The firepit is still Sharon Zeeck's favorite part of her new backyard, but her 4-year-old grandson, Vincent, might have thrown that over for the pond rippling with two small waterfalls.
"He likes to throw rocks in the pond," said his grandmother. "And watch things like leaves float down from the waterfall into the pond," adds his grandfather, Harry Zeeck.
The Zeeck family of Prospect Heights won the backyard makeover through the Daily Herald's Get Your Summer On contest.
Sharon bubbles enthusiastically about every detail of the yard, but you have to remember what it looked like after a devastating fire in the spring of 2011. The family got back into the rebuilt house a year later, but the backyard -- which might be Sharon's favorite location -- was still in ruins.
"It's all so cool," said Sharon. "We sit in this kitchen window and look at how it's lit up so pretty. We just sit there and look at it, it's just so beautiful."
She and her husband also enjoy the view from their second-floor bedroom, including the maple tree that survived, now uplighted by NorthWest Electrical Supply in Mount Prospect and McHenry.
Walking out from the Zeeck kitchen, a visitor steps on the wraparound patio of Belgard pavers, passes the Solaire grill and notices landscaping that includes an Ivory Silk Japanese lilac, hydrangeas, coneflowers and grasses from Knupper Nursery and Landscape in Palatine. Much of the infrastructure work and materials, such as mulch, sand, gravel and sod, were supplied by Lurvey Landscape Supply & Garden Center in Des Plaines, Park City and Volo, and Upgrade Electric in Elk Grove Village.
Next comes the new patio set from Northwest Metalcraft in Arlington Heights, which Harry Zeeck thinks is perfect for Sunday morning coffee. The chocolate-colored furniture from Telecsope is weatherproof in recycled plastic and cast aluminum with woven seats that dry off quickly.
A few steps away is one of the yard's showpieces, a firepit flanked by two paver walls where guests can perch. As a bonus, they also house subtle built-in lighting. The open side of the seatwall is toward the house so people inside can enjoy the fire, too. This area features two Belgard pillars capped with real limestone. And the pit itself drains so it's never full of messy water.
Sharon has to decide whether to put steppingstones from the patio to the firepit area or hope that people will take varying paths across the grass.
Not far from the firepit is the two-level pond built with real boulders. A crew from Aquascape of St. Charles dug it by hand, Harry said.
"The people from Aquascape said we probably should have put the pond closer to the house, but the whole thought was we sit here probably more," said Sharon, indicating her treasured firepit. "We can hear the water when sitting by the fire. It is so peaceful."
And another decision looms -- fish? With a heater and not much fuss they could survive the winter, friends tell the Zeecks.
RYCO Landscaping designed the project, coordinated all the vendors and contractors, and oversaw installation of the entire project. And they got the entire job done in record time -- one week.
It would cost more to duplicate the Zeeck yard than the $20,000 advertised as the grand prize in the Daily Herald contest, but a family could create an "outdoor living space" that suits its needs for under that figure, said Colin Taheny, RYCO vice president of sales.
"We talk to the client and understand their needs and design around it," Taheny said. "People come and say 'We have a patio, but we never use it.' We ask questions like 'How do you entertain? What's the average size of groups using the area? What do you do with time you currently spend in your backyard?'"
One goal is to judge whether the current patio is too big or too small, said Taheny, and he told of factors that went into the decision about where to locate the Zeecks' firepit.
"They wanted two separate areas, the patio for dining close to the house and the firepit with the seatwall. But they wanted it to be part of their entertaining space."
Taheny also praised the landscape architects on RYCO's staff, saying they consider site conditions and elevations and look for the most economical products for each job, for example explaining the differences between stone and brick.
"The whole RYCO staff got involved with this one with expertise or physical labor or both," said Taheny. "They had the designer helping with laying the brick. It's like an artist coming out to paint a picture."
Sharon and Vincent enjoy the fire even though suburban nights are getting cooler, but she calls the rest of her extended family "fair weather fans."
"We're nice and warm by the fire, my little guy and me," says the proud grandmother. "Nobody knows what to do with these half-acre Prospect Heights lots, and ours turned out great."