by Emma Young
For some, the backyard is an oasis. For others, it’s an eyesore in need of serious help. Luckily, a number of area professionals and homeowners who fall in the oasis category were willing to share their process—with tips ranging from lux to do-it-yourself.
Sam Mangrio, of Avery Hess Realtors in Woodbridge, explained that a well-designed yard is not just a space; it represents a lifestyle: “Listings will read, ‘Enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day under the pergola, on your custom patio, in your beautifully landscaped yard.’” Describing a yard will often “tell a story,” he said.
Unfortunately, in my case, the story is full of adjectives like old, flat, wooden, and bare.
When my husband and I purchased our Dumfries townhome the entire backyard was a deck, from door to fence-line. We planned to eventually create a green retreat, but an inability to envision what to do with a small space hindered our meager efforts. To get started, we contacted a garden center and a landscape design firm. It turns out that help is available in a number of price ranges and for even the most challenging of spaces.
Designing Outdoor Living
Peter Field, an award-winning landscape designer featured on HGTV’s “Curb Appeal,” and owner of English Country Gardens in Manassas, and Craig Wells, vice president and landscape designer with Main Street Landscape, an award-winning design firm in Haymarket, each visited our wooden 20′ x 20′ yard. We asked both to envision an outdoor living area that included some green space, a small vegetable or herb garden (you can’t get more locavore than eating from your own yard), and some semblance of privacy, even if it was more a perception than reality. We also asked for designs to reflect a potential range of prices, from cost-conscious to luxury.
Both plans are stunning. (View them at pwlphotos.com.) Reflecting desirable traits and trends in Prince William, elements included a pergola, flagstone patio and low-maintenance perennials. English Country Garden’s plan included a small serpentine lawn, following the outline of the patio. Main Street Landscape’s design added a stone-veneered outdoor kitchen.
Field explained that several factors are typically considered when designing outdoor spaces, including “construction limitations, existing plantings, sun/shade exposures, drainage and grading, soil conditions and wind directions.”
For our yard, size impacted the designs. “The smallness of the space greatly reduces the scope of what can be done to provide luxury and still have a functional, usable outdoor living area,” said Wells.
Extending Your Living Space
While a masonry patio adds luxury, Wells offered a lowercost option that could increase the return on investment: “[I] substituted pavers for masonry work in the patio. Both are elegant and beautiful, but pavers are a substantial amount less costly, so arguably offer a better value.”
Montclair homeowner Jennifer Fitzpatrick shared her own trick for a budget-friendly patio: she has a relatively more expensive slate patio in front of her home, but used stamped concrete for the larger back patio. “Plain concrete would be fine, but the patterned stone makes it look complete and elegant,” said Fitzpatrick. “The back patio is an extension of our house, so the concrete is poured directly next to the house, allowing for a wonderful continuation of our living space.”
Fitzpatrick noted some of the benefits of stamped concrete, beyond budget. “[It] is fun because the sky is the limit with pattern and color you use and it has a lower price,” she said. “I love that I don’t have to weed or clean in-between stones or relevel it.”
This was accomplished despite a hilly terrain. “When people drive up they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you have a little oasis in the sky,’” Fitzpatrick recounted. A series of separate outdoor areas were built into and around the hill: “A huge front porch with seating, a back patio with picnic table, and a side patio which we made into a play area,” she described.
Of course, there are challenges. Retaining walls, proper grading and drainage are all concerns. “If the steps or patio are pitched incorrectly the homeowner will have problems with water running into the basement or foundation,” said Fitzpatrick, who hasn’t had this issue. “The gutters have long extenders that go underneath the ground and patios, draining away from the house and it doesn’t puddle anywhere.”
No matter your choice of patio material or location, you’ll want the area to be well-lit. For Montclair homeowner Katie Pistun, who frequently hosts outdoor gatherings, lighting on a budget was initially a struggle. “We love the light provided by tiki torches and our fire pit, but we found it wasn’t enough to support a party after dark,” she said. “We now have strings of large outdoor lights in our trees that light the area perfectly and allow our torches and fire to provide ambiance instead.” Solar lights can also be a practical solution for parts of the yard that aren’t near power outlets.
As far as furnishing the patio, a little can go a long way. “I have found that the best parties offer little in the way of seating. It encourages guests to mingle and move about,” said Pistun. “Tables, however, are critical. In addition to our patio dinner table and a patio coffee table, we have five six-foot folding tables for our events.” She also keeps some folding chairs at the ready, just in case.
Planting for Function & Beauty
Choosing the right plants can add both beauty and functionality. Wells added a crape myrtle to the budget plan “to add privacy and shade in lieu of the pergola.” Another option for privacy is Hornbeam fastigiata, “skinny plants that can grow to 12 feet tall,” said Field.
For maximum visual impact, make sure that your garden will have varying color throughout the year. “Plantings are chosen for their seasons of color so that something is either spring-and-summer blooming or fall coloring,” said Field.
Lake Ridge resident Suzanne Lewis uses this strategy in her own yard. “The goal is to have select items that are relatively low-maintenance and to find the shrubs and plants that bloom at different times of the year,” she said. “Lilac for the smell in the spring when it’s blooming [and]a beautiful magnolia that blooms on and off all summer.” Additional suggestions include holly bushes and other evergreens to provide greenery in winter.
Build your garden in layers, over time, advised another Lake Ridge homeowner, Carl Norton. “A big mistake people make, they have all these great ambitions and they buy all these plants, but it’s tough to plant a lot at once. Take baby steps,” said Norton, who has spent years perfecting his zen garden. “Walk around the neighborhood and see what grows well there. Neighbors may even be willing to give you clippings or bulbs.” He also recommended planting a mix of perennials and annuals, noting that impatiens and purslane will reseed and return the following year. To fill a larger space, get perennials that multiply and can be divided each spring, such as bulb flowers, hostas, sedum, vinca vines and lenten rose.
“Building a garden this way can be a slow process, but well worth the time. It lets you really experience the joy of growing plants,” said Norton.
For Monica Mills of Manassas, the answer is yes. “I want to enjoy every minute now, and enjoy my house and have it be a fun place to come to,” said Mills. Her dazzling additions include two outdoor kitchens, bar area, pergola, fireplace, “loads of seating” and a wood-burning pizza oven. “[We are] definitely known as the party house,” she said.
This didn’t equate to blowing the bank account, though. She and her husband saved tens of thousands of dollars by creating these amenities themselves, relying on online tutorials. Still, “it always takes more time and always costs more money than you think,” said Mills, recommending to keep budget in mind as you plan. “You can buy so many outdoor grilling components and how you want to build around it can be as elaborate or not as you want.”
For smaller spaces and budgets, a grill on the deck may suffice. “Grilling is not just for lunch and dinner meats,” said Sarah Pitkin of Pitkin’s Ace Hardware. “[Now you can] use your grill for pizzas, pies, s’mores, breakfast links and eggs.”
She added that a basic charcoal grill can be found for less than $100, while a high-end gas grill like the Big Green Egg can run over $1,000. When shopping, consider “preferred fuel type or cooking method, type of food you’ll be grilling, [if ] you’ll also be smoking, need a side burner, how many people you usually entertain, how much time you want to spend cooking,” advised Pitkin.
Hot tubs are another luxury item that can be procured inexpensively if you’re creative. Inflatable ones start at under
$500, and some retailers offer financing on higher-end models. Then, there is the price of Lewis’ hot tub: free. She only had to arrange transport from the original owner’s yard.
“The best time is when it’s snowing or on cool evenings, we enjoy a glass of wine and sitting in it,” said Lewis of her free find, which is now surrounded by the deck she and her husband built around it.
It is not uncommon to find homeowners giving away used hot tubs or selling them at a steep discount. Sites like craigslist.org can be a good place to search for these deals.
Personalizing Your Space
Once you’ve created a basic plan, make it your own. “Personalize your outdoor space with fun accents and accessories…like pillows or rugs,” said Ikea Public Relations & Marketing Manager Wendy Rogers.
Think about colors that relax you, or items that reflect your style, such as garden statues or a cozy hammock for reading. Music buffs may want to invest in waterproof speakers. Let your yard cater to how you like to while away time spent outdoors.
Brian Smith has turned personalization into an art form. The Montclarion newsletter regularly features wildlife photos from his backyard. “[My yard is] like an artist’s canvas, [with]the potential of becoming something special,” said Smith. “I relish the time I spend in landscaped settings that not only are pleasing to the senses—sight, sounds and smell—but that also stimulate the imagination.
“[I’ve] particularly enjoyed the family gatherings on our shrubenclosed
patio. The paneled columns, fountains, hanging lanterns and cedar arches give the impression you are in an
harmonious world that you could only find here,” he said.
“Guests have described it as a kind of ‘secret garden.’”
Another secret garden can be found in Triangle, at the home of Mieko Oshiro, who found great inspiration in a book on Japanese gardening she received years ago. “Being in a Japanese garden makes me calm and relaxed … flowers in the spring, [and]in the rainy season…a frog’s chorus and the sound of water,” she said.
Oshiro shared her wisdom for creating your own outdoor oasis: “I say, follow your heart and enjoy.”
Emma Young is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mother residing in Dumfries. She’s emphatic that this year she will get the deck project done, and can be reached at [email protected]