Carynne and Garrett's Garden Story

Carynne and Garrett, a newlywed couple who had just bought their first home outside of Durham, North Carolina, were excited about the possibilities offered by their wooded, half-acre property. Carynne already had plans for a raised-bed vegetable garden, but they really weren’t sure how to proceed with the design of the rest of the yard. They needed to remain within a limited budget, especially as they are planning on having children and possibly expanding the rear of the house in the not-too-distant future. Among their “must-haves” were using native plants, preserving the two large cedar trees in the center of the backyard, creating a children’s play area, and creating a meditation garden. 

Although rather flat, the property had a few challenges. Most interesting was the filled-in swimming pool just to the rear of the house. Carynne and Garrett definitely didn’t have the funds to excavate and remove the buried concrete, but the poor soil and rim of concrete close to the surface in this rectangular area would prevent any serious landscaping. An additional challenge was a perpetually damp area that ran from the former swimming pool area toward the shed at the rear of the property. But, as in other areas of our lives, challenges in the landscape are really just opportunities to envision and bring to life something wonderful!

By having them complete a questionnaire and by walking around the property with them, I was able to learn more about Carynne and Garrett’s thoughts about their yard – what they liked, what bothered them, how they imagined themselves using it this year and ten years from now.

My next step was to prepare a base map to record all existing site elements, such as the house, shed, driveway, walkways, and plant material. The owners did not have a site plan in their house documents, so I did a lot of measuring to determine the exact location of everything on the site. Afterwards, I was able to do a site inventory, in which I gathered information about the soil type, sun angles, views, and drainage, among other things.

Putting all of this information together, I created a functional diagram, or concept plan, in order to graphically depict the basic function and spatial structure of the design, considering circulation patterns, gathering spaces, views, etc. I included some photographs with examples of my suggestions. This allowed me to more easily discuss my ideas with Carynne and Garrett and to get their feedback. 

Based on our discussion, I went back to the drawing board to design the master plan. I was able to turn those initial challenges into areas of beauty and enjoyment. For instance, the damp area became a low, wooden boardwalk over a dry streambed that leads to the meditation garden and room. The large shed was converted to two-thirds meditation room opening onto the garden and one-third storage area. In the former swimming pool area, there is now an in-ground stone fire pit with a swing suspended between the two large cedar trees nearby.

Instead of putting in a traditional play area with pre-fabricated play equipment, there are elements made from natural materials that are for climbing, balancing, crawling, and inspiring the imagination. For example, a living willow hut invites children to crawl in and read or pretend, and natural boards and stumps of different sizes encourage youngsters to develop balance and increased concentration while having fun.

All the proposed plants are native to the area, which will not only invite wildlife to their yard, but will also promote a healthy ecosystem and reduce the amount of maintenance required. 

Like many suburban homes, the part of the front yard that is adjacent and parallel to the road has a wide swale that can be difficult to mow. Luckily, the sunny swale presented the wonderful opportunity to install a rain garden filled native grasses and flowering perennials. Rain gardens are planted areas designed to take the excess rainwater run-off from other areas – in this case, the paved road – while encouraging a greater diversity of wildlife. Additionally, the soil and plants help to clean up contaminated water. 

To the left of the driveway, there was a sparsely wooded, 25-feet wide swath of land that seemed fairly neglected. Because of its location, it had the potential to set the tone for the entire yard. I chose to enhance the existing plants and feel of this area by designing a woodland walk with a meandering pathway and trees, shrubs, and perennials naturally found in a North Carolina forest. This invites visitors to gradually transition to the backyard in a peaceful way.

Carynne and Garrett are excited about the many positive changes they can make to their new property. With their new master design plan, they’ll be able to prioritize which projects to begin now while remaining within their budget, and the order in which they’ll take on each additional one. Fortunately, Carynne, Garrett, and their parents are all eager to begin the tasks of digging, planting, and building! 

Mary Pat Peters