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Landscape architect Senga Lindsay, at her North Vancouver home last week, has transformed her property into a produce-generating powerhouse. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL)
Landscape architect Senga Lindsay, at her North Vancouver home last week, has transformed her property into a produce-generating powerhouse. (JOHN LEHMANN/JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL)

City dwellers turning ho-hum backyards into urban retreats Add to ...

When Jeff Mandel felt the call of the wild, he didn't look to cottage country for a pricey piece of property to call his own. Instead, he opened his back door and took a hard look at the yard he'd neglected for the past 30 years.

While the recession sapped many homeowners of their desire to build flashy show gardens featuring rare roses and intricate water features, it has sharply refocused their efforts on enhancing the space they have available. And with Canada's resale housing market showing signs of cooling, more people are looking for ways to live with what they have rather than upgrade through a purchase.

"We want to be able to live back there full time," said Dr. Mandel, a Toronto-area dentist. "We have access to someone's cottage if we really want it, but we want an outdoor space of our own."

That means enhanced seating, a small pool and some low-maintenance foliage will replace the old basketball court that had been the main feature of the 70-by-60-foot lot for most of its existence.

"People are now building urban retreats," said Toronto-based landscape architect Martin Wade, who specializes in high-end projects that can cost upward of $250,000. "I think it's a shift - when you look at the traditional country lifestyle with the commutes and property taxes and all that, it just makes people value their downtime in the city more."

The stats bear him out - cottage sales have picked up from last year's depressed levels, but a ReMax survey said prices were down in 57 per cent of the regions it surveyed. Sales of garden equipment, however, have surged 14.6 per cent over the past year, according to Statistics Canada, outpacing the broader 9.1-per-cent gain seen in retail sales.

Geoff Donsky used to rent cottages with his family, and always assumed he'd buy one eventually. But he came to the realization last year that it would make more sense to invest a substantial amount of money in his backyard than to spend five times as much to buy a country getaway that he'd visit only occasionally.

The radiologist - who has four children all under the age of 6 and works in Oshawa - had workers build a new deck, a playground and a basketball court. The highlight of the renovation was a swimming pool, installed last fall just as the snow started to come down.

"We always thought we'd like to have a cottage, but we came home last year and looked around and realized this place has a great yard," he said. "We decided all that travelling just wasn't for us - so we put the money back there instead."

Staycationers such as Dr. Donsky haven't just been good for landscapers, they've helped breathe new life into the country's swimming pool industry. After two years of near-inactivity, the industry is on pace to install more than 11,000 pools this year. A typical year would see anywhere between 8,000 and 10,000 installed, said Robert Wood, the executive director of the Pool and Hot Tub Council of Canada.

"With the economy moving forward and people wanting to stay home more, I think when the dust settles at the end of this year it'll be the best one we've ever seen," Mr. Wood said.

Those who are spending on upgrades are doing it with much more discretion than in the past, said Janet Rosenberg, a landscape architect who does work across Canada. Gone are the days of putting in fancy features simply to impress the neighbours.

"The desire to be understated is stronger than it has ever been," she said. "There's a level of embarrassment around spending too much for things you may not need. So, for instance, we're not doing many heated driveways, but we're doing a lot of sitting spaces."

That doesn't mean she's hitting the neighbourhood department store looking for cheap lawn chairs. Retailers such as Toronto's Andrew Richards Designs have seen sales increase by as much as 25 per cent for high-end furniture meant to withstand Canadian winters and still look good the next spring.

Designer and co-owner Andrew Bockner said the typical customer has spent about $15,000 this year to create dream space, and many are citing a desire to stay home more frequently as their main motivation.

As one of the few stores that designs its own furniture, it receives calls from across Canada. Mr. Bockner has been surprised by the number of customers who have asked him to help recreate the furniture from their favourite resorts.

"They'll ask us to recreate something they saw in Atlantic City because they don't plan to go there again for a while," he said. "Instead of dropping $14,000 to take the family down again, they can do it in their own space."

Some are creating not just comfort zones but working gardens. Mary Brittain runs the Cottage Gardener in Newtonville, Ont., and said sales have jumped more than 40 per cent in the past two years - and as organic vegetables have gained in popularity, flowers have withered.

"We're selling a lot of different types of greens that people can use to decorate with and they can also eat throughout the summer," said Ms. Brittain, who cultivates the heirloom seeds on the 10-acre property and sells them by mail all over the world. "It's very decorative, and there is a real trend toward edible gardens as they pay more attention to what they eat and where it comes from."

It's the kind ecological friendliness that has Vancouver's Senga Lindsay looking to rebrand her landscape architecture company from one that has focused on municipal projects to one that helps homeowners grow their own food with the minimal amount of space that is available to most urban dwellers.

Ms. Senga - who is married to a chef - has transformed her home into a produce-generating powerhouse by converting her roof into a lush garden. She held an open house a few weeks ago, and had some 500 people walk through her rooftop vegetable gardens.

Similar gardens could cost upward of $50,000 to produce, and she's busy working on schematics with several homeowners looking to live off their own land. Her client list could swell in the fall, if her television pilot gets picked up.

"Seven years ago you wouldn't know what to do if someone asked for an outdoor kitchen space," she said. "But now people will sink time and money into shifting from fabulous spaces that aren't functional to functional spaces they can use every day."

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