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Designing Private Spaces in the Backyard; a book review 

Shady Retreats, 20 plans for colorful, private spaces in your backyard,  Barbara W. Ellis, Storey Publishing, 

“Let me show you my private get-away”, said the prospective client when she answered the door. Then, she led me into her back yard, overgrown with wild vegetation, and pointed to a clearing in its center, where slabs of antiquated patio stones paved the ground in the middle of the wild garden. There, she had placed an equally old, glass-topped, black, wrought iron table, with matching chairs. “This is where I eat my breakfast in the morning and sip martinis with friends in the late afternoon”, she explained. “I love the sound of the birds chirping and the rustling of the wild foliage when the wind blows”.

At very little cost, this homeowner created for herself a shady garden retreat, a secluded, private, destination. Whenever she visits that part of her property, she leaves behind her usual routine, enters a soothing oasis, and for the brief time that she spends there, readjusts the pace of her life. Here, she is at peace with herself, at one with nature, and ready to engage in any activity, relaxing or exciting, that brings her pleasure.

A shady retreat is in the range of possibility for most homeowners. All that is required is a bit of imagination and the guidance that this versatile publication supplies. With the help of the book’s author Barbara W. Ellis, the architectural plans of Julie Burns, and the exquisite painted garden illustrations of Gary Palmer, any part of one’s exterior home, no matter how small or large, can be transformed to serve as a retreat. Even a small porch or deck, will do.

To help the reader navigate the subject and select a retreat that best suits one’s property and budget, the author presents twenty different plans. Each is elaborated in detail over several pages, starting with an awesome, painted rendition of the retreat at its completion. These illustrations give the book a dual purpose: It is both a versatile garden publication and an art book.

The illustrations for each plan are enriched with architectural drawings, complete with numerical references that indicate where specific plants and garden furnishings should be placed. A recommendation for suitable plants follows, along with ideas to enhance the basic design. For example, in the first plan, the author explains how a small retreat can be transformed  to feel more interesting, deeper, and farther away, by winding a short path out of sight, behind shrubbery and trees.

Among the twenty potential areas around one’s home that the author identifies for the creation of shady retreats are:- woodland edges, the terrace, a gazebo, a deck in the woods, a pool house, arbor, pergola, pavilion, seating area, a clearing in the woods, and a tree perch.

The book rounds out with an appendix listing plants that are appropriate for these projects. Each is described according to its contribution to overall garden design. Where useful, a list of preferred cultivars is included, as well as a short note on the special uses of each plant; some make effective ground cover, while others show at their best when they are grouped in drifts.

Storey Publishing prides itself on supplying the public with practical information that encourages independence, in harmony with the environment. This book is a successful realization of that goal. It has been a great pleasure to take this journey into shady garden retreats with the author.

From Storey Press: Barbara W. Ellis is a freelance writer, editor, and lifelong gardener. She is the author of many gardening books, including The Veggie Gardener’s Answer Book, Deckscaping, Shady Retreats, and Covering Ground. She holds a B.S. in horticulture from the Ohio State University, Columbus, and a B.A. from Kenyon College. She has worked as managing editor at Rodale Press and as publications director for the American Horticultural Society and is affiliated with the Hardy Plant Society Mid-Atlantic Group, the Garden Writers Association, and the Perennial Plant Association. She lives and gardens in Kent County, Maryland, where her organically-managed garden is wildlife-friendly.

This book review also appears at


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Reader Comments (1)

Of course, I love the subject matter of this book. Maybe a shady retreat in my garden would actually get me to sit down in it.

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