Field of Dreams
Wiffle ball, barbecue and weekend gardening are all fine things to do in your yard, but with a little advanced planning, you can fine-tune an outdoor space to truly emphasize the good life. Indulge your inner athlete with an outdoor play space for grown-ups and kids alike; dine alfresco every night of the week with all you need close at hand in a gourmet garden; or create a fresh-air party spot so you can share your lush green space with others.
Wiffle ball, barbecue and weekend gardening are all fine things to do in your yard, but with a little advanced planning, you can fine-tune an outdoor space to truly emphasize the good life. Indulge your inner athlete with an outdoor play space for grown-ups and kids alike; dine alfresco every night of the week with all you need close at hand in a gourmet garden; or create a fresh-air party spot so you can share your lush green space with others. Whatever drives you in life—playing, cooking, having fun—you can do it outdoors once you’ve designed your green space around what you love best.
The Open-Air Athlete
Do you have a beautiful yard, but take to the streets for a jog? Even worse, do you spend gorgeous New England days driving to the gym? Teresa Winstead, principal of Cambridge’s Verve Fitness, has a few tricks in her gym bag. A certified personal trainer, three-time All-American track athlete and martial arts enthusiast, Winstead believes in using your outdoor space for a more enjoyable and well-rounded workout.
“The gym setting is a turn-off for many people,” says Winstead. “It’s artificial.” Exercising outdoors is exactly the opposite, she says: “People feel free when they’re outside. It’s a fun space. It’s a space to relax. It’s not work, and it’s comfortable.”
Winstead trains private clients all over the Boston area and frequently helps them set up workouts in their outdoor spaces. As she sees it, almost any yard can be turned into an exercise space. The ideal, however, would be one that has some variety in its landscape. Flat areas of lawn or patio, terraces or even raised flower beds, and a bit of a hill all together in one yard would mimic a perfect gym. She says the hilly areas of Brookline and Cambridge are ideal.
The one essential that most yards have is a flat, open area, such as a lawn or patio. For beginners in particular, a flat area is ideal for stretching and stationary exercises. It’s also well-suited to using stability balls.
Almost any element that adds visual interest and depth to your garden can be used to add breadth to your workout. Terraces, garden steps and even sturdy raised flower beds can increase your heart rate when used for step-ups. If you have stairs, you can also practice plyometrics, by climbing and descending them to build speed and agility.
Terraces or low stone walls make natural benches for incline pushups, as well. Just brace your arms on the terrace or wall with your feet planted in the grass to work out.
Does your yard tilt up- or downhill? If so, it’s great for interval training, says Winstead. “If you do the same 20-minute run every day,” she says, “your body gets used to it.” Run quickly up hill, then walk down hill, and repeat. “It’s a wonderful way to mix up exercises,” she says.
Best of all, because your yard is part of your home, working out is convenient “It’s a safe, effective way to work out,” says Winstead, “and also helps you stay consistent with your exercise.”
The Fresh-Air Foodie
Chef and cookbook author Didi Emmons admits she’s not much of a gardener. “I’m a voyeur,” confesses the founder of Cambridge’s Veggie Planet, who has recently opened the nonprofit Haley House Café in Dudley Square. She’s also a huge fan of local produce. “I’m a farmers-market junkie,” she says. Even in New England’s short growing season, home gardens can produce a bounty.
“In a perfect world, my garden would have the vegetables that I love and the herbs that I love,” she says, including eggplant, tomatoes, arugula and apples.
Although she must share the real yard behind her Jamaica Plain triple-decker with neighbors, in an ideal world, the urban space would be all hers. She would plant rows of produce that best fit the New England growing season, including cherry tomatoes, potatoes, peas, Asian eggplant and okra, a Southern vegetable that flourishes in the local climate. (She shares one delicious tip for chef-gardeners: If you cut pea plants back before they grow peas, she says, you can eat the tender, sweet tendrils, which Chinese cookbooks call dou miao.)
Emmons admits that vegetation would play a leading role in her perfect garden. “No croquet,” says Emmons, explaining she’d devote open space to growing vegetables and lounging rather than a lawn that requires more extensive up keep, especially during the warm weather months.
She’d keep her deck, however, and add some comfortable lounging furniture where she could survey the flowers and fruit. And smack in the middle of the yard, she’d have a small apple tree, a Cortland, Empire or perhaps a Fuji, a baking apple which makes for good chutneys and whose tree produces plenty of shade on hot days. “And a comfortable chair beneath it,” she says.
Of the vegetables that grow best in the region, she says everything would be growing on clean, organic topsoil with fresh thyme and big friendly sunflowers. “It’s really fun when there are big blooming flowers everywhere where you don’t expect,” she says. By adding a pear tree in one corner, and perhaps some grape vines up the garden wall, Emmons would have her very own Garden of Eden.
The Alfresco Affair
For a fantastic party under the stars, you needn’t look much further than your own backyard. Sure, the ideal of a long sloping lawn that gives way to an ocean view would be a dream come true. That’s what draws so many hosts to rentable spaces like Ipswich’s regal Castle Hill at the Crane Estate, or Glen Magna in Danvers, says party planner Carolyn Perlow, principal of Swampscott’s Eventmakers. But those of us with less glamorous greenswards can still set up our yards for dream parties.
Beyond clear skies, the key to the perfect outdoor party starts with space and light. If you have a beautiful feature to the space, plan around it. If you have a stately, spreading copper beech tree in the middle of your yard, surround it with cocktail tables. A garden in flower? Arrange lit pathways so guests can enjoy the scent as the evening wears on. Use subtly scented flowers when possible, and avoid the stronger-scented ones near food tables. “I love gardenias,” says Perlow. “But the scent is too strong to mix with food.”
Garden tiers or terraces, built of classic hardscaping materials such as brick or bluestone, encourage any party to have a natural progression, with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres served close to the house, and a nice surface for dinner and dancing down below. Bordering the patio, formal gardens -provide guests with paths to stroll. Paths paved in smooth stone or brick are best; crushed-gravel pathways can be hard to navigate in high heels.
Even when a yard lacks exotic features, proper illumination can set a mood. Arrange candles to draw attention to food and flower arrangements or seating areas (hosts should make sure all candles are in stable holders). At an outdoor event in Newbury, Perlow floated candles in the yard’s antique stone fountain, and set up a half-round table full of tapas nearby. Between the tinkling water, floating lights and happy company, the effect was magical.