A Little Slice of (Backyard) Heaven | Midwest Living

A Little Slice of (Backyard) Heaven

Flour meets flowers when a pizza-baking husband and a bloom-loving wife design their dream patio garden.

She’s a little bit country (garden). He’s a little bit rock and roll (out the dough). Their mash-up is a big hit.

Pizza Oven and Patio

What goes with an outdoor pizza oven? A round patio—cut into pieces by brick paths.

It started in Chuck Brandt’s middle school years, a time most people try to forget. The awkwardness. The angst. The acne. (Did you see last year’s spot-on film, Eighth Grade?) But Chuck carries a special memory from that era. When he was in eighth grade, he saw a movie about Pompeii, the ancient Italian city doomed for destruction by Mount Vesuvius. Fascinated by an outdoor pizza oven he saw on screen, he vowed to build one someday.

Chuck Brandt

Chuck’s superhot pizza oven bakes a pie in about 90 seconds. “But I cook all sorts of things in my oven,” he says, “including the hind portion of a deer.” 

Chuck’s wife, Emily, had her aha moment later in life. In college, she convinced the owner of her rental unit to take out some lawn so she could plant a flower garden. She’s been digging in the dirt ever since. “I love to try new plants,” Emily says. “For me, it’s trial and error. If I like the looks of a plant, I’ll try it. If it doesn’t work for me, it’s out.”

Emily Brandt

Emily’s prized dahlias need a little more time to “cook” than Chuck's creations, but the bouquets she makes with them are totally worth the wait.

Pizza and petals come together in a country garden outside the couple’s 1890s farmhouse in Fenton, Michigan. The focal point is Chuck’s DIY pizza oven, assembled from reclaimed stone, wood and steel he’d collected over the years. “Chuck didn’t use a kit,” Emily says. “He did his research and developed his own design.”

Garden Haven

Chuck’s rustic split rail arbor welcomes guests into the garden. It has the same timeworn character as the reclaimed wood he worked into the oven. The arbor’s thick tresses of Wisteria bloom in early summer and add to a fab foliage mix.

After Chuck built the oven, Emily surrounded it with a country-style garden. She used raised beds to harness the color power of annuals and long-blooming perennials. Behind the oven, ornamental grasses and other tall plantings match the structure’s scale and ensure a sense of escape for two—or two dozen. “After a long week of work, it’s our haven, where we relax and enjoy friends and family and each other,” Emily says.

Backyard Chairs

Adirondacks offer views of Emily’s plantings: Lollipop-like globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa ‘Buddy Purple’) bobs in a sea of dusty miller in front of the chairs.


Emily knows the more you deadhead and harvest dahlias, the more they bloom.

Chuck's Pizza Oven

A weather vane suits the farmhouse setting . Old stone and wood make the oven look the same age as the couple’s home. Climbing morning glory connects the oven to the garden—literally. Creeping thyme and Irish and Scotch moss fill gaps between the flagstones, softening the hardscape.

Pie Under the Sky

Chuck built his pizza oven from scratch. If you aren’t that ambitious, you can get the same crisp crust and open-flame flavor with these options.

Assemble It Yourself

If you’re handy, get a custom look for less with a ready-to-assemble oven. Most kits include the dome, cook floor, vent, insulation, stovepipe, door and thermometer. Prices start around $2,000.


For under $500, get a small oven that sits on an outdoor table. Midsize models have wheels like gas grills do. The Michigan-made Built-in Artisan Fire Pizza Oven from Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet tops $10,000.


For under $200, buy a little steel box or insert that turns your gas or charcoal grill into a pizza oven. A pizza stone is even cheaper. Weber’s ($40) fits its Gourmet BBQ System cooking grates.

Colorfast Plants

If your garden colors are fading already, add more staying power next year with these picks from Emily’s beds.



With 50,000 varieties (really) to choose from, Emily will never run out of ways to use dahlias. Some burst with dinner plate-size blooms.

Bloomed Dahlias

Dahlias bloom nonstop from summer until frost in a seeming rainbow of colors and an array of shapes. Spiky cactus and semicactus types are extra eye-catching.



Hardy hibiscus wow in fall with dinner plate-size blossoms. The quick growers can really fill a space, and they add a welcome warm, tropical feel to Midwest gardens.



These summer-to-fall bloomers with daisy DNA draw both people and pollinators. They grow up to 4 feet high, resist deer and drought, and make great cut flowers.

Black-eyed Susans

Black-Eyed Susans

Susans continue to bloom (sometimes into October) as most summer perennials are starting to fade. Plant them en masse for stunning swaths of gold.

Globe Amaranth

Globe Amaranth

This annual’s pom-pom blooms cheer up beds, borders and containers with color right up until frost. They take summer heat and attract butterflies, too.


Add Your Comment