An Overland Park family fulfills their dream of a backyard oasis after given a second chance at life.
Story by Andrea Darr | Photography by Matt Kocourek
Rosehill Gardens Landscape Designer Steven Heichel’s longtime client was about to hit a big birthday. She had also just survived a cancer scare. Both offer pretty darn good reasons to embrace your dreams.
With her health restored, Heichel’s client and her husband decided it was time to fully enjoy the rest of their lives in the backyard they’d always wanted.
“This project was really a celebration of life,” Heichel says.
For 10 years, the couple had envisioned a freeform pool as a central feature of their yard, not only for themselves but for the whole family to enjoy. But, suddenly, their timeline hit the fast-forward button.
They started the process in March 2017 and wanted the big reveal ready for her early June birthday blowout. That gave Heichel three months. One hundred people and a live band were on the line. And as his name was on the invite list, the pressure was on to get it done and make it great.
“We were running around like ants to make it happen,” Heichel says. “But I’ve done work for them for 15 years, I know them personally, and I wanted to challenge myself to do it. I don’t like to get bored in life, a deadline keeps me going.”
The first part of the design process addressed a common issue: “People all of a sudden become aware of their neighbors and don’t really want to go out in a bikini!” he says.
Heichel’s answer was to build a three-to-four-foot berm along the property line and plant large spruces and evergreens — mature ones to provide instant screening from the street and other houses.
The second issue was the intense coordination of digging and grading during construction, plus tearing down and rebuilding an existing stone retaining wall to allow for a more than four-foot-wide walkway. “You have to design for how things are going to feel in the finished space, and you don’t want to feel like you’re going to fall into the pool every time you walk down the stairs,” Heichel says. “Yes, you have to spend ‘x’ amount of money, but if it’s not comfortable, it’s not going to be inviting.”
With its bubbling reef ledge and a built-in bench and slide, Heichel designed the pool along with Blue Haven Pools. Brandon Henderson installed the limestone sitting platform and waterfall that spills into the deep end of the pool.
Where there is water, there must also be fire — a fire pit for gathering around. “These most basic elements bring ambiance to any project,” Heichel says. “You watch the fire dance and hear the water splash and it’s so soothing. We’ve got all these great inventions that speed our lives up, and we need a place that slows it down.”
Heichel also says we need a place that feels away, a vacation from itself. Kansas is part of the Plains, after all, a featureless vista. But not after Heichel had his way with this corner of it. The terrace levels and berms created layers of interest, privatized the property and created cozy niches.
“We’re not in the mountains, we don’t have an ocean, we have to create our own oasis,” Heichel says. “Kansas City has strong, economic viability, and we can travel to these places, as well as have the means to create an everyday place to settle down and relax.”
For this reason, the plantings have a noticeably tropical flair. Heichel brought in palms and elephant ears, potted up for height and maximum viewing. He maintains the theme by replanting every spring. “It’s better to buy new than to dig up and store them. It’s an opportunity for fresh vigor,” he says.
Foundational plantings provide the structure of the landscape plan. The backdrop of evergreens and boxwoods provide winter interest, so there is something going on even in the coldest, darkest months of the year.
“The garden is constantly changing in different areas and moving around,” Heichel says. “There is always something to look forward to.”
Masses of red begonias and white hydrangea make a focused impact all season, while a combination of colorful perennials and annuals make their debuts in their own time throughout the year.
“I love color,” Heichel says. “That’s why we planted so many perennials and annuals, to experience all the beauty.”
This is all in contrast to what is happening on the other side of the house: The front yard landscape is more formal, to suit the neighborhood, whereas Heichel purposefully aimed for a more casual atmosphere in back. “It’s meant to be a personal, peaceful space, where you grab a glass of wine and sit with your significant other,” he explains.
Since the pool’s installation a year ago, the family has done just that. The kids and the grandkids come home, share dinner on the deck and kick back by the fire. All is well.
Heichel matched the passion and love he felt stemming from this project and this family. “That’s what it’s about, that’s what makes me tick,” he says. “When it all pulls together, you don’t remember all the hours you spent working on it. You drink a glass of wine with the people who share the same vision.”