Turning a plain space into a modern oasis

April 1, 2010

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By Kiera Newman

Landscape designer Doug Glancy was faced with the challenge of transforming a small, sloping backyard into a modern outdoor living space.

Landscape designer Doug Glancy had a tall order to fill when asked to design a dramatic, modern property in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. His client wanted him to transform a 14 x 18-m (45 x 60-ft) backyard space into a modern oasis with hardy but attractive gardens, multiple sitting areas and a large, open-area water feature as a focal point. The existing site sloped by about 1 m (3 ft) from the house to the end of the yard, which comprised heavy clay soil. To further test his skill, Glancy would have to choose plant materials that thrived in shade, which covered about 80 per cent of the space.

Perfecting a plan

“Planning is always the most important part of a project,” says Glancy, who has worked as a landscape designer for more than 10 years. “The existing site has to be taken into consideration before you start anything else. Rushing into a job without taking care of potential problems can mean a dissatisfied client and repair work down the road.”

In this case, the top layer of soil needed to be removed in order to provide gardens and turf areas with a healthy base. Even then, the risk of flooding and plant damage would be too great, necessitating other drainage options. Plus, before new soil was even added, the slope issue had to be addressed. Glancy, however, turned this hurdle into a design advantage.

“Levelling the yard at the low point created the opportunity for a two-level design,” Glancy explains. “Layering a property can often add interest, especially when seating and water features are involved. Your options increase when you create differences in vertical height.”

Once the site problems were acknowledged, Glancy knew he could go forward with the design process, translating his client’s needs into a drawing that would offer everything he wanted, including the central water feature. In this case, the client actually had a drawing he had done on his own, to provide a visual representation of his preferences. Glancy used this as a jumping-off point, while also relying heavily on notes he took during meetings with the client.

“Even with the specific wish list items mentioned at our first meeting, there’s so much open to interpretation. Through our correspondence, I learned my client wanted to blend the home style with the landscape. The flavour and details of the home’s interior had a very distinct, modern feel, so I knew a clean, rectilinear-based design would fit the space and their style perfectly.”

Privacy and price

The client also mentioned the importance of privacy. Glancy considered options like selectively placed privacy screens, using cedars or other plant material that would grow up quickly and produce an organic barrier. He also contemplated positioning sitting and gathering places in natural areas of privacy. As drawings were reviewed, Glancy realized the grade change in itself would establish areas of privacy, by creating vertical distance. Combined with certain plantings, this would provide the sought-after privacy.

“Budget is also a key element to consider before a design can be done,” Glancy says. In this case, a budget of roughly $25,000 was established. Glancy kept this in mind as he created the initial design drawing that included hardscapes, water feature and garden beds. Of course, a range of material choices is available for each of these elements. Quality is key, Glancy says, but knowing which choices fit within the client’s budget determines the extent of usage for things like stone, the cost of which can add up quickly.

After approving the initial landscape plan with the client, specific choices in hard materials were discussed and finally agreed upon. “Stone was an important and prevalent part of this project,” Glancy says, noting he showed the client several samples and outlined each option’s pros and cons. Given the complexity of the design, Glancy and his client settled on a large-sized precast stone, which was not only more affordable and eco-friendly, but whose simplicity and consistent appearance complements the strong design. The chalk-white colour of the precast also contrasts nicely with the black mulch and green foliage, especially in high-shade areas.

Next, Glancy concentrated on drawing up a planting plan for his client to approve. Plant materials were chosen based on shade tolerance, ease of care and visual impact relative to the stone and water elements. Glancy opted for a subtle colour palette to further emphasize the architecture of the space, including violet-flowered perennial geraniums, hardy cedars, fountain grass and a Japanese maple, ‘Bloodgood’ variety, for a showy punch of autumn colour.

The work begins

Once all the details had been approved, it was time to break ground. The yard was levelled, fresh soil was added to garden bed areas and construction began. Installing the stonework was a long process, but Glancy knew skill and patience would result in a solid long-lasting surface. In addition to a large upper patio, a smaller lower stone sitting area offers a front-row view of the spout fountain. From here, one can see the floating step in the lower pond and appreciate the height difference delineated by a circular stone step that runs the length of the yard. Floating steps are also interspersed amidst the lawn and gardens, creating an ephemeral break from the order of the design, like square bubbles drifting from the water.

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The small drop along the curved lawn border provides additional backyard seating.

Fountain grass fills two garden beds alongside the upper and lower water feature borders, softening the hardscapes as it transitions from the patio into the series of garden areas on the other side of the water. Sedum ‘maestro’ and switch grass (Panicum ‘heavy metal’) were among the hearty and shade-tolerant choices for this barely sun-dappled space.

Flowering dogwood, hostas and hydrangeas (‘pinky winky’) fill another garden bed with muted hues and interesting foliage. Here, against the cedar lattice screen that separates properties, the privacy problem is solved with the planting of quick-growing cedars and hearty 1.8-m (6-ft) tall Maiden grass as an organic screen.

At the far end of the upper patio, a series of square, charcoal-coloured removable cushions create more seating and mirror the geometry of the design. All along the curved lawn border from patio to grass, the 1-m (3 ft) height drop is made functional with steps and potential sitting space.

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The central water feature special attention, including a galvanized steel basin insert for the top water feature.

The water feature itself required special attention for design and construction. Glancy subcontracted a metalsmith company, Coppersmith and Metalcraft Inc., of St. Catharines, Ont., to create a galvanized steel basin insert for the top water feature.

“Water features are notorious for their propensity to leak,” Glancy says. “Welding a basin for the top pool drastically reduces that risk.” Water flows from the top basin to the bottom pond through a stainless steel trough. “This water feature has the best of both worlds—two areas of still water for tranquility and a smooth waterfall for excitement. Water movement also keeps the whole system healthier, which is a nice bonus.”

The big picture

The back garden is a semi-circular series of purple ninebark shrubs (Physocarpus ‘diablo’), outlined in front—first by the bed of dark mulch in which they sit, then by the rounded stone lawn border. Behind lies a backdrop of white river rock, chosen for its drainage function as much as its colour. The upper patio and lawn area are bordered by squares and rectangles of alternating gardens and stepping stones, with the concentric squares of the raised water feature creating a focal point.

The end result of the integration of all of these landscape elements—from stone patios and steps to gardens and water features—is a space that is both unique and functional.


Kiera Newman is co-owner of KIVA Landscape Design Inc. She can be reached via e-mail at kiera@kivalandscape.com[5].


  1. [Image]: http://poolspamarketing.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/yonke-good-2009-015_edited-1.jpg
  2. [Image]: http://www.poolspas.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/ERIC-YONKE-BEFORE-005.jpg
  3. [Image]: http://www.poolspas.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/yonke-good-2009-033.jpg
  4. [Image]: http://www.poolspas.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/yonke-good-2009-002.jpg
  5. kiera@kivalandscape.com: mailto:kiera@kivalandscape.com

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