Before and After: A Writer Brings a Sunny Slice of Tuscany to Her Once Overgrown Florida Backyard

published Aug 17, 2021
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Virginia Chamlee's Backyard before
Credit: Courtesy of Virginia Chamlee

Travel abroad hasn’t exactly been booming for the past year, but that didn’t stop writer and artist Virginia Chamlee from creating a classic but chill, Tuscany-inspired garden in her Florida backyard with a few key outdoor furnishings and thrift store finds galore. Like most transformations, the process didn’t happen overnight and took a village, as Chamlee and her boyfriend, Tom, weren’t working with much worth salvaging except for the existing fence.

Though the home’s corner lot features grass on the front and the sides, the back was a bit of a wasteland and in disrepair. “The area behind the house was an overgrown mess when I bought it — a little patch of bricks that you could barely see for weeds and then lots of mulch hidden by some more weeds,” she says.  “I knew I wanted something nicer immediately, but it wasn’t until a year after living in the house that I decided to just tile out the entire back in a checkerboard pattern using terracotta concrete tiles and add in plants on top.”

Credit: Agnes Lopez

First things first, she called in reinforcements from a pro paving crew, who ripped up all the weeds and older bricks, leveled the yard out, and tiled it completely in the neutral checkered motif you see above. That work took about a day-and-a-half, then Chamlee started adding in potted plants and larger pieces of furniture, laying out the patio into two distinct zones: one for dining and another for lounging.

Furnishing the space turned out to be tricky, mostly due to delivery lead times. “I ordered the couch from CB2, and then the pandemic hit, disrupting the supply chain and delaying the shipment,” she says. Still, Chamlee sourced most of the larger pieces — the dining table, two accent chairs, and coffee table — from CB2 as well. These items, combined with the checkerboard pavers, laid the foundation for the eclectic, modern meets traditional mashup Chamlee was after.

With nothing to do but wait for those furniture orders to come in piecemeal, the couple launched into phase two of the makeover, the landscaping. Though they wanted to avoid having to mow more grass, they absolutely knew they’d incorporate lots of greenery, so they turned to a local landscape artist, Jon, for help. “I showed him so many photos of what I wanted — kind of a ‘Tuscan garden if it were behind a Brooklyn brownstone sort of vibe,’” says Chamlee. Think smaller trees and flowering plants like Japanese blueberry, pear, citrus, bougainvillea, mandavilla, and more.

Six months later, and the plants they selected finally reached the state of maturation as reflected in the photos here. “I’m not the most patient person, but it’s been so worth the time and effort to see vines start to creep and trees start to bear fruit,” says Chamlee. “I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.” 

Credit: Agnes Lopez

Then came the really fun part for Chamlee, a total secondhand shopping savant: the last layer of accessories to finish off the space. She thrifted the two tall urns set against the fence at the back of the yard and nearly all the planters used throughout, and same goes for the iron chairs on one side of the dining table and the John Risley Face chair (shown just above). A lot of what she buys retails for much more at auction or on fancier resale sites, but Chamlee often stumbles upon designer deals at places like Goodwill and local estate sales. She’s even the author of a forthcoming book about shopping for and styling vintage finds coming out in 2022 with Blue Star Press.

Credit: Agnes Lopez

Most of the tabletop pieces she’s using for outdoor entertaining, from the flatware to the plates, were scored vintage as well (and, yes, for a song). The textiles come from smaller, female-owned businesses: a Heather Taylor Home oatmeal striped tablecloth echoes the colors in the checkerboard pavers underfoot, while fuchsia Jenny Penywood napkins add a pop of bold color to the place settings. Bistro lights strung from the house’s exterior over to one side of the fence spotlights this area, illuminating it for hanging out well into the night.

Now that the project is finished, Chamlee uses the space for as much as she can and as often as possible. “I love that it’s become an additional ‘room’ in the house,” says Chamlee. “There’s plenty of space to stretch out — I’m a writer and work remotely, so sometimes I even work back there — space to dine al fresco, and there’s always little creatures — butterflies, hummingbirds — swinging through to check everything out.”