One of the perks of my job is receiving permission from homeowners, many of whom I’ve never met, to poke around in their gardens. I imagine it’s a lot like getting a backstage pass to a concert. The thrill is real because I have absolutely no idea what I’ll find. I get a little giddy actually and, when a stunning landscape reveals itself, a little choked-up by the beauty of it all. When I walk into a magical place, a space that transports me into another world, well that’s pretty cool. And the thing about it is, it doesn’t have to be an enormous landscape to elicit an emotional response. I’ve found that the most memorable spaces are the small intimate ones that make you feel like Mother Nature has enveloped you in her protective embrace. Like the one you’re about to experience.
I was scouting some gardens designed by my friend Robert Milani, a senior landscape architect from Chalet Nursery in Wilmette, IL, when he brought me to a little urban gem in Evanston, IL. We’d toured several gorgeous landscapes that morning, but this one struck me as exceptional simply because it was achievable and something that would translate to many urban backyards. Robert was asked to create a space that offered privacy, room for entertaining and a cottage garden to compliment the Victorian-style home. The homeowners were empty-nesters. The backyard was home to some ailing trees and a rusted swing set, the last remaining remnant of the children who once played there. It was time for the backyard to grow up too.
When I think of urban, I envision being on display. Neighbors right on top of each other. That’s exactly what these homeowners were up against. It wasn’t that they disliked their neighbors, they just didn’t want that fish bowl feeling. It was all about the views from both inside and outside the property. A row of arborvitae was a perfect solution along the north fence, forming a pillowy verdant wall.
To soften the imposing garage wall, three lattices were installed to support sweet autumn clematis. I love the sun. It was one of the first things to catch my eye when I rounded the corner into the backyard. An 18-inch tall limestone planter box camouflages the garage foundation and provides additional seating around the bluestone patio.
A recirculating fountain within the planter box provides soothing sounds and visual interest. Not to mention a sipping spot for winged visitors.
The bluestone walkway is softened with a small island garden full of easy care perennials like rudbeckia, Shasta daisy, phlox, coneflower and salvia. Hoop edging keeps the homeowner’s dogs out.
A free-form espaliered pear tree sprawls across the garage wall and provides an edible feature.
Espalier is a French pruning technique begun in the 1600s to grow fruit trees in small spaces. The technique can be applied to flowering trees of all kinds as a way to disguise walls and add visual impact.
A corner garden directly across from the garage is full of more low maintenance perennials and shrubs including limelight hydrangea, sedum, hosta, perennial geranium and catmint. A mix of grasses provides movement. An alley is on the other side of the fence.
Trumpet vine scrambles across the cedar fence along the south edge of the property and is a hummingbird (and ant) magnet.
Container gardens soften patio edges and add pops of color.
If you could redo your backyard, what would you do?