Garden by designPublished on July 2, 2008

  • "I would say if you took one element away it wouldn’t be the same garden – that’s tight design and that’s something we tend to be known for. Even with the staggering of the screens and how they mimic the multi-level deck as you come down, everything just flows nicely down to the patio area,” says landscape designer Welwyn Wong. Photo by Darren Brown

  • This small Westboro backyard looks twice its size thanks to key design features, such as the elevated table for two, an outdoor room defined by the pergola and staggered fence screens, which give the space an open feel. Photo by Darren Brown

  • The fountain provides both a focal point in the backyard and conveniently drowns out the noise of a neighbouring pool pump. Photo by Darren Brown

Standing for the first time looking over her clients' Westboro backyard last year, landscape designer Welwyn Wong knew she was facing an interesting challenge.

The infill development, involving one of two new homes built two years ago on what used to be one lot, made a strikingly modern addition to the established neighbourhood. However, the sloping 812-square-foot backyard was a blank slate, consisting of only a long staircase leading down to a stark patch of grass.

As the owner of Welwyn Wong Landscape Design, Welwyn knew she could transform the bare-bones backyard into a refined outdoor space that would meet the owners' needs within the limited dimensions of the urban lot. The secret was combining form with a number of functional spaces, including two seating areas - a public one for friends and family and a private spot for couple time. And the transformation paid off, with the project receiving the homeowners' ringing endorsement and winning a Landscape Ontario's 2008 Award of Excellence this past winter. Here's how Welwyn met the challenges she faced in the small space that brings together traditional ideas with modern touches of inspiration.

1. Gaining new perspective

Though the height of the space created a dilemma, Welwyn knew the secret was developing a variety of levels. "In order to create connection between the upper and lower parts of the decks, we actually raised the patio to bring it a little further up from grade," she says. "Plus we made sure each terrace had a different function. As you come down, you change functions. You go from cooking area to table for two or maybe a lounge chair, and that's what I call the breakfast nook - in the morning the sun comes through the trees and it's quite nice to sit out here and read the paper with a cup of coffee or tea. Then you step down into the patio space. That way it doesn't feel like there are a lot of stairs." The homeowners agree that the terraced space makes a big impact. "We absolutely love it and everybody who comes here does too. Most people who walk out onto the top deck often go, ‘Wow' when they see it. And it allows us to entertain. We came from a much smaller house so this makeover has made a big difference for us."

2. Soothing sounds

One of the homeowners' main requirements was to conceal the next-door neighbour's pool pump. Welwyn solved this problem by also creating a beautiful focal point. "We had to figure out what to do with the deck wall because it's so high, so I said let's make it a feature with a waterfall," she says. "The sound of the flowing water sets the mood and disguises the sound of the pump." Welwyn and her team used several new materials in this area, including a product called "Real Stone" they used as very thinly sliced tiles. Layers of limestone from India were also added in between the creamy beige tiles. "I liked the fact the grey of the limestone creates a contrast," explains Welwyn. "The stone itself blends in with the deck, but then you have these stripes of darker grey to add an accent and it also creates shadows when there's sunlight in the backyard."

3. Modern solution

Privacy was a key requirement in the backyard, but Welwyn didn't want the small space to feel like a box. "The screens allow for privacy, but they don't create a wall and they work well on both sides so their neighbours enjoy it as well," says Welwyn, who designed the frosted outdoor acrylic panels for the space. "We had never done them before and I wanted to try them out. What we were trying to do is create something a little more modern than the regular lattice that you would usually see. The panels also change when the sun shines on them - as they catch the light you get this wonderful display of patterns across the screens." While the panels have a modern feel, Welwyn says she knew her clients would be open to it. "A lot of times when I'm in my clients' home I'll initially look around at how they furnish their homes," she explains. "From that, I knew they were looking for more clean lines and a modern feel. I was really happy they were adventurous with some of the contemporary touches."

4. Structurally sound

In order to create the feeling of an outdoor room, Welwyn added a pergola to the patio. "It actually defines the eating area and still allows (the homeowners) to push out over the deck if they need the space for more guests. The pergola creates a ceiling that you can feel cozy in, but it also feels airy at the same time. Plus we kept as many mature trees as possible," she says.

5. In the details

When it comes to creating the proper mood, Welwyn says lighting is key. "It's important, especially in a smaller space, because it expands your depth of field in the evening," she points out. "And lighting is always different when you're dealing with an outdoor space. Interior lighting is more task-oriented, while exterior lights should be ambient within the area you'll be sitting in because then you're highlighting to create ambience and effect. Plus you attract fewer bugs where you're sitting and you're also not on display." Welwyn also kept the homeowners' request for a low-maintenance garden in mind when choosing planting materials. "We used mainly foliage, such as ferns and ornamental grasses, plus some flowering shrubs and flowers that come up seasonally so there's always something blooming," she says, adding they used river rock to create a border around the plants and along the walkway. "Many plants were added to enhance texture and structure, plus you get a contrast of smooth and rough between the plants, the rocks and the Trafalgar patio stones."

6. Instant classic

Along with winning a provincial award for design excellence, Welwyn says she continues to be proud of the overall esthetic she has created in the urban space. "I think that when you're dealing with smaller spaces every inch counts and I tried to make it all work together. I would say if you took one element away it wouldn't be the same garden - that's tight design and that's something we tend to be known for. Even with the staggering of the screens and how they mimic the multi-level deck as you come down, everything just flows nicely down to the patio area."

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