Lake Highlands has remained a well-kept secret in Dallas for a good many years, but those “in the know” are familiar with the hills and valleys of this oasis where, in some areas (on a clear day), an unobstructed view of the Dallas skyline can be seen. Maybe it’s the terrain, perhaps it’s the branch of White Rock Creek that zig zags through the neighborhood, possibly it’s because of the homes built back when contractors saved trees…whatever the reason, today Lake Highlands boasts some of the most beautiful lawns and gardens in the City.

What defines a beautiful yard? The Advocate asked two Lake Highlands dwellers, Sue Benson and Cyndei Littlejohn, how important to a home’s overall aesthetic value is its yard or surrounding grounds.

“Extremely,” says Benson, “As an interior designer, it doesn’t do a lot of good to have the coordinates inside the home if you have to walk past a horrible, unappealing, messy yard. It’s not as desirable a piece of property. Your landscaping should reflect who you are and complement your home. It should be inviting,” she emphasizes.

The home that Sue and John Benson built in Lake Highlands not only looks inviting, it appears peaceful and serene, both inside and out. From the beautiful lawn to the redwood decks perched over a branch of White Rock Creek to the contrast of stark white and onyx black when you enter the front door, it’s like entering the pages of a home and garden magazine.

The greenhouse, which is humid and warm, is located off the breakfast room and kitchen. Potted plants and hanging baskets thrive, especially the Phalaenopsis and Dendrobium orchids, which she says are “easy to grow – with enough light and heat, greenhouse plants simply need to be watered.” She doesn’t get in the greenhouse every day as there’s a lot to do in the yard during this time of year. Two years ago when the couple built their dream house on Rose Creek Court, they had the task of clearing the Garrison Gardens land, located adjacent to a greenbelt area.

The backyard, with hardscape of stone and concrete, is accessible from several rooms. There’s lots of tall trees, fresh Easter-green grass, raised flower beds, redwood decks that look more like tree houses, and a Koi pond with tranquil water lilies floating on the surface. The garden presents a pristine habitat of plants, trees, fish and birds. Benson mentions proudly that not one tree was lost when preparing the lot for construction. “We built the house around the trees,” she says.

And nature shows up…up close, like the female Cardinal who sits patiently in her nest in a small tree right outside the breakfast room window. Benson loves nature and enjoys watching the wild animals and birds gather for grub, usually in morning or evening. She refers to the lot as “incredible,” and sounds like an excited child when she talks her menagerie.

“Right now I have a litter of kittens. I have possums. I have heard coyotes call. There are three gray foxes that I feed on a regular basis. I have a squirrel that eats out of my hand, and I have a bat house…but I don’t have any bats yet, although we’ve seen bats. I have an owl house, and last year owls nested there. I’ve seen a new nest this year, so they’ve probably returned.”

By purchasing an adjacent lot, the Bensons guaranteed the privacy that they wanted. Robert Enzman, who worked with Garrison Gardens for years, helped them come up with a landscaping plan, “…since he was familiar with the trees and plants on the property,” Benson explains. “Then I just followed it. Robert did a terrific job.”

“Francisco Guevarra built the large retaining walls, but John and I laid all the flagstone walks. We built all the Windsor rock retaining walls and terraced gardens. The perennial garden require very little maintenance, and the yellow day lilies bloom all summer.” Benson says that this lily blossoms even in the hot Texas summer, “so we always have cut flowers available.” The yard is a combination of perennials and annuals, with a few tropicals. “More than 800 tulip and daffodil bulbs are planted every spring,” Benson says.

Cyndei and Lynn Littlejohn have also created their own personal oasis, but on a much smaller arena. They don’t have a creek behind their house – they have an alley – but it’s open and clean and a lot of neighborhood kids come by in hope of seeing the model trains.

The Littlejohns had talked about moving for awhile, but it was hard for Lynn to give up the HO train and its elaborately laid out track and landscape display that he and his son, Cory, had built. “It was lots of paper, wire and plaster that we couldn’t dismantle,” Lynn explains.

However, when they first saw the home on Colfax, they immediately fell in love with it. They backyard had a nice open feeling, he explains. “And, it didn’t have a fence.” Shortly after the family moved in, they realized for the first time that their respective hobbies perhaps could be combined. He would collect, display and operate a large-scale permanent model train display in the backyard and Cyndei would landscape according to scale, using miniature shrubs, ground cover and flowering perennials. She has carried a Southwestern theme into the partially covered patio, which was just completed last year.

There’s a relaxing rhythm to the sound of steel wheels on steel track, whether sitting in your car at a railroad crossing listening, or standing with a remote in hand – guiding the Lake George, Boulder, Durango on its journey. Just like watching fish swim in an aquarium or pond, watching a train take a corner, go under a bridge or enter a tunnel then reappear at the opposite end…causes something primeval to occur for most observers. Hearts begin to beat in sync with the “clickety clack” of another era. It’s a very relaxing hobby, “but expensive,” says Lynn.

He became a collector of the large-scale trains about four years ago and, during this time, he has laid down nearly 300 feet of track. His collection includes a European Stainz passenger train, a Pennsylvania B&O passenger and the model mentioned above, which Lynn says still carries passengers across the line’s original route. “It’s a really beautiful trip through the mountains of Colorado,” Lynn says. “Our company, E&D Plastics, makes architectural models.”

The beauty of a garden, its symmetry of design, the aura of “welcome” has always been important to Cyndei since she comes from a long line of gardeners. “My dad still does all his own planting and yard work.” Her enjoyment of the outdoors started as a child, working next to him in the yard.

Their son, 14-year-old Cory, played an important part in the digging of the Koi pond, and he has always been helpful in the yard. The family enjoys camping, and many of the interesting rocks around the pond were found on hikes and camping trips, especially in the Marble Falls area. Lynn suggests leaving “the moss or algae on a rock, it adds a different texture.”

A formally trained ballet dancer, today Cyndei is a teacher, dancer and choreographer with the Dallas Ballet Center. She invites everyone to a free concert to be held at McFarlin Auditorium on June 8th, and says that with dance, teaching and gardening in her life, she’s happy and content. Reflecting on her definition of a beautiful yard, she says, “It’s the whole family working together in the yard.”