With summer drawing to a close, thoughts of the al fresco life will soon be replaced by falling leaves and temperatures. But while the summer mindset may be gone, your outdoor living space isn’t: Fall is a great time to think about redesigning the landscape. From picturesque pools to ultra-cool kitchens, the possibilities are endless—and with proper planning, you can realize them all by the time summer rolls around. In case inspiration provides incentive, we profile four recently completed backyard transformations below, along with the landscape plans for seven other projects. We also include tips from landscape designers on how to proceed—food for thought as autumn leaves begin to fall.
Inspired by warm memories of childhood gatherings poolside, a McLean, Virginia, couple wanted to create an outdoor space that would bring their family together. Unfortunately, poor drainage was an obstacle; the site was flat except for upward slopes on the property lines, which caused the water from two neighboring lots to pour into the yard whenever it rained. The homeowners turned to landscape architect Anthony Cusat of McHale Landscape, Inc. in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, to improve the space.
Cusat’s first step was to work with the couple to discover their overall vision for the project. He emphasizes the importance of a master plan for people looking to transform their outdoor spaces. “Make a plan—everything you really want to do,” he says.
“When evaluating budget opportunities, a landscape architect can recommend what needs to be done first while keeping the ultimate goal in mind.”
Once the main goals were established, Cusat broke the project into phases, the first of which was the construction of a large-scale stucco retaining wall around the property—part of the drainage solution. Phase two: the addition of a gunite pool with a pea-gravel deck and a patio hardscape of two-by-two-foot flagstones separated by organic joints and mondo grass. A pergola offers an elegant outdoor room, complete with fireplace, furniture, accessories and even a chandelier. “[The clients] were really into the ornamentation of the project,” says Cusat. “I was able to showcase some of their favorite heirloom pieces within the design.”
One of the challenges of the project was that the main access point was just six feet wide, so workers had trouble bringing materials and machinery into the yard. According to Cusat, having as much information as possible is crucial in avoiding similar issues. Providing grading plans, residential plats and documentation of previous work can speed up the design process, make primary measuring faster and give the designer a clearer picture of what will and will not work in the area. “If you have information, work can be expedited,” says Cusat.
After moving to a new home in Leesburg, Pennsylvania, the homeowners found their backyard a little stark. The neighborhood had been a hayfield, so the land was flat and—post construction—bare. The clients hired landscape designer Josh Kane, head designer of Kane Landscapes, Inc., in Potomac Falls, Virginia, to inject some life into the dull three-acre expanse. The result was a brand new outdoor living space featuring a porch, swimming pool, pavilion, flower and fruit gardens and a spacious lawn.
According to Kane, the first meeting is crucial in creating clear communication for the project. “Be prepared for the level of detail wanted and [to explain] how the space will be used,” he advises. Homeowners should bring in pictures that show the look they desire, in order to avoid any miscommunication about expectations.
In this case, the homeowners did not create a budget, but Kane recommends at least having one in mind. If there’s a budget, he says, “your designer won’t over-design and exceed it or under-design and leave the client with less than they imagined.”
During construction, Kane ran into several unexpected obstacles. The proposed area for the pool turned out to contain filler soil from construction, which meant it was too soft; Kane’s team had to dig deeper than previously planned in order to reach ground firm enough for the pool foundation. There was also a septic field that they had to work around to ensure no lines were ruptured. Kane’s advice for homeowners planning to install a swimming pool? “Make sure you have a copy of the home plat so you can see if a pool can actually be built in the space.”
The completed area begins with the upper patio, which has been outfitted as a formal entertaining area; here, dining furniture and a Viking grill sit atop a floor of broken bluestone. The lower patio is paved in broken bluestone, and an adjacent îpe-floored pavilion offers space to relax or entertain. Pennsylvania boulders guide the way to the swimming pool, decked with Techo-Bloc Athena pavers. Myriad plants, including crape myrtles, Yoshino cherry trees and dozens of perennials, adorn the property.
While the owners of a Prince William County home were happy with their existing pool, they had issues with just about every other aspect of their property, which was inconveniently sloped and—with woods all around—allowed the local deer population free reign. They hired Howard Cohen of Surrounds Landscaping in Sterling, Virginia, to tackle the task of designing a landscape they could fully enjoy.
“Because of the sloped land, the patio and pool area were not really connected,” Cohen recalls. “A big part of the job was to improve the connection.” Cohen and his team began by replacing a perilously steep stairway that led from the patio, at house level, down to the pool below. The new stairway is far less steep, and wider to accommodate a more comfortable passage down.
The other major component of the project was the construction of a spacious, outdoor covered area for entertaining. Cohen designed this structure as a focal point of the property, erecting it on the spot where the patio had been. “We built it 10 feet off the ground,” he says. “It’s sited to overlook everything—the pool area, the woods and the house.” At 450 square feet, the space includes a fully equipped kitchen, a dining area and separate seating by a stone fireplace. In the area between the outdoor room and the house, a concrete patio with a water feature connects the spaces.
The solution to the deer problem was dramatic: a 10-foot wall around the perimeter of the yard—and deer-resistant plantings everywhere for good measure. To further integrate the property, Cohen matched the stone veneer on the side of the house, using it for the new pool coping as well as for the outdoor room. “Work with a landscape architect on custom projects,” he advises. “He’ll be able to put together a homogeneous design.” —Julie Sanders
A St. Margaret’s, Maryland, couple had landscaped their backyard, but were not satisfied with the results. Four years later, they decided to revisit the project, this time under the auspices of Annapolis-based Walnut Hill Landscapes, Inc. The goal was to add some drama to the space and to create flow between areas.
Walnut Hill principal Mike Prokopchak began by replacing the old wooden deck with a new, gracefully curved version made of a synthetic, wood-like material that is maintenance-free. He topped it with a loggia—thereby creating a focal point to the yard.
“You need a designer who’s creative,” Prokopchak says. “A good listener who can take what you say and turn it into something special.”
The deck now contains an outdoor kitchen and bar, plus dining and sitting areas; a fire pit was installed nearby. Prokopchak’s team widened the stairs from the deck down to the existing pool and replaced white picket deck rails with glass ones to create a sense of openness.
“It was a challenge to make the property feel large enough to entertain in—which the clients wanted—but not overwhelming,” Prokopchak says. “It’s important to make sure your space is well-planned beforehand so that it accommodates your life the way you want it to.” A good rule of thumb, he adds, is to visit a landscape company’s previous jobs to get a feel for each space; this will help you decide what will work for you.
The other challenge was to match the new materials to the existing ones, so that the design felt seamless, “as if it was all done at once.” For example, the stone on the bar matches the fire pit, and both match the existing spa portion of the swimming pool. Finally, large-scale plantings such as crape myrtle enhance the sense of timelessness in what is now a fully integrated design. —J.S.