From the June/July 2019 Issue  

Leveling the Land to Make Room for this Beautiful Backyard

Writer Marirose Krall  |  Photographer David Gruol  |  Designer Landscapes by Lou  |  Architect Thomas Baio, AIA  |  Location Short Hills, NJ  |  Landscape Design Lou Coviello

BACKYARD OASIS | “The house was very much designed in the spirit of the Hamptons style,” Millburn, NJ-based architect Thomas Baio says. The expansive pool deck, which complements the coloring of the home’s exterior, is made of bluestone. Fernleaf Japanese maple, Dwarf Hinoki cypress and low-profile ‘Sapphire Nymph’ Blue Atlas cedar grow between stones next to the pool. Emerald and gold euonymus creeps up the boulders. A ‘Gregoryana’ dwarf spruce sits to the right of the stones, next to the pool deck. The bed is completed with a mix of carpet rose, assorted perennial flowers and dwarf ornamental grasses.

A landscape designer creates a level playing field

The owners of this Short Hills, New Jersey, home wanted to make the most of their three-acre property. According to landscape designer Lou Coviello, that was no small feat. “The clients wanted the maximum amount of level lawn area for open play space,” he says. “They also wanted to incorporate a tennis court, pool, patio, gas fire pit and a pavilion with a fireplace and television. They wanted it all!”

COLORFUL PLANTINGS | A weeping Purple Fountain beech tree, a King’s Gold cypress, a weeping red Laceleaf Japanese maple and a weeping Norway spruce border one corner of the pool.

The property is adjacent to the South Mountain Reservation, a 2,110-acre nature reserve, so the view was already spectacular. “That set our tone for the landscape design,” says Lou, owner of Mount Arlington, New Jersey-based Landscapes By Lou. But while the panorama was stunning, the backyard itself needed a lot of work. To create the requested lawn areas, “We completely changed the topography. It took multiple tiers of boulder walls to sculpt the flat areas into this pie-shaped property.”

POOL | Forming the three flat areas — the pool/patio space, the terrace for the tennis court, and the upper lawn—was just the beginning. In addition, the transitions from zone to zone had to be both beautiful and easy to traverse. “All the lawn areas are interconnected with sloped paths so they can be maintained,” says the landscape designer, who terraced the grounds “in a soft and unimposing way.” That was the biggest challenge. “It took in excess of 800 tons of large boulders to achieve our end result.”

There were other challenges as well. While ensuring that the project met local ordinances for wall height and degree of slopes, “we had to be sure that all these aggressive changes to the grade had no adverse effects on the way the property drained. It took careful planning.”

FIRE PIT | Ample seating around the fire pit allows for lingering conversation on chilly evenings. Plantings — including a weeping Norway spruce, a dwarf blue shag pine, a Mountain Fire Andromeda, and a fernleaf Japanese Maple — softly bridge the gap between backyard and forest.

The aesthetic aspects of the landscaping project were also the result of extensive planning. The landscape designer created “a very natural setting using large boulders for the many tiers needed to sculpt this property.” The pool, which is set against a hill, is bordered by a stone retaining wall that’s both practical and pretty. Man-made waterfalls cascade over the wall at several points, seeming to flow naturally down the slope of the property into the pool below. The pool’s gentle curves give it the look of a pond created at the base of those waterfalls. Groupings of large stones look like natural outcrops, including one set in the pool for sunbathing.

WATERFALL | The next challenge was making the other built elements look just as natural. Strategically positioned plants soften the hard edges of the stone features. “We relied on carefully selected plant material to make all these elements less imposing.”

The pavilion is a comfortable spot to watch a movie, read a book or nap during languid afternoons and evenings.

Plant varieties were chosen to complement the hardscaping. “The boulder tiers, the natural-look pool and the waterfalls presented an excellent opportunity to incorporate large, rare and unusual dwarf evergreens and leaf trees.” Shrubs and trees add height to the landscape, blurring the line between the homeowners’ property and the soaring woods in the background. In between the greenery, “flowering shrubs and perennial flowers” ensure that “the property has a colorful, natural flow all season.”

DINING AREA | Family and friends can gather for a meal in the shade (and in the breeze from the fan) on the patio adjacent to the house.

There are numerous places around the property to relax and enjoy the lush landscape: a bluestone deck with a wide variety of options for poolside lounging; a fire pit surrounded by comfy chairs; a colorful hammock; a daybed near the main lawn and several chaise lounges. Each small vignette is bordered by thoughtful landscaping and meticulously manicured stretches of the lawn.

PAVILION | Outdoor movie nights are cozy and comfy in the pavilion, which features a large sectional sofa opposite the television and a fireplace.

The larger elements of the project—a pavilion and the tennis court—“had to be positioned so they didn’t conflict aesthetically, but instead complement each other.” The pavilion, a large, roofed structure alongside the pool, is furnished with a sizable sectional sofa, a fireplace and a television. It’s a comfortable spot to watch a movie, read a book or nap during languid afternoons and evenings. The tennis court is visible from the pool and pavilion, conveniently placed, but not obtrusive. That court is located about 15 feet above the pool level; and while it blends into the background subtly, nothing about its construction was subtle. “It required boulder terraces at each end to create the space necessary for a regulation-sized tennis court,” Lou says.

Though the logistics of this project were complex, the result was well worth the effort. The backyard is a haven for family and friends, seamlessly combining man-made elements with natural materials to beautiful effect.

Editor’s Note: For a look inside the beautiful home on this property, see “Full House,” August/September 2018, page 84.