A poolside lounge and kitchen in Carmel Illustrate the grand scale of outdoor living today.

ONCE, A NICE POOL WAS THE HEIGHT OF BACKYARD luxury. These days, it’s no longer the lone staple of outdoor style.  The concept of al fresco dining has transformed from a modest slab of concrete with a table, chairs and portable barbecue grill into a room that rivals what’s found indoors, often at a cost topping the typical price of an average home. According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association, Americans spent $62.5 billion in 2004 on outdoor kitchens, living areas and the necessary equipment for outside entertaining, with spending expected to continue to grow.

Getting the posh patio takes the assistance of an experienced landscape designer and a wheelbarrow load of cash. “I tell customers up front that our work is limited only by our imagination and someone else’s pocketbook;” says Lowell Rolsky, who started Pro Care Horticultural Services 35 years ago. ”And we never run out of fresh ideas.  “Pro Care is a full-service landscaping company that designs and executes everything from paths and patios to pools, ponds and plant selection for its clients.

Flipping through Pro Care’s portfolio of award-winning projects quickly demonstrates just how creative your landscaping can get. Rolsky has installed bridges, fountains and outdoor kitchens in some of the city’s most inviting backyards.

For one of Rolsky’s most elaborate projects, the homeowners asked him to create an outdoor recreation area to enhance their new, opulent Carmel home. “My first task on a project like this is to determine the homeowners’ lifestyle, needs, likes and dislikes as far as using their patio area,” said Rolsky. “Pro Care is responsible for everything outside the house, from the look of the storage barns and garden beds to the feel of the decks and decorating.”

The homeowners requested a transition from the English Country-style house to the rustic woods without creating a major contrast between the areas. Rolsky designed a comfortable outdoor space on several levels nestled in the transitional area between the back of the house and the edge of 12 acres of woodland that forms the largest piece of this property.

“My goal was to create something that felt natural, warm and cozy, while eliciting admiration;’ Rolsky says. “The garden and patios provide a transition between the formal space of the house and the natural wood line that rims the property without feeling artificial.”

From the main-floor deck that descends to the patio via a metal circular staircase to patio and pool level, the space offers a welcome retreat from the family’s busy public life.  The homeowners wanted a patio that  reflects their stage in life: a family with  teenagers. The outdoor grill and pool building are close to the main house without crowding it, as requested by the homeowners, but the backyard is entirely private from the rest of the property. The fireplace is visible from the house without obstructing their view of the wooded area beyond. With no small children, the homeowners opted for a pool with a fountain rather than slides and play areas.  They also wanted a flexible space for entertaining a variety of groups, from small family gatherings to large groups of the children’s friends.

Rolsky listened to the homeowners’ wish list, developed by reading books on current trends in outdoor entertaining,  looking at other homes and trying out features on vacation at resorts, and found a way to put all of the desired elements together without feeling crowded or fussy.  “Form, function and aesthetics all have to  work together,” he says. “You want the space to be large enough for people to stretch out without creating a sea of concrete.  For example, we broke up the overall space with small gardens and several kinds of seating areas, but we unified the space with pressed concrete pavers that mimic slate.”

Natural materials are used throughout the project, from the tumbled limestone and river-cobble walls to the lilac bluestone countertop in the kitchen. Exposed cedar beams provide shade around the fireplace, and natural granite boulders carry the theme throughout the landscaping.  The result is inviting and warm without taking away from the beauty of the woodland views.

The landscape puts the focus on the in-ground pool, which was coated with blue-green colors to offer the sense of being by a lake, while the waterfall and its sounds make the homeowners feel like they live along a river.

Rolsky suggested seating areas around the pool that work with the homeowners’ style of decorating, with choices for sitting in the sun near shady areas. This way, people who want to sit in the shade aren’t segregated from the sun worshipers.

Beautiful plant life creates visual interest appreciable from any seat. “We selected ornamental plants with a colorful or unique character, Rolsky says.”Weeping forms of beech and hemlock trees contrast filth red cutleaf maples, yellow bamboo a variety of euonymus and hydrangeas.”

Plant choices also reflect Rolsky’s desire to offer three-season color and interesting foliage in every part of the yard.  Wisteria on the spiral staircase and trumpet vine on a column by the fireplace were chosen because they attract hummingbirds, which further add to the pleasure of the garden.

The piece de resistance of the patio is the island-style outdoor kitchen with a towering fireplace nearby. As is common these days, the kitchen is anchored by top-of-the-line grills with steamers, a full-sized refrigerator, a sink, a food prep area, and storage cabinets; stainless steel offers protection from the elements. (Pizza ovens and wine stations are also making their way into the most deluxe outdoor kitchens.) With the addition of weatherproof
tables and chairs with water-repellant covers, the space is practical for outdoor dining every day, a growing trend seen worldwide. Happily, the family grillmeister is no longer isolated in thebackyard, but surrounded by f:amily and
guests while cooking.

While materials, garden elements and patio furniture set the style, other features are included for convenience. For example, storage in the pool garage and a full bathroom and shower mean fewer trips in and out of the house for family members and guests. They are joined under the peaked kitchen roof and cedar shade bower, which casts a gridded shadow but allows plenty of sunlight and breezes through.

Although not yet installed, space heaters and lights will extend use of the area into the spring and fall months, as well as into the evening. Other features that will be phased into the project include a projection screen for home movies poolside, additional plantings to screen the backyard from the front of the house and decorative elements such as sculpture.

Other options include a backyard sleeping porch, gazebo, outdoor sauna or hot tub, and game areas, as well as a bar by the pool. As Rolsky put it, “We’re only limited by what you care to spend:’