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Slideshow: Backyard transformation

Small, generic space now lush, private oasis

By Marielle Gallagher / The Bulletin

Published Aug 13, 2013 at 05:00AM

In the heat of July in 2009, Tiare and Kris Helmstead bought their first home. It was a short sale property — and after waiting four months for their offer to clear, they were handed the keys to a two-story home in a development in Northeast Bend. The yard had an irrigation system, but because the house had sat empty for so long, it hadn't been on, and the summer heat had dried the lawn to a crispy brown.

The backyard was rife with limitations, including an immovable wall of lava rock, poor-quality soil, no privacy and a tiny square of concrete off the back door hardly big enough for a small grill and a bistro-size table and chairs. As for landscaping, “There were two shrubs randomly placed and three or four of those tall grasses,” said Tiare Helmstead. But they had a big vision to transform the generic, rectangular space into a lush garden where they could entertain and relax. Four years later, they've accomplished that goal.

In the beginning

The Helmsteads bought their house because they could see the potential beyond the browned grass and barren landscape. “My mom is a gardener. That's her hobby and her career, so she was a big help because she understood the High Desert climate and knew what types of trees and plants to get,” said Tiare Helmstead.

Helmstead's mom and a landscape architect put together a garden plan for them to follow. They used it as a guide to install and remodel the garden as they had time and money to invest. “I had a plan and a plant list. I would go to the nursery and get these plants and know where they're going to go in the bed,” said Helmstead.

The Helmsteads' objectives for the end product were clear. “We wanted an outdoor seating area because we barbecue a lot and have friends over. We wanted the dogs to have a safe place to play. We wanted privacy from the neighbors and wanted the space to be low-maintenance and something that could grow from spring to fall,” said Helmstead.

The garden plan that achieved all of their objectives included trees, flower beds, shrubs, a patio and a small fountain. Helmstead said all she could envision was the price tag. “I remember distinctly when I got the garden plan back, I asked my mom about how much it would all cost. She said it would be about $10,000.”

So the Helmsteads paced themselves. During the first summer in the house they focused on the interior. “The garden was an afterthought,” said Helmstead. The second summer, Tiare and Kris got married and, “We put all of our efforts towards the wedding.” The third year, the Helmsteads added a couple of dogs to their family. And finally, in 2012 they got busy on the yard. They installed a paver patio out the back sliding glass doors, a synthetic lawn over half of the yard and planted aspen trees, a crabapple and arbor vitae.

“It took four years to get where we are now. ... It was a phased approach, and this year it all came together and we were just wowed.”

Thoughtful design

Throughout the process, they learned a lot about aesthetics and how to plan. With the help of a landscape architect friend and a mom who is a master gardener, the Helmsteads learned how to conceptualize their backyard using these tips: Every view from inside of the house should be framing a vignette; complementary colors should be grouped together, like yellow and purple, orange and blue or green and red; plant things in odd numbers rather than pairs and practice symmetry.

The scene from the living room window features a cluster of aspen with yellow columbines and purple Russian sage. And out the sliding doors, the patio is an extension of their living space.

Adding big color with little effort

Every year, the Helmsteads start anew with potted plants. They fill terra-cotta pots and wine barrels in late April with annuals to provide instant color and texture around the outdoor furniture. An initial investment of less than $150 buys the flower configurations that are planted in Black Gold soil amended with compost that is also used to top dress the garden beds around the yard. “My mom picked the configurations. She uses the phrase when planting containers: 'There's a pillar, a thriller and the spiller,'” Helmstead said. In other words, something tall in the back, a big pop of color and then something to grow and spill over the front of the container.

For Helmstead's containers, coral- and inky purple-colored petunias grow next to shocking blue lobelia and a neon green potato vine spilling over the edge. One of the wine barrels is filled with tomato plants, a sweet 100 and an indigo rose variety, habañero peppers, basil and nasturtiums. The other barrel is filled with herbs, including mint, tarragon, chives and dill. “The containers add a lot of interest, and we do different groupings every year,” said Helmstead.

Creating privacy in a fish bowl

The Helmsteads' lot is set lower than the surrounding houses, and six or seven homes loom over the backyard. “We wanted privacy from the neighbors. ~ You feel like they're looking down on you,” said Helmstead. To create a sense of privacy, they planted hops that have covered a fence, put a crabapple in the corner where it has doubled in size and put in an umbrella over the seating area. “It makes it feel like our own space,” said Helmstead.

Self-sustaining space

Helmstead spends about an hour per week maintaining the backyard. With a synthetic lawn and irrigation to water the beds, she said tending the garden consists of watering the containers daily and pulling a weed here and there.

To soften the look of the lava rock wall, which is the foundation of the neighboring property, Helmstead planted succulents and Virginia creeper. And in the beds along the house, bleeding heart blooms amid hostas and spirea, towering sunflowers and periwinkle ground cover.

In the front yard, where it can be as hot as 100 degrees, Helmstead said there has been a lot of trial and error until this year when she found plants that could survive. Ice plants add pink color to the front walkway, and container gardens of assorted succulents thrive in the direct sun. On the front fence, a raspberry plant that was given to Helmstead as a small clipping in a yogurt cup has covered the fence with pink berries tucked under the leaves.