Destination Backyard

Destination Backyard

Outdoor renovations give new meaning to the phrase “staycation.”

April 13, 2021
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When youth sports were cancelled last summer due to the pandemic, parents across the state scrambled to find recreation solutions for their kids.

In August, attorney Rich Tropiano wasted no time and ordered a kit online to build an ice rink for his son, Nico, 8, an avid ice hockey player. Tropiano picked a flat piece of land within the backyard of his 2.8-acre property in a cul-de-sac neighborhood in Guilford, which he owns with his wife, Lori, and set about laying down boards to create a rink.

“I put in a 25 x 50 rink with lights,” Tropiano says. “It’s a plastic system with a plastic liner that you fill with water and let freeze. Nico was skating four to five days a week – before school, after school, as much as he could.” With lights aglow, music playing, and the firepit going, the rink was a way to have another family over for some socially distant fun.

Tropiano even fashioned a homemade Zamboni out of a weed sprayer filled with hot water to level the ice. When it snowed, he was out there shoveling. “It was my second job,” he says with a laugh.

The rink is one small part of a backyard filled with opportunities for gathering and recreation. The Tropianos built their home a couple of years ago with J.J. Russo, a well-known shoreline developer. The yard was a blank slate and, over time, the couple added landscaping, a pool with a natural stone slide, an outdoor kitchen, patios, and a fireplace visible from the kitchen. The pool turned out to be a haven from the pandemic and they couldn’t be happier they installed it.

Durham-based Torrison Stone & Garden designed, built, and supplied the plants and hardscape materials for the Tropiano property. The couple – one of many who put dollars into their backyard that they might otherwise have spent on vacations and dining out during the pandemic – loved the one-stop-shop aspect of the experience.

Torrison has been slammed with orders since the start of the COVID pandemic and hired a second landscape designer to cope with customers’ demand for a backyard of their dreams. The swimming pool companies that Torrison works with are booking into 2022, says Kelly Eddinger, showroom sales coordinator.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Eddinger says. “We usually have a couple of weeks in the winter when things slow down, but not this year. Everyone is putting money into their landscape.”

Torrison built an outdoor showroom so that visitors could look at firepits, basalt stone fire tables with a natural gas insert, she sheds, and outdoor kitchens in person, and not over Zoom or on a website.

Trends for 2021 include hot tubs (sometimes with an infinity edge that flows into a pool), putting greens with artificial turf, and granite cornhole boards that weigh a ton. Clients are asking for soft materials like travertine and porcelain that don’t get hot in the sun and are soft on your feet. They’ve also installed some chicken coops, including one that is a downright chicken palace, Eddinger says.

The price? Anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to six figures.

“We’re not going anywhere during this pandemic,” Eddinger says. “Now is the time to get that project done. Some clients requested a proposal two years ago but didn’t have the funds. Now they do.”

Eddinger is also seeing the 917 area code pop up on her phone from New Yorkers moving to Connecticut.

“They start out looking to revamp the patio, then they want to actually redo the entire landscape. It snowballs into other projects and they become customers for life. New homeowners are a huge market for us this year and it will be interesting to see where that will lead,” Eddinger says.

While Torrison creates serene landscapes, Best in Backyards supplies all the toys to make that backyard a playground for both kids and adults.

“Initially, when everyone was on lockdown, every single phone call we got was from a mom with a kid screaming in the background,” says Rolf Zimmermann, vice president of sales and marketing for Best in Backyards. “And she’s asking when she could get a swing set. We were blowing through basketball hoops, anything to keep the kids busy. Then, the parents wanted hot tubs, outdoor kitchens, anything they could do in the backyard.”

The need to hunker down at home meant more disposable income for Zimmermann’s customers, who then invested that money in their yards. Online business tripled and in-store business doubled at the store’s three locations in Cheshire, Danbury, and Monroe.

“Business grew tremendously until the supply chain broke down,” Zimmermann says. “The lead times were growing on a daily basis. Normally you’d wait three to four weeks for a delivery, then you were waiting three to four months. Now, if someone orders a hot tub today, they are not getting it until April of 2022. That’s how extreme it’s gotten. It’s happened with almost every industry. Unfortunately, it’s not going back to normal. It’s getting worse.”

Zimmermann recommends deciding what you want to build or install and getting your building permit, which is required for a pool or a patio, from the town. Some towns have a backlog of four to six months for the permitting process.

After you’ve installed that new patio or outdoor bar, your backyard makeover can be enhanced with a sound system, lights, and a video camera – for both security and so that you can keep an eye on the kids while you work from home.

“We are bringing the indoors outdoors,” says James Sweeney, owner of HomeTronics Lifestyles in Durham. “We do TVs, lighting, music, an enhanced WiFi network. We bring everything outdoors for you. Everyone is turning their backyard into a vacation spot.”

Sweeney’s company can provide speakers that look like a planter or the rocks in your landscaping. Architectural lighting will show your backyard off to its full advantage and safely light the way when you run inside for another bag of Doritos.

If you want to watch TV outdoors, it’s very important to have a TV that was made to endure the elements. Sweeney explains that if you put a regular TV outside, not only will it get ruined in the rain, but the warranty will be void. The outdoor TVs Sweeney sells are weatherproof. They’re also durable enough to withstand a basketball hitting them, and each one is specific to shade, part shade, or full sun.

Empty nesters Iris Van Rynbach and Michael McAndrews of Manchester are keeping it classic when redoing their backyard. The garden’s the thing.

This creative couple – she’s a journalist and artist who once did covers for The New Yorker; he’s a longtime Hartford Courant photographer, now freelancing – bought their house with an acre of property at the foot of Case Mountain five years ago. They set about saving the peonies and other perennials they loved from the existing garden and removed what they didn’t – weeds, pachysandra, and about 10,000 lilies of the valley. When the pandemic hit, gardening went into overdrive, helping save their sanity and enabling them to see a few friends on the patio that McAndrews made – socially distanced, of course.

“We didn’t see our kids or grandkids, but we could put on a mask and see a neighbor,” Van Rynbach says. “You’re not traveling or going out to dinner so you can repurpose the money toward the garden. We did this all ourselves.”

The couple went all in, laying down pea stone and bluestone paths. They installed a rose garden, expanded the perennial beds, created circle gardens, and put in two gorgeous patios and several beautiful stone walls, a picket fence, climbing roses, and a lavender and herb garden near the kitchen.

“He digs the holes. It’s a team effort,” Van Rynbach says. “The scent, the colors, the whole experience of being in a garden, it’s good for our souls. Flowers give you a gift. It’s a calming, enriching experience and one of the things I can’t live without.”

They weeded the beds, edged, and mulched with the help of two high school boys who worked with them one day a week. Everyone wore masks and stayed at least six feet apart. Van Rynbach says she mostly stayed home except for a couple of trips to Better Stones and Masonry Supply in East Hartford or Woodland Gardens in Manchester, Garden Sales in Manchester, Scott’s Orchard and Nursery in Glastonbury, and Ballek’s Garden Center in East Haddam, for materials. She bought a fountain at a tag sale for 50 bucks.

“Every morning, I go out to have tea on the patio, smell the roses, and make a note of what has to be done,” she says. “The calmness and beauty of it is a counterweight to the pandemic. I always have a vase of flowers in the house. You don’t have to spend a fortune to have a beautiful garden.”

Alix Boyle is a Connecticut-based writer and a frequent contributor to Seasons.

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