Sitting with friends they’d known for 25 years, Heather and Angus Watt enjoyed the heat of a fire that danced above crystal embers on their new outdoor fire table. Operated by remote control and burning natural gas, the custom-built unit will significantly extend their use of the yard. With its base bricks matching the aged stone on the house and counter matching that of the outdoor bar, it looks like it’s been in the centre of this backyard since the house was built in 1976.
It was the first time the Watts had relaxed in their backyard since landscapers had retreated. Looking up, their friend asked, “Did you do something to this window, too?”
They hadn’t, but the comment made them realize they’d rarely looked at the house from this angle. For the past two decades, adults had been on the deck, while kids had free rein in the yard.
When it came time to re-landscape, the Watts wanted to “take back” their yard. For years, it had been a great family gathering spot, but now that their kids are grown they wanted a space designed for entertaining adults.
They also wanted a space that would be maintenance-free. “Everything we are doing is so that we can be in here for the next 15 years,” says Heather Watt. The yard is the first step of two major renovations; this winter, they’ll temporarily move out as the interior is completely overhauled.
“We want guests to come inside and say, ‘I want to be outside!’ ” Watt says. “We’re trying to use the whole yard and felt that for designers to understand what we wanted to accomplish, the landscaping needed to be done first.”
Working with Brad Wyness of Evolve Landscapes, they designed a yard with a multitude of useful spaces. A covered gazebo stands where a trampoline used to be. In this space, chairs will be protected from the elements. With the addition of a heater, the space can be used into the winter.
Wyness suggests that outdoor fire tables are the backyard extra that has the biggest impact on extending the outdoor season. But there’s a cost. Most gas burners that can withstand the elements are expensive. Wynness says that fire tables from retailers such as Restoration Hardware start at $2,000. Custom-made units with high-quality burners start at $8,500 and range upwards depending on the features and finishes.
The hot tub has been replaced by synthetic grass designed to attract the private business of the Watts’ two yellow Labradors. This is just one of four types of turf that Wyness says is becoming “a new trend in the city.”
The Watts’ front yard is the first in their community to boast the lawn look-alike. “People stop their cars and get out to touch it,” Watt says. It feels real; it looks real (the colour is right and small bits of rubber give the impression of soil), but it never requires a mower.
Two additional types of turf are in the backyard: a short, tight weave on the gently undulating putting green and a slightly taller, thicker mat for the chipping green. Here, golfers can practise their short game as friends watch from the newly extended bar, flanked by a full wine fridge. The outdoor kitchen, facing south, is tucked against the house and is one of the most significant draws out of the house, into the south-facing lot’s sun.
The wood decking here was replaced with a long-lasting resin decking material, in keeping with the Watts’ plan to make everything as maintenance-free as possible.
The natural gas grill is built into quartz counters that, Watt was advised, wear better than granite because the sheen is easily maintained. It all rests on aged brick. Part of this wall has stood as long as the house, however some of the brick is “new” to the site: scavenged from other building sites and parts of the house. This found brick fairly seamlessly blends in and acts as a foundation to a feature that is a meat-smoker’s dream.
The built-in Big Green Egg, with its distinctive ceramic, rounded head, is a conversation starter. It can be used with or without wood chips and, at temperatures of 700 C, it sears steaks like the finest steakhouses. Alternatively, it’ll bake a succulent mac and cheese. While most Big Green Eggs are the colour you’d expect, the Watts opted for the larger smoker. It comes in black, complementing the Patio and Leisure table. Set in the centre of the action, it extends to seat 16 guests. For shade, a rectangular umbrella expands in the summer and retracts for natural heat in the fall.
It’s a yard designed to host many guests, with divergent interests, throughout much of the year in this northern city. It will be a space that Watt imagines using well beyond summer.