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Backyard on Outdoor Living Tour becomes pandemic oasis for Austin family

The Foleys' East Austin backyard near the Mueller area creates different zones of interest and features a new screened-in porch. It is on the Outdoor Living Tour.

Joey and Aya Foley wanted to expand their living spaces into the backyard of their East Austin home near the Mueller neighborhood. They had a vision of breezes flowing throughout the home from a screened-in porch.

The need became clear when their 1-year-old daughter (now 5) was being eaten alive by mosquitoes when they sat outside. Their backyard had become a place in which they didn't want to hang out.

The porch, with its screened-in living room and dining room, became an even bigger asset after it was finished in July 2019. It became a space for a large crowd, like that year's Thanksgiving and a birthday party that fall. Then it became an oasis during the pandemic, when they suddenly were both living and working from home. 

The Foleys' backyard is part of the Outdoor Living Tour on June 5, one of two in-person outdoor tours happening in Central Texas that weekend.

The Foleys met with Matt and Angelica Norton of Open Envelope Studio landscape architecture company in 2017 to talk about ideas. They began saving up to create the screened room and outdoor space they wanted. 

The pops of color in the living area reflect the pops of color in the garden. The plants were selected to move with the wind.

At each turn, the Nortons would offer a less expensive option, but the Foleys really came into it with the mindset of making the space they wanted from the start and not a compromise to save money, Matt Norton says.

Adding the L-shaped space onto the 1974 home was a challenge because of a large pecan tree that needed to be worked around. They needed to create drainage from the home's roof that would flow on either side of the porch's roof and not get clogged up by the pecan tree's droppings.

The yard also had its own drainage problems. It slants down into the house. Water needed to be rerouted into drains before it poured inside. 

Everywhere you look from the screened-in porch there is movement and green in the plants outside.

The screened-in portion has two distinct spaces. One for a dining room where the family now eats most of its meals on a table Open Envelope Studio built, and one for a living room with an L-shaped sofa and a mounted TV for hosting football game viewing parties. The furniture — from the pillows on the couch to the chairs at the table — reflects the coral and red pops of color that can be found in the plants outside. 

"We are really trying to make a yard function like a room," Matt Norton says. "We're really trying to think about it less 'inside and outside,' and more 'everything within the fence is one big room.' It should flow well, feel layered and well-composed."

The family went from not being outside much to wanting to be outside all the time. They have adapted the space for use during winter. Using magnets attached to the steel framing of the porch, they add fabric around the screens to keep heat in. Even during the February freeze, it was still 55 degrees inside the porch, compared with the single-digit temperatures outside. 

The Foleys set up a large blowup pool for their daughter here in the summer, but it can be used for many different things throughout the year.

The yard uses different colors of rocks to move through the space. Black Texas basalt rocks become the pathways. Tan native river stones become the base for the different gardens.

"How to move through a space is how you are choosing to treat the surface," Matt Norton says. The basalt and grass are easy to walk on; the river rock is not. 

In the center of the yard, a large square of pavers has an L-shaped bench around it. The family uses this as a multipurpose space, but often in the summer, it is the site of their inflatable pool, where they watch their daughter swim. 

Black rocks create the walkway around the garden. Tan rocks create the spaces for plants.

Before the freeze, they had bamboo surrounding the backyard fences that reached to the pecan tree's branches, giving them privacy. They had to replant the bamboo, but it is growing quickly already.

The garden space is divided up into different, smaller gardens, as well as separate tiers with the tall pecan tree above, ornamental trees and bamboo in the middle and plantings below. They used native or well-adapted plants throughout to minimize the maintenance and water usage.

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A butterfly garden in the front features an Arroyo sweetwood tree with blooms that smell like honeysuckle. Fragrance was important to the family, and they've tried lavender, as well as other fragrant plantings such as Mexican honeysuckle and Texas kidneywood. In choosing the plants, they also created a place for pollinators of all kinds to congregate.  

Ornamental peach trees pay tribute to Aya Foley's Japanese heritage.

The family honors Aya Foley's Japanese heritage with a red robin peach tree in the corner, and they plan to find a peppermint peach tree for another spot. Aya also had an appreciation of subtle movements and motion among the plantings. Angelica Norton chose a lot of grasses and trees with delicate blossoms to accomplish that movement. 

"When you're looking out to the space, it's subdued and peaceful," Angelica Norton says. 

Even with all the plantings and the walkways, the yard still has a strip of grass for soccer and bocce ball. 

The living area inside the screen reflects the outdoor living space in the backyard.

Open Envelope Studio did not touch the vegetable garden the family enjoys, but they did create a fence between the grilling area and the rest of the yard to prevent the smell of smoke from overpowering the yard and to hide the more utilitarian spaces. In the vegetable garden, the Foleys are trying to grow many Japanese vegetables and herbs, as well as mushrooms. 

The finished backyard has been better than they imagined it would be. Right after the pandemic happened, Joey Foley says he called up Open Envelope Studio to thank them.

"It's just so fabulous," he says. 

The Foleys use the dining area of the porch for their regular meals. Sea oats grow near the window.

If you go: Outdoor Living Tour

See outdoor living spaces throughout Austin.

When: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 5

Cost: $25 adults, $10 kids 12 and older

More information: mads.media/atxoutdoor2021/

The porch creates two separate spaces that are connected.