In the summer, your backyard is your refuge. It’s the place where you hang out in the evenings and entertain on the weekends. But creating an inviting, livable outdoor space doesn’t just happen. To help you, we turned to a handful of local experts who transform boring backyards into elegant places. Here are 15 of their best ideas.
Add Night Lights | Harsh fixture lighting is out in favor of the soft glow of lights strategically placed in trees, along the ground and under sitting-wall capstones, according to Dan McClaren, director of design at Impullitti Landscaping in Burton. “It just gives the landscape a more natural feel,” he says. One couple took the concept a step further and asked McClaren to light an 8-acre property in different zones that can be turned on and off as usage dictates. Such a move requires a thorough evaluation of how homeowners use their outdoor spaces, McClaren adds, but the result is lighting that can create the ambience desired for intimate dinners and large catered affairs alike.
Make Your Dog Happy | A growing number of homeowners are letting at least a portion of their backyard go to the dogs — in a good way. McClaren reports a growing number of amenities built specifically for our four-legged friends. Amenities range from out-of-sight graveled potty areas and dig zones, where toys and bones can be buried, to more luxurious options such as canine swimming holes. One of McClaren’s recent jobs was a 4-foot-deep swimming pool with a diving dock and easy-to-navigate steps for the homeowners’ two golden retrievers. “The clients became tired of the dogs dragging mud out of the natural ponds into the house,” McClaren explains. “They like to swim.”
Transform Your Deck | If you want to give your weathered wooden deck the look of a raised patio, Alliance-based Sare Plastics recently introduced a product that will help with that transformation. Jeff Rak, president of Land Creations Landscaping in Columbia Station, is already using the durable, engineered polymer. Workers replace old decking with the Silca Grate honeycomblike sections and then cover them with pavers, natural stone and brick — “anything that’s uniform in thickness,” Rak says. A wall built around the resurfaced areas conceals the deck frame from view. Such a makeover is best done on sound, first-floor decks, Rak explains. “It’s not for every situation,” he says. “But it certainly is a nice option.”
Build an Outdoor Kitchen | Many homeowners dream of an al fresco kitchen outfitted with a grill island, bar and fireplace. But digging the foundation traditionally required for such structures has kept many from making the upgrade, according to Rak. Eldorado Stone — a system of reinforced-concrete components, which are arranged in the desired configuration and bolted together — only requires a 6-inch concrete slab. “It’s almost like putting [stock] cabinets together,” Rak says, before noting that the results rival custom work. The outdoor kitchens are then outfitted with the customer’s selection of cabinet doors, countertops, sinks and appliances and then finished with natural stone, cast-concrete stone or brick veneers. “Structurally, they’re extremely sound,” Rak adds.
Reuse and Re-imagine | More than one local landscape designer mentioned recycling as one of the biggest outdoor-design trends of the moment. David Thorn, owner of DTR Associates in Aurora, says a great way to take part in the trend is to reuse stone. He points to the round sandstone patio in the backyard of his Chagrin Falls home as a prime example. The early 19th-century feature originally graced an estate overlooking Lake Erie. “When I purchased the stone, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with it,” he says. “But the stone was so beautiful, and the pieces were so large. That’s hard to find now. And the craftsmanship, … it was all hand-chiseled.” Similar treasures can be found at architectural-salvage stores, but Thorn says a less expensive source may be closer to home: Older communities are tearing out sandstone sidewalks to make way for concrete ones.
consider edible plants | No one is suggesting you turn your yard into the North 40, but Patrick Beam, a landscape architect at 9th Avenue Designs in South Euclid, says some fruit- and vegetable-bearing plants are worth adding to the landscape for looks alone. He singles out strawberry, a dark green spreading plant he uses as ground cover, and grapevine, an alternative to staples such as ivy. “It adds great winter interest,” he says of the latter. “The bark peels off. It’s kind of shaggy.” But his favorite edible planting is the high-bush blueberry, a shrub he plants in masses or as hedging. “They provide beautiful fall color; they turn a really deep crimson,” he says. “Raspberries also provide a very fine hedge, but they do have thorns.”
Grow Up | For gardeners with limited space to indulge their passion, Beam says vertical gardening is a good option. The Wally, a felt pocket made by California-based Woolly Pockets, makes the concept easy to implement. The pockets are filled with potting soil, planted with perennials and annuals, and hung on an outdoor wall to create solid masses of green. More permanent options include freestanding, irrigated installations Beam constructs for clients by placing wire frames back to back and filling them with potted plants that rest on their sides. The plants can be arranged to create designs, turning the living wall into what Beam calls “living art.”
Add Some Water | Some
homeowners are opting to forgo the pond when it comes to water features, according to Andrew Dangelo, owner and president of The Ohio Valley Group in Chagrin Falls. Ponds create safety concerns in neighborhoods where young children live. They also require maintenance and winterization. Simpler water feature options range from natural-looking waterfalls placed in slopes or swales to a giant, water-spraying fire hydrant. Dangelo says the key to artful placement, particularly for a more contemporary feature, is creating a spot where it becomes a focal point, like “outside a window, where you can see it and hear it, or near a patio.”
Build a Pergola | A pergola is a nice option for homeowners who want to define a space without completely covering it. Dangelo points out that pergolas provide broken sunlight, especially when used to support trellising plants, and serve as a space to stash integrated lighting or hang fixtures. He recently installed a structure over the patio of a Western Reserve-style home that could easily handle the weight of two chandeliers.
The vinyl pergolas, which come in wood textures and a range of colors, offer one big advantage over wood: They don’t require repeated staining and sealing.
Don’t Forget the Front Yard | Cathy Serafin, a landscape architect at Suncrest Gardens in Peninsula, credits a nationwide movement “to return to the neighborhood” for the number of courtyards and other front-yard spaces her clients have requested over the past few years. “People are starting to feel comfortable sitting in front of their homes,” she says. “The word ‘courtyard’ sounds a little more formal, but it can also be very informal: a space for two chairs and a small table.” Serafin says the courtyard is typically located near one of the home’s front entrances. Therefore, it must complement the architecture and scale of the home. Depending on the size, it can be used for everything from sipping coffee on weekend mornings to large-scale entertaining — a spot where cocktails are passed out to arriving guests and people linger at the end of the night.
choose Faux Stone | Serafin admits that some concrete pavers designed to resemble stone look downright fake. As a result, consumers who insisted on durability usually go with brick or cobblestone styles. But three years ago manufacturers began producing improved faux stone pavers that many discerning clients see as viable alternatives to the real thing, a luxury that costs roughly twice as much to install. “They have a natural, random quality to them,” Serafin says. “It has taken a little time to actually convince people to try the product. But once we had it installed, where they could look at it and walk on it, we sold more and more of it.”
Plant a Shade Garden | If you’re dreading the sight of those bare spots under your majestic old tree after the snow melts, you’re not alone. “Most people have areas of problem shade in their gardens,” says Ann Rosmarin, of Rosmarin Landscape Design in Cleveland Heights. Part of the solution lies in hiring an expert to judiciously prune the tree. The other lies in filling bare areas near the tree with plants that tolerate the resulting dappled shade. Rosmarin advises against digging beds, a practice that can cut into and damage tree root systems. Instead, she recommends gently tucking small plugs of native sedges and Japanese primroses between the roots. An air spade, which she describes as “a reverse vacuum” that uses air pressure to disperse soil and expose roots, is the best tool for the job. “It is expensive,” she says. “But it’s well worth it if you have magnificent oaks and maples.”
Take it to the street | If city codes allow, Rosmarin recommends extending your plantings to the curb. The practice not only provides more gardening space, particularly for homeowners with postage stamp-size lawns, but also delights passersby. Her own tree lawn, once occupied by a single serviceberry tree, contains an inexpensive yet hardy mix of junipers, iceberg roses, geranium, day lilies, lavender and black-eyed Susans. She’s even incorporated edibles such as nasturtium, rosemary and thyme. “One has to be practical about it,” Rosmarin cautions. For example, she uses boulders only after determining there are no water or sewer lines underneath. “And you’ve got to leave enough space for your garbage.”
Go with Ground Cover | Steve Pattie, president of The Pattie Group in Novelty, encourages clients to plant large mulched areas with ground cover or masses of low-growing perennials. The practice not only saves trees cut down to make mulch but also prevents damage to prized landscape counterparts by repeatedly mulching the beds around them. “People who keep mulching and mulching are actually rotting out the bark of their trees,” Pattie warns. Although the plantings are more expensive, the initial investment is recouped over the years in savings on mulch and the time required to spread it. They also shade the ground more effectively, preventing weeds from getting the sunlight needed to grow.
Heat Things Up | We know, preparing for cold weather is the last thing you want to think about right now. But Ann Cicarella, of Ann Cicarella Landscape Design in Shaker Heights, says the inconvenience and expense of replacing an existing paved driveway or walkway with a radiant-heated counterpart is mitigated by the knowledge that you’ll never shovel, salt or slip on it again. “The minute a snowflake hits, it melts,” she says. Cicarella recommends an electric system over a hydronic one, the latter of which requires the installation of a dedicated hot-water heater. Both are now more cost-effective to operate thanks to improved aerial and surface-mounted sensors that activate the systems as needed. Heating only the most-walked portion of a paved area is another money-saving option.