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From the Inside Out


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Story By Carolyn Ulrich, Photography By Ron Capek

In a way you could call it a kitchen garden, and why not? Although there’s not a vegetable to be seen, it was designed while Brian Helfrich was sitting on his usual chair in the kitchen, staring into the backyard, thinking.

A construction manager with Aquascape, Inc., Helfrich explains that he treats every garden he does the same way, designing from inside the house looking out. “I lived in that chair by the kitchen window,” he recalls, referring to the period in which he planned the multi-purpose garden that he built for his Downers Grove backyard. And when he wasn’t in the kitchen, he was in the living room, ensconced in another chair, plotting how to configure the space so his family would be able to look out at a beautiful waterfall when they walked into the room every morning. “I laid it out in a straight line from the house,” he says.

Helfrich designs and installs ponds throughout the region, yet in one of life’s cruel twists of fate, he had lived without a pond of his own for eight years. Finally, his wife insisted it was time, and three years ago he set to work. The result was impressive. “Nobody thought I could fit all this stuff in here,” he laughs.

By “stuff” he’s referring to the pond, waterfall, fire pit, play set, pavilion, bridge, seating areas, trees, rocks, grill and a refrigerator that he tucked into a space that is not all that big. Shaped rather like a trapezoid, it extends 110 feet at its widest point but narrows down to 60 and then 30 feet on the other.

Despite the size limitations, he managed to work it so not everything is visible at first glance. While the waterfall, for example, is one of the first things you see as you enter the yard, you don’t realize there’s a much larger pond, including a dozen koi, until you walk around to the back and the other side of the pavilion. “My favorite designs are ones where you can’t see everything at once,” Helfrich explains. “I like to have a sense of discovery, what I call mystery backyards.”

He also points out that, even though he’s a “pond guy,” he didn’t want a pond to be the garden’s focal point, instead assigning that role to the pavilion and designing the pond to wrap around it. “I grew up in Arizona and have fond memories of sitting outside whenever there were monsoons with the rain falling around me.”

The pavilion, bisected by a bridge, introduces additional opportunities for appreciating the design. The garden, shaped more or less like a circle, unfolds slowly as one strolls around the perimeter, but as you cross the bridge, you find yourself in the center of the design and suddenly gain a new perspective on how the various elements are linked. Another version of “from the inside out.”

But the most important design element of all is invisible. “The garden has a rain exchange system in which all the roof water is recycled and stored in a 6,000-gallon underground reservoir,” he explains. “It keeps the pond self-sustaining and allows me to borrow from it to irrigate the landscape when needed. I never have to use city water to top it off.” The reservoir is covered by a gravel pit, which turned out to be a favorite play area for the family’s three small children. “I had originally planned to cover the reservoir with a patio, but seeing how the kids liked to play there made me decide to leave it as is until they get bigger,” he adds. “Now my plan is to put a stone shed there in the future.”

The kids love other parts of the garden as well. They use it for treasure hunts, swim in the pond (which is 3 feet at its deepest) and are not squeamish about holding salamanders or the three frogs (which showed up on their own after the pond went in). They’ve named each of the pond’s 12 koi and are even turning into little bird-watchers. “Oh, there’s a black capped chickadee,” said the 5-year-old one day.

For the adults the garden offers comfortable seating areas in the pavilion and around the fire pit plus a grill for outdoor barbeques. “I didn’t realize I’d use the grill as much as I do. Before I put in the garden, the grill wasn’t really in a good location, but now, with it just outside the back door. I use it four days out of seven, even in the winter. The refrigerator is nice, too, but it mainly holds juice boxes for the kids rather than adult beverages.”

Behind the fire pit area is a tall berm topped with three weeping Alaska cedars, a ‘Louisa’ crabapple and a lacebark pine. All the soil for the berm came from the excavation for the reservoir. In fact, so much soil was excavated that Helfrich couldn’t use it all for the berm, and it took three semi-trailer trucks to haul the extra away!

The other plantings on the berm are small conifers and perennials such as catmint, juniper, ‘Gro-Low’ fragrant sumac and cotoneaster interspersed among the rocks. “The idea was not to have a thousand flowers, but rather something more structural, plants to soften the look of the stone,” says Helfrich. “My favorite ponds are the ones where you can’t tell where the water ends and the land begins.” A mature ‘Annabelle’ hydrangea leaning over the pond is an example of what he means.

While the hydrangea is a holdover from the property’s previous owner, everything else was put there after weeks and months of hard thought. All in a day’s work, acknowledges Helfrich. “The smaller the yard, the more you have to think about it.

How was it built?

“One day I went outside with my chain saw and started tearing down the 10-by-10-foot deck that was here. From then on, I worked on the garden piecemeal. I would come home from work and my goal would be to just set three to five rocks a day. Sometimes I got friends and family to help. Then one day 80 guys I knew from all over the country showed up. These were guys I’d trained at Aquascape, so now it was payback time. I hadn’t planned to work on the pavilion that day, but two of the guys were master carpenters, so they started building it.

“It was chaos.”

For a fun look at the construction process, go to youtube.com and type in Brian Helfrich, or youtube.com/watch?v=SYdLCLVdcMs.

Isn’t it risky to have koi in a pond?

“In a properly built pond you don’t usually have a problem with raccoons and herons eating your koi. A coon can’t swim and eat at the same time, and they have no patience.

Herons, on the other hand, are patient. They’ll stand in shallow water and wait…and wait. But they have to be in shallow water. So for heron and coon prevention, dig the pond straight down 2 feet deep. Only one out of 50 of our customers has a heron problem.”

Does a pond attract mosquitoes?

“Actually our customers often say that they seem tohave fewer mosquitoes after they put in a pond. The water attracts dragonflies, which eat the mosquitoes. And also,if the water is moving, the mosquitoes don’t breed.”

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questions

I recently moved to Chicago from Houston and I miss fresh picked figs. Is there any way to grow figs in Chicago short of installing a greenhouse? Will sunny windows do? I’m desperate.

What are your three favorite “all-but-forgotten” perennials that every garden should include? Why do you like them?

From what I have read, hellebores are supposed to spread. I have a few I planted four years ago, and they seem to be the same as when I planted them. They are planted in a bed of vinca. Should I remove more vinca that surrounds them? I do fertilize them and protect them with a winter mulch. What else should I be doing to have more plants?

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