Ask Howard Nuzum about the best part of his two-month trip to Asia, and he’ll tell you all about the Great Wall of China. He can tell you how long it is (3,000 miles), how old it is (2,000 years), and how long it took to build (more than 1,000 years).
A lot of people find the Great Wall impressive, but Howard’s reaction is more visceral than most—perhaps because he knows a thing or two about building. He worked in construction as a general contractor for about 10 years. He also designed and built the four-bedroom house in Lake Saint Louis, Missouri, where he and his wife, Vera, have lived for 30 years. And he spent six years constructing a backyard deck that spans 13 levels and covers more than 3,000 square feet—a little bit bigger than the house.
The cedar deck includes a gazebo, swimming pool, five ponds, three fountains, five waterfalls, and a hot tub. It reaches from one side of the yard to the other—from a 12-foot-high cedar wall with three separate entrances to a private upper-level sundeck off the master bedroom. Tomatoes, peppers, and herbs grow in containers on the part of the deck that’s over the garage.
Howard didn’t start out with such a grand deck in mind, but everything he built seemed to lead to something else. “It just sort of grew as I was outlining it,” he says. “Kind of like a flower bed grows.”
When the deck was finished, about 10 years ago, Howard and Vera began devoting more of their time to the garden. They turned their attention from cedar planks to cedar trunks and from beams to berms. The result is a yard that blends geometry with blossoms: Brightly colored annuals spill out of planters and hanging baskets, and perennials and shrubs cluster near walkways and waterfalls. The Nuzums even created four meditation areas in the garden—complete with two benches each—although they don’t spend much time sitting still. Ninety percent of their time outside is spent working, says Howard. “Or maybe 75 percent,” he says, laughing. “There’s more work than relaxation.”
A circular driveway leads to the Nuzums’ dramatic main entrance. Through a wrought-iron gate set into an arched doorway in the high cedar wall, there’s a glimpse of a fountain in the shadow of a weeping blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus libani ssp. atlantica ‘Glauca Pendula’). Inside the gate, the lushness of the yard unfolds. Clematis in five different shades—pink, purple, lavender, white, and red—climbs the interior wall. Low clusters of lilyturf (also called monkey grass) line the walk, and a tall, bushy rhododendron reaches out from the corner.
From the entryway, the path forks. To one side is the upper deck—a long stretch of wide cedar planks runs the length of the house, punctuated by flower-filled pots and planters, benches, and an ornate gazebo. When his contractor quit in the middle of the gazebo’s construction, Howard finished it. With the help of son Burt, he cut out the intricate trim on a jigsaw and fitted the arch pieces by hand.
In the center of the lower level of the deck is a swimming pool. A 5-foot waterfall pours into the pool from beneath a wisteria-covered screen. Surrounding the pool are two small ponds and—at the back of the yard—an 8-foot waterfall and a 4-foot waterfall. An 80-foot stone trough runs the length of the swimming pool, connecting the ponds and the waterfalls. The stone walls of the water features rest on a foundation of concrete block. A masonry crew took two years and used more than 100 tons of rock to build it all.
Water is just as important as wood and rock in the Nuzums’ landscape. The focal point of their entryway is an Indonesian fountain, around which is a small pool, 18 inches deep, that Howard plants with water lilies (Nymphaea) and water hyacinths (Eichhornia). For a while he kept a bass in the pond—the fish reached about 11/2 pounds, eating about 12 goldfish a week, before a marauding raccoon stole it.
Howard had mixed emotions when the bass disappeared. “I had to go 15 miles to get a good price on goldfish, so it was a relief on that side,” he recalls. But he was also disappointed, because of all the time he’d put in. “I had been raising him for two years,” he says.
At the far edge of the deck, a luxurious, mist-filled rock garden surrounds the two waterfalls that cascade down a stone berm in the shade of large sugar maples (Acer saccharum). A second weeping blue Atlas cedar drapes its branches behind the large waterfall, framing a collection of flowering annuals, shrubs, and water plants. Honeysuckle (Lonicera) grows up the side of the rocks; cattail spears (Typha) edge the waterfall pool; zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Zebrinus’) hovers on the bank.
Howard and Vera typically put a pot of annuals—perhaps petunias or pansies—in the streambed just above the waterfall. The flowers love the moist microclimate. “You don’t have to water them and they bloom all summer long,” Howard says.
Though ponds and other water features support flora and fauna, they also make life more complicated. For instance, the Nuzums constantly struggle to prevent algae in the water. The shallow, lengthy trough is especially vulnerable. “There’s a balance [needed] between the amount of sunlight, fish, and plants to keep algae from growing,” says Howard.
An annual spree
Although the Nuzums use many varieties of plants in their yard, their major spring purchase is always annuals. “We go through three truckloads of annuals each year,” Howard says. “Over $1,200 of annuals every year.
Their tastes change from year to year, says Vera, but recent favorites include snapdragons, asparagus ferns, salvia, Grecian daisies, Mexican heather, sweet potato vines, moss roses, geraniums, and tobacco plants. They plant annuals in 40 to 50 hanging baskets and several planters. At the base of their gazebo, the Nuzums place pots of pink mandevillas, which by August have climbed up the pillars and covered the arches under the roof.
One of the most popular garden annuals—impatiens—isn’t seen much in their garden. “I just got tired of them,” says Vera.
Until recently, Vera did most of the gardening. Since Howard retired in 2005, though, he spends more time planting. Vera says his presence makes a big difference in the way the garden looks. “Everybody has said it’s the best ever this year,” she says, laughing, “and I said, ‘Well, it pays to have help.’”
Howard, though, is clearly itching to get back to working on the deck. “I’m ready for restaining and stripping and doing it again,” he says.
Elizabeth Noll is senior editor of Gardening How-To.
Garden at a glance
Size of deck: 3,000 square feet
USDA Hardiness: Zone 5
Watering: Sprinkler system and soaker hoses with timers. This year, Howard will install a drip system for the hanging baskets.
Original soil: Clay with lots of rock.
Soil amendments: Manure, lime.
Fertilizer: Whatever’s on sale.
Mulch: Cedar and shredded leaves.
Average annual precipitation: About 34 inches.
Hours spent in garden each week: 20 each for Howard and Vera.
Number of hanging baskets: 40 to 50.
Number of benches: 8
Favorite plants: Mandevillas and roses.
Favorite pond plants: Water lilies, water hyacinth, umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius).
Biggest mystery: Why one clematis is covered with blossoms and another, which gets the same care and the same amount of sunlight, blooms half-heartedly.
Best recovery: Rather than get rid of a 20-year-old rhododendron that had reached 12 feet tall but wasn’t looking very healthy, Howard cut it back to a 1-foot stem. A year later, it was robust, lush, and 7 feet tall.
Howard Nuzum never really considered using anything but cedar for his 3,000-square-foot deck. “I’ve always preferred wood,” he says. “I’ve worked with wood all my life.”
He admits that it requires a lot of care: Every five years or so he has to powerwash and restain the whole deck. But he loves the warmth of the wood and its durability: At 10 years old, it’s probably not quite to the middle of its lifespan.
Other popular options for decking include pressure-treated lumber, composite, and plastic.
Type of material
• Cedar: Beautiful look, warm feel, durable; high initial cost, high maintenance.
• Composite: Made from recycled materials; expensive, may stain or warp, low maintenance, vulnerable to decay.
• Pressure-treated pine: Low cost, durable, looks good; contains toxic chemicals, high maintenance.
• All-plastic lumber: No decay, low maintenance; slippery, loud, retains heat, expensive.