Garden on a hill

By Valerie Hill |  Photography by Crestina Martins

For Heather and Randy Watson, the stars aligned the day a neighbour knocked on the door with a question: “Are you still looking for a house with a pool?”

Never mind that the Watsons had set that dream aside two years earlier. They jumped at this chance to buy the house across their street in Cambridge. The property was large, with a kidney-shaped pool and it backed onto a neighbour’s forested lot.

Idyllic? Yes, but they soon realized there was a dilemma: what to do with that steeply sloped backyard.

From the pool upward toward the fence, the slope was like a ski hill. After a rainfall, there would be quite the mess as everything was flushed toward the pool and the house, not to mention achy legs for anyone trying to push a lawn mower up and down.

“We thought ‘Man we’ve got to do something different,’ ” Heather recalls.

They moved to the house in 2001 and two years later contacted the Cambridge Garden Centre where they were assigned landscape designer Maureen Topelko. She is experienced with such challenges and the result is so spectacular the garden has been highlighted on home tours.

Topelko says creating usable grades is one of the most important considerations when working on slopes.

“If I’m doing one, I put in Armour Stone and natural stone with stone steps that matches the character of the home,” Topelko says.

So rather than one steep slope, by using the stones as retaining walls, she can create several tiers. Placing stepping stones across the upper level of each tier provides access for anyone wanting to stroll among the flowers and bushes.

“It pulls it all together,” she says.

Topelko also suggests plants with deeper roots to provide stability for the slope, ensuring it won’t be affected by extreme weather. There also has to be good drainage.

“I advise them to stay away from things like willows,” she adds. The willow root systems need too much water.

At the Watson home, Topelko had an existing wall of flat landscaping stones reset so nothing was wasted. Armour Stone blocks were used for the rest of the walls.

“Two men came, both over 70, and put the stones into place,” says  Heather, still astounded at the men’s strength and stamina. “They were done in two days.”

The landscaping basically created a template on which the Watsons could then add plants, starting with the huge and hard-to-murder hostas, adding in spirea, rose of Sharon, magnolia, red bud, juniper and a myriad of flowering plants and bushes. Pretty much every inch is filled, and the mulch holds in moisture as well as lining footpaths interspersed throughout the garden.

The backyard, particularly the pool, is everything the couple had hoped for.

They had been living in the neighbourhood for several years and dreamed of putting in a pool, but quickly changed their minds.

“The costs were crazy,” Heather recalls. “We thought we’d just move.”

They had their eye on another house in the area but lost that bid. Discouraged, they decided to stay put and pool-less.

“We got over it,” she says.

And then the neighbour knocked with news that he was ready to sell his place.

“We moved in and a couple of months later we began the journey of turning the hill into something we would love,” says Heather, noting they also added a raised deck platform near the pool, just to provide a different perspective.

With such a big green canvas overlooking their house, the Watsons can’t help but come up with new ideas, adding a bit here, taking away a bit there. Then one terrible winter, nature took over and cleaned a wide swath.

“We had an ice storm six years ago and a tree came down on our property,” Randy says. “The whole side of the property was wiped out.” The tree came from the adjacent forest so it took the fence with it.

There are no remnants of the damage visible now. Instead all visitors see is lush and healthy garden, with several surprises built in such as metal birds, butterflies and other critters, kitschy little items that delight their grandkids. A sign reads “Welcome to Puerto Backyardo,” a humorous nod to Mexican resorts.

There are also several pieces of glass yard art, ornaments made from thrift store finds such as plates, cups and bowls.

But as beautiful and peaceful as the Watson’s garden is, they always see room for improvement.

“We keep changing stuff,” Heather says.