Outdoor Living

Spruce up your backyard with these fresh ideas from experts.

The very smell of fresh, sun-warmed earth awakens the urge to turn it over, whether to plant a new variety of flower or dig the foundation for a backyard retreat. We went in search of ideas big and small, asking local professionals for a little inspiration to help you plan the outdoor space you call home.

Changing Focus. If your existing paver patio could use a fresh look, replace a section with a contrasting pattern, says H&M Landscaping's Mark Mazzurco. It creates a defined space to sit or dine, and raising or lowering the area 6 to 8 inches makes for an even more dramatic effect. Mazzurco mixes the old and new paver materials with inlays that help create a cohesive visual result. "It allows you to introduce new into old, but makes it look like it was all done at the same time," he says.

Go Blue. There was a time when the striking blue atlas cedar primarily grew south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Here, it was limited mostly to lakefront communities such as Rocky River, Lakewood, Bratenahl and Euclid — places that boasted slightly higher winter temperatures as Lake Erie cooled. But increasingly milder inland temperatures over the last 10 years have made the blue atlas a candidate for all of Northeast Ohio, says Roger Dorer, a landscape architect with The Bremec Group. "I still make sure that I put it, if I can, by a brick wall, something like that," he says. Such locations protect the evergreen from biting north and northwest winds.

Game On. One of James Arch's clients loves chess so much he asked the Vizmeg Landscape design-build manager to create an 8-by-8-foot game board as part of his backyard design. "It's somewhat of a novelty," Arch says. The homeowner is buying 16-inch chess pieces for the light gray and dark charcoal paver board. The whimsical feature can be incorporated into any patio, Arch says, with the board doubling as a decorative inlay when not in use.

Alive with Color. If you're looking to liven up your backyard's monochrome planting palette, two-toned blooms are a good alternative, says Austin Tucker of Tucker Landscaping. Brilliant Star, a carnation hybrid, boasts snow-white double flowers with maroon centers, while the Spangled Star produces magenta flowers with petals blotched and rimmed in white and pale pink. Whatever you choose, Tucker recommends planting them in masses for maximum impact.

Berry Creative. Do you love fresh-picked berries but don't have the acreage for space-hogging blueberry bushes or the time to tame their thorny, invasive raspberry counterparts? Brian Corrigan, co-owner of Cahoon Nursery, suggests experimenting with the BrazelBerries family of blueberry and raspberry bushes. Great for the patio, the plants are prolific fruit-bearers but compact enough to occupy a container. "If you want to get in on that whole edible-gardening thing, it's a really simple solution," he says.

Raising the Bar. After years of installing outdoor kitchens, Chas Moscarino of Moscarino Outdoor Creations says he's seeing renewed interest in the backyard bar — either as an extension of the outdoor kitchen or a stand-alone feature. These home watering holes include more than just the usual sink, under-counter refrigerator and seating. Moscarino has designed versions with granite countertops, built-in kegerators and grills. One couple even requested an overhead mister to keep themselves and their guests cool in the summer. "They got the idea when they were at a resort in Mexico," Moscarino says. "They loved it."

Summer School. More people are encouraging their children to explore nature by installing backyard features such as butterfly gardens (thanks to plantings of the aptly named butterfly bush) or vegetable patches filled with easy-to-grow tomatoes, peppers, peas and pumpkins, says Jay Schwartz, vice president of the Ohio Valley Group. Natural-looking water features with rock outcroppings, marsh marigold, water iris and lily pads are an option for the amphibian-obsessed kid in your life, according to Schwartz. "Typically, the water features attract their own frogs," he says.

Goof-proof Plantings. Hydrangeas are prized for their striking large, round heads, but there's a catch to growing the flower. "It only blooms on last year's growth," says Jonas Pattie, executive vice president of The Pattie Group. That's a common problem for neophyte gardeners who unknowingly chop that growth off during a late fall or winter pruning. "The next year they're calling us, saying, 'Well, how come my hydrangea won't bloom?' " Pattie says. Cold temperatures can also freeze the growth and kill it. Fortunately, growers have developed hydrangeas that bloom on last year's and this year's growth, which helps ensure flowering every spring regardless of how low the mercury drops during winter or who's doing the pruning.

Heat Things Up. Fire pits and fireplaces are great for warmth, but when it comes to consistently using outdoor spaces in late fall or early spring, radiant heat is the way to go, says H&M Landscaping's Mark Mazzurco. The units, which are mounted in the ceilings of covered patios, heat stone or paver patios the same way the sun does. "Heat rises," he says. "If you have a roof, then it's going to be able to capture that heat and keep it in a specific area." Gas units are the most effective and more efficient than their electric counterparts, Mazzurco says. To achieve the best results, he urges hiring an engineer to choose the number, size and placement of units based on square footage and ceiling height. "If you don't spec it properly, it's not very functional," he says.

Pool House Redux. These days, the pool house is so much more than just a place to stash equipment. Moscarino Outdoor Creations' Chas Moscarino gets requests to outfit open-air pavilions with kitchens, bars, fireplaces, full baths and even shutters to keep out wind and rain. "They're almost four-season rooms," he says. Many families use their pool houses beyond summer with some guys converting them into fall-season man caves, he adds. "They can just go in there and hang out, get away and watch the football game," Moscarino says.

Grow Up. Vertical hanging planters can help make the most of space cramped backyards by growing small perennials and herbs on walls and fences, says Brian Corrigan, co-owner of Cahoon Nursery. GroVert brand planters have 10 plastic cells, each with a wicking material to help hold moisture for longer periods. "You can take it off the wall, hit it with your hose, let it dry a little bit, and hang it back up," he says. If you want to inject some creativity, Corrigan suggests picking up a wooden planter frame (available in two sizes to accommodate one or two planters) in an assortment of colors and stains, to create "a living piece of artwork for your wall."

Artistic Touch. Instead of planting a row of evergreen trees to block that less-than-stellar view of the neighbor's yard, Vizmeg Landscape's James Arch suggests an art wall. He built a single 8-by-8-1/2-foot veneer-stone wall at one end of a detached pavilion for a client who used it to showcase a sculptural aluminum piece by Akron artist Don Drumm. "But you could [build] the wall without a roof structure," Arch adds — as long as the work it displays can withstand the elements.

Ice Surprise. A concrete basketball court only needs a 4-inch curb around it and a central drain to offer fun throughout the cold months, says Ohio Valley Group's Jay Schwartz. "You can fill it up with water in the winter and turn it into an ice-skating rink," he says. "Adults could even use it for curling." Schwartz recommends pouring a sport court of at least 30-by-30-feet to accommodate such wintertime activities. He adds that an angled curb is preferable to a 90-degree one because it will limit ice damage. "As the ice expands, it's not going to push the curb out," Schwartz says.

Keep it Simple. After years of building lavish outdoor rooms and at-home amenities worthy of a country club, The Bremec Group's Roger Dorer says the simple-yet-elegant spot is making a comeback. "There's a new landscape aesthetic," he says. "And it doesn't involve water features or swimming pools. It's people carving out a small niche in the backyard that's vibrant." In these scaled-down landscapes, low-maintenance plants with foliage that still look interesting long after their flowers have disappeared reduce flats of annuals and masses of perennials. Some examples include the variegated liriope; the Wolf Eyes Kousa dogwood, a small ornamental tree with variegated leaves; and Cool Splash bush honeysuckle, a mounded shrub with green and white leaves. Pops of color can be provided by cushions, umbrellas and sculptural ceramic pots. In many cases, these containers are left unplanted. "The pottery will stand on its own," Dorer says.

Speaking of Simple. Most people understand the struggle involved in maintaining outdoor spaces. That's why the Pattie Group is offering concierge service that goes far beyond performing traditional landscape-maintenance chores such as mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges. Jonas Pattie says his company has electricians, plumbers, carpenters, stonemasons and mechanics on staff to complete tasks as diverse as checking the wiring of a flickering garage-door light or even patching a flat tire. Other professionals can handle problems such as a backed-up septic system. "We had one client who moved last year, put their house up for sale, handed the keys to us, and said, 'Here, watch the house,' " Pattie recalls. "Raccoons got into the attic. We took care of getting the pest-control people out there and getting it handled."

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