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Beyond landscaping: Your backyard also needs hardscaping

Victor David designs and creates all the garden

Victor David designs and creates all the garden features at their home in Smithtown. Garden features includes a deck, a walkway, the Chinese bridge, the stonewall and a koi pond.

When you hear the word "landscaping," chances are your thoughts immediately go green: There are images of lush lawns and flowers, towering trees and stout shrubs, and meticulously manicured mulch-lined mixed borders.

But when the word "hardscaping" is mentioned, you might find yourself at a loss for visuals, despite the likelihood that you actually already have your own hardscape.

Hardscaping includes all the non-plant components of a garden. And, yes, typically, hardscaping materials are hard. Falling under their purview are items as commonplace as driveways, fences, stones and paved walkways, and as intricate and exotic as bridges, stacked retaining walls, gazebos and Koi ponds. Although many homeowners focus first on their landscapes, gardens without four-season textural variety often suffer a lack of depth and visual appeal.

His special bent

Few understand this better than Victor David, who has created a veritable Shangri-La in his Smithtown backyard.

A stationary engineer by night -- and avid DIYer by day -- the 55-year-old Manila native has lived in his home for 21 years. "When we first moved here, there was nothing in the yard, just sticks and hills," he said. "There was a wooden staircase going up the hill, but it had seen better days, and a wooden retaining wall was breaking down, so I had to replace them," he said, adding that he got to work immediately. "I looked around for a material I could use that wouldn't break the bank, and I found Pennsylvania wall stone, which back then was more affordable." So he started digging. "But being Long Island is so sandy, the more I dug, the more the sand caved in, so I had to put in a barrier of sand bags to hold the dirt back. It was double work."

Next, his attention turned to the hillsides in the yard. "My first thought was, 'I'm going to build a waterfall because you can't put grass on these steep hills.' " And so he did.

A couple of years later, David and his wife, Maria, 58, had an in-ground pool installed on the top level.

Next, David focused on a deck. He knew he wanted to create a curved floor -- not just a curved border -- using first-generation Trex, which came in straight, rigid 6-inch-by-20-foot planks. To many, it would have been akin to fitting a square peg into a round hole, but David found a way: He made an oven out of sheet metal duct work and forced hot air through it from a propane heater. When the temperature reached 180 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, he slid the planks in, one by one, to make them pliable and then bent them. "I ruined a couple of them; it's always a learning curve," he said, adding that he turned to the Internet and DIY books for information. "Everything is out there. It's just a matter of researching it. It's all basic stuff."

David's favorite garden element is the Chinese foot bridge he built by laminating 1-by-4 strips of wood and bending them to create an arc. It overlooks the waterfall into a koi pond David also built himself.

"It's a lot of work, a lot of man hours," he said. "But time is what I have. I don't have much money, but I'm willing to do the work myself, and that's my incentive. When I get an idea in my head, I get an estimate for it, and of course it's always astronomical. This way, I save a lot of money -- and I get to do it exactly the way I want, so it's a win-win situation for me."

Creative repurposing

Lisa Leonardi lived in her Huntington home for 11 years before making any changes to the backyard.

"When I moved in, it was all grass, that's it," she said. "And chicken wire between the properties." The retired Huntington High School orchestra teacher was reluctant to disturb what had become a perfect volleyball court for the annual barbecue party she threw for her students, but that all changed after she retired. In April, Leonardi, 56, who lives with her partner, Ken Saccente, took steps to bring her passion for recycling to her garden.

"I really love the shabby chic style and repurposing," she said. Her home's interior -- with its salvaged tiles and antique vanities -- already incorporated those elements, so it seemed a natural progression to allow it to expand to the outdoor space.

The first step was to remove all the grass, and when her landscaper did that, she had him stack the rolled strips of turf to create a berm, which lent much-needed dimension to the yard. And when he suggested installing a backdrop, Leonardi knew she wanted to cover up the chicken wire, but she also knew she didn't want anything traditional.

"I wanted something creative, so I thought of buying old barn doors, turning them sideways, and putting posts in." She found those barn doors, along with outhouse doors and what she believes might be vintage headboards at an antiques store on the East End. Her landscaper installed the posts, and she and Saccente bought chains and hooks and attached the repurposed items to the posts. Instant fence.

As for a walkway and defined beds and borders, Leonardi insisted on creating many winding pebble paths, despite warnings from her landscaper that it would look like a game board. "I went ahead anyway," she said. "I like to make things funky. I like things that are unique."

She had peonies, roses, lilacs and other flowering perennials installed in a new rock garden, and filled around them with annuals like cosmos, which she said grew taller than expected this year.

"Repurposing really is a lot of fun, and I love that all the things that I buy have a history," Leonardi said. "It's exactly what I was envisioning in my mind all these years."

Backyard retreat

When Sandra and Mike Leibowitz of Plainview set out to redesign their backyard four years ago, they knew they wanted to create a retreat for themselves. The couple, who have lived in the home for 49 years, settled on a gazebo.

"We just wanted someplace where we could go outside and still be sheltered from the elements," said Mike Leibowitz, 77, who is retired from careers with the NYC Transit Authority and as a home inspector.

The pair has a penchant for feminine-minded molded concrete elements, which is evident in a plaque that depicts a woman and hangs on the fence, and in a planter they call Victoria, which they found at a craft show in Rockport, Massachusetts. "I saw it, and I just loved it," Leibowitz, 73, and a former office manager, said of the Victorian planter made from an antique mold. "It was quite expensive, but I decided to buy it anyway."

Once home, her husband got to work planting Victoria with sedums. He also planted the area around the gazebo to instill warmth and charm to the surroundings. Mandevilla vines climb up around the entry door, while lilies grace the side walls. He also planted daffodil and tulip bulbs to jump-start the season in early spring.

Leibowitz appreciates the retreat the screened gazebo provides. "It's just the right size for the two of us," she said.

Walls and color

In Glen Head, lifelong resident Donna Slanina-Ruiz worked with her landscaper to create what she describes as "a little paradise." Slanina-Ruiz, 61, retired from her job as a speech-language therapist at North Shore schools nearly six years ago, and since then has been working toward creating a soothing retreat at home.

"When we moved into the house 27 years ago, there were just tired, old bushes and wooden railroad ties" in the backyard, she said. When the railroad ties weakened, Slanina-Ruiz and her husband, John Ruiz, who is retired from the NYPD and investigates insurance fraud, knew they wanted to up the ante. Eventually, they settled on plans for a four-tiered wall built with red-and-gray Nicolock blocks. "I wanted to see color when I looked out my sliding glass doors into my yard," said Slanina-Ruiz. "I wanted it to be like a painting." A crew of six descended on the property and built the walls over the course of a week, completing the job a day before Christmas.

The following spring, Slanina-Ruiz enlisted her landscaper's help to plant three of those levels. "I needed color, and I wanted it year-round, so I chose several different hydrangeas for summer, Mediterranean heather, which blooms from December through May, hostas, Aguja, irises, roses, lilies, Matricaria and astilbe. There's something for every season."

Across the yard, a 20-foot Trex deck is home to pots containing hibiscus and begonias. The couple entertains often, so a cocktail seating area was set up on a patio right next to the outdoor dining area. And on the patio table, there's a pot planted with dahlias, verbena and the American flag. Nearby, a baker's rack shows off other interesting items, including mementos from annual visits to Cape Cod, a small potted Christmas cactus and a St. Francis statue that Slanina-Ruiz said "welcomes the little animals," of which there are many.

"We get hummingbirds, chipmunks, cardinals, blue jays and sparrows," she said. "I feel like Snow White in the morning."

Investment multiplied

Looking into the backyard from the floor-to-ceiling picture window in her sunroom, Ann Richichi of Oakdale feels as if she's looking at a portrait. An explosion of color greets her from the perimeter of a 20-by-10-foot pond that backs up to a waterfall. But it wasn't always that way.

For many years after she and her husband, Peter, moved into their home in 1998, the couple didn't make any changes to the backyard, and Peter struggled to tolerate an emaciated Japanese maple and the large pachysandra patch from which it grew.

"He hates pachysandra," said Richichi, 74, a retired Center Moriches High School counselor. "He always talked about getting rid of it," but the years marched on.

When their three grown children moved out and the costs of raising a family and paying for college faded away, and the couple was approaching retirement, they decided to invest in their backyard.

Peter Richichi, 77 and a retired kitchen installation contractor, designed a waterfall, a pond and its rock formations, and the couple hired a contractor to build it according to his specifications.

"It's become like a palette," she said. "Every year, it's a little different. I change the color by selecting different annuals."

In that palette are roses, cactuses, a luxurious abundance of water plants and a varied selection of perennials around the pond. Keeping watch is "Harry the Heron," an avian statue the couple bought to protect the pond.

"In the spring, the flora in the pond is very small, so the water surface is exposed, and we used to get heron that flew in to eat the fish," Richichi said. "So we got a fake one, and we haven't had a real heron disturb the pond in the last three years."

When the pond was destroyed by superstorm Sandy in 2012, the Richichis lost three large koi fish, and many fantail goldfish, regular goldfish and Shubunkin -- 40 to 50 fish in all. "I'm sure they were all over the neighborhood," Richichi said mournfully. When the couple rebuilt and returned to their home in May 2013, Peter Richichi cleaned the pond, added fresh water and bought a few small goldfish.

"We didn't invest very much money in the fish at all," his wife said. "Everything had been depleted, and we weren't sure if the water was in balance yet, so we didn't want to take any chances," she said.

"The next year, it was amazing to see how much those few fish had multiplied, and this year, we have even more," Richichi said.

Although she loves the view, the fish and the pond, Richichi said she gets the most pleasure from the sound of the waterfall. "We sit out there a lot," she said. "It's just so soothing."

Hands-on approach

When Niki Haan moved into her Port Jefferson Village home 12 years ago, there was absolutely nothing on the property.

"It was a mishmash," she said. "Nobody bothered to take care of the yard. There was no grass, just weeds, a wild forsythia and a lot of straggly oak trees."

Things didn't stay that way for long, however, because Haan, 53, a social worker who was born in Amsterdam, is like a one-woman construction crew.

Immediately after moving in, she planted a small weeping cherry tree in the arc of the circular walkway leading to the front door. Then she built a pond -- with her bare hands.

"Instead of looking at the street from my front door, I wanted to look at a pond," she said, adding that she wanted it to look like a natural part of the landscape. So she ordered a pallet of wallstone and a varied array of rocks, and got to work digging the hole, installing the liner and stacking the stones. The entire project took two days.

"I'm either working or working on the house," Haan said. "As a single mother, if I had a day off, it all had to get done because there was nobody who was going to help." And she has been getting it all done for the past 12 years.

In the back, Haan erected an arbor, installed a large koi statue and spray painted a birdbath and a bridge cobalt blue, to coordinate with the color of her hydrangeas.

Last spring, she built a winding 50-foot stacked stone wall in the backyard "just to give separation between the lawn and the side garden." It took her two days to finish.

"It's the process of doing it that brings us closer to nature," Haan said when asked why she prefers the hands-on approach. "We outsource all our landscaping, so we lose that." And being hands-on also means she gets to ensure her projects turn out just the way she envisions, which is eclectic.

"I want things to convey relaxation," Haan said. "I like a little Japanese vibe by the pond. In the back, the stone wall is a little bit island. I want to incorporate feelings from everywhere because I've always felt like a gypsy."

Now that her projects are completed, Haan is off on a real gypsy adventure: She is selling the house and taking to the road with her boyfriend, Greg Osborne, 56, who owns a tractor-trailer and is a professional motorcycle transporter. Haan plans to take charge of the customer service end of his business while the pair live in the truck and tour the country. What will she miss most about living in her home?

"The garden," she said, her favorite part of which is the circular rose bed, which includes an arbor and a statue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. "It's wonderful for coffee in the morning and a beer at night," she said.

"I'm going to miss having my kids know they have a stable place to come home to with me, but they will still have their dad's to go to" she said. "But without the garden, I'm going to relax for the first time in 35 years."

Hardscaping tips

Follow these tips to produce a successful hardscape:

-- Proper planning cannot be overemphasized when designing a hardscape. Stones, concrete, installed decking and retaining walls don't lend themselves to relocation as most plants do, so it's imperative to get it right the first time.

-- Select two or three materials -- slate, composite decking and iron, for example -- and repeat them throughout the property. Use more than three and you might end up with a jumble; stick to just one and you'll likely become bored.

-- Materials should coordinate with the style and texture of your house. A wraparound, Colonial-style porch might not be the best choice for your glass-front, postmodern house.

-- The hardscape should be planned in conjunction with the landscape, but installed first. A meandering flagstone walkway, for instance, should be built before shrubs and perennials are planted along its curves.

-- Careful consideration should be given to drainage to avoid flooding and runoff. -- Jessica Damiano

An earlier version of this story erroneously referred to Lisa Leonardi's hometown as Northport; she lives in Huntington.

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