Backyard Bliss

Three distinctive spaces redefine outdoor living in Arlington.

We live in our backyards. We grill out, drink wine, play ball, climb trees and swing on swings there. We gaze out the window at the greenery when we’re cooking dinner. We watch where the sun begins its journey in our yards and where it ends. We move our lawn chairs into the shade.

At least that’s the fantasy. The reality is that despite its importance, a backyard is often just a leftover space—maybe nothing more than a patio and a patch of lawn—and none too inspiring. Backyards often have problems too. Either they are too small or too large, or the ground is uneven, or the balance of light and shade isn’t ideal. Worst of all is when they lie there like an old rug, tired and unused.

Enter three residences that have turned the boring backyard on its head. Although very different from one another, these private sanctuaries illustrate how even a modest backyard can be transformed with just a few key elements. One features a small but productive vegetable garden; another uses water as a sensual element in a lush hideaway; and the third extends the house’s modern architecture into a landscape that is equally serene in its minimalism. All three offer takeaway ideas that other homeowners can use to transform their own yards into something special.

Small Wonder

Green Thumbs Mary Dufour and Linda Scott take their fruits and vegetables seriously—how they plant them, how they harvest them, how they cook and can them. Mary is even a competitor. Last summer, she submitted one of her own jams—an inspired mix of peach, vanilla and the Scotch bonnet pepper—in an Arlington County Fair contest. She didn’t win, but she came close. This year, she’s tweaking the recipe and trying again.

For this pair of self-proclaimed “domestic goddesses,” the backyard is their own personal farmer’s market, test kitchen, outdoor dining room and meditation space. The remarkable thing is that they do it all in a tight area that’s only 12 feet wide and about 60 feet long. Their 1934 brick Cape Cod in Lyon Park is built on what is known as a half-lot, meaning that the yard is small, even by Arlington standards.

Still, they have made ample use of the diminutive setting for nearly two decades. After buying their house, Mary, a fifth-grade teacher at the Sidwell Friends School, and Linda, the chief operating officer of the Community Health Accreditation Program (both work in D.C.) built a little garden and laid a brick patio themselves, where they socialized with their neighbors frequently. It was one of those neighbors, Arlington-based landscape designer Tom Mannion, who ultimately helped them realize the space’s  full potential.

With a specialty in sculptural and sustainable features, Mannion has designed many outdoor retreats throughout the D.C. metro area. In Arlington, he has transformed his own block one house at a time, designing gardens not only for Linda and Mary, but also for their neighbors on either side, one of whom is Arlington County Board member Jay Fisette. Each yard is unique, and each one tells a story.

For Linda and Mary, the story is how much functionality can be teased out of a small lot. Mannion designed a backyard garden and patio with a brick pathway (see p. 80) that weaves between a large rectangular fish pond, raised vegetable beds and a shaded outdoor dining area. The beds are framed by a stucco-and-stone seat wall (an affordable alternative to stacked stone) that ties the various elements together and gives dimension to the yard.

“Linda and Mary’s garden is always a delight to me because they plant stuff I would not dare to plant—like the now-huge daphne in their front yard—and they get things to grow well,” Mannion says. “So I am honored to garden nearby and to learn from their enthusiasm.”

As they have become more serious about their gardening, they have taken more risks. The pair recently challenged themselves to try to grow all the produce they eat. They’re not there yet, but they come closer every year, Linda says.

If all goes according to plan, this year’s harvest will yield 10 to 15 different types of crops, including potatoes, peppers, carrots, beets, collard greens, blueberries and an array of herbs. Fortunately their yard enjoys direct sun for most of the day, creating optimal conditions for edible plants to flourish.

But the yard isn’t all for toil. A screened-in porch overlooks the fish pond, and a patio table seats six or more comfortably, especially since it is pushed up against the stucco wall, which doubles as bench seating.

Passionflower, honeysuckle and coralbells offer a feast for the eyes and nose. Perhaps the yard’s most striking element is the fig tree that is being pruned and trained—”espaliered,” to use garden lingo—to grow along a bit of scaffolding on the side of the house.
On a typical Saturday, Linda and Mary are constantly in and out of what they dub their “backyard beach,” with their miniature dachshunds, Lily and Buster, always nearby. “We might start the day by sleeping in or heading to the Courthouse farmers market,” Linda says. “Then we work in the yard. Usually, we end the day by lighting up the grill and having friends over.” Blue herons, hawks and foxes have been known to stop by too.

“We like to say, ‘As the garden grows, so grows the gardener,’” Mary says. “It’s just satisfying for the soul.”

Landscape Lessons:

  • Give the yard a distinct shape. 
  • Plant garden beds in layers. Add a placid pond, if possible.
  • Build elegant, simple sweeps of pavement for a sense of movement and flow.

Water World

Landscape designer Jeff Minnich is a master of disguise. Approaching his house in Lee Heights—which he refers to as the “Woodland Cottage”—you’d never know that it conceals a lush landscape full of surprises. The first clue comes as you cross from street to front yard by passing under a lovely arch of Portuguese laurel. Then, the full effect of this densely planted wonderland becomes clear, with mature trees and an understory of bushes and flowering plants. It looks more like a botanical garden than a suburban front yard.

Turn the corner onto Jeff’s side yard, which slopes downward, and another pleasure awaits. There, a small pool of water, ringed with fieldstones, trickles into a thin stream. Step down a few stairs, and the stream widens into a waterfall, pouring over a fieldstone edge into a larger pool below. Down at the patio level, the accoustics are completely different—louder, rushing—but you’d never have known it standing on top, where the grade change and plantings absorb the sound. A patio table and chairs sit at the foot of the waterfall, where Jeff and his partner, Steve Grimsley, like to have meals and drinks with friends.

A naturalistic waterfall may be more ambitious than a garden-store fountain or a small pond, but it’s still an option within reach of most homeowners, Jeff contends—especially if you can take advantage of an existing elevation change. When the designer purchased his 1928 Spanish bungalow, the hill was held up by an old, railroad-tie retaining wall and planted with pachysandra, a common ground cover. “The site begged for a water feature,” he says.

The yard’s organic sense of progression and the reveal from top to bottom are, of course, by design. “I like to walk under things,” he adds. “I like to turn corners. I like when there is a change in the feeling of a space.”

Jeff has worked in horticulture and landscape design since he was a teenager, first for the well-known Alexandria landscaping firm Campbell & Ferrara, and then, for the past 15 years, as the principal in his own firm. He bought his house around the same time he launched his company, knowing he wanted to create a dreamscape that was both a proving ground for his craft and a retreat from workday stress.

Although Jeff grew up in Alexandria, family roots in the Deep South have influenced his design sensibilities. His kitchen drips with Dixie nostalgia, including a collection of antique “mammy” figurines and Scarlett O’Hara refrigerator magnets. Outside, the garden includes several plant species that are better-suited to climes farther south, Jeff concedes, but he has planted them here anyway. “I’m in zone denial,” he says with a laugh.

One of those species is the Lady Banks Rose, a Southern belle of a flower, which, despite being at its northern limit in this area, was heavy with flowers when it bloomed this spring. He is particularly drawn to plants and flowers with a variety of colors, scents, and textures, such as the Carolina allspice, also known as “spicebush” because of its distinctive spicy smell; and the money plant, which blooms with bright purple flowers. When he says his yard feels like a cathedral, he’s right.

Humor is another central element. Lined up near the waterfall is a collection of heads of garden statues—just the heads—that Jeff collects from various places like nurseries or antique marts. “I feel sorry for statues,” he says. “So I adopt the heads. It reminds me that we’re all not perfect or complete.”

Many evenings, Jeff can be found in a rocking chair on the patio, which he likens to a classic Southern veranda. He enjoys watching the stars twinkling above the woodland paradise he’s created. “Gardens grow along with your life,” he says. “Every single day is different. It’s a never-ending fascination.”

Landscape Lessons:

  • Invoke the element of surprise using water features, grade changes and hidden vignettes.
  • Create a garden for all the senses—particularly touch, smell and sound.
  • Don’t be afraid to plant something that doesn’t typically work in this area; you might be surprised by how well it adapts.

Modern Marvel

As backyards go, this one could not have been more boring.

Katie Gleason and David Pries enjoyed the fact that their 1940s rambler in Broyhill Forest was larger than their old house, but the backyard was merely serviceable, with a patio that lacked pizzazz and dead-ended in a looming hill. A large Siberian elm tree dominated the yard, but its surface roots were unsightly and problematic.

Inside, the couple needed more space. They’d purchased the home in 2003 but realized after a few years of living there that the communal areas didn’t quite meet their needs. “We were previously in a smaller Arlington house near Yorktown High School,” Katie says. “Even though we’d traded up and the kitchen was much bigger in this house, it was still a small space and entertaining was difficult.”

After a few years, Katie, a senior financial economist with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and David, who works in technology development for Verizon, thought about upsizing again, but found that bigger houses really only added bedrooms. Since they have no children (two well-loved cats notwithstanding), they realized more bedrooms were superfluous and decided to add on to their existing home instead.

“Dave and I made different contributions,” Katie says. “I wanted to minimize the actual square footage of the addition because I wanted to maximize the green space outside—that feeling of privacy and separation from the next house.”

The addition, as a result, expands the house by only about 250 square feet, even though it doubled the existing kitchen and dining space. “It’s not that much,” she says. “But it makes all the difference in the world.”

It was David who pushed for the modernist aesthetic, which Katie says she has come to appreciate. Because they were used to living in small spaces, they had learned not to accumulate more things than necessary. They found that a clean, unfettered look suited their lifestyle.

The addition’s architect, Jon Hensley, had worked compatibly with landscape designer Scott Brinitzer on previous jobs, so Brinitzer’s firm was brought on board to do the landscape architecture. (Both firms are based in Arlington.) Principal designers Scott Brinitzer and Katia Goffin, along with associate Kameron Aroom, conceived of a concrete, stone and wood outdoor patio that complements the addition, echoing its sense of serenity.

A stone floor treatment in the kitchen now continues under the glass doors of the addition and extends outdoors into the garden. The new seat-wall, topped with a bench seat of ipe wood (a durable tropical hardwood), pushes into the existing slope to make room for the new deck. At the same time, a raised bed planted with dwarf fountain grass brings an element of the landscape into the built area and creates visual texture.

“Some additions are like buses that back up into a hill,” Brinitzer says. “The challenge was to add a patio that projects into the hill and yet is comfortable. The patio serves as the bridge between the house, the hill and the garden. And it’s done in a very simple contemporary language.” The project recently won a design award from Arlington County.

Replacing the former elm tree is a new planting scheme—one that is structured and orderly close to the patio, but loosens up as one moves away from the house and up the hill. Birch and holly trees work down the slope of the hill toward the house, and camellias bring evergreen foliage and color. At the same time, hydrangeas offer a soft counterpoint to the hardscape in the summer. “We wanted four seasons of interest out here,” Brinitzer says. “We are also balancing hard and soft elements.”

These days, the couple often unwinds after a long day with a glass of wine out on the deck. The hill provides a sense of privacy while offering a pleasant view. “When we have friends over, everyone congregates in the new kitchen space,” Katie says. “But I notice that when our guests want a little peace and quiet, they drift outside to the patio. We do too.”

Landscape Lessons:

  • Take cues from the house when designing a patio or deck; echo similar architectural details and materials in the yard.
  • Plant formal groupings closer to the house and loosen up the landscaping to feel more organic as you move outward.
  • A low seat wall acts as a visual frame to a space while offering more functionality for entertaining.

Longtime Arlington resident Kim O’Connell has written about architecture and landscapes for Preservation, National Parks, Landscape Architecture and other publications. She is now looking forward to spiffing up her own backyard in Aurora Highlands.

Categories: Home & Design