After nearly a decade of editing shelter magazines, Michelle Adams left New York City to create her own version of paradise.
She ended up where she’d started, back home in Michigan—a few miles from her parents and a million miles away from her previous life as editor in chief of Domino magazine and co-founder of Lonny. “Working around the clock for almost a decade granted me the ability to do what I wanted,” says Adams. “Now I sit in my house with the French doors open and think about how much my mortgage is—which is so much less than the rent on my 475-square-foot apartment in New York.”
After buying and remodeling a two-story colonial house in Ann Arbor (and adopting a dog), Adams turned to overhauling the garden. “Spending so much time outside with the puppy, I realized the backyard was full of dead stuff,” she says. “It didn’t look like anybody had ever properly gardened back there. I realized this is space that should be used like a living room or dining room.”
Here’s a look at her new garden:
Photography by Marta Xochilt Perez except where noted.
To camouflage the pediment against the facade, Adams chose Farrow & Ball’s Railings (“and had it color-matched at Home Depot so that it was more affordable”).The driveway’s cement pavers are permeable (“the city would not permit a paved driveway, which was a blessing in disguise since the pavers are much more attractive,” says Adams).
“When I purchased my house, the air conditioner was exposed in the front yard, so initially I bought a plastic covering for it which was ‘cute’ (an adjective that I was not interested in having used to describe my house), so eventually I asked my dad if he could build a simple wooden cover with horizontal lines to mimic the siding on my house,” Adams says. “It worked! He’s pretty proud of it.”
A beige facade put the visual focus on the pediment above the front door. “I had to paint the house black to hide it,” says Adams.
Step one: Adams cleared the underbrush and weeds. “Then I looked at the space like you would look at the floor plan of a house—there was 12 feet over here, 36 feet over there,” she says. “Then I started to plot out seating, a shed, and everything else. “In my wildest dreams I wanted it to look like a mix of Brooklyn and Paris.”
Landscape contractor Burton Packard of KP Landscaping Solutions came up with a site design plan that included gravel patios, paths, a spot for a shed, and plantings that would take advantage of available sunlight.
AfterPackard sodded the backyard and created two patio areas paved in gravel. A clematis vine will eventually cover much of the fence. “The Fermob chairs (a longtime favorite of mine from trips to Paris) were investment pieces, so I wanted them to have a prominent place in my garden,” says Adams.
Adams refers to this area of the garden as the trample zone. “You’ll notice that the edges of the door aren’t perfectly cut, and that’s because we made the mistake of not accounting for the wood inevitably swelling as moisture levels rise and fall,” says Adams. “A tip for anybody installing a doggy door is to be sure you cut the door with enough room for the wood to expand.”“I leave the lights outdoor year-round,” says Adams. “In the dead of winter, it’s nice to have light back there.”
“I also installed a sprinkler system, which is key to keeping plants alive if you’re not naturally a green thumb (which I’m not),” says Adams.
“Three distinct seating areas expanded my living space and also allow for some pretty killer parties,” says Adams, who recently celebrated her 35th birthday with a party in her garden. “At one point the cops showed up since my music was too loud, and they were expecting to bust up a college party. Instead their jaws dropped when they saw my backyard and a bunch of adults. It was pretty funny. I had officers in uniform complimenting my gardening choices.”
“I added the patio and extended the gravel far enough to capture any lingering ashes from the fire pit,” says Adams.
N.B.: See more of our favorite Before & After garden rehabs: