I believe in designing gardens that are experienced, not just observed.
When we purchased our 1960’s era home in 2009 it had the original concrete aggregate patio outside the back door – right outside. Now that wouldn’t seem to be a problem until I point out that this patio left us pressed up against the house and unable to see any of our 5 acre garden. It felt like a back yard in the worst way – somewhere to hang the washing out perhaps but definitely not where we wanted to sit. It didn’t help that there was a fenced vegetable garden hemming us in on one side either.
BEFORE: this realtors photo suggests a large space but that is more a result of staging and photography tricks. Access to the barn was also blocked by the original veggie garden
Oddly enough there was a small cabin just beyond this patio – again a strange placement but we found ourselves gravitating towards it simply so we could sit on the porch steps. In one of those Oprah-style ‘Aha!” moments we realized that this was where the patio should be. From this vantage point we could see into the garden yet were still only steps away from the back door. It was a destination, not a default.
BEFORE; the cabin had potential; just not there! Realtor’s photo
Over the next 6 years the cabin got moved, the new vegetable garden constructed and new garden borders established. We even hosted our daughters wedding in the garden – but still the old patio remained, by this point badly broken, a tripping hazard and a source of embarrassment whenever we had guests or clients visit. I had drawn the design but it had never got to the top of the priority or budget list.
Unprecedented drought left this area looking even worse than usual
The aim was to put the dining table where the cabin steps had been since that had proven to be the ‘sweet spot‘. We connected it to the new French doors by a wide path created by a series of offset rectangles, keeping a smaller paved area closest to the house for year round grilling. That area is shaded by the house in the peak of summer so has also become a great spot for a small bistro set for those days when we want to be outside but need shade beyond what the umbrella can afford; or want to chat to the chef!
AFTER: A multi-zoned patio accessed by a wide path that is truly a destination.
While there are usually just two of us at home we also need to be able to comfortably accommodate larger gatherings. The large semi-circular raised bed has a capped wall at sitting height so even if we run out of chairs there is still seating available.
The dining and fire pit areas are separated by a smaller raised bed that I may re-design seasonally but want to keep the ultimate plant height to less than 3′. This year I have used Phenomenal lavender and purple fountain grass (Pennisetum s. ‘Rubrum’) in the middle and edged it with white and purple alyssum. This combination is deer resistant, fragrant, drought tolerant, moves in the breeze and creates a lovely scrim effect; filtering the view slightly but not blocking it.
Sight lines – or axes are extremely important in design and this was no exception.
Centering the patio on the arbor was a key design decision. The capped wall is at a comfortable sitting height and there is plenty of room to move chairs around. The cabin still forms an important role as a focal point in the border.
Notice how the patio is centered on the arbor. When sitting around the fire pit we feel as though we are truly in the garden and being beckoned into that border; love it. We also have views into the more distant corners of the garden beyond the cabin.
Since we designed a semicircular end to the patio we chose a circular fire pit. (The grass is still growing in…….). A darker paver has been used as a border further defining the shape.
We took the vertical arc motif from the arbor and used it in the horizontal plane to create the semicircular fire pit patio. I did some research on patio furniture dimensions to help us size this space correctly.
We were then offered the most incredible gift; the good folks at Berg’s Landscaping said they would build it for us. Together landscape architect John Silvernale and I did some fine-tuning to the design and while I was in England last fall taking care of my Mum they transformed our eyesore into a ‘grown up patio’!! I was even able to show Mum photos that they sent on my iPad before she passed away and she was as excited as I was to see the magic unfold. I am so grateful that I could share that with her.
This view shows the steel wall; still only partially weathered. The feathery foliage in the foreground is Arkansas blue star; the same plant used to fill the large raised bed. The new French doors and side window allow us to appreciate the garden even from indoors
Earlier this year we added an arced steel wall behind the raised bed to create an ‘infinity edge’. It took some adjusting to get the walls to line up correctly but we are very happy with the result. The steel will rust over a few years; faster if I treat it with acid. I liked the idea of mixing materials in the space.
The vegetable garden is only steps away; perfect for gathering berries for desert but also a magnet for hummingbirds
We took the color cues from the main border seen from this area; warm sunset shades offset by blue-green. The two small geometric planting beds between the home and the patio will become a tapestry of colorful textures, framing a container in one bed and a Red Dragon corkscrew hazel in the other. Everything has to be drought tolerant, rabbit resistant and deer resistant although deer rarely come this close to the house so I have risked a few hardy succulents. The rabbits chomped on the delosperma and Ann Folkard hardy geraniums but a spritz with Liquid Fence repellent seems to have helped.
Fall color of Arkansas blue star – imagine this framed by the rusted steel wall.
The large semi-circular raised bed is mass planted with Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii). This took enormous restraint on my part! The idea is to create a transitional space between the more ornamental plantings closer to the house and the wilder meadow and forest beyond. It will take three years for this perennial to grow in but I know it will be glorious, especially in fall when it turns orange. Imagine the feathery orange foliage, framed by the rusted steel wall…… When I cut it back in winter we will still have an unobstructed view of our clump of river birch so we can enjoy the peeling bark of those trees. For spring interest I will add 200-300 daffodils around the outer edges of the border. I can easily reach in to cut back the foliage as it finishes, the stubs being hidden by the emerging blue star. That’s the plan – we’ll see how the execution goes!
We feel so blessed. Mum would have loved everything about this. Blue was her favorite color too.
We have had the teak dining furniture for 15 years and it is still going strong. The sectional all weather wicker furniture and propane fire table are new additions. We selected the Sunbrella cushions and accent pillows to work with the color of the flowers, foliage and pots – no beige for me!! Adding a few small accents to the table top helped pull those colors over to the dining area too.
We did consider a pergola type structure for shade but were concerned it would obstruct our view so settled for a cantilever umbrella. This tilts and swings to give us shade for most of the day and unlike conventional in-table umbrellas doesn’t block conversation when closed!
To sum up
We LOVE it all! From the final design, to the size of the spaces, the quality of the materials/workmanship and the colors; it’s like being on vacation in our own garden. We use every space and wherever we sit we have a different view. We are still close to the house yet don’t feel suffocated by it. Unexpected guests are easy to accommodate at the table or around the fire pit (which has a surround perfectly suited to hold wine glasses). This is outdoor living at its best.
Is it time to re-think your patio?