Home Improvements Are an Investment in Happiness, Especially During COVID

Sprucing up one's house and yard is always a worthwhile project.

building garden beds
Building garden beds.

Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

A recent conversation with my Treehugger colleagues revealed a common finding: Over the past year, we've all developed a new appreciation for having a comfortable space to call home. There's nothing like being stuck in place to make you realize that investing time and money in one's living space is a worthy investment. It has a profound impact on mental and even physical wellbeing.

Creating an appealing home and yard makes you want to spend time in it, and thus less inclined to travel — a convenient state of mind in COVID times. Paul Greenberg makes a related environmentally-minded suggestion in his latest book, "The Climate Diet: 50 Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint," when he writes that 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to tourism. He writes:

"Why not choose a non-flying vacation this year and use the money saved for a better home for years to come? Many of the suggestions ... on home improvement can be accomplished for the same price as flying a family of four abroad." 

That's precisely what my husband and I did last year. We had hoped to take our children on their first big trip in more than five years, but when travel shut down, we decided to use those funds to make improvements to our yard. We hired a local landscaper who helped us come up with a plan to make the overgrown yard more manageable and usable.

Now that the project is finished, not a day goes by that I don't feel immensely relieved we did it. We embarked on additional smaller DIY projects that contributed to creating a nicer space, both indoors and out.


The landscaper replaced the numerous weedy gardens (created by a former homeowner who spent six hours a day taking care of them) with simple, square beds of perennials and dark mulch. The look is modern and minimalist and contrasts nicely with the century-old house. The low-maintenance design is just what I can handle.

We thought a lot about how we use our yard and made changes to reflect that. Because I love entertaining, eating, and reading outdoors, we made a patio bordered with reclaimed stone from an old walkway on our property, while the kids got a big mud pit for digging. They still have their old treehouse, rope ladder, and swing nearby. The patio turned out to be wonderful even in the winter because we could clear the snow off it to make a play space for the kids and to host campfires with small groups of friends while adhering to provincial COVID regulations.

Building the patio and surrounding gardens.

K Martinko

One-third of the yard was replanted as a wildflower meadow to attract pollinators, grow beautiful flowers, and reduce the amount of lawn care needed. It wasn't finished till mid-August last year, so it didn't grow all that well, but I have reseeded it and hope it will flourish.

For the remaining grass, the landscaper urged us not to use any pesticides or fertilizers (not that we ever did) and to let the grass seed compete with weeds and mow whatever ended up growing. It's better for the bugs, animals, and soil, she explained, and really doesn't look different unless you get close.

We planted several trees, all native species that will add shade and biodiversity, and beauty to the yard for years to come. Planting trees is such a simple yet important act. Trees sequester far more carbon dioxide than grass, are lower maintenance and give back so much more than grass in terms of comfort, property value, and overall attractiveness. Greenberg writes, "Just half an acre of lawn converted to forest and allowed to grow to maturity will sequester more CO2 than a car emits in a year." 

My goal is to keep adding a few trees each year till my yard is more forested than not. As the old proverb goes, "The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now." So, don't hesitate! I was pleasantly surprised to find that decent-sized trees from the local nursery are not as outrageously expensive as I expected.

backyard improvements
Raised vegetable beds and the future site of a wildflower meadow.

K Martinko

Sadly, I'm not much of a gardener. My attempts at growing food have failed miserably in the past, so this time we built two 3'x3' raised garden beds and an herb garden, more to show our kids how food grows than to supplement our diet. While the boxes didn't produce much (I'm still learning), it's a nice way to focus production on a few items — like tomatoes, garlic, and string beans — that I can use in large quantities. The herb garden sees plenty of use and is indestructible, as is the historic rhubarb patch.

Because the exterior of the house was looking shabby, I painted the window frames and washed the glass. Clean windows will make you instantly happier, especially when you're inside looking out through the spotless glass. I bought some basic patio furniture (aluminum frame, no plastic wicker) and new cushions to upgrade old wooden lounge chairs I'd rescued from a home that was being demolished. It's amazing how a few minor purchases can transform ratty old furniture into something wonderfully inviting.

red chairs
Old chairs, new cushions – and yes, the awful green carpet will eventually go.

K Martinko


The past year's focus has mostly been the yard, but I've made a few improvements inside the house that stand out. One was buying a vintage wool rug for the living room from a local auction house for a fraction of the price that a new, fair-trade-certified rug would cost. This experience opened my eyes to the wonders of online auctions; they're definitely worth checking out if you want to buy high-quality, used home goods. 

I have done some aggressive decluttering of clothing, kitchen goods, books, children's toys, and even some furniture to create more openness in our living spaces. I dislike a cluttered room and like to be able to approach all windows and see where the floor meets the wall.

For my birthday, I asked for houseplants from my family members and got several beauties added to my collection. I also inherited some plants from a friend who passed away. These make a space so inviting while providing real benefits such as air purification and stress relief. Here you can see my 12-year-old monstera, Verdi, next to my brand-new little ficus named Twiggy.


K Martinko

Creating a home is a long-term project, and the amount of time, energy, and money you choose to invest will depend on your stage in life, whether you own or rent, and live alone, with roommates, or with a busy young family. Everyone's project will look different, but the point is, you probably won't regret making your space your own. I've always been a restless homebody, someone who'd rather be traveling, but I can say sincerely that, right now, there's nowhere I'd rather be than lounging on my upcycled patio chair, a cup of tea in one hand, and a great book in the other.