Outdoor Living: Creating a Beautiful Yard

Homeowners are turning yards into “rooms” where they can relax or entertain. Here’s what’s hot—from fire pits to “green” gardens—and experts who can design your dream yard.

By: Sophie Gilbert

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It took Carolyn Nordberg and her husband, Ed, two years to build their house, another six months to plan the garden, and a summer living with it to work out exactly what they wanted.

“You have to spend time in your garden before you get it right,” she says.

The house the Nordbergs built in Bethesda’s Kenwood neighborhood was wide and essentially one room deep—anyone walking in the front door had an immediate view of the garden. Carolyn Nordberg wanted to create a yard that not only would look beautiful but also would have a variety of uses.

“We had young children and dogs who needed to use the garden, but we also wanted a space where we could entertain as grownups,” Nordberg says.

She consulted Jay Graham of Annapolis’s Graham Landscape Architecture, who divided the space—just under an acre—into five “rooms.” Double doors in the living room lead to a formal terrace and a lawn, which the family can use for entertaining and fundraisers. Ed Nordberg is a real-estate and health-care executive; Carolyn is on the board of several charities.

Graham used different paving off the kitchen to create a smaller, more casual terrace, which is near a swimming pool and an outdoor pizza oven. The lawn leads to a play area for the children, visible only from the kitchen—Mom can see the kids, but the play structures don’t detract from the overall look. For quiet time, Graham created a nook outside the library with an antique bench for reading.

“People interested in residential landscaping seem more focused on improving their quality of life than before,” says Cathy Carr of Garden Gate Landscaping in Silver Spring. “Curb appeal is always important for increasing a home’s value, but our clients also value the emotional and environmental benefits their outdoor living spaces can generate.”

For some homeowners, that means creating a space in which to cook, eat, and entertain. For others, an outdoor space can be a sanctuary.

Outdoor “Playhouse”

For Gay Barclay, it was a little of both. When she and her husband moved into their Potomac house 28 years ago, they had nothing but empty lots around them. As development inched closer, she wanted to create a space that would obscure the view of nearby houses while making the most of some unused land.

“The best way to hide a view is to sink a garden,” says Barclay.

Working with landscape architect Sandra Clinton of Hyattsville’s Clinton & Associates, Barclay carved out a “living room” where her husband could sit, a “dining room” where she could entertain, and an outdoor kitchen with a vegetable garden. She built a wall around the spaces using old stones, keeping with the feel of the house. Her “kitchen” features a refrigerator, ice machine, grill, and vintage copper sink.

“I call it a big girl’s playhouse,” Barclay says. “I can go down in the morning and have a coffee and work in the garden. If I feel thirsty, I can have a glass of water, and if I feel tired I can lie down on the sofa. I have all the conveniences at my fingertips.”

“Gay’s garden is self-contained,” says Clinton. “She wanted to dine and entertain in a garden setting. It’s about garden living.”

Clinton says most of her clients want to entertain outdoors. That could mean installing a simple grill or a full kitchen.

“If your garden is directly adjacent to your house, there isn’t the need to be too elaborate,” she says. “You just need to create the space and give it a focal point—and have space for dining and seating.”

The focus of Barclay’s outdoor space is clear to her: “Whenever I have a party, my friends are always drawn to the kitchen. It’s a very attractive, cozy space, all about conversation and friends.”

What’s Hot: Fire Pits

Fire pits and outdoor fireplaces can serve as focal points, enticing guests to congregate and talk. Clinton recommends portable fire pits, such as the one in her garden—Target’s $199.99 Cast Iron Fireplace: “They don’t take up space when they’re not needed.”

To create a focal point in her yard, Carolyn Nordberg placed her outdoor pizza oven, a big brick fireplace, next to the pool. “It’s great for parties,” she says, “and it’s nice for the guys to be able to gather around it and smoke a cigar.”

Nordberg does caution that an outdoor pizza oven isn’t ideal for spontaneous entertaining: “You have to be prepared four hours before you want to cook your pizza, because the oven needs to heat up and you have to have the right kind of wood.”

Joel Hafner of Fine Earth Landscape in Poolesville says an outdoor fireplace allows a homeowner to use the yard in cooler weather. “They do actually heat,” he says.

Graham suggests another way to extend your outdoor entertaining season—build a low wall. “Then, if it’s a beautiful day in the spring and you haven’t brought out your furniture yet, you have a place to sit,” he says. “And at a cocktail party, your guests can put their drinks down or their feet up.”

“Garden of the Heart”

For Alice Miller, a psychotherapist who works out of her home in Potomac, the most important reason to have a garden is to have a sanctuary to escape to.

“I think it’s the ultimate relaxation tool,” she says. “If you have a garden, you don’t need Valium.”

Miller had always wanted to live in a house at the edge of the woods, but when she couldn’t find one, she decided to buy a house and build the woods herself. The result is a lushly planted, meandering space, with pathways that lead to hidden places. “It’s almost all little rooms and areas,” Miller says. “Japanese gardeners have a saying: ‘Conceal, don’t reveal.’ ”

Miller—the author of two garden books, A Thyme for Peace and To Everything There Is a Season: A Psychotherapist’s Spiritual Journey Through the Garden—believes that the presence of wildlife adds to the beauty of the garden. When you attract wildlife, though, you can’t always know what you’ll get.

“I filled our pond with the most wonderful fish, and the raccoons thought it was a buffet,” she says. “The rabbits came and nibbled all the azaleas. Then the foxes came and ate all the rabbits.”

Still, when her husband’s sister, Linda, died, Miller collected Linda’s bird feeders and created an aviary in her honor, with birdhouses, white Casablanca lilies, and ferns.

“A garden should be deeply personal,” she says. “This is not a designer garden, but it’s a garden that’s lived in by people. A garden of the heart.”

Creating a Sanctuary

Miller believes that the most important element in creating a tranquil space is water.

“Water is very calming,” she says. “I sit on an old stone at the edge of the pond and the rest of the world fades away.”

The sound of running water helps mask the noise of traffic or neighbors, and a water feature attracts birds and other wildlife. Joan Honeyman of DC’s Jordan Honeyman Landscape Architecture likes to create small fountains that overflow into a basin of stones, so that both sound and sight are emphasized. (For more information on installing a water feature, see page 157.)

Arlington landscape designer Tom Mannion has noticed a new trend for those with limited yard space—a small, shallow cocktail pool, ideal for sitting in. “They’re too small for swimming laps but great for hosting friends and parties,” he says.

To create a relaxing outdoor space, think about planting things with color and texture that move in the wind, such as switchgrass, heavenly bamboo, or lavender.

“Things that move in the breeze are like feathers—they help us calm down,” says Cathy Carr.

Another key to a relaxing, meditative space is creating an enclosure. “Something about us as humans likes to be surrounded,” Carr says. “An overhead canopy can create that, maybe under a tree, or planting shrubs to create a sense of walls so you feel like you’re in a private place.”

Another trick? Make the area lower than the rest of the yard.

“If you’re in a sunken space,” Carr says, “you often feel safe and comforted.”