Cool summer nights, minimal humidity, and almost zero bugs make the lure of entertaining and dining outdoors irresistible to most Parkites. But creating a landscape to withstand unpredictable mountain weather—which can alternate between heavy snowstorms and intense heat—is no easy task. Here we tour three outstanding local gardens, each showcasing innovative ideas for outdoor living spaces that overcome the dangers of unwelcome early frosts, hot summer winds, and an all-too-short growing season.
Multiple paths and cool mountain streams crisscrossing lush pine and aspen groves hooked Barbara and Jim Gaddis from the first moment they toured their White Pine Canyon home site almost two decades ago. The couple built a lovely lodge-inspired home on the property, but they were careful to maintain as much of the site’s natural alpine character as possible while putting their fingerprint on the space at the same time. Benches fashioned from beams left over from the home’s construction and a ski-lift chair provide seating, and bridges traversing numerous seasonal streams complete the property’s extensive trail network.
After living with a small patio at the back of the home for many years, last summer the Gaddises decided they wanted to spend more time entertaining in their shady backyard. Enter Willie Eschenfelder, owner of Eschenfelder Landscaping (184 E Gordon Lane, Holladay,801.912.0077, eschenfelderlandscaping.com). “Because of the hillside’s grade, creating a hardscape plan that would appear seamless presented major issues,” Eschenfelder says. To open up the space, Eschenfelder began by digging 16 feet into the backyard’s opposite hillside. The huge slabs composing the previous patio had settled unevenly, so Eschenfelder installed a new buff-colored sandstone floor. A solid, U-shaped bench (softened with pillows covered in bird-themed fabrics) doubles as a retaining wall, thereby eliminating the old wall’s spillage issues. Concrete slabs from the old patio were used to create a staircase leading to the woods and trails, blending the old and the new in the backyard.
The Gaddises knew from experience what kind of plants would thrive in their yard and worked closely with Eschenfelder and his designer, Brenda Broughton, to select shade-loving herbaceous perennials that could withstand late spring snows. To avoid a manicured look, the plants are layered in large drifts. Varying bloom times and plant heights ensure that color permeates the hillside all summer long. Flowers that thrive in the limited sunny areas include lupine, phlox, coneflowers, dwarf chrysanthemum, coreopsis, larkspur, Oriental poppies, daisies, Indian paintbrush, and prairie asters. For the shady spots they chose hostas, sweet william, sweet woodruff, and a variety of sedums. “My favorite addition is the fire pit,” says Barbara Gaddis, “which allows us to use the backyard almost all year.”
After cultivating a manor-size garden in her native Ireland, Kay Douglas found it challenging to make do with what seemed to her a postage stamp-size, courtyard garden space at her Thaynes Canyon home. During her family’s first summer in Park City, an errant golf ball landed dangerously close to a visitor sitting on the backyard patio, prompting Douglas to turn the front of her home into a gathering space for outdoor dining and relaxation. “Since we were now thinking of a sidewalk-facing garden,” Douglas says, “we created needed privacy by building a two-level courtyard with a three-foot-tall surrounding wall” (installed by Park City's RW Wolff Construction; 435.649.6867). The lower, more intimate level suits family meals around the fire pit. The upper level’s built-in fireplace and comfortable furniture opens up the space for company.
Throughout the courtyard, myriad flowers and edible plants are placed strategically to make the most of the tight space. Alex Stoy—owner of Mountain Miners Landscaping (932 Cutter Lane, Park City, 570.947.1254), whose tagline is “Revitalizing Gardens Organically”—offered suggestions that fit right into Douglas’s vision of combining edibles and flowers. “I wanted to help her create an aesthetically pleasing, working garden while furthering her ambitious design plans,” Stoy explains.
Douglas was inspired by a distinctively European landscaping aesthetic in developing her garden’s unique multipurpose design. “[In Ireland] you think of the garden as a house with many rooms, each containing its own microclimate to suit the plants in it,” she says. Douglas did, however, have to temper her vision for life in the mountains. “I was initially discouraged when I discovered many of the flowers and edibles I had enjoyed in my Irish garden would not grow in Park City,” she says.
Determined to grow tender roses like floribunda and grandiflora, she filled huge urns with a mixture of potting soil enriched by her own organic compost and mulch and hoped for the best. The roses thrived, as did lavender, black-eyed Susans, Shasta daisies, and marigolds. She planted potatoes in pots for easy harvesting, intermixed with flowers, of course. Three apple trees attached to espaliers and a lone crab apple tree (still waiting to produce apples) overlook the lower courtyard seating area.
Back in Ireland, Douglas was accustomed to picking vegetables and fruits for meals each day, and she wanted to replicate that experience at her new home. She replaced grass in front of the courtyard with an organic plot that includes tomatoes, corn, peas, berries, rhubarb, herbs, zucchini, yellow squash, kale, and even miniature pumpkins. “The plants are very self-sustaining,” she says. “But don’t tell my neighbors. They think I work in my garden all day.”
Ern and Michelle Sherman, part-time residents of a centrally located Old Town home, envisioned converting their 457-square-foot backyard—which previously featured a concrete pad, an ancient hot tub, and a rickety fence—into an all-seasons extension of the inside of the home. “We never know what time of year we want to pop into town and use our patio for, say, a sunny March breakfast or an autumn dinner among falling leaves. To enable all these choices we had many prerequisites,” the Shermans say. Their must-haves for the tiny space included a spa, a barbecue, a fire pit, and comfortable seating as well as attractive plants placed on a heated slab—a tall order for landscape architect Seth Bockholt (Bockholt Landscape Architecture, 750 Kearns Blvd #230, 801.602.9951, bockholtlandscapearchitecture.com). “And because the Shermans wanted a low-maintenance garden that could withstand the rigors of changing seasons and sporadic visits,” Bockholt explains, “all plantings needed to rely on a drip irrigation system only and occasional pruning care.”
The choice of materials was key to the success of the plan. Ipe (a dense and dark tropical hardwood), French gray board-formed concrete, blackened steel, and basalt pavers fit the bill. A huge slab of black and green marble provides a striking focal point, highlighting the all-green plants. Bockholt chose low-maintenance, shade-loving grasses and plants including blue fescue, reed grass, hostas, and liatris to fringe the edges of the patio and reinforce the hardscape’s decidedly contemporary theme. A curved trellis is covered with an aromatic hops vine that blooms with spiky cone-like flowers in the fall. Three aspen trees behind the built-in bench add a softening touch of greenery to the minimalist design.
The shaded bench can be used for both seating and dining. Its length allows guests the choice of putting food and drink beside them when the fire pit is lit. The custom-designed fire pit is surrounded by black and dark green jade stones similar to the accent wall, adding to a carefully planned monochromatic palette. “We are so delighted with our ‘addition’ that we find ourselves on the patio more than in the house,” the Shermans say.