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Building a ‘‘Backyard Living Room’’

We hear landscaping magazine articles talk about "outdoor rooms." Such articles usually show a huge estate with a series of gardens, starting with the kitchen garden near the home and leading the eye from one connected garden to another, ending with a long narrow pool of water bordered by magnificent perennial beds, surrounded by fully mature evergreens and trees, and focused on a faraway nook with a Greek sculpture under a vine covered arbor.

Then we think about our average residential client on a 1/3-acre lot and wonder how these concepts could apply...

A recent New Vistas Landscaping project was designed after a major addition was built onto the home (note the before photos of an average ranch home with the typical 10 x12 patio). The aim of the project was to create "outdoor rooms" that the homeowners could enjoy using. All the elements of the extensive project described above are included on a much smaller scale, from the herb garden to the pool of water. The new areas are bordered by existing perennial beds surrounded with partially mature evergreens and trees, while the focal point is an open area that draws the eye across several neighboring backyards into the distance.

Getting Started

As with any landscaping project, the "dreams" of the clients needed to be defined. The addition on the home was built when the couple’s two daughters were in 6th and 8th grade, just beginning to have groups of friends over that would use a more organized outdoor space. The parents were looking for outdoor living areas with direct access to both the new living room addition and the existing kitchen. They wanted a small area to grow herbs near the kitchen door and an easy pathway for grilling even in the winter. A location for the grill where the prevailing wind would blow the smoke away from the outdoor seating areas was important too. There needed to be a place to put an umbrella picnic table for eight, situated so the umbrella would not block the view from inside the house whether it was open or closed.

An area of brick patio was desired for extra seating when needed and just for the "feel" of it. Because of the mosquito problem in the summertime, a screened-in space for sitting and dining was also necessary. Since attached screened porches seemed to make a house darker on the inside, this couple wanted their screened area easily accessible to the house, but not right up against it. Gazebo structures are always inviting, but could one be large enough to accommodate 12 to 14 people, be screened in, and yet look proportionate to everything else? What about a deck space right outside the living room patio door for a temporary food serving table? A place for a bench that could stay out all year around just to sit and read the paper would be welcome, too.

The homeowners also wanted a small pond with a waterfall that would add the relaxing sound of water and the sense of wonder when a water lily springs open just in time for company. The plantings needed to be colorful and interesting through all the seasons in the Midwest and low enough to not obscure the view of the surrounding yard. It was important that they look good when installed and not overgrow the area through the years, as the homeowners' time at home was limited and they wanted to spend it enjoying their new living space, not slaving over it.

The wife envisioned the entire outdoor deck, etc. area all on one level so people wouldn’t have a tendency to stumble, especially when carrying food. The husband wanted different levels to make the spaces more interesting and defined. Since the backyard had gently sloped away from the former house, the 24 feet that the new addition extended out towards the back of the property left a drop of 3 feet from the new patio door jamb to the lawn level. Building a deck 3 feet off the ground was not an option, however, because the clients did not want any railing to obscure their view of the planting areas out in the yard that were installed 10 years earlier.

Making It Real

The only part of this "outdoor living room" that required help from a subcontractor was the gazebo. In order to avoid blocking the view from within the gazebo, contractors might consider lowering the inside floor by about one step. By placing this gazebo at the end of an open air tunnel between evergreens, the designer ensured a steady flow of cool breezes.

These pictures show the results of the final project. More dirt was brought in to lessen the grade change and camouflage around the water run. The decking wraps around the house from the patio door to the kitchen door. Boxwoods were planted right up against this walkway from the kitchen to prevent falling off the edge without a railing. The herbs were planted just outside these boxwoods with easy access to the kitchen. From the grilling corner the deck drops down one step to accommodate an octagonal eating area that repeats the shape of the gazebo and positions the umbrella table just outside the fireplace wall, out of view from inside.

The pond and water run border the deck and provide diners with a soothing background sound. From this eating area one can step up onto the narrower portion of deck along the patio door end, or down onto the paver patio. The eating area is bordered in decking that frames the octagon shape and helps provide contrast to the other decking surfaces to keep people from stumbling. The paver patio becomes the linking area to the screened-in gazebo. From the pavers, one steps up onto a narrow step and then onto the sliding glass door deck, or down two steps to the lawn. The sliding glass door deck is large enough to accommodate a serving table or display table and a teak bench that can stay outdoors all winter.

The octagonal gazebo is 14 feet in diameter with double entry doors for convenience. It easily contains seating for 14 people and eating space at a table for six. The framed screens are removable with both top and bottom panels. Staining the gazebo and shingling its roof, both to match the home, helps the extra structure to look like part of the house. On a hot summer night in the gazebo the chorus of the resident bullfrog in the pond fills the air. The shrubs and trees bordering the back of the gazebo along the property line 10 feet away provide a backdrop that will offer privacy within a few years.

Everything so far makes the project sound just perfect, but this is real life, and I thought I would share with you some of the things we learned the hard way.

Lessons Learned: Decking

If you want to keep 5/4 decking boards from curling over the years, it is important to look at the ends of each board and make sure the circular patterns of growth are curving downward like a rainbow. If you live in an area where the ground freezes pretty deep in the winters, you may want to have the deck fully supported on its own up by the house, rather than supported by being attached to the foundation of the house. As the ground freezes in the winter, the most horrible wrenching sounds can be heard inside this house as the ground tugs on the deck and the house refuses to move.

Everyone knows that ground settles around a new addition. But what do you do if the ground is covered by decking? We had used screws to install the deck boards so we figured that we would just take the boards up, put in more dirt and stone and screw the boards back in place. Well, after rain and snow and time work on a deck, the wood swells around the screws and up over them and the task is not so easy. We had to use wood carving tools to dig channel for the drill so we could remove the screws!

Lessons Learned: Groundhogs, Ants and Cats

A properly designed outdoor space can serve as a perfect gathering place for family functions, social occasions, or just a good-ol' barbecue. In this case, the owners wanted easy access to their kitchen from the patio.

The skirting on the deck was done with horizontally applied decking boards so it didn’t quite go all the way to the ground where sloping took place. We did not realize how attractive those little openings would be to the neighbor’s cat, the neighborhood groundhogs, etc. And we certainly had no idea how inviting the extra stone beneath the paver patio would be to families of ground hogs.

Since the paver patio was constructed on new fill, we carefully bordered it with treated 6-x-6s that were drilled and rerodded into the ground. Then we backfilled with crushed stone and sand, etc. The groundhogs dug through the stone and soil making a 10’ long series of rooms and tunnels under the pavers with a nesting chamber at the far end. The creatures would move the stones and sand away until the tightly installed corner pieces of the interlocking pavers would eventually drop down in their holes. It took a lot of removing and digging to replace the stones, sand and blocks to restore the patio to a safe condition.

But it wasn’t only the four-legged animals that caused problems for the patio. The ants carried away the sand at the corners around the gazebo, causing unstable bricks. We solved that problem by putting dry mortar (3 parts sand to 1 part Portland cement) beneath the corner bricks and around them when we re-stabilized the patio.

Lessons Learned: Gazebo

The gazebo itself taught us a few lessons. While the whole project was designed by New Vistas, the gazebo was the only part that required assistance from a subcontractor. Our only problem was the position of the railing or border that divides the top sections from the bottom sections. When you sit down in the gazebo this border is directly in the position where your eyes attempt to look downward out onto the yard's perennial beds (unless you are quite tall). Since this railing height is pretty standard, the best solution might have been to lower the gazebo floor by one step, thereby lowering the angle of vision looking out onto the surrounding landscaping beds, and removing the railing from the line of sight.

Lessons Learned: Water Garden

By using stone double-wall construction for the water run, installers were able to run the liner material up in between stones, preventing leakage. The waterfall feature is a great way to provide a pleasant gurgling water sound for the backyard. In this case, the owners wished they had built the waterfall closer to the deck for louder water sounds.

The water garden, too, taught us some things. While the water run works just great with the slope of the yard alongside the deck, its most vivid sound of gurgling water is when a person stands directly in front of the pond facing the run. We wish we had captured more of the sound for the people using the deck and gazebo. In order to do this, further grading would have been required to add a small waterfall feature facing the deck and spilling into the same pond from the opposite direction of the water run.

Lessons Learned: Water Run

Double wall stone construction on water runs is an important concept. Double walls enable you to run the liner material up in between two stones on the side of each run, preventing leakage which can occur when each pool of water fills up to the point it needs to for spilling into the lower pool.

Lessons Learned: Frog-friendly Potted Plants

When building a deck in a climate with freezing winter ground, it's a good idea to have the deck fully supported on its own. As the frozen ground contracts, it will place stress on the deck boards, causing creeking sounds to be heard inside if connected to the house.

It is also important to make sure your potted water lilies are not so root-bound that your resident frogs cannot find room to burrow down in the pots to survive the winter. It sure was sad to see "Freddy" floating upside down at the beginning of the pond's second spring.

Better Than Expected

As in real life, there were added bonuses to the project that we had not planned on. The opaque stain that we put on the "green" treated wood gazebo (we needed to get the project ready for a Parade of Remodeled Homes that the local Builder’s Association was organizing) worked just great. You are really supposed to wait until the wood is not oozing before you do this staining.

The gazebo turned out to be the recipient of a cool breeze in even the slightest wind because it is situated at the end of an open air tunnel between evergreens planted along this house and also along the edge of the bordering neighbor's lot.

It is possible to light a gazebo after the fact with an outdoor heavy-stabilized four-globe patio fixture, complete with a 20-foot cord (which runs beneath the narrow deck) and an outlet right on the fixture for plugging in other fountains, etc.

Plants near the water run grow and develop remarkably well with the added moisture from the pond.

The whole project has been enjoyed immensely by the family and their guests. There have been two high school graduation open houses and one 25th wedding anniversary celebration accommodated in these outdoor rooms, and even a couples and parents bridal shower for friends. The patio is a great place for the newly added chimney pot and the teak bench is a wonderful quiet place for lunch on a warm sunny winter day in January.

How do I know all this? Because this project is in my own backyard! What better place to learn by doing, and what better way to show my clients an example of what we as a landscape design/build firm can do?

Judy DePue APLD is a certified designer with the Association of Professional Designers. She is the head designer, owner, and construction organizer for New Vistas Landscaping in Goshen, Ind.


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November 22, 2019, 1:29 pm PDT

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