Transformations: Natural Beauty

A backyard overhaul turned this nondescript uninviting space into an outdoor room.

A backyard overhaul turned this nondescript uninviting space into an outdoor room.

For many, retirement represents a time of change. For one Baltimore City native, that change presented itself in the form of a cross county move and a return to familiar turf in 2001. “I grew up in Baltimore and looked forward to reconnecting with family and my Maryland roots,” says the former employee of the USDA Forest Service. “I had very specific ideas about the type of property and neighborhood I was looking for, but anticipated it might take awhile to find a house that would incorporate everything on my wish list.” That list included her desire for a contemporary, single-family home in a private, wooded setting.

“So much of the older housing stock in the region is colonial in style, which naturally reflects architectural traditions, and many newer homes are built in cookie cutter developments—I was prepared to wait awhile to find the right fit,” says the owner.

Eventually, her Internet search turned up a property that seemed to fit the bill. “I made a call to my brother who immediately went to take a look and I flew back shortly after and made an offer.”

The new pergola is a dramatic focal point for this outdoor transformation.

The new pergola is a dramatic focal point for this outdoor transformation.

After relocating, the new homeowner’s luck continued when she discovered that neighbors Kathy and Gary Wheatley were respected contractors in the area. “Although the house was only eight years old and in decent shape when I bought it, the former owner’s tastes ran more to French provincial and I’m a fan of the southwestern and mission-craftsman styles,” says the owner. Ultimately, she hired Wheatley Associates and over the next five years, the firm tackled several large home improvement projects.

After the interior renovations were completed, it was time to address the landscape and exteriors. “Although they are neighbors and became good friends, Kathy and Gary did such a great job on the house, I didn’t hesitate in turning over the backyard renovation to them.” Objectives included turning the former nondescript rancher’s backyard from a hot, uninviting, and aesthetically unappealing space into an outdoor “room” where the owner could entertain friends and family, relax, read, or just enjoy nature. The original long, narrow backyard featured steep steps, a stamped red concrete patio that had fallen into disrepair, and several failing wood retaining walls that granted limited access to existing terraces.

For the design, mutual friends referred the owner to Catonsville, Maryland-based landscape architect James Reed Fulton to create the new space. “Reed and I worked on the plan for about a year and a half and developed many schematics until we both were satisfied. In addition to improving the flow from the house to the backyard, changing the grade, and connecting a parking court on the side, the design and plant materials selection had to be very pet friendly,” says the owner, who volunteers time to animal rescue organizations and fosters puppies. “So installing durable, low maintenance materials was important and having worked for the Forest Service, I also felt very committed to using as many natural materials as possible,” she explains.

“The first design challenge was to add visual impact to the uninterrupted linear aspect of the space. Three sets of sliding glass doors (a master bedroom and kitchen each anchor opposing ends at the rear of the house) provide access points to the backyard—we maintained all of them but decided to treat the central set as a ‘window’ focal point while maintaining their functional purpose as an entryway. The solution was to create and position a 26-foot-long pergola with six by 12 foot cedar heartwood beams adjacent to these doors,” says Fulton. This dramatic, defining element now provides a gathering space for seating and conversation.

Extra seating was created using built-in cedar benches that span the pergola piers and terminate near the dining area to form an “L”.

In addition to providing much needed seating, the benches also separate the patios from the garden beds below. “I enjoy entertaining and cooking for large crowds, but because my kitchen is so accessible to the outside patio, I didn’t feel it necessary to add a separate outdoor kitchen, and we incorporated a grilling area instead,” says the owner. An umbrella-covered table and more chairs provide a place for al fresco dining.

The entire back wall of the house was redone in an adobe colored stucco.

The entire back wall of the house was redone in an adobe colored stucco.

“The entire back wall of the house was redone in an adobe colored stucco to cover the now exposed previous elevation lines and the pergola piers are also covered in the same material,” says Fulton. Mission-style sconces were added as an architectural accent and to provide lighting for the entertainment areas. To blend seamlessly with the home’s exterior finish and color, a Tennessee sandstone in buff, rust, and tan shades is used for patio surfaces and an exposed aggregate concrete in complementary beige tones was installed for the adjoining paths. New steps from the kitchen and master bedroom to the renovated backyard were created from saw cut slabs of variegated Tennessee sandstone with a hand-dressed face.
Slaysman Forge, a local blacksmith, created handrails powder coated in a bronze finish to coordinate with the home’s exterior hardware. “We replaced two retaining walls with a new, one-tier block retaining wall that now encloses a semi-circular garden bed placed below the pergola and dining patios. We selected perennials, ornamental grasses and evergreens for their pet friendly, non-toxic properties and minimal maintenance requirements,” says Fulton. “Between existing plant materials and the new selections, my client will be able to enjoy color and blooms from early spring into late fall.”

The collaboration for this total backyard transformation recently netted the project a 2008 Award of Excellence from the Maryland Homebuilder’s Association. “This project is better than I dreamed and I enjoy it every day. Whether I’m watching light reflect on dew or butterflies feeding, I feel joy and look forward to warmer weather so I can spend more time in my favorite ‘room’, ” the owner says with a smile.

Tracy Mitchell Griggs is a frequent contributor for ChesapeakeHome Magazine.

Slaysman Forge: or 410-325-8620
Wheatley Associates: or 410-329-2500

Resources-Plant materials:
The Wilderness, Inc.: 410-804-0767
Stone Forest: or 888-682-2987