Expert Advice – On the Drawing Board


Creating the ideal backyard can be a difficult feat, but with the right plan and design team in place, it’s a challenge easily met. With crowded schedules and limited vacation time, homeowners are looking at their own backyards to give them a much-needed escape. Although existing terrain can dictate the type of landscaping that will best fit a space, clients’ ideas and lifestyles play a major role in the decision process. Whether your goal is a pool complete with a cascading waterfall or a picturesque patio for informal gatherings, with enough preparation your dream landscape can become a reality. Below, we present two recently completed, award-winning projects that perfectly illustrate how to arrive at a design that maximizes available space and meets client needs.
Ellicott City Backyard Escape
In the spring of 2006, Botanical Decorators’ landscape designer Brian Hahn had an opportunity to create a vacation spot right in the backyard of a client’s residence near Ellicott City, Maryland. The homeowners wanted their yard to feel like an escape. They requested a pool and a space for entertaining anywhere from five to 100 people. Although they knew what they wanted, Hahn was given free reign to be creative in achieving it.
According to Hahn, the two main components of a successful design are form and function. In order to maximize the usefulness of the property, the design of this backyard had to address some obstacles, including a seven-foot change in grade and a forest conservation area towards the rear of the proposed pool. Hahn concealed the change in grade by constructing three separate levels for entertaining, which also enhanced the homeowners’ privacy by limiting the view of the property from the driveway. Additionally, a pool design was created that would respect the boundary of the conserved area, and a new drainage system was installed because the original one would have run into the center of the proposed pool.
Construction began in the fall of 2006. “October is a great time to dig a pool,” says Hahn. “Do the work through the winter and you’ll be swimming in the spring.” The pool, which serves as the centerpiece of the backyard, includes color-changing lights and a spa, complete with jets, for year-round use. Flame-torched geometric and broken flagstone walkways and patios emphasize the natural setting, and a blue pebble-sheen finish in the interior of the pool makes it resemble a lake. Although rich in detail, the yard is low in maintenance. Hahn believes two major clean-ups—one in fall and one in spring—with minor weekly upkeep is the best maintenance plan for most clients.
Private Patio in Alexandria
For Alexandria, Virginia, clients, the backyard haven of their dreams didn’t include a pool; rather, they wanted a patio for intimate family gatherings, centered around a large arbor. In the spring of 2007, they approached Howard Cohen, vice president and landscape architect at Surrounds Landscape Architecture and Construction. The clients had previously collected photographs to show him what they wanted; Cohen believes it’s important to look at best of show magazine, books, and other reference materials to get an idea of all the available options.
The process took six months and resulted in a backyard that “takes the term ‘patio’ to a new level,” says Cohen. The focal point of the space is the arbor constructed of 14-inch solid cedar beams; it doubles as an aesthetic feature and a shady retreat. Its size set the scale for the rest of the plan, which included a grilling area and fireplace. The homeowners wanted privacy, so Cohen installed a custom-built, white-stained cedar fence at the property’s perimeter. The flagstone walkway from the gate is bordered by white, single-stem river birch trees and other white plantings, which complement both the gate and the arbor. A trail of flagstone off the main patio leads to a kids’ play area.

Although both projects differ in scope and size, their designers offer similar advice to homeowners planning a project. They stress the importance of knowing your budget before starting, which allows the designer to create accurate plans within your means. Also, be aware of how you want to utilize your property. This will help your designer create the beautiful outdoor space you always wanted.