Your Dreaming Outdoor Space

A funny thing happened this summer after leveling out the backyard. For the first time since moving into my house, I actually began to picture my dream backyard space. And the truth is, I have a long way to go.

For myself and plenty of other first-time homeowners, it seems to be a little easier to picture the future potential of interior spaces, like where the Christmas tree is going to go during the holidays, what hardwoods might look like instead of ugly carpet, etc. But if you’re anything like me, being able to see a yard’s future potential just doesn’t come to mind as easily.

I think it’s mainly because where the interior typically has defined areas and specific functions, the yard often starts as more of a blank slate (or in my case, a mess that has to first be cleaned up before a blank slate is possible). As a result, I wound up constantly second-guessing my outdoor project plans, putting them off, and taking years longer than I probably should have to get started.

If I could go back in time, I would have started on my dream yard a lot sooner. But now that I’ve had the opportunity for some trial and error, I can now see what I was missing all along. The key to adding the wow factor for a beautiful backyard is actually quite simple: divide and conquer.

1. A Place for Storage
When I first bought my house, I had no idea how important the space in my one-car garage would be. Even though I do an annual cleanout, it’s just not enough space for renovation supplies, outdoor equipment, paint, power tools, and lumber. The items I need for the interior upgrades compete for storage space with the equipment to maintain a healthy lawn and garden, leading to one massive mess that I’m constantly stepping over (and bumping my shin into).

Through years of organizing the interior spaces, I’ve learned a key lesson in home improvement: Make the space around you work for how you live your life.

I know that sounds like strange and obvious advice, but it isn’t until you live in a space for a little while that you realize what your habits are. Many times, new homeowners, including myself, will work toward a design that is totally wrong for them, focusing on how it “should be” and neglecting the reality of their everyday needs.

If you have an aunt who has that formal living room that never gets used, you’re plenty familiar with this concept. She’s basically paying for hundreds of square feet of underutilized space, heating and cooling it, and for what? A nice couch that the family never sits on?!

This same lesson works for outdoor spaces: It’s about how the space gets used today, tomorrow, and a year from now. Have a place for gardening tools, the mower, etc., in an easy-to-reach and well-organized location, and the existing space is much more efficient.

The garden improves by force of habit because you’ll be going out there more often, working in your garden more often, etc. Since I’ve used just about every possible square inch of my garage, my next big project will be building my own outdoor storage shed, ideal for gardening and related equipment.

The design of the structure will be custom, but I’m taking heavy inspiration from fellow bloggers, like “Finding Silver Pennies.” Rather than just serving as a dumping ground for extra stuff, this shed is more like an extension of the home’s design. I love the idea of adding trim, decorative hardware, and little garden boxes!

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2. Room for Entertaining
When I moved into my house, there was one space that I knew would need an upgrade: the 8-by-10-foot slab leading out from my kitchen and into the backyard. Prepare yourself for a hideous photo in 3 … 2 … 1 …

It’s my only true space for placing outdoor furniture at the moment, and even though it got a little bit of a makeover a few years ago (below), what I really want to do is expand this space for more guests and entertaining (just two seats aren’t going to cut it!).

For a while, I thought that I might have to hire help to expand the patio or bust up the concrete, but that might not be necessary. Kelly from “View Along the Way” came up with a great DIY option for her slab-turned-wooden deck, which I think is a genius option!

Before: Like mine, it wasn’t much to look at:

After: No more stepping down onto discolored concrete:

By building a new deck (or extension) over existing concrete, I have the option to expand the area as a whole. I’ll have to add some supports in expanded areas, but it beats having only 80 square feet of space for furniture. Guests won’t be crowded, and I’ll be more inclined to actually use this area rather than constantly avoiding it.

3. A Beautiful Garden
It’s hard to plan for a beautiful garden if you have a habit of killing indoor plants. If you too have a black thumb like I once did, take it from me: There’s hope! The secret is to pick plants that are either native to the area or to the natural climate you live in, which allows the plants you pick to thrive — even if they’re eventually neglected (ahem, guilty!). In the southeastern U.S. where I live, that means plants like hydrangeas, azaleas, and gardenias.

 

Local nurseries and home improvement stores often carry plenty of options that do well in your climate (and the less exotic choices are often the most affordable plants, too).

I’ve also found that raised garden beds have been the easiest to start with since they help deter weeds and provide plenty of quality soil for growing. They can even help cover neighbor-neglected fences, like the one to the right of my property. There was nothing I could really do about a fence that I didn’t own, but I could try to dress it up from my side!

Before: While I’m glad my neighborhood doesn’t have the added expense of an HOA, it does mean that neighbors have to work out problem areas amongst themselves. With a little creativity, I took a neglected fence and made it into something I liked.

An old, mossy wood fence with patchy grassImage: The Ugly Duckling House

After: By adding some low-maintenance garden beds along one side of my yard, I created a spot that would eventually fill in with a living, flowering hedge.

A garden bed against a fence with brown mulch and plantsImage: The Ugly Duckling House

The plan is to later expand on this concept with the rest of the yard once the new deck and shed are in. These two additions will open the door for creating new gardening spaces next to each structure. I suppose I won’t get to call myself a black thumb for much longer!

4. Nighttime Lighting
I just love the idea of nighttime outdoor entertaining. Cozy seating, plenty of space for evening chatter, and the ambiance of delicate lighting make for a breathtaking space. Stefanie from “Brooklyn Limestone” has a great example of how to separate zones in the yard using outdoor lights (below). This small patio area is surrounded by a series of string lights suspended above, which separates it from the hammock and dining area nearby.

5. An Inviting Fire
Once the need-to-have things are in, it’ll be time to build some furniture and create a fire pit area for people to sit around and enjoy the new yard. There are lots of DIY options out there, and since store-bought kits for fire pits tend to be on the pricey side, I’m planning to use inexpensive concrete blocks, similar to how “A Beautiful Mess” created their awesome s’mores fire pit.

After years of working on the interior, one tends to lose a little momentum and inspiration to keep the DIY train moving along. But transitioning my thought process to these exterior improvements has given me a serious boost in energy to continue making changes and hang on to my home improvement mojo.

New homeowners: Don’t make my same mistake! Start working on your yard as a process long before you think you’ll need to.

Now that I know the true potential waiting in my backyard, I can focus on making these dream outdoor zones into a reality. With any luck, this will be the year for lots of outdoor entertaining in a brilliant new space.

An Easy Ideas for People Who Hate Yard Work

Look at those smug neighbors, lounging around on their stylish teak patio furniture, sipping cocktails, and loving life. Meanwhile, you’re behind on mowing the lawn and trimming the hedges. Who has time to prep for a patio party when you can’t even keep up with the regular stuff? Shouldn’t you get to kick back on your lawn, too?

Yes, you should. It’s just a matter of designing your landscape so it requires less attention from you. Here are a few strategies to help:

Use Rocks for Interesting Landscape Features
Grass doesn’t grow on rocks. Besides stating the obvious, what that really means is that they’re the perfect, versatile tool for creating a low-maintenance outdoor space. Use them to create walkways, or group them together to form decorative outcroppings.

You can even lay out stones to be ornamental dry creek beds. Small yards, especially in desert climates, can be completely rocked over, or you can use them as strategically placed accents.

And if you’ve got spots that are constantly wet, they’re great for keeping mud (and mosquitoes!) under control because they’ll help the water run off instead of collecting.

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Add a Rain Garden if You’ve Got a Soggy Spot
Lush rain garden in front yard with brown mulch, plantsImage: Rain Dog Designs LLC

Speaking of wet areas, do you have a depressed corner of the yard where puddles rule?

Try a rain garden, which is kind of a mini-wetland that reduces storm-water runoff. And done right, they’re almost maintenance free because they require no mowing, no watering, and little weeding.

They make much prettier focal points than soggy grass, too.

Rain gardens are fairly easy to create, using gravel, sand, and native plants. The idea is to slow down rainwater so less of it goes into the sewer system, and more is used to nourish plant life.

DIY the Easiest Deck Ever
Decks do require some maintenance, but you don’t have to mow ‘em every weekend, that’s for sure. And a platform deck — no steps, no railings — is the easiest of all.

A light-colored deck with patio furniture at nightImage: Alexi Politis at Seeking Alexi

“There are lots of dense hardwoods like ipe and cedar, redwood and composites that last a long time and are very low-maintenance,” says Tomi Landis, president of Landis Garden Design in Washington, D.C.

While you’re dreaming of your new deck, think about this: How you will use it?

“Will you be using it in the morning while having coffee?” Landis asks. “If so, it should be oriented to the east. If it’s mainly for dining out in the evening and having cocktails, it should be facing west.” But be sure shade is available in the hotter months.

Switch to Tall Grass That Never Needs Mowing
Contemporary backyard patio and garden with tall grassImage: Carol Heffernan

Not all grass is created equal. Tall grasses, like switchgrass, bluestem, muhly, and fountaingrass, all grow fast and require very little TLC. Nor do they ever get mowed.

“Native grasses are a great solution to a lot of landscaping problems,” Landis says. They soak up lots of water and provide an organic privacy screen while trimming your mowing time.

How to use tall grasses:

Group along a fence line.
Group into geometric patterns in your yard for a clean look.
Go more random for a more natural look.
The most maintenance you’ll do with these is cut them back in late fall. They dry up in the fall, which sends some of those glorious long leaves flying across your yard. But they can be used as (free!) mulch or ignored. They’ll do no harm.

Create Pathways to Reduce High-Maintenance Grass
Like the rocks above, pavers (sometimes called “steppers”) are decorative stones used to create pathways that need little or no care. “A stepper in a natural shape looks really great in a lot of contexts,” Landis says. Traditional house styles like bungalows, colonials, and Victorians tend to go well with more natural pavers, like flagstone.

If your house is more on the modern side, opt for some rectangular or square pavers.

Go For Fake Grass — No One Will Know (Seriously)
Fake grass used on a steep front lawnImage: John Riha for HouseLogic

Some purists might consider fake grass to be over the line, but the newer faux turf doesn’t make your yard look like a putt-putt course, nor does it get so hot it burns your feet like the fake turf in your parents’ day.

“It’s great for somebody with no time on their hands,” says Doug DeLuca, founder of Federal Stone and Brick in Sterling, Virginia. “It comes like a roll of carpet, you set a bed for it with gravel, then use sod staples to hold it down.”

It doesn’t need to be cut, watered or fertilized, and pets can’t kill it.

Plant Your Own Mini Forest if You Get Lots of Rain
Native habitat in a back yard with bird bathImage: RDM Architecture

Where there are trees there shall be no grass. But there will be shade, and that’s a plus for picnicking and lawn-chair lounging.

“Trees can soak up a lot of rainwater,” Landis says, and therefore, need a lot of water. Consider your local climate, as soaking up water can be good or bad. Do you need to sop up excess water? Is the yard already too dry?

Keep in mind that native trees are less maintenance because they’re adapted to your area. Color is the secret to a stunning yard, but that doesn’t mean you need to plant a garden full of labor-intensive dahlias.

It means choosing bright pots, benches, bird baths, Adirondack chairs — anything that just sits there and looks lovely while you pour the cocktails.

The options are as numerous as the Pinterest search results for “yard art” (which is somewhere between 5,000 and infinity).

And if you decide to pop some colorful flowers into your colorful pots, what could be better a better backdrop to your finally-realized cocktail party?