you like — ornamental grasses,” Both said, for example. “You can get the zen garden, which is the gravel. It brings feng shui into it. It’s all about the flow and everything just to relieve stress and just so you can get the most out of that time that you’re out there, which we all know is far and few between in today’s reality — working for a living and trying to pay the bills. I personally think everyone needs to do more of it.”

He said koi landscapes are great sanctuaries from the grind of everyday life, especially during the pandemic.

“You just want to get out and just get away from it all,” Both said. “What better place when you’re sitting there watching your docile koi (fish) just swimming around — beautiful fish …

There’s 17 different varieties but each one is like a snowflake — no two are the same. But imagine doing that and catching some (sun) rays and hearing the little waterfall or the stream, creek running into your pond … They’re just soothing.”

He said koi ponds also naturally attract butterflies, dragonflies, frogs and turtles.

“It just brings everything together — nature together and relaxation,” Both said. “It’s amazing.”

Both said he takes pride in creating relaxing spaces for his clients.

“I have a passion about creating that for people,” Both said. “And then I know they’re literally helping their life out, because it’s bringing their stress level way down.”

Both said he’s received great feedback from customers who’ve had koi landscapes built at their residences.

“They love it,” Both said, adding the koi fish often become like family pets to his clients, complete with names for each of the fish. “It’s crazy how much they get into it … It’s a whole new life.”

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