Modern Backyard Landscape Project – Bryn Mawr, PA

Patio Deck And Landscape In Bryn Mawr

People often exasperate themselves trying to figure out what to do with a small backyard space like this one in Bryn Mawr, PA–and we don’t blame them! To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to see a neglected, overgrown or oddly-shaped piece of land for its full potential. But working primarily within the quaint, historic neighborhoods of Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs like we do, designing and building functional landscapes in small backyards quickly becomes second nature. So when this client came to us asking to turn a compact, crowded space behind their home into a Japanese-inspired garden and entertainment space, our resident landscape architect, Gary Westlake, was up to the task.

The clients–both excellent people to work with–initially came to us with three goals: clear out and open up the space; create a serene, Japanese-style garden atmosphere to relax or entertain guests in; and provide some room for the dog to stretch its legs out back. Normally, that would be pretty straightforward, but in this case the size and condition of their backyard made it more challenging than usual.

To start, the space had not been maintained by the previous owners for many years, meaning all the trees and shrubs were left to grow wild and crowd the area completely, leaving only a small path for the clients to use when coming and going. In addition, mature trees along the perimeter shaded most of the back yard, heavily limiting the types of plants and amount of grass area that could be used in our design. These challenges were compounded by the small size and odd shape of the space, and together made our first stab at the design a bit daunting, to say the least!

Here’s what it looked like halfway through: 

Modern Landscape Design Installation Progress

Besides the functional requirements, the space also had to match the “modern” architectural style of the home itself, with its sharply-angled walls, full-size windows and rooflines extending well past the exterior walls. To do this, Gary utilized equally “modern” landscape design elements in his drawing, like juxtaposed wood and stone, neutral colors, straight lines and sharp angles–all of which provide a sleek, uncluttered look that might also be described as minimalist, depending on who you ask.

For the hardscape materials, clean-cut Pennsylvania bluestone and dark blue Mexican beach pebbles were juxtaposed with a raised, wooden “ipe” deck, and a unique, dark mortar was used to point between stones along the house. For those who don’t know, “ipe” is a highly-sustainable, Brazilian hardwood from the–you guessed it–”ipe” tree common to South America. This dark, long-lasting material has become very popular in recent years for its stylish look, durability, eco-friendly production and low-slip texture. It also weathers very well and can be left to gray naturally or periodically oiled to keep the brown hues. So for both its aesthetic and functionality, ipe decking was a no-brainer.

Beyond the hardscape materials, we used WAC lighting and a number of carefully-chosen plant species were utilized to fill out the space. When asked to elaborate on this, Gary said:

“We used a variety of plants for several purposes. First was green giant arborvitae for privacy along the perimeter, dogwoods and Japanese maple for structure and then a bunch of flowering shrubs and perennials. A lot of the plants chosen were Japanese varieties which correlate more with the modern design.”

In addition, he also provided a plant list for the project, so that you can explore the plants in more detail and see if they might work just as well where you live. For reference, we are in Zone 7. Depending on which zone you’re in, that may or may not be the case as well.

Plants Used In This Project:

Thuja ‘Green Giant’
Cornus kousa
Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’
Acer palmatum ‘Sangu Kaku’
Salvia ‘Caradonna’
Nepeta ‘Walkers Low’
Astilbe ‘Visions’
Hydrangea ‘Twist n Shout’
Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’
Hakonechloa ‘All Gold’
Pieris Japonica

Once completed, Gary sent his design to the clients, who were overjoyed by the result and eager to get started. Due to difficulties accessing the area and the limits of the space itself, the install itself was not easy. But our talented workers got it done, and in the end it came out just as planned, fulfilling the clients’ goals and leaving them with a place to relax and entertain guests for years to come.

While this project was indeed unique, challenging and highly-rewarding, the true value of it came from the experience of working with the clients themselves. Their enthusiasm and kindness was infectious and motivating, and it made the process a pleasure from start to finish. Sadly, the homeowner passed soon after the project was completed. We’re eternally grateful for having had the opportunity to meet and work with such a kind man, and will always remember the small amount of time we get to interact with him before his passing. Let’s hope the landscape lives on in his memory for many years to come.


* We were also lucky to work with some outstanding subcontractors on this project, who you should check out! 

Deck Work: Kirschner Custom Builders, LLC

Fencing: Integrous Fencing And Decks


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