By Jennifer Ebert published
Wondering how to landscape a backyard?
Creating an outdoor space you love involves combining a host of different elements into a whole that looks wonderful, and gives you the space for growing, dining, relaxing, entertaining, kids’ play and more.
‘True gardening is as much about the bones of a garden as its planting,’ remarked the late, great garden designer Rosemary Verey.
And of course, few backyard ideas are complete without some form of hard landscaping.
The materials used – from paving, aggregates and decking, to decorative edging and the hard materials employed for raised beds and walls – add texture and character to a garden, marking out the structure and leading the eye through the landscape.
The best time to undertake a wholesale backyard redesign is in winter, when the space is dormant, but the summer months are the time to analyse the ways in which you use the space and to understand what you need from your future design.
However, if you are simply planning to modernize your backyard with new surfaces and finishes, you can of course start considering backyard landscaping ideas now and reap the rewards before the end of this summer.
How to landscape a backyard
To help you realize your ideal backyard, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide packed with expert advice giving the lowdown on every aspect of your backyard makeover.
1. Consider the design
How do you want to landscape your backyard? A contemporary design, with hard landscaping a major feature, together with architectural plants might be preferable, or it could be the planting that is abundant and prominent.
If the latter is the case, should the look be formal with symmetry, straight lines and neat hedges? Or more informal with large borders, mixed color schemes and winding paths?
‘Also, what design aesthetic do you aspire to? This can be harder to define, but it is vital to understand the characteristics that will give your garden a special feel and help it to connect with your home and its wider surroundings,' says James Scott of The Garden Company.
It’s also vital to think about which features your backyard should contain, if space allows. If not, there are plenty of small back yard landscaping ideas to choose from.
List all the elements you want to include from lawns, patio ideas and decks, through to outbuildings, a garden for growing veggies, a swimming pool, play areas for kids, arches, arbors and pergolas. And the fencing and walls you prefer for boundaries and within the backyard to zone it.
Consider how large paved and decked areas need to be to accommodate dining furniture and seating for family and guests. How much play space do kids need? And how large a crop of vegetables are you looking to raise?
The site itself is also crucial and will affect the design. ‘Be aware of the soil type and areas where the sun shines in the site area,’ says multi award-winning landscape designer Jack Dunckley.
‘These specific zones of full sun, partial shade and shade will determine where and which varieties of plants should be placed for the most successful outcome.’
Areas of the backyard may need leveling, and you may need to bear in mind restrictions, such as some areas being subject to waterlogging, too. Take a look at existing trees, hedges or structures as well; it may be possible and desirable to incorporate them into the design, but they could be in the way.
2. Consider the different zones – and how to link them
The initial ideas for a new garden are always focussed on the flow of the space. A sense of intrigue can be achieved by linking areas with romantic pathways and swathes of planting, for example.
In a country garden, continuity between the house and the garden is vitally important. This can be achieved by choosing materials in the garden that are sympathetic to the house and its architecture, such as slate, stone or timber, for example.
When garden zoning, take into account the light conditions and decide on what to include in the different areas of your garden.
The final jewel in the crown of your landscape design will be the planting, says garden and landscape designer Maïtanne Hunt: ‘You’ll want to select plants that provide year-round interest, such as evergreens, hedges, trees or topiary that give structure to a garden when perennials have died down.’
3. Decide on the professionals you’ll work with
You may wish to commission a landscape architect or garden designer. This profession is significantly different to other types of building construction and requires specialist knowledge.
It’s important to seek out a good landscaping company rather than regular builders, who may not be familiar with some of the ‘basics’ of building gardens rather than houses.
Landscapers are trained in hard and soft landscaping skills, which essentially means that they can build the garden and also lay turf and plant the trees, shrubs and perennials that the garden designer has specified.
They could produce the plans for your backyard, manage the process, too, or design and construct, depending on the services offered and your preference.
Their professional experience could help you realize your dream backyard, but you will of course need to set aside a proportion of the budget if this is the route you’re going to take.
The Connecticut garden above was designed by Seattle-based Land Morphology.
Whether with a design from a professional or your own, the labor may be something you have the experience and confidence to take on.
Alternatively, if you're looking for backyard ideas on a budget, you might employ professionals to take on the preparatory work including clearing, any leveling, drainage, laying pavers and decks and so on, leaving you to lay the lawn and put in plants.
4. Clear the space
The backyard needs to be cleared before the work of creating the new design can begin. This could take the form of jobs such as removing weeds and any unwanted growth, but it might also mean taking away rubbish. Rubble and rocks can prevent plants from establishing, meanwhile.
‘What is cleared to make way for a new scheme is very site and project dependant, but it’s good to retain anything you can work with, such as existing trees,’ says Rae Wilkinson, MSGD (Society of Garden Designers). ‘
Weeds should be hand cleared and rubble or site soil used within the scheme rather than removing it where possible, thus retaining the sensitive balance of the soil and reducing carbon footprint.’
Leveling the yard may be necessary, too, to create flat lawns, as well as provide a place for a patio or deck. Clever sloped backyard ideas mean a severely sloping backyard can still look great. It may need a series of terraces, but these can have the benefit of adding interest to the design and zoning different areas.
5. Think outbuildings
Planning in adequate storage for your gardening toolkit is vital. Rather than keep it all in the garage, you may look for garden shed ideas to create dedicated storage when you’re landscaping a backyard.
A garden shed can be useful for tasks like starting seeds and dividing plants, so consider sizing up so there’s room to work as well as space to store.
A shed can also be a pretty feature in its own right, adding a focal point to the backyard that complements a home’s style and the materials from which it’s made. It can even introduce outside living space but with the benefit of shelter from the elements.
Be aware that you’ll need to check regulations locally before you put up a shed. In the US you may need a permit, and there may be restrictions in the UK, depending on where you live.
Greenhouse ideas allow you to create the optimum environment for growing vegetables, flowers and other plants. Greenhouses can be modest in size, or scaled up if space permits to fit cultivation requirements.
6. Choose appropriate materials
According to garden designer Cheryl Cummings, ‘Hard materials used in the garden need to sit well with the fabric of the house, and with the internal flooring if they are to flow seamlessly.
'They need to look appropriate to the setting and any existing garden materials, so for many reasons a locally sourced material, often stone, makes sense.’
Maïtanne Hunt suggests Corten steel for edging. ‘The rust-red, earthy tones of the steel blend well into rural projects.’
James Scott feels that neutral colours often work well. ‘Stone in soft greys and buffs will help to showcase the softscaping and be sympathetic to the planting colour palette,’ he says.
7. Put in hard landscaping
Hard landscaping takes in the structural features of a backyard such as paths, patios, decks, walls, garden fence ideas, edging, raised beds and more. Each landscaping element can be designed in a variety of materials.
The materials for a backyard landscaping project will often be suggested by the style of the outdoor space you’re planning, whether that’s more traditional or tends to the contemporary.
But as well as the style, think, too, about the durability and maintenance requirements of each to ensure they’re suitable for the time you can dedicate to tending your backyard, and the budget available in the long term.
For patios and garden path ideas, choose between pavers with more rustic style like those that resemble cobblestone or old brick, or opt for choices such as flagstones, natural stones that are suitable for outdoor use, and porcelain pavers.
For deck ideas, composite and PVC boards can all be considered, and the best option will likely depend on funds available for landscaping.
Be mindful, though, that initial landscaping cost should not be the only consideration as, depending on the wood, regular maintenance can be required, bringing extra costs over the lifetime of the deck.
Gravel may suit a country-style backyard or a contemporary design, and is suitable for paths as well as larger areas.
While you’ll want to select a range of materials for the various hard landscaping elements of the backyard, bear the overall color palette in mind. You might want to combine browns and brick red shades for example, or choose a paler selection of materials.
‘Bright light colors are the contemporary way to go when considering flooring in a modern design,’ says Jack Dunckley. ‘Creams and whites offer the perfect backdrop for features such as potted plants and luxury furniture.
Lighter colors also give the illusion of a bigger space and contrast beautifully with the rich red and browns of any brickwork used in a house or wall.’
8. Check the balance of soft and hard landscaping
‘It’s important to balance any landscaping with the size of your house; the walls of a larger house present significant vertical hard surfaces,’ says Cheryl Cummings.
‘If there are large trees around the boundary or a big open view, the scale will mean that narrow paths and small plants will appear insignificant, so the paved surfaces need to be appropriate to the scale of the house and surroundings.’
9. Add the planting
Introducing patio planting ideas is the highlight of the landscaping process for many. First, the beds will need to be outlined and mulch or compost used to improve the soil. For the lawn areas, lawn topsoil should be added first and then the sod or turf, or grass seed.
The mixture of plants, trees and shrubs will be determined by a whole host of factors including the local climate, the type of soil in your backyard, and its size.
‘The two things which are least considered and most significant are the details of the so-called aspect and drainage,’ says Barry Chambers MSGD.
‘Aspect is not simply the points of the compass. It is whether there is a tree or even shrub casting shade on a part of the border, or perhaps it is a large herbaceous plant so it will be casting a lot of shade in summer but none at all when dormant in winter.
‘Drainage is very important because what kills the most plants in winter here in the UK is not the cold as such, it is the cold and wet. So plants are hardier in a well drained environment in general.
If wet can’t be avoided, even with a raised surface, then marginals or so called bi-modal plants (plants which can manage in flood or drought) are the only reliable options.’
10. Plan in a kitchen garden
Although you may have the space for a large vegetable garden at some distance from the house, it’s nice to include beautiful kitchen garden ideas or a herb garden into the ornamental space, too.
Pottering among your own orderly set of raised beds before dinner and selecting a few homegrown herbs or vegetables can be a wonderful way to enjoy your country garden.
11. Design in verticals
Vertical elements are an important part of any backyard design. ‘They create more interest,’ says Ana Sanchez-Martin MSGD.
‘Without them, it often feels flat, literally and experientially. Vertical elements stimulate the eye to move up and down between the ground plane and the sky. They often help the garden feel larger because the more the eye has to travel between various points, the larger the brain will believe the space to be.
‘Vertical garden ideas also create shadows which move with the sun, bringing the time dimension into the experience of being in the garden,’ she adds.
‘They also bring certain plants to eye level, head height and above-head height. There is nothing lovelier than looking up into the canopy of a tree and seeing the sun and the sky beyond the leaves. They help create partitions within a garden.’
There are a variety of ways to incorporate verticals into a backyard. Increasingly popular are living wall ideas, or what’s known as ‘vertical gardening’, which first saw urban buildings turned green with their façades covered in living plants.
It’s a concept that’s reached residential backyards, especially in city locations where planting space is limited.
Simpler than adding a living wall is fixing trellis and growing climbers to bring color, fragrance and soft lines to the horizontal structure of a fence or wall. Pick from wood or metal, or consider a wire version for a modern backyard.
Don’t confine verticals to the edges of the backyard, though. Arbors can act as doorways through which to reach another zone of the space to add intrigue to the design and look spectacular with a blooming climber wreathed around them.
Alternatively or additionally, garden shade ideas, such as a pergola, will add a focal point and can make a seating or dining area more comfortable. Encouraging climbing plants to cover the structure will blend it into the backyard beautifully.
The interest they create isn’t the end of the attributes of vertical elements, however. If your backyard is overlooked, putting these in and growing plants up them can be a great garden privacy idea, allowing more freedom over where to position relaxing and dining spaces.
How do I landscape my backyard?
Whether you decide to use a garden designer or to create your backyard yourself, there are many decisions to be made regarding materials, so it pays to understand the pros and cons of each.
Your first priority will be to establish the functional spaces, from patios to paths. The expanse of an area and its use will dictate which materials are most suitable.
For instance, a hard standing for a table and chairs needs to be flat and stable, and you might want to keep granular aggregates such as gravel or bark away from the entrance of the house so they are not trampled inside.
Think about how materials combine to add color, texture and interest, and how they will interact with plants, and don’t forget how they will complement the house when viewed from the garden.
Sleek, smooth stone that continues inside the house is a chic option if you have a modern extension or folding doors, but it could look too harsh, butted straight up to a red brick period home or a rustic cottage.
There is no shortage of hard landscaping style ideas for gardens, from the charmingly rustic to something more sleek and modern, with everything in between.
In general, hard landscaping tends to be the star of modern backyard designs, and the range of materials suitable for such spaces is more extensive – mirror, metal, concrete and painted walls, to name a few.
But there are no rules to say that you could not consider using these in the most traditional herbaceous gardens as well. The trick is to create a single, homogenous design.
‘Simple, elegant detailing is often the key to a successful space,’ explains garden designer Robert Myers. ‘People often over-complicate design by putting too many ideas and patterns into a small space, making it look busy and fussy.’
What is the cheapest way to landscape a backyard?
The cheapest way to landscape a backyard is by being your own designer and contractor. But only take on what you can confidently achieve as mistakes can be costly to remedy.
Every construction project involves a fair degree of upheaval and expense so plan meticulously to make sure work goes as smoothly as possible.
After that, it’s a question of opting for less costly materials. For example, a patio or path laid using bricks in sand is a budget way to get a paved area. Laying gravel rather than paving can also bring savings. Consider, too, including less hard landscaping in the design and increasing the space dedicated to planting.
Being patient can also cut your backyard landscaping costs. If you can wait for plants to grow you’ll save compared to going for larger specimens.
A more relaxed backyard design could also prove a winner when it comes to cost-saving, as the accurate finish of a contemporary design involves extra labor.
Check the ownership of every boundary when erecting fencing and walls. Where dividing lines are shared, by law you must involve the neighbor in the design decision and ask for their permission to go ahead in writing.
How do I make my backyard look professionally landscaped?
To make your backyard look professionally landscaped plan in a focal point, or a series of them, as a garden designer would. This could be a feature such as a pretty shed (see above), but it might be a fountain, or a living element such as a tree or group of shrubs. The focal point should draw the eye just as it does in an interior.
Consider scale, too, for a professional look. Be aware of the eventual height and spread of what you plant so it doesn’t become out of proportion to the space. Equally, a bed of low blooms will look lost against an imposing house.
‘To work out if a planting scheme is successful, professionals ask themselves, would this scheme work if it was a black and white photo?’ says UK garden designer Ana Sanchez-Martin.
‘A good tip regarding color is that, in our climate, the hotter colors (oranges, reds, yellows) tend to concentrate in the summer and early autumn months. Whereas you can find flowers in the cool range (blues, lilacs, pinks) almost all year round. So if you are looking for a longer seasonal display in our climate, choose cool colors.’
What is the average cost to landscape a yard?
It is hard to decipher a ballpark figure when it comes to landscape design. On average, you can expect to pay between $2,000 – $30,000 onwards, depending on the size of your yard, the complexity of your design and the quality and durability of your chosen materials. Not forgetting the cost of labor.
Of all the aspects involved in creating a new garden, hard landscaping takes up the biggest proportion – usually about 75 per cent of the total project cost. If budget is an issue, it is possible to do the work in stages.
If you have a large space, or want an intricately-designed backyard, it is always recommended that you hire a landscape architect.
If you are planning to employ a professional to help with your project, it’s important to establish what level of service you require.
Garden designers and landscape designers are known by various names, which, confusingly, are often interchangeable.
Where domestic projects are concerned, if you are creating a new scheme from scratch or radically altering the structure of your garden, you can either employ a garden designer, or do the job yourself.
In both instances, the designer’s role is to look at the design as a whole, including the layout, structure and the planting, and to call in a landscape contractor – or landscaper – to deal with the hard landscaping features – the walls, beds and paths.
If you decide to take on the design job yourself, it is good to know that most landscape contractors can also help with some aspects of design, and in particular, advise you on the best use of space and the most suitable materials to use.
Does backyard landscaping add value to your home?
According to a trusted survey, having a well-designed backyard can add on upwards of $20,000 to your property price.
It is unsurprising that people are looking for more outdoor space since lockdown. 'Having a bigger garden or at least access to one was the number one thing that lockdown had changed for what buyers are now looking for in their next home,' the survey suggested.
Jennifer is the Digital Editor at Homes & Gardens. Having worked in the interiors industry for a number of years, spanning many publications, she now hones her digital prowess on the 'best interiors website' in the world. Multi-skilled, Jennifer has worked in PR and marketing, and the occasional dabble in the social media, commercial and e-commerce space.
Over the years, she has written about every area of the home, from compiling design houses from some of the best interior designers in the world to sourcing celebrity homes, reviewing appliances and even the odd news story or two.
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