When they first moved into their newly built home in 2002, Cathy and Rick Kennedy didn’t give much thought to their backyard. It was enough just to get moved in and give the front yard a respectable appearance. So they put in some grass and a planting or two near the backyard deck, left the area at the rear of their sloping lot bare dirt and decided to wait until they had more time and resources to think about it.
It stayed like that for four years.
“It was embarrassing,” says Cathy, “to have a party with just half of the yard done. We’d relax on the back deck, and our guests had nothing to look at but a totally uninviting view of grass, dirt and a chain-link fence. Then before one party, I said to Rick, ‘Can’t you just imagine a waterfall coming down that slope?’”
In 2006, Cathy got her waterfall when the Kennedys decided it was, at last, time to do something about the backyard. Today it features a dark-bottomed pool with a “beach,” Jacuzzi, pool house constructed to Rick’s design, Cathy’s waterfall and eye-catching anchor plantings embellished by her 75 potted plants, all of it infused with a mountain-stream flavor.
Being busy professionals, the two of them took their time in creating this backyard getaway, which required several years to go from the pool’s ground breaking to installing appliances in the pool house cabana. The plan had to take into account the SCE&G easement at the back of the property that prohibited hardscaping in that area, as well as the 20-foot drop from the highest to the lowest part of the backyard. These two landscaping challenges forced some creative thinking that shaped Cathy and Rick’s ultimate vision for the space.
“Our first thought was to go up in the back corner where the slope is highest and do a waterfall into a koi pond,” Rick recalls. “But Cathy really wanted to put her feet in the water without having fish swimming around, so we decided to have the waterfall flowing down to a dark-bottomed swimming pool. We didn’t want Grecian urns and a symmetrical pool with scalloped edges and a blue bottom. We envisioned a mountain stream flowing into a pool with a lush landscape, the look of a natural pond.”
Cathy also wanted a beach, but the germ for that idea came from her pool contractor. “I was talking to Ray Kussro of Creative Stone, who did a great job building our pool,” she explains, “and he asked me what water activity I liked best. I told him I just love to go to the beach and stick my feet in the water and read a book. He said, ‘We can make you a beach.’ So he did!”
Situated next to the waterfall, the beach slopes down from the pool deck and allows room for sunbathers to sit in low beach chairs while the water laps around their feet. The pool is slightly salty — a saline pool — with benefits to the skin, unlike a chlorinated pool. Saline pools also are easier on swimwear, have no chlorine smell and inhibit growth of algae and bacteria naturally, features that fit right in with Cathy and Rick’s preference for the look of a natural pond.
Not far from the waterfall is a Jacuzzi spa with a surrounding made of large flagstones like those bordering the main pool. A smaller waterfall swirls down over steps from the hot tub directly into the larger pool, which awaits spa users needing a cool-off swim. Perched on the Jacuzzi’s surround is a whimsical frog planter filled with red begonias, which echo those in the hanging baskets on the back deck — a color and flower shape that no doubt also please the grandchildren.
The centerpiece of this tropical retreat is the main pool, which has an appealingly irregular shape, again mimicking a natural pond. On one side of the pool’s beach, a stacked-flagstone retaining wall surrounds a raised flower bed with a banana tree, a sago palm and pale flowering perennials. On the opposite side of the pool, a flower bed flush with the pool deck adds further color to the scene. Scattered over the landscape, palms play a lovely counterpoint to the stonework.
For this extensive backyard renovation, Rick was able to put his carpentry skills to good use, as Cathy will attest. “When we started,” says this self-taught handyman, “Ray Kussro drew a basic outline of the pool, the beach, the waterfall and the spa. We decided we’d like some wide steps leading from our back deck to the pool deck, so while he built the pool, I built the steps. Since Ray was filling in the pool area to allow for construction of the pool, he had to tell me to the fraction of an inch exactly what the drop was going to be from the top of the back deck to the surface of the pool deck. I built the steps on posts, and he poured the concrete right up to them.”
While the pool hardscaping was being done, Robert Haas Construction roughed in the cabana, putting in just studs — no electricity, no plumbing. It would be two more years before utilities, paneling, bar and appliances took their places in the pool house.
Rick recalls his frustration when he first tackled the pool house. “We wanted to put the cabana on the other side of the pool,” he says, “but again we ran into the easement problem. The only solution I could see was to put it in a corner that presented no easement difficulties. I started looking in magazines for a plan but couldn’t find anything corner based. I tried drawing it, but that didn’t work well. So I built a model to scale, and it worked.”
Rick’s model of the open-front pool house showed a bathroom in the middle and two wings, one of them a sitting area and the other a kitchen. But when it rained and he realized he would need some kind of barrier to keep the appliances from getting wet, he decided to put in a bar instead. Then Cathy came up with another improvement to the plan: a loft over the bathroom, for which Rick constructed access steps. Cathy has placed a table and chairs, as well as a few decorative pieces, in this airy hideaway, making it a perfect spot for kids to enjoy during a rainy day.
The couple chose pecky cypress as the wood for the cabana’s interior because they liked its attractive worm-eaten look, and they stained the pool house ceiling themselves, which was no easy task. Rick saved living space in the sitting area by installing the water heater and stereo under the steps.
When guests visit the Kennedy backyard, they do not view electric wires everywhere. This is because before pool contractor Ray Kussro poured all of the concrete, he put PVC conduit all over the site so Rick could get things under the pool deck, including wiring for landscape lighting, the last project in the Kennedys’ backyard renovation.
“When we put in the lights on that flower bed,” says Rick, “the wires could go through the conduit under the concrete to the lights. Same for the speaker wires and the lines that water our pots. All that stuff is hidden under the concrete.”
Cathy remembers, “Outdoor Lighting Perspectives did all of our lighting. It was worth every penny because in the nighttime, we feel like we are at a five-star hotel. The lighting hits the different aspects of the backyard, and we can stand up there at the back of the yard and look back with the lights on in the house. It’s just gorgeous.”
As part of the renovation, Cathy chose to create three garden rooms: a Charleston garden, a tropical garden and a shade garden. The pool area is the focal point of the three, but the others add their own ambiance to the pleasing whole. The Charleston garden reposes at the backyard entrance nearest to the Jacuzzi and offers the most formal setting in this renovated space. There, to the accompaniment of a gently bubbling wall fountain framed by fig vine, Rick speaks of his and Cathy’s considerable outdoor watering chores.
“To cut down on the labor, I ran the cords of battery-operated drippers through the conduit to nearly every pot we have, including those ferns above the Charleston garden gate,” observes Rick. “There’s no way we could water the ferns every day way up there. The drippers and the timers take care of the problem, and you hardly notice them. They water the plants three times a day, so even in the heat of summer everything looks great.”
Across the yard, the shade garden waits for those who, like actress Greta Garbo, want to be alone to enjoy a little quiet. To reach it, guests descend a comfortably broad set of flagstone steps lined with stacked-flagstone retaining walls, one side of which borders the pool house. When visitors alight from the steps and move into the garden, they can see just how much landfill had to be done to create the pool because this is the only spot in the yard where the long drop from back deck to ground level remains. It’s guarded by a newly planted willow tree, magnolias and a river birch and bounded by a white-painted cypress fence constructed to Cathy’s design.
Flourishing Confederate jasmine commands a trellis by the gate and floats its heady incense up to the back deck. Irises, which love this shade garden’s wet area, open there in purple and yellow plenty in the spring, and Cathy, who chooses many of her plantings for use in flower arrangements, cuts some of these when they are in bloom. Hostas and elephant ears also are at home in this hospitable haven.
Cathy says that the element that charms her most is the music of the waterfall. “It’s so soothing,” she reflects, “I love working in the garden because as an attorney I do such cerebral things during the day. Out here, I feel God’s creation. I actually get some of my better ideas for litigation when I’m not really thinking about it, just puttering in the yard!”
Cathy and Rick Kennedy’s idyllic backyard does carry the high price tag of many hours of upkeep, but its alfresco serenity and beauty was worth it all.