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How To Design and Build a Grillscape Garden Room for Seasonal Entertaining; Plus Overcoming a Crucible with Fortitude

It came together rather quickly once the new grill “ignited” the obvious need for a better BBQ experience.

But truth be told, I had been turning over design concepts for a new garden room for some time. I kept the kind of “back of envelope”/notepad sketch I did some years ago while sitting on the beach during our annual holiday to Aruba.

With few exceptions, the main design remained true to the original.

I wanted easy egress from the speakeasy/bar area in the house – out to the garden room.
So there would be a 4 x 12 foot walkway to the room.
Because the backyard has a more pronounced grade up on the right side and the farmette is on the left side – I could center the room ever so deftly on flatter ground without too much grading…

The main design concession was dropping the idea for the custom cement table with the built-in water rill (for floating candles, wine, flowers) into a water feature. My budget could not accommodate.

Our existing – and was later had pointed out to me – vintage, wrought iron and glass table would do quite nicely. (This vintage element comes into play later in the story…)

Updated garden design sketch overview & material metrics

For my husband Bill’s birthday, I got him the top-of-the-line Genesis grill (Kalamazoo notwithstanding) from our local hardware store, Jaspan’s. They assembled it, brought it to the house and took the old one away! Shop local. There’s no substitute.

With the gleaming new grill it became all the more apparent that the lame, sorry excuse for a BBQ area had to get a makeover.

I dusted off the garden design plans and began in earnest to secure the elements/components necessary to turn this blah, somewhat gnarly space into a chic, sophisticated garden room that we’d be happy and proud to entertain our beloved guests in.

Oh, and I have to add that the design makeover needed to be complete by July 4th because we host an annual Independence Day soireée to celebrate Mother’s birthday (July 3rd), and the town where our country house is sets off spectacular fireworks in the marina below us so we celebrate all the special occasions. This year, the fireworks were scheduled for Friday, July 5th.

I am also blessed to have world-class garden design clients and they also needed their gardens ready and beautiful for the same event — so lots on the “to-do” lists. It’s always a “silly season” race to the 4th. I plan. I do spreadsheets. I train for this! Ha.

Grillscape Garden Design

The first thing to go was the slate from what was laid (plopped?!) there after the terrace above was redone years ago and relocated here.

It’s lovely slate but the weedy grass was growing up through it and so even when mowed it felt kinda “itchy” sitting on top of. To me, anyway.

In the center of the above circle – under the chair – was the bird bath fountain.

Nice to watch our feathery friends bathing – and for parties I floated candles and flowers; however it was a weed incubator under it – a thankless job to keep it clean and really – it was just a disconnect to the space.

Next I had to measure out the space to accommodate the table and chairs, grill, and soon-to-be- accessories.

I wanted to get a cooler that was good looking, naturally, and easily accessible.

Previously, Bill would fill the low, plastic (!) cooler and then walk to the cooler in the shade and bend over for every suite of burgers and dogs, and run in and out for more ice… Time and effort wasted.

I wanted a storage area for the rolls and cutlery and more. So when my friend and client Angie asked if I needed anything while she was out shopping, I asked, “If you see one of those six-square storage cases – please pick it up.” She’s an angel – and did. I had already ordered the collapsable bins.

I knew I wanted custom couches so that I could get the expansive seating – and angled the way I wanted it in order to take advantage of the spectacular view we have overlooking Sandy Hook Bay and the New York skyline beyond.

We already had the red, solar-powered lighted umbrella from last year. And when we contemplated what color to paint the soon-to-be seating, Bill suggested red. I LOVED that assertive, heart-throbbing color for the finished look.

I was already committed to a red, white, and blue plant color palette.

And because the Grillscape Garden Room is primarily for Independence Day Birthday celebration through Labor Day: a red, white & blue — and black color scheme as part of the exterior design worked.

To soften the overall look and to add a level of sophistication, I selected a soft graphite for the rug near the speakeasy door entrance to the Grillscape Garden and for the seating custom cushions – and accent pillows and cocktail tables.

I shopped extensively for the flooring. I needed to find a beautiful yet rugged material that would not only stand up to the foot traffic (and nighttime animals — we host fox, the occasional groundhog) but also the seasonal weather elements.

I found these rather Moroccan~Moorish looking interlocking tiles at Wayfair (I’m part of the Trade program) and ordered them in Shadow Grey (soft white). They are very glamorous yet easy to take care of. And except where we needed cut to fit my trapezoid edges of the Grillscape Garden room design – most all of the tiles were laid down in about 30 minutes.

In order to determine the quantity of the construction materials: ¾ inch stones, Stone Dust or Decomposed Granite (DG), and soil, I had to do the arithmetic. We needed to remove the weeds – er grass/turf – and dig out approximately 7-8 inches and grade away; soil – 1-2 inches; 3-4 inches of stone and about 2 inches of stone dust or DG, topped by the flooring at ½ inch.

Darin – who is not only a Master Gardener but is someone who can make and build just about anything me or our Duchess Designs clients want – installed the metal borders around the new space and then we layered in the materials.

He tamped down the DG all around prior to putting the flooring down. Darin did the walk and Bill and I did the main room – in our dinner clothes – as we were meeting family for a birthday dinner at a restaurant (yeah for Lobster Rolls!) with Bonnie and Gerry.

And I wanted to get the flooring down before night fell. The adorable baby foxes had been using the new space as their private sandbox. They are too cute; however I didn’t want then to corrupt the tamping that was done!

Can you see the frolicking foxes?? 

Just look how cute they are — you can’t help but love them! They just don’t always respect the design work. (Smile)

To make the seating, I explored more than a few DIY sites to locate one that would be a good base or template for Darin to work from. He got the materials from a local lumber store – pressure treated wood and screws, nails.

He set up the saw table nearby on the lawn.

Darin can readily improvise too. For example, he made the seating more as it appeared in the DIY but when I saw them – I found them too big. So in a kind of Goldilocks process – we modified the design in order that the furniture would angle ever so slightly for expansive seating and to allow for better bay viewing.

Too big.


Just right. 
Once all the materials were laid in and the seating was complete, next up was to cut out the garden beds for the border plants. 
The added issue here – that I’m all too aware of – is the hostile environment presented by the mountain there – just beyond – that elevates us from the marina and the water but that is riddled with invasive plant material.
As if that’s not bad enough, neighbors don’t police the ever-encroaching wicked plant stew, including, kudzu, English ivy, Ampelopsis glandulosa/Porcelain Vine, Buckthorn /Rhamnus cathartica, Chokecherry/Prunus virginana, Aralia elata/Japanese angelica tree, Berberis thunbergii/Japanese barberry, Celastrus orbiculatus/Asian bittersweet, Sumac, Chinese honeysuckle (we took out our honeysuckle a few years’ ago, replacing it with a long border of boxwood-looking Ilex ‘Compacta’. I did a Garden Glamour posting on that hellish redesign – learn here).

This year, I was worried about what could creep in from the “lawn.”

In order to help the new, ornamental plants as much as possible, we lined the new beds with fabric, put in new good/manured soil, and fronted each new bed with Mexican Grey “Pebbles”/Stones that I found at Rysers, my local landscape supply yard here, with the help of a patient staffer. Nothing was hitting me until he said, “I have one last stone you may like. A little expensive but…”

They are perfect. Heavy to move but good-looking – their grey, organically-looking pebbles complement the graphite and black of the garden room look. In addition, this pebble border will further distance the beds from the “lawn.”

Garden Beds

I kept the Patriotic-themed Red, White and Blue plant palette simple:

  • Boxwood for structure base and winter interest; 
  • White is Achillea ‘The Pearl,’ 
  • Blue is ‘Tiny Tuff Stuff’ hydrangea and dwarf purple Salvia ‘Merleau Blue,’ (Sadly, the nursery had no more delphinium) 
  • Red is Echinacea – a fragrant one! ‘Hot Papaya’ — I love their shape too. 
  • And two rosemary for the front bed ends — to use for grilling! 

I very much wanted black mondo grass and couldn’t source it locally. With some trepidation, to be honest, I found a source online — at Etsy: Daylily Nursery Well, I was more than delighted! The plant plugs arrived so clean – pristine, in fact. And so very healthy. I highly recommend Daylily Nursery – not only are the plants perfect but they are also a dream to work with. So very nice and accommodating. Thank you Merrill.

I usually source all my plants from our local nurseries in the Garden State, Brooklyn, or Long Island and the Bronx for my in-town clients but these more exotic plants couldn’t be had locally. Moreover, I wasn’t at the house for a few days so asked Mother to open the boxed delivery and water till I returned. She’s the best admin you could hope for. The black mondo grass all looked beautiful days later when it was time to plant.

I love the look of black mondo grass. Like that little black dress.
Years ago, I used these plants in a design for my client’s front border walk and they have done so well. Beautiful. I’m so glad I did it then.
For the Grillscape, I tucked the mondo grass in the beds on either side of the walk. Perfect.

Time to Paint the Custom Seating
I took a photo of the red umbrella to match up a paint for the seats. Reds are tricky. And there are so many shades, hues – a little one way or the other and the look can seize up. I chose Benjamin Moore’s Rose Parade – a bit like a happy geranium but decidedly red.

We knew we had to wait for the pressure treated wood to rest for a good while. But I also knew they use less chemicals than they used to. We washed it. It rained. A lot. But we got in a number of dry days, thankfully. With the calendar tapping us on the shoulder, we tested – sprinkling droplets of water onto the wood. The water droplets were absorbed confirming the wood was ready to be painted.

Bill first primed the two pieces of furniture.

Bill had purchased a spray painter – both he and Darin noted this would make the painting go faster than a brush.

Next was the spray painting.

The Grillscape Garden Room was coming together.


Oh – and I got a great deal on new black cushions from Pier 1 so table setting would be more coordinated.

My fabulous cushion and pillow seamstress, Donna, made these perfect, custom seats. She recommended a source for the graphite-colored high performance material, and cushions. She’s so smart. She came to the house and using my drawing tissue paper, made a quick pattern guide.

The final cushions were created with zippers in back and velcro on both edges of the sides of triangulated cushions — therefore – as Donna explained, we won’t have be “rubik’s cubing” the cushions trying to figure out which side and end goes where. Brilliant!

Further, Bill spruced up the chairs with a coat of spray paint and his artful spray of just a scinch of color on the chair’s floral designs – this time in rose. Just a hint.

I also saw these adorable cocktail cooler tables in House Beautiful magazine and had to have them.
The Keter Cool Bar can be adjusted to two heights. The top locks into place. At the high end it can hold 80 pounds. When closed it holds up to 300 pounds. When raised, it’s like having a resort high top table – with ice and beer and wine (or soda) – in the belly of the barrel. So guests don’t have to juggle their drink and their plate. I resisted ordering a red color and went with a classic grey. But that cherry red is happy cute. Too much red would be much too hot — needlessly stimulating guests in the Grillscape Garden.

I love these table coolers! What a great design concept. You’ll see them later in the garden room’s completion below.

I got solar powered lights to sparkle up the garden room – and for safety too.
So glamorous. 

Here, you can see a bit of the new grey rug I purchased from Houzz (I’m part of their trade program. And I love my account manager, Cassie. I am trying to update my profile and include my tablescapes there — puff, puff. I’ll get there. But in the meantime, you can follow me there – or here. Smile) 

Everything was going according to a slightly deviated schedule. (Ha. Longer story.)
Until it wasn’t…

For all intents and purposes, the Grillscape Garden Room was complete.
The other garden rooms were now being groomed.

All the entertainment elements were already delivered (new blue melamine plates, the new blue denim napkins we made last autumn with the help of Mother and Angie’s pinking shears, new glasses, compostable cutlery.)
The menu food and dessert and hostess drink recipes were waiting their turn in the party spreadsheet.

The arborists were scheduled to cut the invasives from the hill/mountainside. I just had to pay for the permit that morning – July 2nd. Two days till party time. All according to plan.

My favorite aunt – Aunt Margaret – was up from Florida that morning. She and Mother stopped by while I was working in the Physic/Herb Garden. They gave two thumbs up to the new Grillscape Garden.

But all was not to last.

Here was the last photo I took while prepping that morning before disaster struck.

When Nature Gives You a Poke in the Eye
I was moving the slate pieces that had been the “floor” under the table in the old space to the arbor.

Out of nowhere – and I mean that fervently. Suddenly, big, fat raindrops were pounding down. No warning. Just like someone (mmmm, angry Mother Nature?).

She turned on a spigot.

Hard, Heavy. Pelting rain. And the wind! Take that, earth! – she punched back…

I had to race/run up to the loft office because my Mac is there and uncharacteristically, I had opened all the windows fronting the desk! In spite of being in my now mud-stained garden clothes, I bounded up the spiral staircase. Cranked closed (why did it seem to take forever?!) first one, then the second and third big one, then the last one.

What next? Oh gosh. I had also left the French doors in the bedroom open that morning onto the Juliette balcony while doing my Spanish lesson and emails. I almost “fire-maned” my way back down the spiral staircase and proceeded to kinda’ grand jeté up to the bedroom. I had to fight the wind and rain to close the doors. Was I in a remake of the “Perfect Storm?!”

I heard a crrracckk! Was it a masthead? I couldn’t see what it was exactly because of the driving rain. With a sinking heart I knew it came from the new Grillscape Garden.

I raced back down, grabbing my rain slicker on the way.

When I arrived in the Grillscape I honestly didn’t know what I was looking at. While there had been times when the sun umbrella pulled a Mary Poppins and popped out of the table to land on the lawn, in this case something else was awry. Wiping wind and rain – it became nauseatingly apparent that the umbrella had lifted the entire glass table — and in a bad Mary Poppins way – transported the table about 10 or 12 feet east to the other side of the Grillscape Garden room. Shattering the glass!

It was still a driving rain. I tried to pick up the broken pieces. Like a bad cartoon or animated action film where things curiously melt away, the tempered glass crumbled into scads of pieces before I could get any of that handful.

I got a bag for what would now be teeny pieces. My hands were bleeding. In the rain. On my new white/grey mist Bergo flooring.

Couldn’t use gloves as they weren’t flexible enough for this strangely morphing tempered glass.
As I writer, I was already thinking how will I describe and relate this story…

Tempered Glass looks like ice 
Tempered Glass splayed on new garden room floor 

And then, just like that. The wind subsided. The rain stopped. I wanted to blink back the 15 minutes of damage and destruction. Was it a bad dream? No. It was all too real.

Mother Nature is understandably mad about how she’s been treated lately… But please, don’t take it out on me! I’m one of your most steadfast advocates…

But this was my crucible now – my test.
I would not let this “disaster” stop the garden room completion nor allow it to mar the party.
I recognize there are bigger world issues. It’s just that I live in this world… This bubble…

New plan. I needed to get the umbrella and glass table replaced.

I took measurements.

I started calling and texting and searching the internet. The few options were winnowing for a two-day turnaround with Independence Day obscuring most commerce for what was a looonng weekend coming up.

I thought back to earlier in the day when Donna, the seamstress, had asked to see a photo of the cushions in situ – and besides noting how good it all looked – she remarked about the vintage wrought iron dining set that was similar to hers. At the time, I gulped, writing back, “Vintage? I didn’t think that much time had passed.” Ha.
At this juncture, I wrote back to Donna, describing the crazy tragedy, asking if she knew the name of the maker. She did. They still haven’t written back even though they are still makers..
Donna was such a comfort – she found a smaller table at Home Depot that could work.

It did.

My joke for the party was, “Honey, I shrunk the table!” But it worked fine. Thank you, Donna.
The other joke is that Bill vacuumed the lawn after my glass pick up and had the entire table of glass pieces in a small bucket so he could show guests, “This was our table!”
At the same time, I got our local glass and mirror makers to do the custom replacement.
Should be ready in a few weeks.

In the meantime, we turned the original vintage table upside down and it became a big holder for the metal wash bucket and a beautiful hydrangea.

Bill gerry-rigged the umbrella so while it was a wee bit bent – it worked for the party. I ordered a new one (still disputing their lack of a 2-day delivery but that’s another story).

It was all a very bad Lemony Snickets’ series of unfortunate events if there ever was one.

This was the next day!

We enjoyed a pre-birthday celebration with Mother – and Marissa – who shares the same birthday. And my sister Linda from North Carolina now – and Aunt Margaret and Riley from DC. There’s Bill at his new grill. Happy man.
Almost as good as new…

Marissa, you left your “M” – it’s waiting for your return!
I painted a G for Mother in blue (the G for Ginny was prettier than the V for Virginia).

The night of the Fireworks Independence Day Birthday Party, we were back in the good “bubble”:

Glow balls ~ two sizes – from Ballard Designs. Inspiration from a favorite restaurant in Aruba

The magic prevails…

Celebrate the season, family, gardens, glamour, fireworks, and yes, Mother Nature.

And overcoming obstacles. Garden design and gardening is nothing less than a series of challenges – it’s an art that cannot be controlled. We garden and landscape designers and horticulturists learn patience. Fortitude is our badge of honor.

Cheers to you. And good garden design. Plants make people happy.

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"Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art."
Ralph Waldo Emerson

 I adore plants. Plants are my muse ~ they are my paramour… I’m a garden artist; a nature lover, & horticulturist. I’m an author & writer. My passion for culture & beauty, along with my trait curiosity, brings you an authentic celebration of life. I’m a storyteller ~ weaving the artful gifts of horticulture, garden design, tablescape decor, floral design, cocktail culture, garden-to-glass recipes & their glamorous garnishes, homegrown edibles, food & drink; & cooking, to bring you my flair & what I’ve been told is an avid elan ~ as well as the stories from those who inspire me ~ to pursue an elegant, enduring, & joyful, entertaining lifestyle. It’s an honor & a privilege to do what you love.

Join me to celebrate a romantic, garden-infused, entertaining lifestyle filled with artful design, sparkling dinner parties, peerless martinis, and copious magnums of champagne!





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