Home & Design

In the Swim: Six Fabulous Pools

Lush landscapes and innovative design techniques bring high definition to these inviting pools.

Surrounds Landscaping outdoor design features an open-air
cabana offers shade and contains a sink and refrigerator to
make entertaining a breeze. Photo by Ron Blunt.

The power of water is the power of creative poolscaping. Water reflects light, creating drama in the landscape as it mirrors the sky and brings it down to ground level. Water is elegant and graceful, harmonious and tasteful, and has a calming effect on anyone nearby.

As desirable as these qualities are, using water creatively in a landscape requires a very artful eye. In the pages that follow, you’ll see six unique pools, all very different, that have been skillfully integrated with new or existing homes and their surrounding environments. Pools sometimes have to work with steep slopes or else the lay of the land must be altered to fit the pool. Views of the water are particularly important, whether from inside the house or on the deck or patio.

Finally, pools have to work with the woods or the mountains in the distance or perhaps with sunny, open areas. The pools in these gardens have achieved all this and more; they’ve been surrounded by inspired and original planting schemes that successfully transition to the rest of the landscape—and they make the water look like it’s been in place forever.

Asian Inspiration in McLean

The gazebo lit up for an evening soiree.
Photography by Michael Ventura.

The house in McLean sat on the market for three years, perhaps because nobody looked beyond the front yard. Although there was no lawn, it was profusely planted with trees and shrubs that flourish in the Washington area—Japanese maples, dogwoods, azaleas, assorted evergreens, rhododendrons, laurels and nandinas, just a hint or a reflection of what lies beyond.

Then Debbie Barth and her family took a look in the back and were stunned by the magnificent landscape. A high deck off the rear of the house overlooks an Asian wonderland: scores of Japanese maples, weeping evergreens, a hot tub, a waterfall, a swimming pool, a natural pond with a wooden bridge and winding paths throughout the property.

Barth and her family use the backyard almost year round, from the lighted tennis court off to one side, to the gazebo tucked in front of a woodsy area beyond. “Standing up on the deck,” she says, “you can hear the frogs in the pond and the waterfall going, and it simply transports you to another place.”

The natural pond with the Asian-style bridge feeds two waterfalls, one that cascades into the hot tub and another that falls over a large, flat boulder. A bamboo “forest” screens the property from neighbors. Towering evergreens of different colors and graceful flowering trees catch the eye with every glimpse and season:  flowering plums and cherries, weeping atlas cedars, blue cypresses, and spruces. Underneath the skirts of the trees are azaleas, hydrangeas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, irises and more.

The entire landscape is lit at night, from the gazebo to the pool and the paths around the pond. Barth describes it as “beautiful in every season.”

Entertainment Tonight

On the upper level of this job by Petro Design/Build, a
rectangular hot tub is rimmed in stone.
Photo by Lawrence Ruggeri.

Most people slow down a little when they begin to get close to retirement age, but not this Bethesda homeowner. With children grown and a winter home in Florida, he wanted it all, and he got it all from Petro Design/ Build Inc.

According to Petro’s president, Kathleen Litchfield, the major challenge was to get everything in on a rather small lot.  “He wanted to utilize every inch of his property,” she said.  “He had a checklist of everything you could imagine in a backyard space that was about 55 by 90 feet, half of it wooded, and he didn’t want to take down any trees.”

The list included a spa and plunge pool, a waterfall and a firepit, room for a barbeque and outdoor dining, a well-lit area for evening entertaining with lots of seating, screening from the neighbors, a utility area, a vegetable garden and a place to hang a hammock.

Petro created different levels on the sloping lot, which make the small space look much larger. The spa on the upper terrace overlooks a waterfall spilling into the plunge pool and lush, low-maintenance plantings beyond. Lighting was built into the stone walls and steps, and the asphalt drive in the front yard was interrupted with decorative paving to accommodate guest parking and make it look like a courtyard.

A huge beech tree is a front yard focal point, and river birches were planted to pick up the color of the trim on the house. Finally, Petro planted a hedge of Hollywood junipers, which have deep green foliage and an unusual contorted shape. “We thought it would be a very unique look,” said Litchfield.  And it perfectly fits with the very unique landscape.

A Natural Poolscape

Surrounds brought in tons of boulders to fashion a
the waterfall that spills into the hot tub.
Photo by Ron Blunt.

Landscape architect Howard Cohen likes to work with his clients and translate their dreams into the perfect landscape. When this Oakton, Virginia, client called him after an eight-year hiatus, she said she was finally ready to go ahead with the swimming pool they’d briefly discussed years before.

The two-acre lot slopes down steeply from the rear of the house, so Cohen built a five-foot-tall wall 100 feet long to create a level area for the swimming pool and surrounding patio. He brought in—literally—tons of big boulders to fashion a waterfall that spills into the pool from the slope above it. “We wanted to give it a very lush feel,” he said, “and make it look like a natural rock outcropping” rather than a retaining wall.

Cohen installed an open-air cabana that mimics the design of the existing upper deck, and although it is constructed of pressure-treated wood, it is wrapped in Ironwood to match the deck. The spacious cabana includes a storage area for pool equipment, as well as a sink and refrigerator to make outdoor entertaining a breeze. All of the four-season plantings are deer-resistant. They include bayberries, skip laurel, leatherleaf mahonia, and Sungold hypericum. For groundcover, Cohen used an unusual ornamental raspberry that looks like ivy and also is evergreen. Dwarf crape myrtles were added to a planting bed at one poolside edge to match the existing crape myrtles on the surrounding hillside.

Private and Peaceful

Stone walls at the edge of the pool create a transition
to the lower pool level in this yard by Town Creek Landscape.

A large brick house, an acre of land and a heavily wooded site were the basic elements that designers at Town Creek confronted when they were called in to fashion an outdoor entertaining area with a swimming pool in Howard County, Maryland. According to Bob Haney, Town Creek’s president, the clients “wanted a balance between having enough open spaces for large groups of people while still having smaller, more private areas for six or fewer.”

Town Creek’s designers solved the problem by recessing the pool into a gentle hill and installing a large patio between the pool and the house. Rustic stone walls at the edge of the pool divide the space and create a transition to the lower pool level. A pool deck constructed of brick-colored pavers with a bluestone edge ties the house and pool area together.

Smaller, intimate garden areas were carved out between the patio and the woods along a garden path. Plantings of shade-loving perennials created a link with the woods, and masses of sun-loving ornamental grasses and flowering perennials surround the pool. Catmint, daylilies, irises, purple sage and black-eyed Susans spill over a raised pool edge and the bright, colors and varied textures create a majestic backdrop.

A Watery Wonder

Heritage Custom Lawn and Landscape created a series
of steps, landings and a waterfall to descend from the
spa to the pool. Photo by Alan Gilbert.

Homeowners sometimes ask for the nearly impossible. On this Maryland property, Bob Spero of Maryland Pools consulted two landscape designers to plan the project, which called for the design of a pool and a spa in a rather small backyard with a two-to-one slope going uphill.

Al Huber and Tom Levie of Heritage Custom Lawn & Landscape decided to taper the main garden elements to fit the landscape. “We layered everything into the hill to make it fit,” said Huber, “so that when the clients are looking out their windows, nothing is blocked—everything is stepping up and stepping back.”

The spa is at the top of the hill, and a series of steps, landings and walls descend down to the house and pool. A waterfall constructed from natural Western Maryland stone spills down the hill into the pool as well. Huber and Levie also designed a large cove area with a firepit fed by a gas line.

Plantings were selected to “to make them look like they’ve always been there,” said Huber. Viburnums, dogwoods, Japanese maples, Nellie Stevens and Dr. Kassab hollies blend in with the natural woodland beyond. In summer the poolscape comes alive with ornamental grasses, daylilies, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and other vibrant perennials.

A Classic Outdoor Retreat

McHale built a rustic wall of Pennsylvania fieldstone
surrounded by plantings of boxwood, holly and
American hornbeams at the far end of the pool.
Photo by Erin Brooke Bogan.

From a design point of view, the problem with swimming pools is that they tend to look like swimming pools. This one-acre site in McLean, Virginia, with a slope in the backyard of 14 feet certainly lent itself to creative thinking. As well as a swimming pool, the clients wanted space for entertaining, and in the end, they got much more than they desired.

Designers at McHale Landscape Design, Inc., noticed a great opportunity when they saw the traditional center hall Colonial with a bank of windows at the rear. Phil Kelly, chief operations officer of McHale’s Virginia division, says that now, when you walk in the front door, “you can see out into the garden, and the pool is lined up exactly on that center hall axis.” The designers added a vanishing edge at the end of the pool, said Kelly, “which adds a little bit of drama” and instills some life into the calm expanse of water.

At the far end of the pool, McHale installed a rustic wall of Pennsylvania fieldstone, each piece hand-chiseled for an ashlar effect. An archway built into the wall contains a shelf for a planted urn, and seat walls at the end of the pool deck add elevation and make that space feel more like a garden. Plantings of boxwood, holly and American hornbeams lend structure to the garden. Boston ivy rambles up the stone wall and, in winter, brightens that end of the pool when the vine turns a fiery red.

Soil excavated from the house foundation was used to terrace the backyard and create space for an expansive brick deck and the pool. It’s now just two steps down to the main deck area and two more down to the pool deck—a vast improvement over that 14-foot drop.


Plantings in the front of the house include Russian sage,
black-eyed Susans, stonecrop, and yarrow.
Photo by Lawrence Ruggeri.

A waterfall in this landscape by Petro Design/Build spills
into the plunge pool. Photo by Lawrence Ruggeri.

Waterfalls cascade into the free-form pool.
Photo by Michael Ventura.

Town Creek put in several separate spillways to lend a
soft and calming sound to the natural landscape.

McHale Landscape Design eliminated a 14-foot grade in this
backyard, adding a vanishing-edge pool that aligns perfectly
with the home's center hall axis. Photo by Erin Brooke Bogan. 

A terraced brick deck provides plenty of space for outdoor
entertaining, by McHale Landscape. Photo by Erin Brooke Bogan.

You may also like:

Child's Play
Starting with a barren lawn, Scott Brinitzer creates a series of inviting gardens now enjoyed by family and visitors alike
Pure Geometry
Order and symmetry define a harmonious garden in Oakton, Virginia
Bayfront Beauty
Innovative Landscape Solutions
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