Christopher D. Ritzert’s quarter-acre garden behind his 1930s stone Colonial in Northwest Washington started out as an unremarkable back yard with a jumble of weeds and neighboring homes in full view.
To fix that, Ritzert worked with a landscape artist to design a series of outdoor rooms that ascend the hill behind the house.
Now after a multi-year makeover, you sense an extraordinary setting even before you get out of the car. Water tinkles from three fountains as the car ascends the exposed aggregate driveway, and when your steps crunch the pea gravel you think you’re in Provence.
The flagstone terrace behind the house, outside the kitchen door, is defined by a gently curving low stonewall creating a casual dining room with table, umbrella, teak chairs and lounges.
Up a couple of stone steps is a more intimate dining room with pea gravel and the continuous restful murmur of fountain water. The verdant landscape is lush with shrubs and trees of all sizes in a hundred shades of green, flowers, grasses, fine furniture and whimsical sculptures.
“This is what I call my terrasse à la Provençale,” said Ritzert, who is a vice president of TTR Sotheby’s International Realty. “The feeling and scale are very different from the flagstone terrace. It’s a great place for bird watching during the day and stargazing late at night.”
Fresh air and nature are a retreat from the gridiron city around us. We crave and are spiritually refreshed by it. Thoughtfully designing your outdoor landscaping — a garden hideout in the back yard, a cozy deck or a rooftop oasis — can add to your quality of life and the value of your home.
The way to do this “is to create outdoor rooms,” said Brendan Doyle, founder of PLANTERRA, a landscape planning and design firm, describing the work he did for Ritzert. “Think about the perimeter of your property as enclosing your entire living space or floor plan, then subdivide it into outdoor living spaces or rooms.”
Still, it is not necessary to have a large space to create pleasant outdoor rooms.
“There are only four feet from the edge of our patio to the property line,” said Doyle of the Northwest home he shares with artist Larry Kirkland. “So I appropriated the view beyond my lot instead of screening it out.”
He used design elements in the neighboring house — white pickets in the second floor railing — and duplicated them in fencing panels he installed along the property edge and in the garden furniture. “Enclosing the yard with individual fencing panels gives the appearance of room dividers,” he said.
He designed his back-yard breakfast room by grouping furniture in the spot that is the same distance away from the house as the house is tall. “I use the golden triangle in my designs,” Doyle said. “The most comfortable place to sit outdoors is the point where the distance from the back wall of the house to the seating area is the same distance as the house is tall.”
The result is a fully realized outdoor room with decorative furniture on a parquet or tapis pierre — stone carpet — of diagonally set Carderock bluestone. “Diagonal, not row-by-row,” Doyle said, “because diagonal lines make the space feel bigger.”
“There’s even wainscoting in the form of the evergreen hedge Nandina, dwarf heavenly bamboo,” he said. A tall stand of bamboo serves as a privacy wall between his house and the one next door. “I come out here to sit and read the paper with a coffee or cocktail.”
Amy Suardi, author of the blog FrugalMama.com, organized the front yard of the house off Wisconsin Avenue that she and her husband, Enrico, live in with a perspective quite different from the drink-before-dinner setting.
She designed outdoor rooms to feed her family and provide play spaces for her children, Sofia, 13, Virginia, 11, Mark, 7, Luke 4, and Diana, 22 months.
“I planted an edible garden. It’s more useful than grass, more friendly, sunnier and it gets the kids and me outside and active together,” she said. Peach, cherry, apple, Asian pear and fig trees are flush with fruit. There are tomatoes, sugar snap peas, edible flowers; an herb section; strawberries; and roses.
“We also have purple carrots and chamomile, cantaloupe and honey dew and pumpkin,” Mark said. “We eat fried pumpkin flowers. It’s what they do in Italy.”
Antique red bricks with clinging bits of moss form a path and play area across the garden leading to a hiding spot under the cherry tree. “I like the baby antique chairs under the weeping cherry. It’s like a little wonderland,” Sofia said.
Cathy Carr, landscape architect and founder of Greenheart Garden Design, and her partner, Charlie Bessant, live in a 1935 brick Cape Cod close to downtown Silver Spring. Their outdoor living space includes a 450-square-foot deck off the dining room, a mostly wooded back yard and three garden rooms, each of which has a name.
The Trellis Garden “is our only sunny spot,” Carr said. The Secret Garden is in a narrow clearing between trees and a hammock swings there. In the back of the property is a flagstone patio with seating around a fire pit and a little house in the woods, a 10-foot-by-15-foot mahogany-and-screen-walled pavilion that blends imperceptibly among the trees.
“We sometimes spend the night,” Carr said. The flooring is Ipe, a Brazilian hardwood. There are skylights in the roof, a fan on the ceiling and futon sofa bed on the floor. “The Beltway is close but the birds are louder,” Bessant said.
Carr and Bessant’s deck looks like wood but is Zuri, a several-layer composite. “Zuri is a pretty new product and popular stand-in for hardwood and pressure-treated lumber,” said David Macauley, market development manager for Royal Building Products.
“Decks are popular,” he said, “because they’re an extension of your home outside, a gathering place that makes you feel like you have an extra room.”
Zuri mimics real wood with photographic precision. It’s actually made with a photograph of wood grain. “We take polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is a synthetic plastic polymer, wrap it in a photo-realistic print of wood grain and cover it with a clear acrylic top coat that protects the surface.”
Silver Spring residents Joseph and Vicki Bragin are still tweaking their year-old, 700-square-foot irregular-shaped Zuri deck. A step up from the ground, it’s an extension of their dining room and a perch for entertaining. “But what I like most is coming out for breakfast and hearing the birds,” Vicki said.
The deck is easy to care for. “My neighbor is out there sanding and painting and I just hose it down,” Joseph said. It’s hard if not impossible to scratch and the color doesn’t change.
Townhouses in Gaithersburg’s Crown community are furnished with rooftop decks and narrow balconies outside the kitchen. A view from high up offers great sunsets, a resident, Karen Cohen, said.
“What matters, what’s really important when working outdoors is to create a sense of quiet, understated drama with a view of beauty,” Ritzert said.
Audrey Hoffer is a freelance writer.
●Think about the whole of your property as an extension of your indoor floor space and then subdivide it into outdoor rooms.
●Use a four-by-four-foot grid to subdivide your outdoor rooms in order to more easily visualize and plan room use, furnishings and plantings.
●Appropriate the view beyond your property instead of screening it out. Adopt visual decorative elements you see into your own design and furnishings.
●Pave the ground diagonally rather than in straight rows.
●Plant seasonal flowers so something is always in bloom.
●Position seating areas at a distance from the house back wall so that the distance is the same as the wall is high. This applies to decks also. Make your deck wide enough to sit comfortably.