A Miraculous Garden Makeover
See how a run-of-the-mill backyard becomes a family’s outdoor dining room, family room, and playground.
Westchester County has some wonderful historic houses and the Quinns' stucco-sided Tudor on a corner lot is definitely one of them. The fact that the accents of this vintage gem were visible from all angles proved a plus for the neighborhood, for sure, but the family was feeling a little exposed. What they wanted was to spend more time outdoors; what they didn’t want was the sense of being observed by all passersby. So they called in Robert Welsch of Westover Landscape Design with offices in Tarrytown and Bedford Hills.
As it stood, the backyard was underused space. With a young daughter, the homeowners saw the potential to add living space to their floor plan while also giving their formative child a place to bond with the outdoors. With a full acre around the house, there was ample area to enlist, but the fact that it spilled straight down with a breakneck, bowl-like configuration in back was a major issue. But the contours didn’t faze Welsch. What anybody else would have seen as a daunting challenge, he recognized as an opportunity to create an outdoor room within footsteps of the back door where adults could lounge and entertain while keeping a steady eye on children playing happily on the flat lawn-terrace down below. Kids’ play-dates could be a whole different experience.
Delivering dreams is not easy, and a steep garden can go very wrong. “My clients' garden has a 60- to 70-foot-grade drop in a very short run,” Welsch acknowledged. The obvious solution was to create a series of terraces traversed by steps to make the grade changes, with a playing lawn on the lowest level surrounded by neat and tidy flowerbeds. But the stroke of genius was the upper-level outdoor room complete with a pergola overhead, built-in stone benches, fireplace, and windows with arches that match the house. He fit the whole thing with a fence painted Essex Green (“It almost reads as black,” Welsch says) to blend away as a backdrop from within but to make a sophisticated statement from the street (and keep soccer balls and the like in—and street noise out).
Whipping the terrain into accessible shape was half the battle. But creating living space with heavy-usage potential also entails scenery. Nobody is going to linger in a space that is not performing its stunts beautifully. Originally planted by previous owners, the garden in question was seriously overgrown. Not only was it what Welsch calls “a grandma’s attic” of mismatched plant material, but it performed in spring only, leaving the rest of the seasons drab. The landscape designer has seen that syndrome before. “People get cabin fever in spring and go to the nursery hungry for color. After the garden’s 15 minutes of fame, it’s over.” Staying power is what a good garden is all about, and that is what he set out to create for the Quinn family.
Rather than ripping out the existing garden and sending it to the compost heap, he went for a more sustainable and wallet-friendly solution. He recycled the plants. Selecting a cool, drizzly day, his crew quickly dug up all the mature rhododendrons, azaleas, and conifers in back to repurpose them in front. Now they serve as a spring garden early in the season, providing stately mature greenery and additional privacy throughout the year. In this manner, 95 percent of the backyard plants were efficiently given a second career.
The next step was to create an engaging backyard. Running straight out from the back door, a stone patio has a dining table and seating within easy access of the kitchen. It’s a place where children can do homework and crafts projects, but the large table also does double duty to host dinners alfresco. In fact, the upper terrace is so spacious that it allows room for planters spilling with easily pluckable herbs to flavor meals while leaving open corridors to get to and fro. A few steps up but still on the same level, the inviting fireplace is waiting with sufficient area to gather around in lounge chairs. That area has a strong dialogue with the house. “We have a historic home,” explains the homeowner, “and Robert and his team designed the garden and our stone structure perfectly in sync with the period of our house.” A stone wall shoulders the hill while embracing the area in a privacy screen. Into the wall behind the fireplace, Welsch inserted 16th-century stained- glass panels from Yorkshire, found by the homeowner, and illuminated them from behind for a contemplative glow. With the fireplace roaring and an extensive outdoor lighting system, the nook effectively expands the season by several months. But the beauty of this area is that it looks down on a tapestry of gardens that read like one massive sigh of contentment.
Making a garden that is restive but eventful can be problematic. Welsch’s solution was to keep the flowers pumping through the season, but work with jewel tones rather than hot colors. “The garden has no loud, trumpeting color,” he says. Instead of shocking color, he let contrasting shapes interplay—umbels from Joe Pye weed and hydrangeas intersect with spikes from Veronicastrum virginicum (culver’s root), and salvias romp beside open-faced orb-shapes of echinaceas and Montauk daisies. The result is packed with color until snow blankets the scene—“like a relay race” says Welsch. Close planting weaves everything together for a nonstop flow. Meanwhile, Westover Landscape Design’s signature plant—hakonachloa grass—skips down the steps from level to level like a chartreuse waterfall. “It has movement and flow,” Welsch explains, “and it can tolerate shade.”
On the banking, Welsch used relatively dwarf plants that would shoulder the hill from erosion while forming a carpet. Around the lower playing field, he put in taller trees such as sterile hybrids of rose of Sharon clipped into orbs beside carefully groomed crape myrtle—both boasting bark that creates winter interest. With faux bois furniture as a focal point, and a fountain, the lower terrace is hard-working and visually dynamic.
As a result, there is always something happening in the garden, and the space is now in near-constant use as family members spend time outdoors from morning until after dark. Harmony reigns where a hodgepodge once dwelled. Space that was once lost is now enlisted—making an impact on the next generation and creating fond memories of the Great Outdoors. The solution is about tomorrow as well as today.