With the help of Kennett Square-based landscape designer Danilo Maffei, this modest one-acre plot evolves into a picturesque outdoor retreat that combines natural beauty with clean-cut designs.
Picture Lake Tahoe, with its shimmering water, lush flora and expansive vistas. Imagine a serene resort, where the indoors and outdoors flow seamlessly as the seasons unfold. Intent on creating a sanctuary at home, a Malvern family took inspiration from their travels to transform a modest one-acre lot into their piece of the scenic American West.
To bring that Sierra Nevada Mountain vibe to the Main Line, the owners turned to Kennett Square-based landscape designer Danilo Maffei. “The owners love going to Lake Tahoe and appreciate the rustic elegance of the accommodations there,” says Maffei.
The project was part of an extensive makeover of the property, which includes the 25-year-old farmhouse-style residence. Simultaneously taking on the home’s interior and exterior enhanced opportunities to emphasize the connection between the house and its surroundings. It also allowed the owners to take advantage of economies of scale and keep the budget in line. “The renovation of the house reorganized some of the interior spaces, which included adding doors and windows into the outdoors,” Maffei says. “That changed the way people circulate through the house and garden.”
Except for an existing pool, the property was a blank canvas outside. While the pool and spa were in good condition, the surrounding decking and mechanical systems were showing their age. The pump, filter and heater were replaced and relocated to keep them out of sight and reduce the noise level.
The pool became the centerpiece for a new gathering area, grounded by bluestone decking. In true resort style, a line of chaise lounges is shaded by umbrellas. A seating area with four cozy oversized chairs—essentially, an alfresco living room—is warmed by a large, woodburning fireplace with a raised hearth. Sliced into two-inch veneer slabs, the natural stone mirrors the fieldstone on the house. Architectural niches on either side hold wood. “We suggested creating a fireplace that would be a focal point and interesting even if there was no fire burning in the box,” the designer says. “The hearth is elevated to make the box more visible from a distance. The hearth also provides a space where people can sit up close to the fire, if they wish.”
The fireplace, along with a firepit in a second seating area, extends the seasons, allowing the family to entertain outdoors well into fall—and they can enjoy the garden earlier in spring. “Outdoor fire features have been around for a long time, but they’ve really taken off since the COVID-19 pandemic has made people value spending time outdoors even more,” Maffei says.
Circled by Adirondack chairs, the firepit is the focal point of a more casual patio of Pocono stone—a great solution for camouflaging the lids of the septic system, which needs to be accessed from time to time. “We had to use something that could be removed and replaced easily and with low cost,” says Maffei. “Gravel also makes a soothing, crunchy sound when walked on, so that creates another dimension to the garden.”
Beds of catmint, yarrow, Hubricht’s bluestar and goldenrod border the patio, conveying the relaxed vibe of a mountain meadow. “The plants need to be tough to handle the occasional Frisbee and still be attractive all year long,” the designer says.
Throughout the property, plantings welcome winged visitors. To attract birds, there’s a birdbath. Birds also flock to the winterberry holly and eastern red cedar on the property. Bees and butterflies are partial to the coneflower, milkweed, asters and other summer-blooming perennials. “Native plants are generally best, since wildlife do not recognize exotic or introduced plants as being edible or otherwise valuable,” says Maffei. “We created a plant palette that offers a wide range of seasonal interest and is indigenous to the conditions.”
The PowWow White coneflower thrives in the dry, sunny areas around the pool, as do the feather reed grass, Walker’s Low catmint and Blue Hill wood sage. In moist, shady areas, Maffei’s team planted autumn fern, glaucous sedge and tufted hairgrass.
In the outdoor kitchen and spacious dining area, a pergola helps to bridge the transition from house to garden. Equipped with a built-in gas grill, granite countertops and a fridge, the space is a favorite spot for summer dinners. “It’s built from composite non-wood material that will last indefinitely and not require painting,” Maffei says. “We also envisioned hanging weather-resistant curtains from the pergola to protect against the sun.”
An artfully conceived landscape lighting plan provides illumination for family members and guests as they circulate throughout the outdoor spaces. To minimize glare, durable bronze path lights are knee height or lower. Small spotlights illuminate the fireplace for a touch of drama. “We chose lighting for safety and wayfinding first, and ambience second,” the designer says.
Above all, the landscape reflects the interests and personalities of the people who live there. In keeping with the owner’s affection for cooking, an herb garden supplies the kitchens. There are niches for quiet conversation and plenty of room to cook and serve guests. “The whole family are Penn State University alums, so we had to find a place for their Nittany Lion statue—and lots of blue and white,” says Maffei. “It’s their very own vacation retreat.”