A pool deck becomes a relaxing retreat when enhanced with decorative hardscaping, plants and seating areas. (Arvidson Pools & Spas photo)

Make a Splash Around Your Poolside

Whether you call it a cement pond or a backyard retreat, your pooldeck should be a relaxing place for your family. Discover some easy ways to create a pleasant landscape.

A pool deck becomes a relaxing retreat when enhanced with decorative hardscaping, plants and seating areas. (Arvidson Pools & Spas photo)
A pool deck becomes a relaxing retreat when enhanced with decorative hardscaping, plants and seating areas. (Arvidson Pools & Spas photo)


It’s finally time to put away those heavy coats and focus on the beauty and warmth of the upcoming season. Homeowners with a backyard pool have even more incentive to get outside, and are spending extra time and money to create a tropical backyard escape.

“A beautifully landscaped yard is a relaxing environment and makes it easier to enjoy your pool,” says Gwen Van Steen, manager/buyer at the Gardens of Woodstock, 5211 Swanson Road, Woodstock. “It’s almost like being on vacation right in your own backyard. If all you see is a cement pond, that’s all it’s going to be. But there are plenty of ways to go beyond that and make it a much-desired retreat.”

Whether you’re concentrating this year on making upgrades to your softscape, such as evergreen trees and shrubs, or hardscape – stone, flagstone and rock – local landscapers can offer tips to get you started on your outdoor project.

It starts by extending the season of your pool. “There’s a myth out there that you can only use your pool for a couple of months out of the season,” says Michelle Anderson, co-owner of Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center, 8401 Illinois Route 31, Cary. “That’s not true. My family uses our pool about six months out of the year. We normally open our pool the first week in April, and we close it at the end of October, or beginning of November. The industry has made huge advancements in the covers and heaters, which extend the season even longer. It used to be from Memorial Day to Labor Day and that was it. That’s not the case anymore. Pools are expensive, so the more you can use them, the more you can justify your cost.”

Dennis Marunde agrees. He’s the president of Arvidson Pools & Spas, with locations in Crystal Lake, St. Charles and Palatine. “When people buy a pool, it often changes their lives,” he says. “Kids are home more and their friends are over. It changes the way people vacation. It becomes a source of entertainment – pool parties and backyard cookouts. There’s an emotional benefit to that, to go along with the obvious health and wellness benefits of swimming.”

For starters, plants provide beauty around a swimming pool. They soften the harsh lines of pool equipment and help pools to blend more naturally with the surrounding environment. If plants are tall enough, they also increase the privacy of your pool space. “If you’re going to plant a shade tree, plant it a good 20 to 30 feet away,” Van Steen says. “You don’t want to fish all those leaves out of the water. You want the tree to cast the shade on the southwest side, if possible, because that’s where you’re going to have the hottest sun. Or, plant an ornamental tree; it will only grow 12 to 15 feet in our lifetime. You can enjoy it when it blooms in the spring, and enjoy the shade it provides in the summer.”

“You can make your swimming pool a true tropical retreat by surrounding the space with plants such as elephant ear, canna, and Bird of Paradise, which is an African flower that resembles a colorful bird in flight,” says Van Steen. She’s also a big fan of water plants. “You can place them in a large pot filled with water.” Add two or three goldfish to eliminate mosquito larvae, she adds.

Think about the wildlife you do and don’t want to attract, when you’re planning your space. “Put your flowering plants on the outside of a wrought-iron fence, so the bees won’t be on the poolside,” Van Steen suggests. “That goes for roses and barberries, too. You don’t want them poolside. Don’t worry about bees swarming your tropical plants, however. The tropicals are so big that you don’t get honey bees or wasps.” Some insects are welcome guests in your backyard. Plant butterfly bushes, for example, to attract butterflies.

Consider planting a flower bed of low-maintenance perennials. Hostas, coneflowers and Russian sage are a few examples that add color and life to a pool area, without shedding plant debris throughout the growing season.

“If you don’t have grass in your pool area, I suggest using raised beds,” says Van Steen. “I would consider using red twig dogwood, ornamental grasses, euonymus, evergreen and sedum, or slow-growing broad-leaf shrubs. These are plants that will tolerate the heat that the pool generates, as well as the humidity.”

When setting plants close to the poolside, be sure to take a few precautions.

“Plants especially near the water, or downwind of the water in the pool, should be sturdy and clean – nothing that produces heavy amounts of pollen or organic debris that might create chemical stress on the pool, or create unnecessary maintenance issues from falling or blowing debris,” says Marunde. “Also, it’s important to consider the plants’ ability to thrive near the pool’s environment. Some plants are better suited than others to the potential splashing that can occur around a pool, for instance.”

Van Steen suggests setting a budget for plants. “You can expect to spend $200 on tropical plants, but if you’re going to enhance your grass beds and put plants in, you’re talking about $2,000,” she says. “Those are simple additions that will make you feel more comfortable around your pool.”

If your budget allows, consider what you can do to enhance your hardscape. You may want to create an outdoor living space that’s anchored by the pool deck.

“The trend with outdoor living space became popular when the economy got bad and people couldn’t sell their homes,” says Anderson. “Homeowners asked themselves, ‘What can we do to make our homes desirable again?’ The answer, in part, was to add to their outdoor living experience. We do more outdoor kitchens and living areas every year. An outdoor living area is an extension of your home.”

These luxurious spaces can include outdoor kitchens with pizza ovens, refrigerators, built-in grills and all-weather SunBrite Pro Series TVs, which have built-in heaters that allow the unit to operate at temperatures as low as -40 F. The TVs feature either all-weather, high-impact resin or powder-coated aluminum exteriors that protect the internal components from the damaging effects of rain, snow, dirt and insects.

“Weather isn’t a factor,” Anderson says. “It’s just like closing your pool for the season. All you have to do is drain the water lines in your refrigerators and icemakers, and you’re good to go.”

Some homeowners are replacing their ponds with custom bubblers.

“It used to be the pond or the concrete fountain that was popular, but now people like the ambience of bubbling water without the maintenance,” says Anderson. “With a bubbler system, you adjust how much or how little sound you want. It sounds just like a babbling brook.”

And what’s a backyard paradise without a fire pit? While wood-burning fire pits remain popular, so do natural gas fire pits. These modern pits look realistic, with ceramic logs and flame patterns, but they’re also convenient and burn 99 percent clean.

“There’s still an appeal to having a wood-burning fire pit where you can roast marshmallows,” Anderson says. “But natural gas is used just for aesthetics. It’s more modern and contemporary. You can have a flame by the pool, so it increases the ambience around the pool. Everything adds to the ambience. It’s all a matter of preference.”

If you do nothing else this year, make sure to add a buffer around your pool.

“Make sure you have at least a three-foot space around the pool, which gives you a solid surface to walk on and it makes pool cleaning easier,” Anderson says. “Make sure this buffer has a hard surface. You don’t want to landscape right up against the pool. If it rains, you’ll have mud running into your pool.”

The average outdoor living space with hardscape and appliances runs between $30,000 and $50,000. “The return on your investment is priceless,” says Anderson. “Now when you entertain, you’re doing so completely outside.”

Over the past few years, Chris Curtis has significantly upgraded the landscaping around the backyard pool of her Woodstock farm. Curtis and her husband, Todd, added a waterfall, pond and pavilion to complement their swimming pool. Now, they’ve added a variety of aquatic plants, conifers, roses, grasses and even a weeping cherry tree that complements the feel and look of their property, thanks to suggestions made by Van Steen. It’s been an ongoing project with rich rewards.

“The additions have made a dramatic difference,” Curtis says. “Our background is wonderful, thanks to the sounds of the waterfall, the pond with fish and the blooming plants. When we entertain, we can extend the party from the pool to the pavilion, just to relax and talk. It’s been everything we’ve wanted and more.”

Backyard projects may sound ambitious, but time is on your side.

“You can update the look of your pool area with pots and plant material every three to five years,” says Van Steen. “It helps to freshen the look and feel of your space. You don’t have to make big changes. Your meat and bones – hardscape, fire pit and pergola – can stay the same. But adding some color every so often can go a long way toward making your yard look new again.

“Make a wish list that includes everything you want for your pool, from plastic palm trees with lights or a waterfall that flows into your pool,” she adds. “Start prioritizing what you really want to do, then figure out your budget and prioritize again. You may only be able to do some of those pots with tropical plants this year. But think how good you will feel. A few plants will give you a tropical paradise in your backyard.”

It’s OK to do a little upgrading now and a little bit next season. “Very seldom do we walk into a home and finish it all in one year,” says Anderson. “Projects happen over phases. The best place to start is to install the pool, if you don’t already have one. Then, concentrate on the hardscape around it, whether it’s pavers, fire pit or whatever else you want to add to your backyard experience.”

It’s always best to start with a professional plan. Seek out a qualified landscape designer/architect to guide you through the process. “They’re going to know, for example, what will provide the best shade, how far your trees should be from the pool and what plants to consider,” says Anderson. “Sure, it’s an expense, but at the end of the day, you’re going to get exactly what you pay for.”