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How to Create a Relaxing Garden Retreat

After a winter stuck inside renovating her 1890 farmhouse in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, TOH magazine reader Maria Hasenecz was eager to head outdoors. Here's how her garden grew.

Patio Dining Maria Hasenecz

After a winter stuck inside renovating her 1890 farmhouse in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, TOH reader Maria Hasenecz was eager to head outdoors. Here, she tells us how her garden grew—and provides tips that you can use to create your own backyard retreat.

Before: A Desolate Yard

The yard was desolate when we moved in: neglected, weedy, with just some leggy rhododendrons, Norway maples, and a lone purple coneflower still standing. The previous owner, who'd been there for 30 years, hadn't been able to keep up the place. Not only did my husband and I need plantings to bring the yard back to life, we also needed to build in privacy from neighbors on both sides, mask traffic noise, and fence in our dog. The existing planting strip between the driveway and the house did nothing to enhance the home's natural stone.

The Garden Plan

Backyard plan for a relaxing garden Maria Hasenecz

To add interest to—and build in some surprises on—the narrow 75-by-200-foot lot, many of the beds and borders are carved out with curves that wind through the property.

After: A Relaxing Garden Retreat

After working tirelessly through that first winter to renovate the interior of our new home—an 1890 stone farmhouse—I needed some fresh air. I had created a garden at our old house, on a postage-stamp-size lot in the city, so this 75-by-200-foot parcel seemed huge by comparison.

We started around the foundation, planting Pieris japonica for evergreen structure and hydrangeas for color. To define the yard's perimeter and contain our pet, we added a cedar fence, and planned to let it weather to blend into the privacy plantings of trees and shrubs that we would layer in front of it. Now the area overflows with hosta and other shade-loving plants, softening the home's masonry walls.

Garden along driveway Maria Hasenecz

Create outdoor rooms

A shady front garden, a patio for dining with a view of long formal beds bordering a restful swath of lawn, a backyard oasis for relaxing in an Adirondack chair with the sound of flowing water—these varied spaces provide areas to sit, dine, entertain, and just relax.

Creating a dining area

Patio Dining Maria Hasenecz

We needed a place to sit and dine outside, so we installed a circular flagstone patio near the back kitchen door. To size it right, I planned for a 42-inch table and four seats, with room to pull out the chairs and walk comfortably around them. Today it is surrounded by lush perennial gardens that extend all the way to the boundary fence.

Formal structure

Garden view Maria Hasenecz

Topiaries at the far end of the patio would frame the view of a "parterre" garden I later designed: formal, mirror-image beds that flank a lawn path that leads to a focal-point urn, then wends its way to a back sitting area with a small pond.

Plant for privacy

In front, an island of greenery provides a buffer between the house and the street. Along the driveway, Leyland cypress, arborvitae, hollies, and dogwood and redbud trees screen the house next door. On the other side, a rose-and-clematis-covered trellis 6 ½ feet tall and 10 feet long sits against the fence to block the view of the neighbor’s house from the patio.

Adding ornamentation

Today, the result is a series of garden spaces with formal English "bones" and a reckless abandon of flowering perennials, trees, and shrubs. The beds have layer upon layer of lavish flowers, contrasting foliage, and garden ornaments that offer a surprise around each corner. A vine-covered arch in the side yard frames the view of a pole-mounted birdhouse in the front yard, with white-blooming hydrangeas along the edges.

Arbor and flowers in garden Maria Hasenecz

Creating vistas

A vine-covered arch in the side year frames the view of a pole-mounted birdhouse in the front yard, with white-blooming hydrangeas along the edges.

Using color

I like to use colorful pots, such as this tiered wire container draped with chartreuse sweet potato vine, pink impatiens, and red geraniums, to bring garden color right up to the house.

All the hard work—it took three years just to lay out what you see here—not only added up to a place we cherish as a retreat, it also led me to a new career. After taking numerous seminars through the local horticultural society, I went for a full-fledged degree. I'm now a landscape designer, and I thrive on helping clients do at their homes what I did at my own: create a garden with four-season interest that can be enjoyed from inside the house as well as out, and that provides endless hours of joy.