Outdoor Living: The Urban Treehouse

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Outdoor Living: The Urban Treehouse

The journey from debris to an idyllic sylvan retreat in the city

By Rachel Sa & Bruce Kirkland
Photography By Gillian Jackson

Despite some tumultuous times, our recent wholehouse renovation gave us our dream home in Toronto’s Upper Beaches. Our backyard, however, remained a nightmare. Overrun with tons of construction debris, it looked like a war zone.


Yet we longed for an outdoor oasis that we could love as much as the interior of our renovated home. We yearned to dine al fresco, entertain beneath the stars, and sip a glass of wine in the warmth of summer. But it all seemed impossible. We did not know where to begin.

Enter Vince MacDonald. Vince is the owner of Natural Effects, a boutique landscape design-build company in Toronto. Vince and his small team of professionals are exactly the kind of imaginative and meticulous people that everyone needs when an outdoor project is too big to tackle yourself.


“Before I even knock on the door, I quickly size the property up,” Vince says of his first-impression approach. “Then we start talking: You need to find out what the people who own the property want to do. It’s a lifestyle thing. Some people want sun. Some want shade. Some want to be active. Some want to relax. Then there are dogs and kids and BBQs and even the desire to look at birds in the backyard. Everything needs to be carefully considered.”


Vince admits that his first look at our disastrous backyard left him feeling daunted. Our original house contractor, before abruptly leaving the site, used the backyard as a dumping ground for broken bricks, concrete chunks, junk lumber, twisted metal and the remains of on-the-job meals.

“When I first saw it,” Vince recalls, “it was really difficult to even see the ground. But, of course, I could see enough to realize the property is on a pretty good slope and that there was a need for significant retaining walls, once things got cleared out.”


That was stage one. Wanting exercise, we handled the cleanup ourselves, loading an enormous bin to its brim. When Vince returned, the site was still rough but the ground was exposed— and he got excited.


“One of the things that I love about Toronto is the whole ravine system. It is part of what ‘makes’ Toronto, and this place sits on one of those gorges.” Being on the ancient shore of what was Lake Iroquois after the recession of the last ice age, our property is sandy, sloped and treed. “So that was appealing to me,” Vince says.

We are, in Vince’s words, “lucky” to have this location. Our house backs onto a public park. It is not a flat square or rectangle. But Vince—as he tells us about his other projects— is dedicated to making the most of any situation, with or without a lucky placement. Ours just provided more challenges and exciting possibilities.


Once our backyard landscape was open, Vince’s creative juices flowed. After learning that we are both avid bird watchers, keen gardeners, and all-round nature lovers, he suggested a four-seasons outdoor space that would echo the inside living space. To accommodate our sloped lot, he designed an integrated set of tiered decks, railings, fences, wood-retaining walls, and dry-stone walls. He added a secluded area of pea gravel and ensured there were trees and shrubs to anchor the greenery we would plant later. Lumber was sourced locally and quickly, from the family-run and super-friendly Danforth Lumber.

Our backyard now has its own “kitchen” (for the BBQ), a “dining room” (with fold-up table and chairs), a small “reading retreat” next to the park gate, and a “living room” on the pea gravel surrounding an outdoor fireplace. Vince installed chair-sized boulders for seating there among the row of cedars and yews.


Unique twists give it all an even deeper character. The south fence hugs the leaning trunk of a neighbour’s tree, with space for further growth while still providing privacy. The railings on the decks and west fence are done in different widths and runs, almost like the rhythmic wavelengths of a jazz composition. The space is private, yet allows us an open gaze into the park, as if the yard extends far beyond its boundaries.


Now we can sit with family and friends in a relaxing setting; we can garden in the “hidden” nooks, some of which we built ourselves to complement what Natural Effects provided; and, yes, we can commune with nature and watch the birds.


For the gardening component, the design includes a half dozen minigardens, several of them the result of additional stone-wall building we did ourselves. Vince’s design left space for us to be creative, too.

While our backyard may not be Algonquin Park inside the city, the space suggests our own nature refuge in the heart of Toronto’s east end. “When I first stood here, on the upper back deck, I looked out at what this might become,” Vince says with a smile as he surveys the finished yard. “I imagined an urban treehouse. That is what it feels like today.”


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