Urban Oasis

Building a private garden getaway in an urban backyard can be a challenge. City homeowners are often faced with small, angular spaces that lack the sprawling possibilities of their rural counterparts. But in the heart of Nashua, Dee and Brian Upton transformed their narrow back yard into a cozy patio space.

Using a variety of “flooring” materials, “ceiling” elements and fencing for “walls,” the Upton’s created an outdoor room that compliments their classic New England cape. Shade-loving plants, comfortable weather-resistant furniture and a variety of antique and home-made treasures fill the space with personality and warmth.

It’s a welcoming scene: handmade wooden birdfeeders are nestled among stone-lined perennial gardens; seating is grouped in inviting clusters and a fountain serves as the warm weather home of two goldfish (named Harley and Davidson).

“The style is cottage country. It’s very casual, yet there’s some structure,” says Dee. The cozy hideaway is contained in a space about 33 feet long and no more than 16 feet deep. Elements and shapes were carefully chosen to soften this rectangle — rounded edges, curving paths and loose, draping plants were key.

Construction on the garden started about five years ago, taking two seasons to complete. The couple did all of the remodeling themselves. “It was a labor of love for the two of us,” says Dee.

The first project was to dismantle an old concrete patio left by a previous owner. Dee remembers tearing up what seemed to be a ton of concrete — “We took it to the dump, so we know.” Then bushes, fences and decking were placed, creating the foundation, or bones, of the garden.

Under the original concrete patio, the couple unearthed a trove of fieldstone. This, along with rocks from an old fireplace, became stonewalls and flowerbed boundaries. Arranging the rocks in round, flowing shapes softened the right angles of the lot, and cedar fencing was added to the back to help create a room-like feel.

The floor surface is a combination of decking and stone dust. The Uptons chose Rhino Deck brand decking for its maintainability and cost efficiency. The subtle, faded gray color blends in with the surroundings.

Each piece of decking was carefully cut to fit snugly against the rounded stone garden edges — continuing the curvy, rounded style laid out from the start.

Brian built a pergola over the seating area to create natural shade and enforce the secluded feel of the patio. Honeysuckle and bittersweet vines grow across the white wood and, when the warmer seasons arrive, hanging plants are hung from this outdoor ceiling.

The Uptons went to several nurseries searching for plants that matched their casual, tranquil style. They also needed plants that would thrive in low sun and challenging soil.

Hostas, spring juniper, rhododendrons, lilacs and dogwood are among the plants used, along with seasonal batches of potted annuals. Colors are chosen to complement the house, a traditional white Cape with green shutters. Calm and classic works best, with burgundy, pink, rose and white varieties. There is no yellow or orange.

The dining area includes white painted, wrought iron upholstered furniture arranged in different spots, and a glider is angled in a corner. A glass-top table and a homemade small white wooden bench are also included in the area.

For entertaining, the space can accommodate gatherings as large as 15 to 20 people. A copper-top garden bench is cleared off to become a serving table at dinnertime. Since the grill doesn’t visually fit with the style of the patio, it’s tucked out of sight until needed.

Though a white archway does create a visual path toward the side yard of the house, and the pergola catches visitors’ eyes upon arrival, no single element is considered a focal point of the space. The goal was to create harmony throughout the entire garden, without one single piece stealing the show.

Among the larger elements of the garden are smaller accessories, which personalize the space. “Birdhouses are everywhere — they’re all over the place,” says Dee. A window-like mirror against the cedar fence gives depth to the narrow space, and a whimsical face of wood peers out from a tree trunk. Other items are nestled throughout the garden. “I like people to walk through and say, “Oh, I didn’t see that before.’”

Antiques and special finds make unique additions, too — there’s a lot of old metal, and Dee prefers baskets to garden pots. Plants could be propped up on an antique wooden box or a rusty, wrought iron planter discovered in an antique store.

Some say it takes about five years for a garden to mature. If so, the Uptons’ patio space is hitting its stride. Now, says Dee, “we’re going to enjoy the fruits of our labor.” NH