Date: February 18, 2020 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newton | Photography: Rett Peek | Styling: Lauren Cerrato |
With bursts of color and a thoughtful layout, Chris H. Olsen brings style and function to a cottage-sized outdoor area in Little Rock
When Dr. Rhys Branman and Leslie Harmon called on Chris H. Olsen to design their landscape, Chris immediately pictured the backyard as an intimate, comfortable living space for the couple and their friends. “They entertain a lot, and I wanted the design to be functional, cozy, and to make their outside an extension of the inside,” Chris says.
First, Chris planted ‘Green Giant’ arborvitae along the fences shared with neighbors for added texture and privacy. “Our goal was that when they’re entertaining, they feel like they’re in their own private world,” Chris says.
Another major step was replacing all of the existing hardscaping with flagstone for a more level surface and consistent feel throughout the design. Right off the home’s back door sit two circle-shaped areas—one with seating and a fire pit to provide a gathering place with friends, and one with a small container garden of herbs. “That area could be used for another table or sitting area if they wanted, but right now we did a cluster of pots of herbs because they like to cook,” Chris says.
Besides the two main circle areas, there are walkways throughout the landscape, continuing to a back gate that opens out to shopping and dining options just steps away in the Heights neighborhood. “We created areas to not only entertain, but also to walk and stroll,” Chris says. “Within that, we created a natural boulder fountain near the back. We wanted something with sound, but also something natural the birds can land on and drink from.”
Finally, flower beds geared toward the spring and summer months add color during the seasons the couple spends the most time outdoors. Seasonal blooms include ‘Little Limelight’ hydrangea, ‘Knockout’ roses, purple garden phlox, and Black-Eyed Susans, all of which can be cut and brought inside when the couple entertains indoors.
“Some people hem and haw about doing their backyard because they don’t already use it,” Chris says. “If you create a destination, then the idea is that you’ll use it more. And Rhys and Leslie are the type of people who use it all the time.”
Because the shape of this backyard was very angular, Chris used circular seating areas, softer furnishings, and curved pathways to add a subtle softness to the space. Crushed granite in the circular areas provides a stable base for furniture and the fire pit. “Unlike pea gravel, crushed granite isn’t squishy. It kind of mats into the earth and becomes a harder surface so your chairs aren’t sinking,” he says. “Plus, it has texture, which adds another element of design to the backyard.”
“If you create a destination, then the idea is that you’ll use it more.”
—Chris Olsen, landscape designer
Rudbeckia, commonly known as Black-Eyed Susan, blooms three times—in spring, summer, and in fall, Chris says. “It’s an aggressive plant and a spreader, and it’s just a beautiful color almost all year long,” he adds.
“We did the ‘Knockout’ rose because they’re so low maintenance,” Chris says.
Around the water feature, Chris planted purple garden phlox, which blooms in late spring, summer, and into fall. “Where I grew up in Connecticut, these were growing all along my grandparents’ house. They’re always one of my favorite perennials,” Chris says.
“‘Little Limelight’ hydrangea is wonderful because it a new hybrid that can take quite a bit of sun,” Chris says, noting this variety blooms later in summer instead of spring and is much smaller than its ‘Limelight’ cousin. “It only gets about 3-foot by 3-foot, and it’s condensed and packed full of flowers all summer long.”
A central flower bed teeming with perennials, annuals, and lush groundcover can be admired from all sides thanks to flagstone pathways that surround it. In choosing flowers, Chris said he tends to plant more “aggressive” varieties, like Black-Eyed Susans, that fill their beds easily. “I’d rather control them than have trouble getting something to grow,” he says.
5 Rules of Successful Gardens
Thinking about starting your own landscape project? Take notes from Chris and incorporate these principles into your own backyard.
1. Flagstone is your friend. “Flagstone is smoother than other native rock; you always want to use flagstone for pathways for a level surface,” Chris says. He also used flagstone as border rock around the seating areas to continue the design.
2. Give yourself some privacy. Most homeowners’ yards are separated from their neighbors with a fence, but for added intimacy, plant an evergreen shrub or tree, like the ‘Green Giant’ arborvitae used here, along the fence line.
3. Always add yellow. “Yellow is the color your eye is attracted to first, so I always add it to the garden,” Chris says. “Plus, it combines great with other colors and accentuates everything else.”
4. Use your senses—all of them. Planning a garden isn’t just about the senses of sight or touch. In this garden, Chris brought in the sense of sound with a water feature and smell with the sweet-scented garden phlox. Herbs planted in containers near the fire pit can be used in cooking to incorporate the sense of taste.
5. Low maintenance is actually easy. “Contrary to popular belief, the fuller a bed is, the less maintenance it is,” Chris says. “Weeds germinate by light. So if your beds are full of what’s supposed to be in there, then weeds don’t grow.”
Landscape design Chris H. Olsen, Botanica Gardens Containers, plantings, and water feature Botanica Gardens