Living in a downtown Pittsburgh high-rise gave Colorado native Kevin Prall a feel for life in the Steel City.
While life 25 floors above Stanwix Street afforded him spectacular views, it put Prall, 56, a professed plant lover and professional landscaper, out of touch with the earth.
“I need to put my fingers in the soil,” he said.
Prall and his husband, Layne Bennett, 63, an architectural designer, bought a house on Victoria Avenue in New Kensington in 2011. In the spring of 2012, Prall got to work on the yard, where there had been only grass, a hedge and a couple of azalea bushes.
“I knew this whole yard was going to transition,” he said.
After seven years, Prall has a front yard that makes people driving by slow down, stop and stare in wonder. Now, it’s been recognized as the best front yard in America.
That’s right — the best front yard in America is in New Kensington.
And it has palm trees.
Prall emerged as the winner of Better Homes & Gardens’ first “America’s Best Front Yard” contest. His yard was among 10 finalists chosen from more than 900 entries.
“We wanted to celebrate our homes’ curb appeal,” Executive Editor Rachel DeSchepper said. “Our front porches and front yard gardens are the first view into your home’s creative personality and, rather than have all the beauty tucked away privately in the backyard, we wanted to showcase welcoming front yards.”
The magazine’s editors selected the 10 finalists, and votes from readers were used in determining the winner.
Prall won a $2,500 cash prize and a feature in the magazine’s October issue and on the Better Homes & Gardens website.
“Our editors were impressed with Kevin’s ability to create a lush, tropical oasis in an unlikely part of the country — Pittsburgh,” DeSchepper said.
New Kensington Mayor Tom Guzzo officiated Prall and Bennett’s marriage four years ago. He has gotten to know them from their involvement in the community — Bennett works part time for the city’s Redevelopment Authority, and they’ve been active in neighborhood watch.
That their yard is considered the best in the nation comes as no surprise to Guzzo.
“I’ve seen it since the beginning,” he said. “They took a house that they felt had great potential and they transformed it into something more beautiful than any of us could have imagined.
“I’m so happy for both Kevin and Layne,” he said. “The work they have put into that house and the immense pride they have taken in it is outstanding. They deservedly won this award. Every time I go past I marvel at it. It’s really outstanding.”
Prall and Bennett moved to Pittsburgh from Florida in 2010, when Prall got a job as a sales consultant with Eichenlaub, a landscaping business in Fox Chapel.
After living first in Carnegie and then downtown, they decided to buy a house in New Kensington because it was close to his office and the prices couldn’t be beat.
While their block of Victoria Avenue benefits from many well kept owner-occupied houses, there is an abandoned house right across the street that is expected to be torn down this fall.
“New Kensington has its challenges, but we think it’s going in a positive direction,” Prall said.
Prall and Bennett are only the third owners of their house, a traditional four-square built in 1912 they said was in good, if dated, condition. “It’s nothing glamorous,” Bennett said.
It was on the market for $52,000; their offer of $48,000 was accepted.
“Where else can you do that?” Prall said.
Their property isn’t large. Prall says the lot is about 5,000 square feet, with the house taking up a lot of that area.
“There’s so many neat things you can do with your yard that’s outside the box,” he said. “Just because it’s small doesn’t mean it has to be boring.”
When asked, Why New Kensington? Prall says, “Why not?”
“We wanted to make something out of this house,” he said. “We wanted to set an example of what you can do.”
Their next-door neighbor, Chris Kozlowski, has lived in her home since 1975. She said what Prall and Bennett have done is “definitely an improvement.”
“It was a nice house when they moved in. It was just plain,” she said. “Kevin’s done a lot of work changing things. It went from zero to what you see now.”
Prall saw the yard as a blank canvas. Having previously lived in Florida, he knew he was going to use tropical things.
Prall said there are more than 200 varieties of plants in his yard. He says it’s that enormous diversity, thought through and developed over seven years, that contributed to his yard being chosen as the best.
But it’s the palm trees — now numbering eight across the front and back yards — that really get noticed.
“Like everybody else we thought he was nuts,” Kozlowski said. “I couldn’t deal with palm trees. My husband would have none of it.”
Planting palm trees was a gamble and, at $500 each for the first five, an investment.
While the windmill palms Prall started planting in 2014 are more resilient to the cold than other types, New Kensington is still outside their zone, and Prall has to protect them so they survive the winters.
From mid-November to early March, Prall boxes the palms up and keeps them warm with old-fashioned incandescent Christmas lights. Remote thermometers monitor their temperature.
“The yard is quite different in the winter,” he said.
While the contest focused on the front yard, Prall’s work extends through the backyard, where baby palm trees are growing all over the place and where the largest palm is located.
“You’re next to this and you think you’re in San Diego,” he said.
While Prall figures he has done about 4,500 landscape designs, he finds he can’t do them for himself. When it comes to his yard, he says he has “professionally winged it.”
“This has never been work for me. It’s my hobby. That’s what I love to do,” he said.
For those interested in improving their own yards, Prall suggests reading, joining online groups and asking questions, and visiting Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
“You can learn a lot from other people on how to do things,” he said.