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Escaping to your own backyard for the comfort of a cottage

Ed Gibbs was saying it for the whole of North America: ''The 'cottage in the country' is moving back to town.'' By that, the long-established landscape and pool consultant in this Canadian city means that the people who used to buy a vacation cottage at the lake or near the ocean are now buying beauty, comfort, and enjoyment for their own back yard.

They are investing in professional landscaping; in patios, decks, a sparkling fountain, perhaps, a swimming pool, and sometimes a hot tub.

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The idea is to make home a place where outdoor living can be enjoyed whenever the sun shines and even when it doesn't; where the back yard is a secluded haven to relax in, socialize in, and, yes, even vacation in. ''With the right kind of landscaping,'' comments Ed Gibbs, ''you can get the equivalent of a private beach just a few feet from your back door and your mini-vacations can range from an hour or two to the whole day.''

Rising energy costs and what might be termed the inevitable result of progress have sparked the move. Even with the recent lowering of the price of gas, it still costs several times what it used to when the trend towards spending the summer at the beach cottage or mountain camp was at its peak. If you live some distance from your retreat, just getting there now represents an investment in itself. But there is much more to it than that.

Cottage lots used to be cheap and plentiful; now they are expensive and not that easy to find. As Mr. Gibbs puts it: ''You used to buy a lot for about $500, throw up a lean-to with a privy at the back. Now the lots can range anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 and up. With that sort of initial investment there is no way in the world that you will simply throw up a shed and privy - even assuming that increasingly stringent zoning regulations would allow it.''

It doesn't end there, either. You now own a moderately expensive, albeit small, cottage that must be furnished. Here again the tendency is to seek out furnishings that match the quality of the building. The investment grows and so does its taxable value, even if low by city standards. And, the property must be insured against loss; it's simply worth too much to take a chance.

Finally, time constraints often mean that visits to the cottage aren't as frequent as theyshould be for the money involved. The investment lies unused for most of the time and when it is used much of the vacation is spent cleaning up, mowing the lawn, and painting the trim.

The alternative, then, is to brighten up our permanent surroundings. This is being increasingly done throughout North America.

So how does one turn a backyard into the ''country cottage?''

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* Decide what you want from your home vacation spot. Is it to be an area for adult relaxation and entertainment only, or will young children be involved? If the latter, then some open play area must be provided which might include a sandbox and a swing set.

Is a pool part of your landscaping plans? This is an important decision even if you don't plan to invest in one right away, so ultimately the pool will look as though it belonged there and not like some afterthought. Indeed, you will want to build the landscaping around the pool, even if the ''pool'' for the time being is an open space of lawn or other ground cover.

* Design for privacy. For outdoor living, select that part of your yard which can most readily be screened from others. This living area should be exclusively yours just as the interior of your home is. Others should enter it (even visually) only at your invitation.

Total privacy isn't always immediately attainable, but start with that end in view. The right fencing helps right away, and accompanying plantings, as they mature, increase both the privacy and visual attraction of the area.

* Seek both shade and sun. They complement each other, and the human race needs them both. So does the family cat. The summer siesta, taken in a shade-covered hammock, is matched by the pleasures of sunbathing. As the sun moves across the sky each day pools of golden warmth march across your private vacation spot, and you move in or out of them according to the desires of the moment.

* Match trees and shrubbery to the size of your yard. The forest giant that looks so beautiful at one end of a three-acre meadow will so dominate a small yard that outdoor living pleasures are all but eliminated. The oversized tree shades the area so heavily that nothing else can grow in the yard, and what could have been a pleasant area becomes bleak, damp, and uninviting on all but the hottest days of the year. In a small, sunny courtyard, for instance, a standard-size peach tree can deliver the same effect as the large tree in the open meadow.

* Vary the topography. Just as the undulating vista has more appeal to the eye than the unbroken flatness of the prairie, so raised flower beds, grassy mounds, and winding paths add to the interest of your backyard retreat. They also increase the illusion of spaciousness in restricted areas. A deck of varying heights adds to the character of the area as well. If yours is a flat yard, a truckload of loam to build these undulations becomes a worthwhile investment.

* Site the socializing area, including the barbecue area, with care. After reading, sunbathing, and snoozing, one of the most commonplace activites in your outdoor living area will be entertaining friends and family. So be sure the deck or patio is spacious enough for peopleto gather in comfort. It should also be moderately close to the kitchen.

The barbecue area will be a must, of course. A portable unit gives you some flexibility but the stone barbecue pit does not. If you decide to build on, place it where rising heat will not destroy foliage overhead. That means knowing how large a nearby tree will grow. The sapling that looks well out of the way now can be much too close for comfort in two or three years.

If you can, site the barbecue pit where it can be shaded from the afternoon sun by a wall or tall tree that does not overhang the pit. This way the chef is not exposed to both the heat of the fire and the sun at the same time.

* Think again about your pool needs - before the backhoe moves in! Ask yourself exactly what you want from the pool. If it is to be a cool-down only sort of place, then a wading pool no more than 3 feet deep is adequate. However, if you like to do double-somersaults off the diving board, you will need a considerably deeper pool.

If you don't fancy bathing but enjoy the presence of water, a pleasing effect at much less cost can be had with a shallow pond with, perhaps, a small waterfall at one end. The hot tub is another option that can go outdoors.

Finally, while straight lines are perfectly acceptable, don't add too many geometric patterns to your backyard retreat. Nature comes in waves and curves and they should predominate where possible.

What can all this cost? If the professional landscapers and pool people do the complete installation, you can expect to pay anywhere from $12,000 to $20, 000 and more. That compares to $8,000 and up for an auto that lasts only a limited number of years, and $40,000 for the country cottage on the lower end of the scale.

There are less expensive options. After the professionals have completed the main construction (the pool, for instance) you might like to try the landscaping yourself. Professional landscapers can provide plans, or you might pick up some good ideas from magazines. There are good books on the subject, and adult education classes frequently feature a landscaping course.

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