John Semmes sees no reason why rooms need to be indoors.
In fact, he’s got nine in the backyard of his Fayetteville home. The rooms – sitting places scattered throughout the lush yard – are part of a vision that Semmes has been working to realize for decades.
And he isn’t done. Semmes, a military veteran and retired businessman, is constantly looking for ways to improve his backyard and bring it closer to his idea of perfection.
Semmes, 69, is a Louisiana native. He joined the military after graduating from high school, and left in the early 1970s as a captain. After leaving the military, Semmes worked for an executive search firm from which he retired as owner about three years ago.
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Semmes and his wife, Linda, bought their Well’s Place house in 1985. At that time, the backyard was fairly standard.
When Semmes’ daughter Michelle was playing softball and other sports at The Fayetteville Academy, Semmes built a backyard batting cage to help teach her the finer points of hitting.
The lessons worked – Michelle Semmes went on to play shortstop for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
But the clay Semmes trucked in for the batting cage made it hard for grass to grow. So he decided to get creative.
Drawing on his love of the atmosphere of his native Louisiana – as well as the architecture of Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. – Semmes set about creating his own backyard mecca.
Today, Semmes’ yard is a wonderland filled with hidden places and surprises. And despite its natural feel, it’s all painstakingly organized.
“Nothing was haphazard,” Semmes said, leading a tour recently. “It was planned.”
While some of the work started in 1985, Semmes said most of the project was completed in the last 10 years.
A flagstone walkway leads from the front of the house to the backyard. Hugging the back of the house is a terrace, including a courtyard dominated by a gas fireplace. Speakers pipe in soothing sounds. “Most of the time it’s bird sounds,” Semmes said. “At night, it’s night sounds.”
Spanish moss hangs from an oak tree, which was imported from Florida and lowered into the ground with a crane.
“I literally picked these things out on the Internet,” Semmes said.
This part of the yard features palm trees and other tropical plants. Many have to be brought inside in winter months.
An in-ground pool dominates the backyard, its water fed by a dolphin fountain. Beyond the pool is a wooded area, although nearly every planting was planned.
A flagstone path leads through the wooded area. Semmes calls it the “JaNate Path,” for his grandchildren Jay and Nate Paul, who are now teenagers.
Semmes said he took Jay and Nate into account when he planned the path years ago.
“I said, ‘I’ve got two grandsons, 6 and 7,’” Semmes said. “You either make a pathway or they’re going to make it themselves.”
For this and many other aspects of his yard, Semmes was aided by J.F. Dunn of Dunn’s Nursery, one of many landscapers he has relied on. Semmes said he appreciates Dunn’s willingness to let him know when an idea he has just isn’t going to work.
About 40 feet up on some of the pines, Semmes has hung large wind chimes that send out a tinkling sound when they catch a breeze.
Along the path is a man-made waterfall that Semmes had built after seeing a mountain waterfall during a stay at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. The waterfall is powered by a pump and has settings for a gentle trickle and a louder rush of water.
Also featured are some of the “rooms” or sitting areas Semmes has built into his backyard paradise. Semmes said one shady area is a favorite – he likes to sit there with a friend and enjoy his handiwork. “He gets a scotch and I drink my gin-and-tonic,” Semmes said.
To help him with the project, Semmes said his wife, Linda, researched the different kinds of plants he wanted to make sure they were suitable for this area’s climate. She also insisted he complete a master gardener program offered through N.C. State University.
“It cost $132 to go through the class,” he said. “Best $132 I ever spent.”