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A Playful Place
By Carol McGarvey | Photography by Tim Abramowitz
home :: home & garden :: featured gardens

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Four young siblings have lots of room to romp and explore.

Swimming, running, and sledding. Fishing, climbing on equipment, and eating out. For most of those activities, many families have to hop in the car and drive somewhere. But for one family in the western suburbs, it’s just a matter of running out the door into the expansive backyard.

That’s exactly what the professional couple, aka the parents, were looking for when they purchased their home four years ago. With three and a half acres, including woods, the space already offered a big pond and an in-ground pool. Their home was built originally in 1991.

“We knew we wanted to update the property and expand it for our family’s needs,” the busy mother says. “The patio was a big slab of cement, and there were lots of railroad ties, so it was time for an upgrade. We thought about building, but this space had the bare bones for what we wanted.”

Her husband loves to grill and smoke meats and assists with many of the meal preparations for the family, so he wanted an outdoor kitchen and shared in her desire to add a fire pit to the family project.

The couple opted to work with Dave Rowe, landscape designer for Iowa Outdoor Products, to work his magic for transforming their space. “We knew the space of the old retaining wall and concrete patio could be replaced by a pleasing terraced situation that would play off the big pond and the existing pool,” Rowe says. “Plus, it just seemed natural that there should be a small sandy beach for the kids near the pond.”

Outdoor kitchen

Rowe envisioned the covered kitchen area would be state-of-the-art space. “The husband really, really enjoys cooking, and this space would be central to the way the family enjoys living.”

Indeed. “We eat outside whenever we can,” says the mother of four children, ages 7 and under. “It’s just so much easier—and more fun—and cleanup is easier, too. This is not just a good-weather activity for us. Even if we can’t eat outside, my husband cooks outside year-round.”

Stools for sitting at the outdoor kitchen bar are handy for snacks, but the cool view comes from eating at the big dining table that sits atop the upper level of the terracing, where diners can watch beavers, foxes, cardinals, and goldfinches. Surround sound makes for easy listening.

A fire pit for making s’mores and enjoying a bonfire is surrounded by four Adirondack chairs that call out for a little relaxing time. And in the pond, which has a dock, are smallmouth bass and bluegills. A fountain in the middle of the pond helps maintain it. Needless to say, little adventurers love their playground and their beach for digging and filling buckets with sand.

Nearby, the in-ground pool is a natural calling card during warm weather. Tables and chairs surrounding the wide pool deck are perfect for entertaining family and other groups.

For a quiet getaway, visitors can walk around the pond to an old-fashioned porch swing in a gazebo-style structure.

Year-round fun

“With this sloping property, it was important to plan for year-round activity,” Rowe explains. “The family loves to ice skate on the pond and to slide down the hill on sleds to the pond. It’s a wonderful property for fun all year.”

“Dave created what I call a ‘swoosh’ design,” says the homeowner. “It just flows so nicely on multiple levels.” There’s movement of a circular theme that draws the eye down and around the terracing.

Underfoot on the upper patio and ground-level walkway are Bluestone and Eden rock asymmetrical slabs that give an earthy white/gray tone, and cut flagstone slabs form the steps to the lower level. Setting the slabs was labor-intensive, Rowe points out, but the configuration helps with water drainage.

His planning for the upper patio visually divides the space into kitchen, dining room, and recreation area, which includes the fire pit. For the shake-shingle roofline over the outdoor kitchen, he planned that it would have the same pitch as the home, which also offers a bit of chalet styling.

The kitchen has a two-level counter with eating bar that’s perfect for entertaining. Three copper pendants add character to the space. A built-in gas grill plus a ceramic Big Green Egg are handy for smoking and grilling.

Colorful plantings

Rowe arranged for the setting to be alive with colorful plantings. Fuchsia shrub roses contrast with the orange on serviceberry trees and yellow coreopsis. White hydrangeas and big pots of plate-size pink hibiscus add height and more color. Circular stone retaining walls create flowerbeds between the upper patio and ground level. And near the dining table area, the circular wall creates natural seating and also defines the space. Pink and blue hydrangeas also dot the space.

Impatiens and spikes in oversize black pots add a punch of color. On the ground level near the house, hostas flourish in the part-shady area. By the fire pit, ornamental grasses sway in the breeze and a dry creek bed with rocks directs rainwater.

Near the pool house, various pine trees add height and wind protection, and lots of peach and burnt orange daylilies stand tall.

To bring her small-town Iowa roots into play, the homeowner had Rowe configure a way for her to have a vegetable garden. Below the large circular spot where the dining table sits is another bed, just up from the pond but generally out of sight from the patio above. There she enjoys summer’s best treats—tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, and cantaloupes.

“It’s a perfect spot,” she says.


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