In a quiet Saratoga Springs neighborhood, a radical transformation is taking place. Artist and educator Julianne Thompson Lewis, with the help of her sons Saunders, 9 and Eli, 13, is combining her artistic abilities with her love of the natural environment to take her property from a tired, overgrown space to a whimsical, inviting, playful landscape that reflects her family.
When Lewis purchased her home in January, she couldn’t really get a good look at the yard. As the snow melted and the green returned, she found a space with severely overgrown shrubbery, including some invasive species, as well as a couple of unhealthy trees that needed to come down. “It was like the house was being swallowed,” she said.
Lewis had a clear, overarching principle that shaped the direction of her property’s transformation. “I wanted my outdoor space to be really eco-friendly,” she said.
With that in mind, she engaged the services of Jesse Peters of the Saratoga-based company Jessecology Eco-Friendly Landscaping and Design. (Photo by Marc/ Schultz/Gazette Photographer: Butterfly garden is seen in the front of the home.)
In a collaborative effort, Peters and Lewis came up with the idea of planting a butterfly garden in the front of the house. “I wanted to be able to offer space for bees and butterflies to do the important work that they do pollinating,” Lewis said.
She also requested that as much as possible, Peters use as many native species that also had herbal properties, such as bee balm and echinacea, giving the garden multiple purposes—aesthetic, environmental and wellness-related.
It was also important to Lewis to go native as much as possible when choosing plants for the yard and use those plants to replace some of the shrubbery that had taken over. Some of the plants that she had removed, such as Japanese barberry and burning bush, are currently banned from being sold in New York state because they are invasive species.
Lewis hired an arborist to fell the two unhealthy trees in the backyard. Instead of having the pieces hauled away, she asked him to cut the trunks up into tree stumps and “cookies,” which are 2-inch thick pieces of tree trunk.
Photo by Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer: Saunders Lewis walks a path that was made from stone and wooden log disks.
She saw potential in the felled trees and intended to repurpose them to create her outdoor living space. “The philosophy for me was to reuse as much of the natural — what already existed on the property — rather than to take things out and put things in that didn’t have a natural place there,” Lewis said.
In an effort to reuse materials and make the project as earth- and budget-friendly as possible, Lewis looked around the property for what was already there. There was some extra stone leftover from the work Peters had done, so she incorporated that into the design, making a pathway in the backyard as well as to the neighbor’s backyard, for the ease of kids playing together. She used the cookies as stepping stones on these paths.
Another “found” item was a pile of bricks, which Lewis repurposed when she and her sons built a fire pit.
She enlisted the help of her older son to move elements around to create the space. Lewis admits that it started off as a chore for him, but then became something that the two of them really enjoyed designing and collaborating on together. “It was this funny little blessing in disguise,” she said.
Photo by Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer: Saunders Lewis shows off the log seats in the new fire pit area that he helped build. The seats were made from a tree that was cut down in the backyard.
Lewis and her two boys worked together on the fire pit. They dug down about 18 inches, used the found bricks to line the hole, and then covered it with river pebbles. Lewis purchased a fire pit ring at Home Depot to finish it.
Originally, the tree stumps were just going to be the seating around the fire pit. But when Lewis came across a can of spray paint, her younger son got other ideas. He thought it would be fun to do some “graffiti,” and he came up with the idea of painting the tree stumps. At that point, the backyard improvement became an artistic experiment. “He did most of the sanding and painting, and it was novel to him to paint a tree,” she said. Five tree stumps sit around the fire pit, all brightly decorated with rainbow, concentric circle, stripe and polka dot patterns. Lewis also noted how easy the project was, thus making it a family-friendly one.
The “cookies” inspired spontaneous play. Lewis noticed that as soon as they put them down, the kids began playing a little hopscotch game. “They started to naturally play games that they made up on their own,” she said.
The fire pit, with its 1960s pop art-themed seating, drew her son and his friends around it, even with no fire going. Lewis liked that they had been drawn to the space to sit and chat with each other.
In addition to being a kid-friendly space, Lewis designed a space for adults as well. On the patio, she has used a mix of new and antique furniture to reflect her own interior design preference of a midcentury modern aesthetic style.
Lewis said that the whole project cost her under $100 to do, making it easy on the budget as well as being a simple overall project to complete.
This particular project is only “Stage 1,” Lewis said. When she was clearing out some of the backyard, she came across a small stone pagoda that could serve as decoration for a contemplative place at the rear of the yard, along with a water feature for sound. Next summer, she plans to add raised beds for a vegetable garden, and in time, she wants to add more wildflower gardens.
“It was a really nice family project for us to create a space that was kind of fun and whimsical, adding a little more interest in the backyard,” Lewis said. “The practice of creating my space is part of the creative, the spiritual, it’s like me putting myself into that space with my kids and making it what’s ours.”
Lewis serves as Community Coordinator for the Saratoga studio of C.R.E.A.T.E. Community Studios, a not-for-profit with the mission of bringing expressive art to underserved populations in the Capital Region in an effort to promote personal growth and community connection. For more information on this event that supports the organization’s activities, visit www.createcommunitystudios.org.
TIPS AND TRICKS
Lewis has the following tips for those who want to try this project at home:
The tree pieces to be painted need to be as dry as possible. “There was a lot of moisture repelling the paint we were trying to adhere,” she said. Two inches is an ideal size for tree “cookies.”
Lewis recommends sanding the pieces down, especially those that are going to be used for seating.
For a good overall coating, she and her son used spray paint. They used an acrylic paint and brushes to paint the detailed designs.
For a bit of whimsy at night, use glow in the dark paint.
Other uses for cookies could be backyard games such as tic tac toe.