The owners of this beautiful backyard also own a small restaurant where they both work full time; so they don’t have much time to take vacations – they are always taking care of business! They wanted to transform their back yard into an oasis they could escape to whenever they wanted. They enjoy having company over to spend time in the basement arcade/bar area and the lower deck, which both look out onto the backyard, so the view was important from inside the home and in the backyard.
They called us wanting a better fire pit area, a water feature and a to add a “tropical vacation” feel to the space. After looking at different inspiration pictures, I found that they reacted mostly to old-school water features, including ponds with streams of rock and sheer falls, instead of more modern designs, so that added to the design challenge. In the back yard there is no place to disguise the birth of a water feature, or even make it feel like a natural part of the landscape, so the goal became to design a non-contrived yet non-modern water feature with a resort-like tropical feel. What says tropical resort more than a lazy river and tiki torches?
Usually a slope facing AWAY from the house is the worst place to try to put a water feature, but, in this case we used it to our advantage. I decided to create a sunken fire pit down by using limestone boulders as a retaining and seating wall. The grade change was taken advantage of by wrapping the stream down around the fire pit area, installing small falls along the way, ending at a lower pond. This is the “lazy river” portion of the design.
At the water feature birth area, I tackled another problem they had from the lower deck area, lack of privacy. I decided to build up a planter area to conceal the birth of sheer falls, incorporating basalt-column tiki torches at the corners. It stands tall enough to feel protected inside the house and on the deck; it is positioned so that it can be enjoyed from the fire pit and the house. In order to meld the new design with the old space, we wrapped the deck columns for architectural interest, installed lights and cut a portion of the lower deck in a curve to work with the curve of the retaining wall.
This built-up birth area proved to be the most difficult portion of the project as it was required to function as: a retaining wall, a planting bed and the birth of a water feature. Because of its height, we had to use geo-grid to reinforce the retaining wall, but leave enough space for dirt to add plantings. The whole structure is built like a half doughnut: the doughnut is the planting space that also hides the piping and the “doughnut hole” is where the piping ejects water into the upper basin, spilling water over a single piece of slate. The two corners anchor the basalt columns that are pinned to footings, cored and threaded with a gas line, and used as platforms for square fire bowls.
To enhance the tropical feel, I looked to Hawaii for inspiration, so in place of lava rock we have grey trap rock. Instead of using zone 11 plants we have zone 4 plants that mimic tropical textures, colors, and flowers; planting them in a “random” pattern so that it would feel more like a natural tropical paradise. Some of these plants included: Sumac, Stachys, Penstemon, Grasses, Ligularia, Actaea and Sweet Iris. The contrast in textures and colors, along with the grey trap work well to accomplish the goal of tropical stay-cation.
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