Brighten up your back yard

By Stacey L. Evans | Photography by Samantha Shal

Fire has intrigued humans since the dawn of time. So it’s no suprise that fire pits have become must-haves for outdoor retreats.

Fire pits are ideal because they provide several functions.

They provide heat to keep guests warm, making winter outdoor parties possible.
Marshmallow and skewers roasted over the open flame rekindle memories of childhood campfires and teenage bonfires.

The hardscape is also like a piece of art, providing a focal point in the back yard landscape.
And, most importantly, it compels people to gather around it.

“A fire pit creates a social situation because people are surrounding it,” said Todd Guilmette, owner of Unique Environmental Landscapes in Mableton.

Fire pits are especially adept at providing a cozy retreat in a large landscape, which is why it was the perfect option for the back yard of Kennesaw couple Brennen and Marilyn Kelly. Both have large families and host guests often. They also love to entertain friends and family in both small and large gatherings. The Kellys wanted an outdoor living space that would extend beyond their deck, but didn’t want it to overwhelm the back yard.

They purchased the French country-inspired home in 2009, and hired Unique Environmental to gradually add trees and landscaping to fill in the barren land.
“Todd had a vision to make it feel more organic and less contrived,” said Brennen.
Todd created a master plan to add to the landscape in phases.

More than 50 trees were added, along with a variety of plants and flowers.
But it was the fire pit, added in 2013, that gave the space the ‘outdoor living’ feel.
“Todd made it feel intimate,” said Marilyn. “He is such an artist.”

The fire pit added character to the 1.3 acres of open space. Fluidity in both landscapes and hardscapes is important for the space to be aesthetically pleasing, said Todd.
In the Kellys’ home, a path leading from the deck to the patio creates the feeling of one connected space.

Adding or shaping landscape is essential when building a fire pit or other type of hardscape, said Todd. Though the fire pit is the focal point, it wouldn’t be as aesthetically appealing without the foliage surrounding it.

“Landscaping softens hardscapes,” said Todd. “[Hardscapes] can be stark when you are finished. A lot of people will say ‘it’s bigger than I thought or kind of ‘loud’’’ … plants make it flow. In a good landscape, everything flows together and ties in.”

Unique planted Gold Mop Cypress to frame the fire pit, and added colorful landscaping flowing up the hill by the deck.

The Kellys’ fire pit area transitions well from small to large gatherings. The patio has enough space to put the grill and a table, and the half-circle wall provides plenty of extra seating.

Backyard barbecue parties are frequent. Brennen loves to grill, and makes phenomenal chicken, steaks and roasted vegetables, said Marilyn. Also typically on the menu is a caprese salad with fresh mozzarella, basil and tomatoes.

When it’s just the two of them, or a small group, they will relax in the oversized Adirondack chairs, mesmerized by the flames while they enjoy a glass of wine. Even when a fire isn’t burning, the bluestone hardscape provides an inviting area to unwind.

Mornings are a special treat for overnight guests. The couple will typically get up early to purchase a bunch of egg and cheese biscuits from nearby Stilesboro Biscuits or Kennesaw Mountain Biscuits and set them outside with coffee for guests to enjoy as the morning sun filters in through the trees.

Marilyn even uses the nicely-shaded space as an outdoor office when she’s working from home.

The fire pit has also made them unintentional s’mores aficionados. Friends often gift them s’more kits, and so they spend many evenings trying different combinations and techniques of s’more making.

“It’s the perpetual search for the perfect s’more,” said Brennen.

Fire pit not your style? Here are other options Todd recommends for creating an outdoor living space:

Water features: “Waterfalls don’t take up a lot of space but create a lot of sound and creates a relaxing atmosphere in the back yard,” said Todd. Ceramic pots that spout water are trending, he said, as are pondless water features.

Night lighting: Illuminating a hardscape, such as sitting walls, or highlighting parts of a landscape is a great accent for the yard. “It gives depth to the yard even in winter months,” said Todd.

A tip from Todd:
Before redesigning your back yard, get a plan from the designer and stand in the back yard to visualize it. Take time to think about what you really want and how you plan to use the space. Think about your lifestyle and what will work best for you.

“Allowing the client to have time is important,” said Todd. “Don’t be in a hurry. That’s when mistakes happen.”

For more information, 404-691-9310 or

HOME SHOW SEPT. 11 to 13 at Cobb Galleria Centre

Get more tips and see other options at the Fall Atlanta Home Show and Outdoor Living Expo Sept. 11 to 13 at the Cobb Galleria Centre. Unique Environmental will have a large landscaped garden display with a water feature, pavers and a fire pit.

In addition, hundreds of exhibitors will showcase the latest home products and services for both indoor and outdoor living, and experts will speak throughout the three-day event to explain how to remodel, repair and refresh homes and landscapes. Vendors will display and educate about the latest products and services for kitchens, baths, porches, decks, pools, outdoor kitchens, landscaping, heating and air conditioning, insulation, fireplaces and more. HGTV star John Gidding will be the featured speaker.

More information: 770-798-1997
General Admission tickets are $10 and may be purchased at the Show’s entrance and online at Children age 12 and under and adults age 65 and older (with I.D.) are admitted free. Members of Atlanta’s housing industry (Realtors, contractors, interior designers, landscapers, etc.) will be admitted for free (with business card at the show entrance) on Friday, Sept. 11. On-site parking is free. The Cobb Galleria Centre is located at Two Galleria Pkwy., Atlanta, Ga., 30339.

We are giving away a pair of free tickets to the Home Show. Find us on Facebook for details on how to win!

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