The Great Outdoors

Looking for a sense of serenity, adventure or togetherness close to home? We've discovered just the spot — and it's right in your own back yard.

Tool Shed Toys

• Water Works — Avoid oversoaking beds or starving turf by attaching this WaterWatch Water Meter to your garden hose. An easy-to-read dial indicates the amount of water dispensed in inches. ($9.99)

• Never Kinky — Hoses with poor circulation put a damper on watering. If kinks cramp your style, try a hose that lets water go with the flow. This never-kink hose by Teknor Apex is manufactured with a stiff interior that won't double back when dragged around corners. (various sizes, $19.99-$42.99)

• Rainbow Sprinkles — Dramm's oscillating sprinklers, available in an array of Skittle-bright colors, are far from drab. Heavy-duty but light at heart, these irrigation systems are a water source for backyard fun. ($44.99)

Gourmet Garden Utensils (shown above) — Known for its fine culinary gadgets, OXO is doing some dirty work these days. Its outdoor hand-tool line offers rugged stainless-steel construction. Look for necessities from trowels to pruners. ($11.99-$39.99)

• Blowing Dust — The Power Mill Duster applies a fine powder mist and is perfect for garden dust products. Pour product into the mill, crank the handle and try to convince yourself that yardwork isn't play. ($26.99)

Home Helpers

• Self-absorbed — Forget extra-strength suds when cleaning floors. This Star-S microfiber mop is safe for hardwood and linoleum floors and doesn't require cleaning chemicals to cut through crud. The cloth picks up and contains dirt, making cleanups easier than ever. (basic set $30, deluxe set $45)

• Shimmy Sham — Simply drop this Star-S synthetic chamois in the washing machine. ($20 per set)

• Single Strokes — Wet, wash and wipe down windows in one swift swipe with the Star-S squeegee, equipped with microfiber material that multitasks for less-is-more cleaning. ($20)

• Creature Comfort — Ahhh • nestle your head on this polystyrene bead-filled pillow by Outdoor Warehouse. ($15, $25 for two pillows)

You may have heard about the new hot spot in town. It offers fine dining, a peaceful setting, soothing water and a glowing fire. Where is it? Look no further than your own back yard.

People are putting in the effort and time to transform their own turf, says David Thorn, president of DTR Associates in Chagrin Falls. Thorn's entrance exhibit at the 2005 National City Cleveland Home & Garden Show, themed Outdoor Escapes, illustrates this preference. "People are really going back to their properties for a sense of vacation, privacy and retreat," he adds.

Today's back yards aren't limited to barbecue grills and basic decks. Patios promise endless potential and landscape design provides opportunities to create a vacationland — or at least a place to unwind after busy days or entertain family and friends.

"Rather than getting on a plane and going to Europe, create a European garden in your yard that you can enjoy every day," Thorn suggests.

Year-round color, high-end outdoor cooking setups, fire pits, terraces and calming water features turn outdoor spaces into extended living rooms.

"Some areas are private, other areas are in the sun, other places are cozier and we take into account space for entertaining," explains Richard Kanary, president of Kanary Landscaping in Sheffield Village. He introduces a multiple-room approach that allows homeowners to take baby steps when tuning up their landscapes. "People don't think about having different spaces in their yards for their different moods."

Start with simple strategies and then delve into more complicated renovations. Here are some design principles for tapping the comforts of the great outdoors.

Plan of Attack

The foundation of solid design is a plan. Aimless planting and spontaneous add-ons result in disjointed landscapes. "Any successful garden must have a wonderful plan," Thorn says. Though professional consultation costs more than attending do-it-yourself workshops or soaking in episodes from HGTV, a designer's eye is critical for choosing appropriate plantings and creating outdoor spaces that flow.

"The plan is the absolute starting point," agrees Jim Weidner, president of the Weidner Group in North Ridgeville. "Then, you talk about budget. You weigh what you want to spend and your priorities. If you build a brand-new home, you will want to install the front-yard landscape first for curb appeal. Then, maybe you will get the patio in so you can enjoy that space. Stage two might be landscaping or addressing privacy issues as neighbors build."

For homes with existing landscapes, owners might opt to revitalize plantings or rework their entertaining areas to accommodate outdoor kitchens or more seating.

Weidner finds out clients' goals before designing a plan, asking questions so he can paint a lifestyle portrait. How large is the family? Do they entertain — and how many people do they generally invite? Are they seeking intimate family gathering areas or more elaborate places for parties? Where will they do their cooking and how often do they cook outdoors?

Even small details count. "We really focus on how they will use the space and ask them questions down to how large their furniture is," Weidner says. "We also find out if there is a place in the back yard where the parents have to watch children from the kitchen. Those focal points and privacy issues are considered in the plan."

Thorn points out that a detailed landscape plan also allows homeowners to bite off small projects as their budget or time allows. "A client can use a plan like a recipe book, where you have ingredients and you add to the landscape as you can afford to, and you pick and choose what items you want to do and what items are beyond your abilities," he explains.

Computer imaging offers homeowners a sneak peek of their landscape's potential, which helps them pick and choose various plants and design elements. Kanary snaps a digital picture of the property, interviews the customer to find out likes and dislikes, and creates an "after" image that helps customers make design decisions. "A lot of people have to see in order to plan," he says. "With computer imaging, people get a better idea of what the landscape will look like when it is finished."

Go with the Flow

A seamless transition from the living room to an outdoor lounge area requires flowing interior elements into the exterior plan. What is the home's architectural style? "You want to create repetitive movement from inside to outside," Thorn explains.

For example, a bluestone patio will complement a slate-floored foyer. Wrought-iron detail outside works well with strong railing designs indoors. "Pull that same dimension outside," Thorn urges. "Pick up the subtle things."

Then, connect the dots with backyard focal points. Link the deck cooking area with the seating space and a private terrace with plant varieties that encourage the eye to trail from one feature to the next.

Homeowners should experience the same visual cooperation indoors. "Walk through different rooms in the house and make sure you capture certain views out of windows that you sit by for the majority of the day," suggests Thorn.

Mesmerizing Movement

Fire and water hypnotize stress into relaxation with light and sound. Both tickle the senses and trick homeowners into escape. "Water sounds give you a relaxing feeling," Kanary notes. Water features range from ornate fountains to more elaborate waterfalls or ponds.

Capture a bit of creativity by using unusual items to facilitate falling water. Old-fashioned pumps, purchased at garden centers or antique shops, lend a frontier feel. Kanary says a cast-iron pump he purchased and installed in front of a home is a natural alternative to manufactured water features.

"The water is constantly running, so it looks like someone is pumping a bucketful of water," he says. A receptacle constructed of river stone collects water and recycles it back into the pump.

Professional installation is generally necessary for water features. However, DIY pond kits are available at home and hardware stores for homeowners who want to wade into water features solo.

Fire pits and outdoor fireplaces lend similar aesthetic qualities to landscapes. Installing a fire pit is economical, says Weidner, especially using simple, stone retaining-wall products and stainless-steel inserts. Attractive fire rings and bowls are available, but stone lasts longer and won't rust. "You don't need to spend a large amount of money and you can make fire pits a nice focal point," he adds.

Gas fire logs are especially appealing for those who want to avoid the reek and obscured view caused by smoke. Ceramic logs burn cleanly and still offer atmosphere to outdoor spaces. "You get the look and ambiance of a fire and you don't get the smell," Weidner notes.

Color Wheel

Color shouldn't expire after warm seasons. Cultivate year-round eye appeal by choosing plant and flower varieties that bloom at different times and offer interesting textures. Variety adds spice in all seasons.

"If you have an entire backyard garden of perennials, it will be pretty blah in the winter," Weidner observes. He suggests a foundation of evergreens. Layer short-needled spruces with silvery blue spruces. White pines with longer needles inject textural character. Group the trees in threes and fives, or drop in one blue spruce for every few white pines to engage the eyes.

Next, work in some tall grasses that change color each season. "In winter, they are brown and in fall they get red and copper," Weidner says. Mix in smaller shrubs with grasses and pines. Holly plants with glossy, green leaves and rosy red berries energize dormant, winter landscapes. Junipers are also low-growing options. "Holly gives a blast of color within these notches so you can enjoy the landscape throughout the year," Weidner says.

In summer and spring, annuals and perennials provide a vibrant show of color. Kanary suggests choosing a theme, though he adds, "There really is no such thing as colors not going together." His backyard palette mixes maroons, reds and whites. He explains that light-colored branches on beech trees reflect night landscape lighting, and maroons and pinks contrast well with greens.

"Plant your garden so you have something going on all the time," Kanary emphasizes. Start with perennials. Then, incorporate early, medium- and late-blooming flowers so that when spring flowers die back, summer varieties are best in show.

Groundcover blankets bear turf all year, as well. Kanary suggests plumbago, which sprouts blue-purple flowers starting in August. "When the leaves turn in the fall, the blue-purple colors and leaves are a beautiful combination," he says.

In addition to flowers, add verve with vegetables. Elderberry bushes provide a pop of color. Strawberry plants are an alternative groundcover that blooms pretty, white flowers. Cherry-tomato plants splash boring beds with a burst of red, and blueberry bushes add interest and produce a bounty for the kitchen.

"You can incorporate herbs and vegetables into a landscape to make it very attractive," Kanary says. "Use these plants like you would any other landscape material. Use your imagination."

Simple Starting Points

Start small, creating a backyard sanctuary with a few simple features. Then, add more elements to this base.

Thorn suggests establishing a focal point with an eclectic bench. Custom build or find a seat in a garden store. This is the start of a comfort zone. "Get some beautiful stone for the flooring to pull inside decor outdoors," he adds. From there, homeowners can branch into other features: fire pits, terraces or eating areas. But start with a singular element before installing each plot on the map.

Next, cover up eyesores that interfere with landscapes, such as utility lines or light poles. Kanary disguised a large utility pole with silver lace vine. The cover crawled up the entire pole in one season. "You couldn't even tell the pole was there, and the vine has beautiful flowers," he notes.

Involve children in garden projects and collect a few ingredients in the meantime. Situate herbs like thyme into a garden border. Beanpole huts are whimsical accents that young landscapers-in-training can nurture; construct a teepee-like hut out of sticks and plant beans around its perimeter. "Beans grow on the side of the hut and you don't see the sticks," Kanary explains.

Intermediate Installations

Outdoor kitchens top this year's list of trends. Gourmet setups feature all the fixings: high-end Viking grills, refrigerators, sinks, storage and plenty of seating for guests. Combining a desire to entertain at home and enjoy the outdoors, cooking areas can range in complexity from simple grills to extravagant arrangements.

First, identify the guest list.

Those who prefer intimate spaces where family can gather for casual meals might not need multilevel decks. Those with loftier entertainment goals should consider environments that promote conversation and allow plenty of room for furniture. "You might have an upper level for eating dinner and a grilling area, and maybe a lower area has a fire pit or gathering space," Weidner says.

Weatherproof an outdoor dining room with pergola covers that keeps rain from ruining the menu. Accent outdoor kitchens and eating spaces with sleek furniture that can withstand inclement weather. Pick out some colorful pieces with cast-aluminum construction, which can be left outside all year. Complementary cushions add comfort.

"[Deck spaces] aren't just places for grills and tables, but places to relax," Kanary says.

Advanced Applications

Graduates of simple landscape concepts can master the multiple-room approach. With a plan that identifies several focal points (water features, terraces, eating areas) and a few spaces already complete, consider luxurious additions like spas. Surrounded by a terrace with tumbling flowers and vines, homeowners can find privacy in these backyard sanctuaries.

Or create cozy guest room by installing a glassed-in conservatory. A wrought-iron bed, such as the one in Thorn's Outdoor Escapes display, offers a rustic, romantic feel and provides a place to rest in a natural setting. Candles and a fireplace finish the look.

If snoozing under the stars doesn't fit the "vacation plan," instead plant a comfortable settee or love seat in a conservatory. You could also use the space as a cooking area and dining room. Enclosed spaces with pathways that link landscape to each element connect people to each outdoor room, Thorn explains.

"Ultimately, people are really looking for what feels right — what feels in synch with the house and property," he says. "People want spaces that make them feel safe and comfortable and create a sense of privacy and enjoyment for the whole family."

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