Backyard Paradise — The hottest trends for the coolest backyard

September 2012 View more

NMAG0912_Feature_Small_1Photos courtesy of C.B. Conlin Landscapes, Inc., and Hursthouse Landscape Architects and Contractors

Whether it’s a Friday night football game celebration, cookouts with friends, or just a personal sanctuary to enjoy a morning cup of coffee, our backyards are an extension of ourselves and the lives we live in Naperville’s family-friendly community.

“A landscape should be an extension of who you are, so make it special and make sure it has features you will use as a family,” explains Bob Hursthouse, owner of award-winning Hursthouse Landscape Architects and Contractors.

Whether your ideal personalized space is a reading sanctuary or a martini garden, chances are it will incorporate elements from this year’s top ten backyard must-haves, as revealed by the American Society of Landscape Architect’s annual survey of backyard trends. Not surprising, fire ranks highest on the list, with grills a solid number one, and fireplaces and fire-pits taking a close third. Other elements, like water features, low-maintenance landscaping, and outdoor dining areas also are among current backyard favorites. However, key to creating a useful and fulfilling space is identifying your own style of cooking, entertaining, and relaxing in order to choose the products and features that are right for you.

1. Outdoor Grills

NMAG0912_Feature_Small_2With 97.4% of those surveyed ranking grills as the number one backyard feature, it’s clear that we like to entertain and we like to eat. And thanks to many grilling innovations and new products – rotisseries or infra-red heating elements for searing – we can do both virtually year round, making the grilling experience part theater, part gourmet, and totally fun.

However, according to Eric Bruss, president of Bruss Landscaping, the biggest change to affect grills is in outdoor kitchen design. “The new trend is in modular systems rather than built-ins,” said Bruss. He adds that it’s a much-needed improvement for outdoor grills and appliances that simply don’t last long in our harsh Illinois climate.

“When you build a $10,000 to $50,000 outdoor kitchen space and your custom built-in $3,500 grill fails seven or ten years later, you would often find that the replacement appliance didn’t fit,” said Bruss. “Now, with modular systems, clients have the benefit of having a beautiful, cohesive space with a granite island, preparation, and cooking spaces, but three years into it, if they decide they want to add a pizza oven or replace a grill, it’s no problem.”

2. Low-Maintenance Landscapes

NMAG0912_Feature_Small_3It seems only fitting that with a tighter reign on our finances, the desire to spend more time with family and a penchant for all-things-eco-friendly, that low-maintenance landscaping would come in as a close second in the survey’s top ten. Low-maintenance, however, does not mean low “wow” factor. Drought-tolerant bushes and plant species like hard-working Rudbeckia and Echinacea now come in so many colorful varieties, that it’s no wonder that water-thirsty, maintenance-hungry lawns are giving way to larger garden spaces. Additionally, these kinds of low-maintenance gardens offer more year-round interest and are a magnet for butterflies and birds. It’s a win-win for the wallet and wildlife.

3. Fireplaces and Fire Pits

Like moths to the flame, we are drawn to fire and nothing extends the use of our yards into the evening, and into the cooler weather, like fireplaces and fire pits. Some new products certainly add to our interest, allowing fire features to double as outdoor art, like natural gas flames dancing in a bowl of colorful crushed glass. But which kind of fire feature to choose?

If larger gatherings are your style, fire pits will be your best choice. Able to accommodate more people in their 360-degree seating and more affordable than fireplaces, these fire features now come in such an array of choices that whether you want campfire casual, upscale copper-beaten fire bowls, or clay or metal chimeneas, there is a stand-alone design for you.

Fireplaces, although more costly, also add value to your home, and can be as appealing as a pool or jacuzzi to prospective buyers. These features are ideal for more intimate settings, accommodating only about six to eight people. However, unlike fire pits, the smoke is directed up the chimney or flew and it won’t run the risk of blowing into the eyes of those trying to enjoy each other’s company. Regardless of whether you choose a stand-alone feature or fireplace, be sure to avoid a common mistake–make sure they compliment the building material and style of your home.

4. Built-in Seating and Dining Areas

Let’s face it. We all like food, and we like sitting near it almost as much. Therefore, outdoor dining is often best situated near the grill where food is prepared, allowing guests to enjoy a comfortable vantage point from which to chat and watch the pit-master at work. Hursthouse has found that for many families, a kitchen island with barstools is really functional, especially if the counter is also big enough for prep space. But what about those times when you need overflow seating?

For many of us, according to the survey, built-ins seem a logical choice, with seat walls topped by plantings or naturalistic boulders providing some popular options. But beware. “They’re uncomfortable,” admits Hursthouse. “But they are perfect for young families like kids with snow cones and sticky fingers. Most of my clients ask for them but very few actually know why they want them.” When they do recognize a real need for them, Hursthouse stresses the importance of choosing building materials that compliment the landscape and the home. Many people make the mistake of simply building a concrete retaining wall without any thought behind the look

5. Lighting

NMAG0912_Feature_Small_4Perhaps nothing is as important as lighting. It draws us out into the evening, turning our eyes toward focal points and away from things we’d rather not notice. “Lighting is one of the things I hear a lot about from our clients,” said C. Barry Conlin Jr., owner of CB Conlin Landscapes. “Patios lit up, pergolas, grilling areas and firepits—it’s so appealing and draws people in, like moonlighting.”

According to Conlin, uplighting a tree near a patio and downlighting through its overhanging branches to cast leafy shadows on subtly lit seating below, creates an ideal social area in which people love to gather. Conlin also recommends discretely placed under-eave lighting to illuminate grilling areas or other areas of evening activity. “Lighting is enticing,” he explains, “and really allows people to enjoy their own real estate.”

6. Water Features

When it comes to creating backyard ambience, bubblers, fountains, waterfalls, and spray features give us plenty to enjoy. However, discovering what kind of water feature is best for you depends on your space, your purpose, your time, and your wallet. Stand-alone features, like fountains, are ideal for smaller, more intimate spaces, can be installed in a day and don’t require a foundation and only minimal care to keep clean. Ponds, in-ground bubblers and waterfalls, tend to come with higher price tags, longer installation times, and more maintenance. However, depending on your level of engagement, they can be more fun and even offer year-round enjoyment.