You might say Tim Heelan gets by with a little help from his friends. The owner of the Chanhassen, Minnesota-based Stonepocket Inc., Heelan designs landscape projects, then oversees their installation by various contractors.
For the project he calls “Copper and Stone,” which earned 2017 honors from the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association, he estimates it took a dozen different companies to help him complete his vision — eight for the fire pit alone.
But, then neither the fire pit nor the rest of the job is exactly average.
Heelan explains that the clients first contacted him in 2012 wanting to redo a backyard patio that had been installed in the 1990s. He describes it as an exposed aggregate concrete with a painted border, a glass-topped table and a Weber grill.
“The white border was fading away,” he says. “It really had no features; it was just a standard concrete patio.”
The approximately one-acre property itself is somewhat hilly and is wooded with maples. Because of the nature of the site, it had a fieldstone boulder retaining wall that ultimately ended up being incorporated in Heelan’s design. However, it was touch-and-go for awhile.
“We did come up with one version where the wall was going to be removed and a fireplace installed,” he says. “But, we decided to keep the fieldstone wall, one to save costs, and two because it’s really nice with the moss and lichens and all the plants that have found nooks and crannies in it over time.”
That decision colored the direction the rest of the design took, because the clients had wanted a unique fire feature. That’s how the fire pit came into being.
Heelan says once he came up with the concept and brought the idea to the clients, it took him a little homework and several favors to help him realize the design and ultimately create what he describes as “a beautiful work of art.”
There are several reasons the tabletop-height fire pit had eight different contractors contributing to it. First and foremost is the tabletop itself, which is copper hand-hammered to a 3/16-inch thickness by a group of Mexico-based artisans.
However, it begins with a four feet deep frost foundation that Heelan says is necessary for Minnesota’s winters. Also underground are both electrical and natural gas connections. The electrical not only lights the exterior of the fire pit, but powers a remote on/off switch for the gas.
“They also have a dedicated iPhone that controls all the lights and the music for the backyard,” he says. “We did strip LED lighting around the circumference of the copper table so it lights up the stonework and the surrounding patio.”
To support the tabletop, Heelan required first a local concrete manufacturer to create a base, and then faced it with a New York granite. He explains it was chosen for its color in preference to some of the native Minnesota stones.
It also influenced the selection by the clients of two different types of bluestone for a walkway and the patio itself.
“The bluestone around the fire pit is called irregular full-color bluestone, so you get the browns and grays in it,” says Heelan. “The other surface is a cut blue pattern that has a more uniform surface and is more in the gray range.”
The mason who installed the stone on the project beveled the patio stone edges to create tight joints without using any sand or filler between them. The patio sits on a bed of compacted class 5 that’s separated from the soil by a geo-textile barrier.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the fire pit is the feature of the project that makes Heelan smile.
“There’s nothing like it,” he says. “The copper fire table is amazing, and despite copper being a fantastic conductor, when you have the fire going and you touch it, the copper is actually cool to the touch.”
Nor is the tabletop the only place where copper appears in the project. Past the fire pit is a waterfall with its own copper spillway.
Rather than rely simply on the existing fieldstone wall to supply the drop, Heelan arranged for a three-foot boulder to be brought in, then notched it out to install the spillway.
“There’s a little woodland stream that starts back a bit further on the property, hits the copper spillway and then spills into a basin made by some local metalsmiths,” he explains. “It’s a steel basin that’s been rubberized. It allows the water to recirculate and it also holds the pump to move the water back to the start of the stream.”
He calls placing that boulder the project’s biggest challenge.
“We were nervous about putting such a huge rock on the existing wall,” he says. “On the back side it’s fastened with steel and concrete and has another footing behind the wall to act as a counterweight so it can never tip forward. It took some thought and doing.”
Still further back and reached by a set of bluestone steps is the client’s grilling station, which features both a Wolf grill-head and a Green Egg built into the granite masonry which is topped by a honed bluestone countertop. It, too, has LED strip lighting to wash the granite walls.
Heelan says it was the clients’ preference not to do a full outdoor kitchen.
“They didn’t want to get overwhelmed,” he says. “They weren’t interested in having a refrigerator and storage they’d have to maintain, and they’re somewhat limited in space because of the hill behind the house.”
Across from the grilling station where the fieldstone wall terminates, another set of steps climbs up to a bench area overlooking the patio.
Work began on the project in the fall of 2013, and to complete it in time for the spring high school graduation of one of the clients’ daughters, masonry work on the grilling station was done during the winter under a heated enclosure.
Drainage was a big concern for the project. Heelan explains that water from the home’s downspouts was already being piped into the existing woodland adjoining the back yard. To drain the patio, it was slightly graded in both directions away from the kitchen door with much of the water being directed to an area behind the grilling station.
“There’s a dry creek bed/path with stepping stones on top of rock that drains the patio toward the woods,” he explains. “That also gives access to the side yard.”
Adding hard accents to the project are copper leaf path lights and custom planters and a bench for the overlook area that was reclaimed from the original patio area. The custom path lights were manufactured locally.
“We have a good artistic community here in the Twin Cities,” Heelan says. “If one of my clients can imagine something, I usually will know somebody who can build it.”
Color was a key request from the clients for the softscape portion of the project. To enliven the fieldstone wall, Heelan went with a blend of Dicentra, Actaea, Alchemilla and Hakonechloa, while Begonias and Brunnera line the patio edge.
Additionally, Salvia, Euphorbia, Anemone, Chelone and Euonymus fill a sunny patch on the hill behind the grilling station. And Hakonechloa, Dicentra, Chelone, Pulmonaria and Geranium lead the way to the bench overlook which has been planted in Dogwoods.
Beyond setting the large boulder, Heelan says with any job of this type, planning is critical.
“You just have to plan the job and make sure every guy comes in and does his thing, and then the next and the next and then it all gets done,” he says.
In this case, not only did the job get done, but with plenty of plaudits to go around, as well. Heelan says he’s most proud of the feel he gets when he enters the now maturing project.
“There’s a real nestled feel to it, it’s very private,” he concludes. “Not only is there all this amazing craftsmanship my friends were able to display, but if just flows naturally from one element to the next. There’s the beautiful work of art that’s the fire pit, and then there’s the water cascading down behind it.
“It’s a great place to sit on a summer evening.”