"Back yard" should not equal boring.
The space surrounding your home is as much a reflection of your tastes and likes as what's within. Ever wanted a grand formal garden that looks as if it has been part of your property for years? What about adding a piece of outdoor art or installing a backyard fireplace for cozy evening entertaining?
You might imagine such additions are outside your budget, but there are plenty of Northeast Ohio companies willing to help realize your backyard beautification concept at a variety of price points. We investigated how three local homeowners transformed their outdoor spaces and what it took to bring their ideas to life.
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Larry and Julia Pollock aren't what you'd call avid gardeners.
"In my dreams I am," Julia jokes.
Yet desire alone was not going to deliver them the grand, formal garden they wanted to complement their Georgian-style Shaker Heights home.
"There were just shrubs before, and the only things that flowered were whatever we put in pots," Julia recalls. "We wanted the garden to look like it had always been there."
The couple also wanted to make use of the entire 2 1/2 acres of property that surrounded their house. DTR Associates of Chagrin Falls developed a formal front garden featuring arrow-straight bed lines, precisely pruned hedges and old-fashioned cutting flowers such as peonies and foxglove.
"The bed lines create very exact lawn shapes," says Dave Thorn, president of DTR Associates. The result is a garden that plays off the architectural lines of the Pollocks' house to create sweeping vistas with a grand presence. A rectangular green space gives way to more gardens, a pool and an arbor at the back of the house.
The work has transformed the exterior of the Pollocks' home into an environment they enjoy as much as possible, whether it's simply lounging beside the pool or cutting flowers to decorate the inside of their home. Looking to the future, Julia envisions the arbor as a lovely place for her two stepdaughters to one day say their vows. "It's just lovely," she says.
The Pollocks' newfound focus on their yard reflects a popular trend: the home and surrounding property as a sacred refuge. A growing number of homeowners are forsaking long, expensive trips in favor of intimate gatherings in familiar surroundings. The back yard is increasingly used as a place to relax, entertain and show off one's style.
"People's lifestyles are changing; they're getting back to the basics of life," Thorn says. "People have a different approach to how they live and how they want to spend time at home."
A greater emphasis on the outdoors allows for a return to traditional elements with high-maintenance requirements. Formal gardens are making a resurgence, but larger ones require gardeners on staff to maintain them. Thorn's company maintains the Pollocks' landscape from early spring through early winter.
"It's more of an exact science," he says. "There's a lot of hedging that creates layers within the landscape. There are certain ways to prune it long-term so it will stay within the confinements. Properly pruned, boxwood can remain a neat 2 feet high for years, he adds. Looser layers of flora are contained within the boundary of the rigid hedging.
Because of the precision of the contents, constant maintenance of formal gardens is a necessity. Bed lines will eventually get wavy and hedges will grow out of control without it.
But if a professional gardener is not in your budget, never fear. You can create a small formal garden within a larger landscape, Thorn says. The formal-
garden portion of the yard will require more maintenance than the rest, but with knowledge and a commitment to its upkeep, it will yield elegant results.
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Larry and Julia didn't stop there, though.
What they did next illustrates another emerging outdoor trend: the use of artwork within the garden. An English urn originally designed to be part of a large, formal fountain was given new life as an art object. Once again, DTR Associates did the work.
"We placed a basin in the ground and put cut pieces of stone over the basin. Then we set the urn on top," Thorn explains. "Water goes through the cracks of the stones and looks like it disappears into the ground."
An 8-foot obelisk stands at the left rear edge of the Pollocks' property to lend a sense of dimension, as well as another intriguing design element to their back yard. Some homeowners have custom pieces specifically designed for the outdoors. Others prefer to use objects they've collected in their travels. Whatever type of art is placed in the garden, there is one simple rule: It must have a distinct purpose. Art is not to be dropped helterskelter around the yard. Art pieces should provide not only visual enjoyment but also a relationship of scale.
"They can be used as a soothing element for relaxation," Thorn says.
But art objects aren't the only way homeowners are expressing their individuality and creativity outside the home. Mike Walters, director of installation for Impullitti Landscaping in Bainbridge, reports an increase in new or unusual garden plantings.
"New and improved varieties of almost every perennial are introduced about ever year," he says. "That means bold and dramatic colors for flowers that once only came in shades of pink, red or yellow."
Herbaceous or soft-stemmed plants can also bring a special flair to the garden. "Ornamental grasses make a huge statement," Walters notes. Beautiful and showy from spring through late summer, the leaves of ornamental grasses die out in the fall, leaving brown wispy tufts that add visual interest to the outside of the home during winter.
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Once a yard is personalized, homeowners immediately crave inviting outdoor spots where they can take a seat and enjoy their creation. Gazebos, whether connected to the house by a deck or standing alone in a back yard, are ideal spaces for relaxing or entertaining.
"There's something enchanting about them," says Kevin J. Mott-Goodman, president of Wood and Stone Construction in Cleveland Heights. He has seen a surge in requests for gazebos lately, especially ones with screened windows. Those shut out nasty summer storms and mosquitoes and serve as an outdoor option for entertaining guests even if the weather isn't great. Gazebos add an impressive architectural element to the landscape, as well.
"Our deck and gazebo improved the look of our house 100 percent," says Laura Dougherty of South Russell. "The old deck just didn't do the house justice," she explains. "Our yard slopes in the back, so now we have a deck with two different levels and the gazebo attached to the second level."
Today's gazebos are large. They are usually 10 to 14 feet in diameter and can accommodate a table and chairs to seat up to 10 people. Some contain built-in benches for more seating. More importantly, gazebos are being designed to reflect the style of the house. "You can pick up elements of the existing architecture," Mott-Goodman explains. "They can be simple or ornate with a double or single roof, a cupola or a weathervane."
Mott-Goodman says more homeowners are choosing high-end materials for their outdoor living spaces. Natural hardwoods such as mahogany, redwood and ipe (a hardy, impervious imported wood) are becoming the preferred choice for decks.
Jeff Pollock and Martha Brandt-Pollock (no relation to Larry and Julia Pollock) chose mahogany for the new deck built at their Cleveland Heights home. "Our house is 90 years old, so we wanted the deck to look like it had always been there," Martha says. The warm, rich tones of the mahogany deck blended with the home's gray-painted frame and brick-red doors perfectly. "If you stand in the yard and look back at the house, it has a Cape Cod feel," says Martha, who worked with Wood and Stone Construction and architect Lawrence Fischer of Cleveland Heights on her backyard redesign. "It just looks like an old frame house."
A series of steps lead to the deck, which runs the length of the back of the house before curving around to hug the kitchen. Stone-topped brick walls on either side of the deck serve as endpoints before the back yard gives way to a garden Martha is carefully restoring to resemble an early 1900s look with herbs and colorful perennials.
A mahogany deck only cost Jeff and Martha a few hundred dollars more than treated or composite decking. Hardwoods also typically require less maintenance and don't need to be stained, sealed or pressure washed.
Finally, framing Jeff and Martha's yard is a wolmanized pine fence accented with a trellis. "We had a wired Sears fence before," Martha says. "This fence creates privacy and garden space." The couple unfortunately couldn't use mahogany on the fence due to the cost of the wood, but that's nothing some deep birch stain can't fix.
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David and Robin Bleile added a fire pit to their 3-acre property just outside Norwalk when they built their pool, spa and pool house. Robin recalls that she and her husband initially considered the fire pit more of a decorative structure just part of the rustic landscaping that kept the free-form pool from looking like a lone concrete pit in the middle of the back yard.
"It looked like a natural gathering spot, especially in the evenings, when it's cooler out," says David, the president of Lake Erie Construction in Norwalk. "As people get out of the pool, they're looking for someplace warm to sit. We wanted to try to keep them out of the house while they were soaking wet."
But the round, sandstone-veneer fire pit, located approximately 75 feet from the west side of their '60s split-level, has become quite a popular attraction. It draws the family out of the house in early spring and keeps them out there until late fall. The Bleiles' four children (who range in age from 15 to 21) and their friends frequently end up sitting on the semicircular wall near the pit that serves as a bench roasting hot dogs and toasting marshmallows. Robin and David also like to start a fire in the pit when they entertain outdoors. "It's more for effect and atmosphere," she says.
Frank Bonanno, operations manager for The Pattie Group in Novelty, says a round fire pit is the most popular way to add warmth and light to a back yard. "People want to get away from the house when they're outside," he says. "It makes them feel like they're sitting around a campfire."
An outdoor fireplace, meanwhile, is usually built onto an exterior wall of the home and shares a chimney with an interior counterpart.
"Basically, it's like a fireplace inside your house," Bonanno explains. Because of the location of the chimney, the outdoor fireplace and the patio that often accompanies it are frequently located on the side of a house. Homeowners who already have a chimney can expect to spend a minimum of $5,000 to add an outdoor fireplace; those starting from scratch are looking at $8,000 to $10,000. Bonanno says most clients' choice of brick or stone is dictated by what they're using for the patio or what materials are already on the exterior of the home.
The cost of a basic fire pit a masonry structure set in the ground with a decorative brick or stone veneer and natural capstone, metal grate, natural-gas "log lighter" and a drain to prevent puddling of rain usually begins at $2,500. (The more elaborate ones, which can cost as much as $10,000, have brick or stone benches surrounding them and a stainless-steel "lid" that doubles as a grill.) One advantage of a fire pit is that it can be installed in a relatively small back yard. The only real stipulation Bonanno cites is that the pit be located at least 15 to 20 feet from the house so smoke and heat aren't concerns.
"The biggest disadvantage is the smoke," Bonanno says. "One client asked us if we could make fire pits without smoke. We said, 'We're good, but we're not that good.' "
Free-lance writer Lynne Thompson contributed to this article.