One snowy winter day, I looked out our kitchen windows and was struck by the idea of creating an inviting patio off our deck. We really enjoy being outside in our backyard, especially our deck, from spring through fall, but we lacked extra seating for conversation and a safe location for our fire pit. I once read great advice about how to approach designing your garden or landscaping: that you should design around the central theme of someplace in the world you dream about, or someplace have enjoyed a memorable vacation and bring those elements in with container plantings and landscape materials. For me, I love the idea of stepping out my back door into Provence and that imagery colored each decision in this project. Elements I was sure about were pea gravel, lavender, and a soft palette of silvers, purples and greens.
Last summer my sister, Christina, and I measured out the dimensions of the new patio and parterre garden, spray painted the lines, edged with a spade and hand dug out all of the sod. I used my electric tiller to till up the garden and added the plants. This year to finish the project, a local landscape company lined the patio area with landscape fabric to prevent weeds, installed metal edging around the patio and gardens, and filled with 5/8” pea gravel. I selected raw steel edging over plastic or coated metal because I like the natural patina and rust that the metal will show over time, and it will stand up well to the mower and not crack or fade like plastic would. Nathan’s parents had also gifted me some spare slate tiles that were extras from a home project of theirs. I decided to use them as a ‘floating’ visual partition in the pea gravel separating the patio from the lawn and they worked out perfectly!
French gardens are known for symmetry and precision, so I stuck to straight lines when drawing the plans and created a mini parterre garden at one end of the patio. Edged completely by a boxwood hedge, inside I planted small Hypericum berry shrubs for greenery and silvery-blue Russian sage which has a very Provençal feel that reminds me of lavender, but will tolerate hot and humid Central Illinois summers and rains. It will also grow up to 4’ in full sun, so it will serve as a nice privacy screen, and bees absolutely love it! The angle of the sidewalk to the backdoor created an opportunity for another garden so I carved out this otherwise awkward little trapezoid area and planted some boxwood and Nepeta (catmint). I relocated our birdbath to this tiny garden and love how substantial this area looks now. Near the house, I relocated some pink Hydrangeas that were not blooming well due to their north-facing position, and replaced them with a native shade-favoring shrub, Oakleaf Hydrangea which will fill in along the house to add a backdrop of green and offer beautiful spikes of white flowers which will fade to bronze in the fall.
Cement stepping stones lead to the fire pit which is surrounded by vintage butterfly chairs from my dad. I purchased heavy duty natural cotton duck covers for them which are very easy to hose off. Since they are not dyed, they will not fade in the sun, instead, the sun will help to bleach them and keep them looking new. I grouped some container plantings in terracotta and cement pots at each corner and filled them with annuals of purple verbena, rosemary and lavender — all of which tolerate a bit of drought and will be very low-maintenance. This was a super budget-friendly patio project since we saved by doing part of the labor ourselves, and selecting materials that are inexpensive. In all, the plantings, materials and landscape labor cost us under $1,000!I absolutely love this little sanctuary in our backyard and plan to be bundled up by the fire well into fall.