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A Secret Garden for All Ages
Backyard Park in North Carolina

Landscape Architecture by Lift Environmental Design


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A half-acre backyard park in Transylvania County, North Carolina, rooted in nature and fantasy, provides a place for children to develop and grow. Lift Environmental Design created the play area so that children can be supervised either from inside the residence or from seating areas within the forest park itself. Here, a leaf-shaped wooden gate with a mushroom handle leads to a playhouse with a moss-covered green roof.


Hidden in the temperate rainforests of Transylvania County, N.C., is a place of wonder and inspiration for all ages. Designed to be a play place that both sparks the imagination and tests physical fitness, this Secret Garden, designed and built by Lift Environmental Design of Durham, N.C., affords growth opportunities for every member of the family. The garden, part of a private residence in an exclusive mountain development, takes advantage of the mild, rainy slopes where the vigor of plant growth is as superlative as its beauty. The Secret Garden capitalizes on this natural windfall, using carefully styled botanical vignettes to draw visitors across gnarled log bridges to an assortment of custom play equipment constructed from locally sourced timber. The play equipment throughout the Secret Garden is built from black locust, an incredibly durable hardwood that ages in such a manner that it seems to have originated from the forest itself.

Lift's primary purpose for the Secret Garden was to create a fantasy nature world that fosters a love affair with the environment and provides a range of physical challenges that match the changing needs of a growing family. One issue with ensuring use (and maintenance) of the garden is making it safe for young ones to roam the half-acre, steeply sloped site so that discoveries can be made at their own developmental pace. For very young children, this meant organizing play settings where caretakers could easily supervise from both inside the house and out. At the margins of these areas, Lift made connections to increasingly more challenging play environments that can be accessed as a child grows.

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The final area in the secret garden is this open, wooden tree house. Adirondack chairs on its deck create a comfortable space for adults to socialize and supervise play from a distance. A small set of stairs provides one access point, while the young and young at heart can reach the seating area via a series of elevated decks, bridges and stairs.


The result is a built environment that becomes sequentially more challenging, affording new opportunities for play reward as a child develops. Each environment within the Secret Garden is also designed to be attractive to adults as well. For example, adults can take advantage of the treetop deck and moss-engulfed theater stage to entertain friends.

The Secret Garden was designed to provide a whimsical feel. Entering through a leaf-shaped gate built from local hardwoods and steel, visitors arrive in a courtyard guarded by a playhouse with a green roof of moss and herbs. A recirculating stream tumbles out of the forest, spanned by a small footbridge that offers opportunities to poke at snails and frogs along the water's edge. A stone wall rises from the earth nearby, offering adults a place to sit, watch, and if they feel like it, flip a hidden switch that triggers squirts of water from a modified irrigation system.

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Adult use of the space was taken into consideration when designing the private park. A small stone labyrinth provides a place for contemplation, and the wooden storyteller's chair allows both children and adults to rest, read, or just enjoy nature.


Beyond the stream is a small platform over a pit of creek sand where loose parts made from natural materials can be transformed into forts. A nearby labyrinth brings visitors past a white oak stump that serves as a throne where one can sit and get lost in a book or the sensory delights of the forest. Here the slope steepens and requires a little more fitness, the reward being a two-story playhouse. This "stump house" is the gateway to a series of elevated decks, each requiring a little more maturity and strength to access, where one may eventually climb to the "nest" at the top and survey the layered, bloom-laden Secret Garden below, or chat with the adults who have been there all along, lounging in the Adirondack chairs with a glass of wine.

The natural environment surrounding the Secret Forest helps make any outdoor space in this part of North Carolina special. But, with a little ingenuity, and an extensive knowledge of early childhood development, the team at Lift has been able to augment the playground nature already had in place to support a range of activities for boosting children's physical and cognitive capabilities. Making each of the Secret Garden's vignettes support adult activities as well ensures that the garden is a resource for the entire family.



As seen in LASN magazine, March 2017.






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October 16, 2017, 9:00 pm PDT

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