Home and Garden Guide

A Columbia County Backyard Gets a Major Makeover

With a little bit of rearranging, Ancramdale-based Erin Robertson Design is able to update a sorry pool area into one that’s functional — and gorgeous


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The hemlock pergola adds a comfortable space to lounge about after a swim and cool off during a hot day

Photographs by B. Docktor Photography

Indoor rooms are not the only part of a home that may need remodeling. When a young family purchased a weekend house in Columbia County five years ago, their 17-acre site with existing pool, pool house, deck, and landscaping presented to them a long list of challenges. The pool was too close to the house, its bluestone paving too hot on their children’s feet and too small for entertaining, as was a rear deck off the house. In addition, a picket fence around the pool blocked views of their property — the valley and mountains beyond; a pergola was too small to shelter diners and outdoor kitchen; and many of the plantings hadn’t thrived because of the site’s clay soil and poor drainage, and the overall look wasn’t sufficiently colorful.

All seemed daunting, yet these were just the sort of problems that landscape designer Erin Robertson, whose eponymous firm is based in Ancramdale, loves solving. “We couldn’t move the pool, or at least we weren’t going to since it was in good condition, but we could make other changes,” she says. The first spring she studied what flourished and what didn’t, as well as which plants were too invasive.

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Robertson believes in reusing hardscape and softscape materials that don’t work in an area or even on a site. Out went the bluestone and in went travertine paving by the pool, which is cooler on feet on hot days; the patio was enlarged. The bluestone was reused for pathways through the property, including up a hill to a tennis court. Robertson dug up plants that didn’t work, inventoried them, and kept them in a holding bed by the garage until she knew what she’d do with each one. She used some for a remodeled front garden by a stone wall where there was little except “boring junipers,” she says. She hired a contractor to build a larger pergola from hemlock and cabinetry from mahogany to house a sink, refrigerator and grill. To improve views, a new cedar fence was constructed but placed farther down a slope and around a field so it was barely visible. The deck off the house was rebuilt to be larger and with wider steps.

hillsdale home erin robertson

Before Robertson planted new materials, she installed good drainage and amended the soil by adding in a blend of compost to loosen it. She followed her clients’ wish for more color and sequential blooms by planting new flowers and moving existing plants around to create bolder arrangements. But she also added her imprint to repeat the site’s meadowland, attract hummingbirds and butterflies, reflect the site’s scale, and cope with wet areas, which called for choices such as ornamental grasses. New evergreen trees screen a new neighboring home.

Even after five years the project isn’t finished; few gardens are, as plants mature, homeowners long for change, and the climate presents surprises. But the rewards have been great for all involved, and Robertson continues to enjoy walking the site, especially with her clients’ gardener and caretaker, all admiring their handiwork. Says Robertson, “Gardens are a process, and keeping them looking good is a challenge.”

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