Gone are the days of the "cement pond," a swimming pool surrounded by yards of off-white concrete. Today, homeowners want more; they want a total pool environment geared to relaxing and entertaining. They not only talk to pool builders, they engage landscape companies or hire landscape architects.

The results are evident in the back yards of many Marylanders. Swimming-pool landscaping is no longer generic. In its best form, it is geared to the lifestyles of owners; it meshes with the house and the surrounding property; it offers a variety of decking and plant materials; it provides accessibility without intrusion.

To show you some of the best examples of pool landscaping in town, we checked out the work of three landscaping companies.

Broadview Manor Inc.:

Designer Mike Patterson, project manager Mike Kurtz and their team from Broadview Manor, a landscape firm in White Hall, were redefining landscape space around the front of a house last year when the homeowner announced stage 2 of his remodeling plans -- a swimming pool.

Mr. Patterson was intrigued because he liked the slope of the Howard County site, even though the space was a basic back yard confined by neighboring properties. He knew the opportunity was there to create a pool environment that would be dramatic and would add to the overall value of the property.

His first thought was to blend the pool and landscaping with the style of the house -- a traditional frame rancher with stone accents and an informal but sophisticated charm.

The pool, designed by Mr. Patterson and built by Pleasure Pools, is curvilinear in shape and looks almost like a natural pond. It is large -- 48 feet by 28 feet, with a depth ranging from 3 feet to 8 1/2 feet. A diving rock of several tons, quarried from Butler stone, sits at the deep end of the pool.

The gunite pool is finished in a light gray marbelite. "The light gray color makes the pool water look a deeper blue," says Paul Horichs, owner of Pleasure Pools. The pool also has a heater and an automatic cleaner.

The naturalistic landscape design was partly in response to a 9-foot drop from the house to the pool area. The drop necessitated some support so Mr. Patterson installed a Butler stone retaining wall and a waterfall, which pulls water from the pool and recycles it over the stones. A Japanese maple was installed in a planter that sits near the top of the waterfall. Beds of shrubs and perennials edge the pool at the base of the wall.

While the pool has a coping of bluestone, the pool deck is made of Bomanite, a colored concrete paving that is stamped with a pattern. "A major advantage of using Bomanite is that we can do in three days what it would take three weeks to do in stone," says Mr. Patterson. "And the deck looks great."

To visually and physically connect the house to the pool area, Mr. Patterson built a Bomanite patio that runs along the back of the house. Stone steps near the cabana addition to the house, as well as steps near the family room/patio area, lead to the pool. A free-standing pergola, designed by Mr. Patterson, acts as a gateway from the landscaped lawn to the pool area. Similar pergolas stand in the front of the house, defining the walkway, and in the rear of the house near the sun room.

While most of the plantings in the back yard are new, a large maple tree was left in place to offer some natural shade for the pool. "I think the tree also helps to give this relatively new project . . . some age," says Mr. Patterson. "Most of our clients do not like landscaping to look like it is brand-new."

Kurt Bluemel Inc.:

Landscaping the pool was just one piece of a major project undertaken a few years ago by Kurt Bluemel. Working with his team of landscape designers, the Baldwin nursery and landscape contractor was involved with everything from site selection for his client's new house to the meadow garden planted on the back half of the acre lot.

Situated in a suburban Baltimore neighborhood, the property sloped sharply and had numerous mature trees -- not the best setting for what was to be the centerpiece of the back yard -- a 40-foot-long by 20-foot-wide swimming pool. Mr. Bluemel's client planned to use the pool and its surrounding deck for entertaining. He wanted space and he wanted privacy from neighboring homes.

Completed five years ago, the pool sits serenely in the middle of a carefully planned environment designed according to the homeowner's requirements. Its checkerboard-patterned parquet deck, all 3,000 feet of it, is made of Philippine mahogany. "The wood is finely grained and oily," says project manager Kent Cooper. "It will last forever and it isn't prone to splintering like most woods."

When the owner decided he wanted some shade near the pool, several green ash trees were installed in tree wells, holes cut right into the deck. The wells were designed by Mr. Bluemel to be enlarged as the trees grew.

Meshing with the contemporary lines of the house, the pool is a simple rectangle. It sits about 8 feet below the house and it is reached by way of a patio and steps of Pennsylvania bluestone, the material also used for the pool coping.

A stone retaining wall, softened with adjoining beds of black-eyed Susans and fountain grass, hugs two sides of the pool. Wood benches provide seating and serve as a railing for the sides of the deck open to the meadow garden, which is blanketed with 10,000 flowering bulbs in the spring and masses of black-eyed Susans in the summer.

The pool was built by Maryland Pools and includes an in-floor automatic cleaning system, a heater and an automatic cover, which eliminates the need for fencing. Mechanical equipment for the pool is in the basement of a pool house that is tucked into one corner of the deck.

"The pool house has just about everything you would want -- a bathroom, changing rooms, an ice maker, a bar, even a microwave and a TV," says Mr. Cooper.

Heritage Custom Lawn and Landscape:

The house was a large, brick Georgian located in the country. When Al Huber, president of Heritage, a design-and-build landscape company in White Marsh, was asked to design a pool and pool landscaping on the property, he knew he had to complement the symmetry and formality of the residence. The only requirement from his client was the shape of the pool -- he wanted a rectangle.

Mr. Huber agreed that a geometric form was the way to capture the classic look established by the house. And the rectangular shape had a distinct advantage -- it allowed for the use of an automatic pool cover.

Using as points of reference large windows in the back of the house and brick steps leading from the lawn to the work site, almost 10 feet below, Mr. Huber situated the pool to be in harmony with the house and the adjoining woods. Its location also gave people inside the house a clear view of pool activities and easy access to the pool area. At one point the pool is only 12 feet from lower-level doors.

Designed by Mr. Huber and built by B & J Pools, the heated pool is 40 feet long by 20 feet wide. Although it has no diving board, it ranges in depth from 3 feet to 9 feet. Built with a gunite base, the pool was sprayed with white marbelite, which gives the water a sky-blue look.

Because the client intended to use the pool area for entertaining, extensive decking was a must. Designed by Mr. Huber and installed by Interlock Paving, the decking -- covering nearly 4,600 square feet -- is made of interlocking concrete brick pavers.

"One of the things that my client really loved about the interlocking pavers was the raised pattern that almost makes the deck look like it's made from cobblestones," says Mr. Huber. To help blend the decking with the house, a two-tone gray paver was selected. The color matches the mortar in the brick used on the house.

In keeping with the formality of the landscape design, hedges of Hicks yews and rows of colorful annuals line the decking. Stone urns filled with annuals dot the pavers. To soften the massive display of red brick on the back of the house, an arched lattice, covered in the summertime with mandevilla, decorates a space along a red brick retaining wall. Planted on the edge of the decking are crepe myrtles, viburnums, hydrangeas, rhododendrons and hollies.

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