Sustainable Serenity in a Backyard Eden - 405 Magazine

Sustainable Serenity in a Backyard Eden

With design help from Olthia Urban Prairie Gardens, Sara Jane Rose remade her bland back yard into a colorful, Oklahoma-appropriate jewel.


Working from home is tricky even when all things are in your favor. If the environment is just as you prefer it, you will still find yourself fighting off urges to fall in love with doing a load of laundry or spontaneously cleaning the stove. For Sara Jane Rose, the environment included large bay windows that offered a view into her backyard.

“When Sara Jane stood in her backyard, I think she just seemed sad,” Jamie Csizmadia said.

Csizmadia is the owner and founder of Olthia Urban Prairie Gardens, and she met Sara Jane and Jay Rose at a home and garden show in spring 2014. At the time, the Roses’ yard was a pretty standard backyard – one long planting bed, some hedges and a lawn. A large deck dominated the backyard and patio.

“It was pretty uninspiring,” Csizmadia said. “And because the yard was such a big part of the inside of the house where she worked – the view from the bay windows brings the yard inside – she wanted to see something beautiful, and something beautiful year round.”

Working together, Sara Jane and Csizmadia developed a backyard garden, lawn and two areas for relaxation that incorporate plants and grasses that are native to Oklahoma, meaning they require less care than non-native species.

“We had a drought-tolerant garden made up of native plants when we lived in California,” Sara Jane said. “When we saw Jamie’s display at the home and garden show, we fell in love with it immediately. She used native grasses and plants, and so we bonded right away.”

(clockwise from the right) The terraced deck, cut down to a more integrated size, provides excellent bench seating in the backyard. Sara Jane said the family uses it regularly for time with friends and each other. The old-growth tree provides shade all summer thanks to the decision to save the trees. // Sara Jane wanted another, sunnier seating area, so the chairs and torches occupy a brighter corner of the yard. The chairs – from Minick Materials – are heavy-duty reclaimed, recycled plastic.

The first constraint was the family’s squirrel-hunting dog pack. “We have four dogs, and they love to chase squirrels in the backyard,” Sara Jane said.

Since most chases end up in a tree or along a fence, Csizmadia recommended a gravel path between the fence and the lawn. Typically, lawns have long planting beds adjacent to the fence, but the installation of the gravel path meant that the Roses could save wear and tear on their lawn. Most importantly, the dogs took to it easily.

The next large obstacle – literally – was the deck. The terraced deck led up to a hot tub. After removing the hot tub, the family was stuck with a terraced deck that rose to nowhere. Since they wanted to keep the deck, the simplest solution was to remove two feet off the top, leaving a large seating area that integrated more easily into the overall plan.

Finally, the existing lawn, plants and trees had to be dealt with. “We kept the deck and three old-growth trees,” Sara Jane said. “Everything else was cleared out.”

Her goal was a backyard that was part garden, part lawn and part comfortable gathering place for family and friends. “I told Jamie I wanted to feel serene when I looked out on it from the sunroom and when we sat back here,” she said. “I get great peace from it.”

Oilfield pipes were cut to form custom planters. The variety of heights made it easier to create a deeper garden effect without plants “hiding” behind neighbors.

While working on the design plan, the family fell in love with the idea of Corten steel planters. Corten is a weathering steel, which means that it will develop a patina when left uncoated but won’t rust all the way through. Unfortunately, custom fabricated Corten steel planters were incredibly expensive.

“I love it when clients come up with creative solutions to problems like this,” Csizmadia said. “Jay’s father worked with oilfield pipe, and he suggested we look at them. I didn’t think we would find any large enough, but we did, and they worked beautifully.”

Not only did the pipe solve the planter problem, they also injected some family history into the backyard, a realization that made all parties happy. Rose did not want retaining walls, raised areas or sharp edges, and the pipe answered all those concerns, as well, even allowing for a variety of heights based on the cut.

Jay offered another creative solution for the furniture on the deck. “We had some old tiles left over from our fireplace in California, and he recommended we use them on the coffee table,” Sara Jane said. The tiles are very durable, and they were a simple way of adding splashes of bright color to the deck.

Most of the color comes from the collection of flowers scattered in planters throughout the yard. Csizmadia incorporated daisies, day lilies, brown-eyed susans and marigolds to create areas of bright color. A beautyberry shrub colors part of the yard in red, purple and magenta as the berries ripen, and the berries bring a variety of birds to the yard.

(clockwise from the left) The arbor was Sara Jane’s inspiration. “Sometimes clients get so excited about their new garden or yard that they rush out to find things they like to put in it,” Csizmadia said. “Sara Jane added the arbor and it’s a perfect example of the eclectic design taste she embraces.” // A weathered-wood coffee table can be a dreary piece of furniture without the color provided by the clever use of ceramic tiles and polished stones. // The weather vane adds another unique note – and even more range of color – to the yard. Sara Jane found it at an arts festival in California. // Even though she was able to keep three old-growth trees, one had to go to make room for the overall design. The stump remains, and ceramic frogs from Folk.Life on North Western dress it up with a bit of color.

When describing the overall plan, Csizmadia uses paint metaphors like palette and watercolor brush to explain the strategy. The organization is not so much random blotches of color, but a “canvas or carpet” upon which the landscape architect creates a picture. Everything is in its proper place, and each component contributes to the lifecycle of the organism.

Csizmadia said the garden is in bloom from late February or early March when the daffodils emerge. The hardiest plants will survive into late November, which means there is a three-month period when nothing is blooming. That is the cycle of an Oklahoma garden, though, and Sara Jane is content with the reality of winter.

“Jamie gave us a stewardship plan for everything,” Sara Jane said. “We have no annuals and no poison. The plan covers mulch, preemergents, all that stuff, but because it’s a native garden, there is very little upkeep required. It’s a water-efficient garden, too.”

Sustainability is a very un-sexy word, evoking images of composters, recycling efforts and building codes, but native gardens are sustainable and beautiful. They are water-efficient, soil-flexible and tuned to the cycle of the place where they grow. Csizmadia said the garden needed one year of establishment, and after that, it is designed to thrive in the Oklahoma climate, because that is its actual home.