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An old marble fireplace found at Queen City Architectural Salvage and a 17th-century Italian lion-head fountain that the homeowners affectionately call "Fausto" give the pool and sitting area an Old-World feel. Photo by David Patterson, styling by Elaine St. Louis

The Backyard Oasis of Our Dreams

On a half-acre near downtown Littleton, a couple creates a retreat reminiscent of a quaint European garden.

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In the late 1800s, an enterprising couple bought 720 acres of land on the east side of Littleton and developed it into a subdivision designed for city dwellers who also wanted “country homes.” These entrepreneurs carved out a home for themselves there and planted 75 acres of orchards, plus a nursery of peonies, roses, and grapevines.

It seems only fitting that more than 130 years later, the original farmhouse (remodeled on the inside but still showcasing its 19th-century charm) has a backyard oasis that pays tribute to a bygone era and the patina of time. Owners Ona and Craig Belk, who have lived in the farmhouse for more than 20 years, love to cook and entertain, and several years ago, they turned their attention to the half-acre of land outside their back doors. “We wanted to create a space where we could hang out together with our children and their significant others and our grandchildren,” Ona says. “We call this place ‘the happy house,’ and it was time to extend that love of hospitality to our outdoor area.”

The couple’s friend and architect, David Robb, joined in their conversation about what the yard could become. Their chats began with ideas for expanding the indoor kitchen and dining space to a wraparound porch outside. A small outdoor cooking area would be nice, they agreed, and so would a water element beyond the porch. Then Robb and the Belks visited the War Memorial Rose Garden in Littleton, where a “beautiful little fountain” caught Ona’s imagination, so they dreamed up a pool—“bigger than a pond and smaller than a lap pool,” Robb says—and a small adjacent spa. They’d need a pump house for the pool, and the contractor, Jeff Slough of Eagle Alliances, mentioned that an outdoor fireplace would be an ideal addition to that structure, so Robb added a Rumford fireplace—a tall, shallow design that distributes heat well.

Of course, the counterpoint to all these structures would be plants—lots of them. “I didn’t want a Disneyland backyard with a huge pool and hard materials,” says Ona, who has been an avid gardener for more than a decade. Landscape designer Kaylin Kittle of Ivy Street Design created a whimsical plan to give softness and Old-World charm to the yard. “We wanted it to feel like a European garden that you just discover as you wander through the gate,” Kittle says. To achieve that style, she chose buff flagstone stepping stones spaced “in an organic way” and surrounded by lush green groundcover to give the impression that nature had taken over the harsh surfaces. The flagstones carve out paths among the pool, fireplace, porch, and the large potager garden, where raised beds separated by gravel pathways feel quite French. There, the Belks grow varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, fennel, beets, herbs, and edible flowers such as calendula and pansies.

Beyond the garden, the entire yard is full of delectable plants: The Belks wanted a “useful garden,” Ona says, by which she means a plot of land filled not merely with ornamental vegetation, but with plants that they can use in cooking and in Ona’s homeopathic tinctures and salves. The landscape is dotted with red and black currants, gooseberries, hawthorn, elderberries, and raspberries, and in a side yard, a small orchard of fruit trees—plum, peach, apple, and cherry—offers up a bounty of sweetness.

Three years after its completion, the yard has fulfilled its owners’ dreams for a warm, vibrant area to entertain and garden. “My very favorite thing is to get out there first thing in the morning, with a cup of coffee, to see what’s growing, what’s blooming, and then to decide what I’m going to harvest and make for the day,” Ona says. “And then, after working in the garden all morning, once the day gets really hot, we take a dip in the pool. It’s just…better than I could have ever imagined.”


Fresh From The Garden

Photo courtesy of Ona Belk

This recipe, a favorite at the Belks’ home in the warm months, is best made one day ahead so the flavors can mix well.

Lithuanian Cold Beet Soup (Saltibarščiai)
Serves 8

3 hard-boiled eggs
1 cup scallion greens, finely chopped
2 cucumbers, peeled, quartered, and finely chopped
6 tablespoons whole-milk Greek yogurt
1 quart unsweetened kefir
1 cup water
3 medium red beets, cooked, peeled, and coarsely grated
1 cup beet greens, finely chopped
1 cup sorrel leaves, tightly packed
1 bunch fresh dill (or more to taste), finely chopped
Edible small garden flowers or petals(such as pansies or nasturtiums), optional
Salt to taste

Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Crush egg yolks with scallion greens and salt. Add cucumber, finely chopped egg whites, yogurt, kefir, water, beets, beet greens, sorrel leaves, and dill. Mix well. Refrigerate. Serve in individual bowls and sprinkle with dill and small edible garden flowers or petals.

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