There is a certain pride that many homeowners take in the maintenance and appearance of their properties. But others take it to a much higher level.

This year's "Pride in Our Homes Contest," sponsored by the Greater Fairfield Board of Realtors, recognized examples of home ownership and improvement in Fairfield that rise to that high level. The 25th annual contest was open to any property owner in town, with nominations via forms available in garden centers and public places. Media sponsors were the Fairfield Citizen and Hearst Media Services.

There were three categories: Front of Home Appearance (curb appeal), Home Landscaping (entire property) and Whimsical (creative and fanciful). Nominations were initially reviewed by the realty board, narrowing the field to select choices for inspection by two professional judges, landscape architect Eva Chiamulera and landscape designer Ron Johnson. There were first-, second- and third-place winners in each of the three categories.

"The contest was initially started by Bunny Jacoby, a realtor who has since died," said Cathy Van Turnhout, a Fairfield County Real Estate broker and the contest's committee chairwoman.

First place in the Curb Appeal category was awarded to Julie and Jack Wallace for their home at 130 Moritz Place

"Jack nominated us," said Julie Wallace. "He saw the entry form at Ganim's Nursery, where we spend a lot of time."

The Wallaces have lived at their Moritz Place home -- a Cape with cedar shingles that Jack recently modified -- for four years and said it needed improvement when they moved in. "The front yard was completely overgrown, not landscaped and dominated by hostas," Julie said.

A gardener "forever," Julie learned initially from her parents and grandparents on their properties in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. They let her do whatever she wanted, and she has put her learning into action at her current home.

"I'm attracted to perennial gardens and more old-fashioned flowers -- peones, daisies, black-eyed Susans," she said. "I spend very little money on plants, most are from relatives or obtained through plant swaps. I start a lot of things from seed and don't have any exotics. I do a lot of splitting and sharing."

Julie said she has planted a lot of Chinese paper lantern, which she remembered from gardens in the 1970s. "I'm bringing that back into vogue -- that's my cause," she laughed.

At the center of the front yard is a pink-flowering dogwood. "It was among the only original elements we kept and now it's a centerpiece," Julie said.

"Maintaining and expanding my garden is my hobby and therapy. I do something every day. I'm always out there in my sundress and straw hat."

Added Jack, "We've created our own oasis. And now we're tackling the back. In a year or so, maybe we'll enter a backyard category -- as soon as we get the dumpster out of the driveway," he joked.

First place for the Whimsical Garden category went to Kari and Bill Pulsifer, 521 Penfield Road

"We were nominated by our realtor Nannette Fattigate at Prudential," said Kari Pulsifer, whose property also placed second in the Curb Appeal category. "We moved from the university area into our home in August 2007. It was mostly new construction. We believe there were remnants of an older home incorporated into the façade. The old structure was not completely pulled down."

Kari said the house has such "great bones" -- shingles, a cedar roof, copper gutters, custom-made shutters and a Colonial-style front door. "The features give it a Colonial flair," she said.

"When we moved in, the grounds were crabgrass dominated, the soil was sandy and there were no ornamentals," Kari said of the landscaping challenge they faced.

"I love gardening and started chipping away on designing our yard spaces, with help from Jim Garrity at Oliver Nurseries on Bronson Road," Kari said. "I wanted the front to be simple and classic. We pushed out the walkway, put in a row of boxwoods and added Japanese grasses for a coastal feel. Then, along one perimeter of the yard, we put in arborvitae trees and trimmed out the backyard with a mix of perennials, shrubs, annuals, containers and whimsical garden artwork which flank a Japanese maple, a refugee from our former property."

About gardening in general, Kari said, "It's a passion and great therapy to dabble in plantlife and ornaments. I'm constantly trekking home with new elements. It's almost compulsive, but fun. And it's an honor to have it recognized."

First place in the Home Landscaping category went to Tom and Nancy Grant for their property at 4014 Redding Road

"We bought the property, which now encompasses four acres, in 1969," said Nancy Grant about her expansive property, which also placed second in the Whimsical category. "It included a circa-1800 farm house owned by Henry Wakeman, which we restored. Sadly, the house burned to the ground in 1972. We rebuilt on the old foundation, so the current fireplaces, patio and base are original."

Tom said their aim was to take the house back to an earlier period -- a 1720 Connecticut Georgian, with six fireplaces. The original property included some kitchen gardens, chicken coops, a blacksmith's shop, shed and corn crib. Nothing was really landscaped.

"We expanded the kitchen garden to that of an early 1700 formal garden that a wealthy landowner would have kept," said Nancy. "Flowers include peones, roses, ladies mantel, nepeta, daisies, foxglove, poppies and boxwood. We tried to be authentic to the varietals grown at that time."

Four years ago, the Grants took 12 trees down to clear the way for a dedicated, organic vegetable garden with hundreds of plants, including tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, squash, beans, kale, onions, spinach and more. "We really have everything but corn," said Nancy. "It's a wonderful playground for our 10 grandchildren and teaching opportunity for area students. Lloyd Allen from Double L Market buys anything we have in excess."

A lower flower garden, that had also been used as a dump, took the Grants three years to clear. "We found a lot of stone, a birdbath and many artifacts like farm implements and bottles," said Tom.

Summing up the experience of restoring the property, Nancy said, "The garden and house have been labors of love for over four decades. We don't do anything small and do everything in an 18th Century-period style."