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Not a garden-variety backyard

By Catherine Pritchard

Just about every day, John Semmes can be found enjoying a tropical paradise.

And sitting by a mountain waterfall.

And tromping woodland paths.

He doesn’t go far to get to these places.

They’re all in his backyard – along with much more.

Over the past three decades, the retired business owner and executive has turned his backyard from a patchy new lawn bordered by scrubby, skinny pines into a landscaping marvel.

It’s anchored at its center by a jewel-toned pool, which is surrounded by thick green grass. Beyond the grass are trees, shrubs, flowers and other plants. And beyond them are a series of outdoor “rooms,” separated and screened by the vegetation and connected by flagstone paths. The space is full of visual treats, changes of scenery and places to sit and relax.

And John Semmes does plenty of the latter, along with his wife, Linda – that is, when he’s not working on making his creation even better. Nothing makes him happier than working in the yard – unless it’s showing it to others and seeing their delight.

The view starts before you even get there. A comfortable sun room on the back of the couple’s home is a great place to sit and look out at the flowers, trees and artful touches.

Step outside and you’re on a brick terrace that offers a clear view of the yard. To the right, a sunny patio is an inviting spot for outdoor dining, with a large glass table sheltered by an umbrella. Bright bougainvillea, mandevilla and other flowers are a riot of color amid lush greenery.

To the left there’s a shady courtyard, with cushioned wicker furniture set up next to a large gas fireplace that can provide warmth on chilly days and evenings.

Water bubbles from two nearby fountains, palm trees soar overhead into a canopy that includes a huge live oak with Spanish moss hanging from its branches and green and flowering plantings abound. Wrought iron art graces a wall and gas lamps add to the sense that if you didn’t know better you’d think you were in a private courtyard in New Orleans or Savannah.

These are the yard’s tropical areas. Winding paths lead you into other adventures – and outdoor rooms, each with its own sense of privacy and character.

There’s the frog room, so named for the stone frog fountain that gurgles next to a small iron table and chairs. It’s a great place to have morning coffee, Semmes says, or to talk to your neighbor over the nearby fence.

There’s the room with the mountain waterfall – yes – which cascades down a slope of artfully placed and carefully sealed boulders into a small pool. The Semmeses can watch the water from an outdoor swing that hangs beneath an arbor. There’s room in front of the swing to set up a small fire pit when temperatures are cool.

Wind your way farther down the path and you’ll find the “man cave” where a couple of glider chairs and a small table are set out for when Semmes and a buddy want to sit and have a couple of beers.

There are lots of other nooks and crannies and pleasures in the yard – even over the fence in the backyards of neighbors for whom Semmes has provided expertise, advice and extra plants.

The swimming pool can be at least glimpsed from most areas of the yard.

And while it’s beautiful, with water squirting into it from two dolphin fountains and flowers by its side, it’s more than decoration. Built originally for the couple’s daughters, it’s now used by their grandchildren, their friends and their lively golden retriever Sophie, who happily jumps in and paddles around, especially when a four-legged neighbor named Sir Edward Thatcher does the same.

Semmes began working on the backyard after he and Linda built their house, in 1985.

Initially, he just wanted “a nice backyard.” He started with routine projects, like building the patio and courtyard areas and putting in the pool.

But the more he did, the more he wanted to do. He was a busy executive, first as manager of Management Recruiters of Fayetteville, then as owner of the firm. Working in the yard was a relaxing diversion from the high-stress profession. It was also a new avenue into which he could pour his ever-active creativity.

He started planning bigger projects and consulted local experts, including nursery owner J.F. Dunn. A local landscape worker, Jose Hernandez, started helping Semmes in his spare time and in the years since has become a good friend and a co-creator of the backyard, both in hours of labor and ability to turn Semmes’ visions into reality. 

“There is no absolutely no way this landscape would exist at this level without him,” Semmes said.

Then there’s Linda Semmes. Though the backyard is largely her husband’s project, the retired nurse helps and has played key roles in the yard’s overall health and viability. Several years ago, she inventoried every plant in the yard and recorded the information in a huge notebook so he’d know what was there. Then she told him he couldn’t get any more plants until he learned more about how to care for them. At her insistence, he enrolled in the master gardener program at the local office of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. He says it opened up new levels of understanding, experience and access to expertise.

 “That started to change everything,” Semmes said.

He consults extension agent Jason Weathington on most changes he plans these days.

“The guy is brilliant” on plant diseases, insect problems, watering issues and more, Semmes said.

Semmes says there’s no graceful way to fit more outdoor rooms in the backyard but he has projects in the works. They include creating a water feature along one section of a path with an old cast-iron pump once used on his Cajun grandmother’s farm in Louisiana. He and Hernandez are going to restake the towering bougainvilleas on the patio so they’ll be even taller next year. As the weather turns cool, they will move the cold-sensitive plants into the garage where they’ll spend the winter beneath grow lights until spring. He’s also planning to help a neighbor turn his backyard into more of a cottage garden.

It’s clear that while the yard is stunningly beautiful and interesting, it isn’t “done.” Semmes laughs. It won’t ever be done, he says.