Creating a peaceful, usable outdoor living space
By Bernard Whitmore
During the shortest days of winter, when the world seems locked in darkness and wind roars through bare trees, it seems a distant memory ~ that time when we were able to walk barefoot into the morning sun to read the paper and sip our coffee.
Our memories of summer come in dramatic frames ~ days at the beach, cookouts with friends and adventurous road trips. But when autumn days grow shorter, what I find myself missing most is time spent in the backyard ~ hours lost in small garden tasks, relaxing on a lawn chair, reading until the evening light slips away and listening for the approach of a thunder shower. In reality, a mix of all of this is what makes for a summer enjoyed to its fullest.
I don’t believe the garden project is ever fully realized; each year presents new possibilities. Winter’s the time to dream; spring is the time to take action. Consider the classic elements: earth, water, air and fire. Are they in balance? What can I do to bring better harmony to my personal outdoor space and make it more enjoyable?
If you can’t quite imagine how to transform your backyard into something more intimate, it might be best to formulate a plan. It usually helps to speak with someone who specializes in this area. I found several excellent local experts, but for sheer breadth of knowledge, the Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston was a logical starting point.
I spoke with Michael Arnum, Tower Hill’s marketing director. His knowledge of garden design and the Botanic Garden’s resources provided excellent advice in the fundamentals.
“We usually advise people to consider the winter. Because we have such a long dormant period here in New England, you should think about how the plants and structure of the garden will look during the dormant season. So, it’s really important to include evergreens and plants that have interesting form and bark,” Arnum said. “Each year, we recognize plants that have extended seasonal interest and are exceptionally well-suited for New England. It’s called the Cary Award. There’s a witch hazel, for example, that blooms in March with bright yellow flowers that are striking against the white snow.
“People must consider their site and try to plant the right plant in the right place. You have to make sure the conditions you can provide are conducive to the kind of plants that will grow there. Consider your soil conditions and exposure ~ do you have a lot of sun or shade?
“Lawns should always serve a purpose, as, perhaps, a gathering space or for home sports. Lawns should be limited in size and surrounded by a buffer of trees and shrubs that are layered by size; trees in back, then shrubs and perennials.
“As Americans, we have a love for lawns and open spaces. But that’s not the way nature would do it. Fields and meadows are just as beautiful and require much less maintenance.”
When I asked Arnum about how to plan an outdoor room, he suggested, “Look at the layout of your land and plan where you need your living space ~ for recreation, for your barbecue and cooking. Plan around these spaces with the idea being that you’re going to create an outdoor living space that’s connected to the indoors. So that when you look out your windows, you’re looking toward the destination. Always provide a focal point and a destination in the landscape.
“We do that very well at Tower Hill because we have so many access lines that create vistas and destinations. You can do that on a smaller scale at home. People can come to Tower Hill to see what plants do well in this region, but they might also get design ideas, as well. We have guided tours and offer courses in landscape design, plant identification, the use of ornamental plants and so forth.”
When I mentioned that some people have property with idiosyncrasies that might seem difficult to deal with but might also provide interesting opportunities, Michael enthusiastically agreed and suggested Tower Hill’s City Spaces/County Places Garden Tour in June. This is a self-guided tour of private gardens and a wonderful way to get ideas, to see what other gardeners have done and how they’ve overcome problems with their own landscapes.
It’s easy to think of the garden in terms of soil, plants and trees. But rock and stone are its very backbone. For the first New Englanders, stone was the enemy. In their attempts at agriculture, they crisscrossed the countryside with stone walls that are now treasured. In the modern era, stone is the gardener’s friend, a material used to provide contrasting texture and form. We use it to pave paths and patios, edge growing areas and even use as mulch.
Stone forms the very structure of the modern outdoor living space. Henry Camosse, of Camosse Masonry Supply in Worcester, took some time to explain. “A trend we’ve been seeing over the past three or four years is called ‘Taking the Indoors Out’ outdoor living. It incorporates hardscape materials, retaining wall units or concrete pavers to make things that you can spend time outdoors with, such as a fire pit. Instead of just sitting in front of the fireplace in the winter, now you can sit around a fire in the summer.”
He continued, “Now we’re starting to incorporate stainless steel units for cooking and refrigeration. I’ve even seen wine cooler refrigerators… here in New England! They’re making it so you can spend the entire time outdoors, not running back and forth from the inside kitchen.
“Another big movement is pizza ovens. People want to be able to make pizza outside. They’re wood-fired; I’ve also seen people use them to cook salmon and meats. They’re also building outdoor fireplaces. Just like in your living room, with a hearth, mantle and chimney, but we move it outdoors.”
Stone must be etched into the Camosse family DNA. Camosse’s son, Christopher, builds charming birdhouses from stone and other found materials. They’re the most whimsical birdhouses you’ll find anywhere and would be a perfect ornament in any garden… or on the mantle of one of those outdoor fireplaces.
Every garden requires water; irrigation makes deserts bloom. But more and more gardens are featuring the soothing sounds and drama of falling water. I consider my fountain to be one of the most exciting of the improvements I’ve made to my garden; the sound of water splashing down multiple levels muffles street sounds and attracts wildlife.
In the end, construction of my water feature was less a challenge than I feared, but that was after a few experiments gone awry. And it’s still a challenge for me to have fish that live for more than a season. So I sought the advice of an expert, Shawn Cutroni, whose family runs New England Aquatic Landscaping, which custom builds fountainscapes, waterfalls, ecosystem ponds and healing gardens.
Cutroni observed that “garden ponds can provide serenity and support life. Using correct construction, with a balance of aeration, water plants, fish and gravel, you build ecosystems that interact to keep it naturally balanced. Fish will survive in the pond through winter if you keep a hole in the ice using a floating heater or an aerator stone. The deeper the pond, the thicker the ice will form and the harder to keep it open. It’s a common myth that you need a deep pond.”
His mother, Janelle Cutroni, added, “Frogs and toads will come to you ~ if your pond attracts them, you know you have a good ecosystem.”
I sited my fountain near an ancient bluestone patio. Its background is an arc of mature rhododendrons, which provide a haven for a queue of birds that come to bathe in the cascading water. Nearby is a heavy cast-iron chiminea, perfect for a crackling fire in autumn.
On late spring evenings, we like to sit in cantilevered chairs and listen to the sounds ~ especially when bufo americanus, the commonest of toads, turns Caruso and sings his mating song.
These chairs are only somewhat comfortable for rocking~ and way too heavy for much else. Of the World War II era, they’re of such heavy-gauged iron, they must have been fabricated by Rosie the Riveter. I hauled them home from an estate auction, which is often a good opportunity for obtaining offbeat architectural fragments or statuary for the garden.
Much more versatile are the new rattan wicker chairs, made with a resin that retains its natural appearance and can safely stay outside in a rain shower.
Teak is the material of choice for tables and chairs; its beauty grows with age. The least expensive alternative, of course, is the white plastic furniture found in every corner of the planet. It can be dreary, but of course, who doesn’t own a few stacks?
The outdoor room should especially be enjoyed after the sun sets. To relax around the table, enjoying your garden’s harvest or sharing a bottle of wine and the friendship of neighbors. These hours can be the most dramatic of the day if you’ve incorporated a lighting system that features a splash of light glinting on that falling water.
Rick Nelson, a lighting consultant at A. Arsenault & Sons in Spencer, told me, “Some people use lighting for accenting the front of the house or to outline walkways, patios or as mood lighting around water, pools or fountains. Light can also be used for security purposes. By shining light up into the trees, anyone walking across the property will cast shadows. Lighting is used to increase living space, for entertaining after nightfall. We use downlighting to provide ample vision of where you’re walking without causing glare.”
Nelson took care to point out the lower operational cost of the newer-generation LED bulbs and claimed a further benefit: “Most of these lights do not attract many insects. Because LED doesn’t throw off heat, you get a lot less bugs.”
For most of us, summer evenings are a time to relax. Forget television for a couple months and take a step outside!