When it comes to how to landscape a backyard, a bit of time spent on planning and designing will help you release the full potential of your garden, both visually and for practical considerations.
Consider how you would like to use the space as part of your backyard ideas. Is it for alfresco dining and relaxing in, are you planning for it to be filled with flowers and foliage, structure from evergreens to create a living picture to be viewed from inside. or a more simplified, contemporary space, perhaps with a statement, soothing water feature?
There are many backyard landscaping ideas you can draw on, and 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.
You need to give some thought to the practicalities, such as areas for backyard storage, and take careful note of the microclimates, sun and light, wind protection and your boundaries. It’s a good idea to allow yourself a year to fully observe the backyard in each season, and understand how you like to use the space year round, before you make big changes.
To help you realize your ideal outdoor space, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide packed with expert advice giving the lowdown on every aspect of how to landscape a backyard.
How to landscape a backyard
When it comes to how to landscape a backyard, areas of hard landscaping, or structure from evergreen shrubs, will create the bones of your garden. You need think about how to harmoniously link the inside of your home to the outside. Do you want the style and colors to complement with the style of your property and the internal living space, or create a complete contrast?
If you are starting from scratch, you may need to hire a landscape designer to do the hard landscaping to ensure drainage is in place and paving is done expertly.
1. Assess the space
When you're planning a garden, thinking of your backyard as an outdoor room makes it easier to design using similar principles to interior design.
'Look at the plot’s size and shape, the boundaries and surroundings. Consider whether it is overlooked by neighbors, if there are any eyesores to camouflage behind privacy hedges, or if you need to incorporate garden screening ideas to screen the plot from passers-by. These are just some of the questions to consider,' advises gardening writer Leigh Clapp.
'It’s a good idea to make a list of your preferences and sort them into an order of priority. A mood board of images and ideas of the style and look you are after can be a great help. Decide what is practical and do-able given your time and lifestyle; be honest and realistic.' she adds.
Try marking out the space, either on a sketch plan or with string in situ, for example giving enough room for outdoor seating ideas or for outdoor dining. Whether you have space to create areas within the plot, or just one room, will help to visualize the end result.
The site itself is 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 (opens in new tab).
‘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,’ he adds.
2. Take into account practicalities
The key to success when it comes to how to landscape a backyard is to create a space that is both beautiful and practical, satisfying the occasionally competing elements of form and function.
'The hard landscaping really needs to be designed with a material that can tolerate the aspect,' advises garden designer Kate Gould (opens in new tab).
'It is asking a lot of a stone or wood not to naturally turn green with algae in areas of low light,' she adds, so bear this in mind if you have a north facing garden or a narrow garden which are likely to have more shady areas, and think about the long term maintenance of surfaces that could turn into slip hazards over time.
'The power of nature can only be defied so far, but with careful selection of products the on-going maintenance of the scheme, these can be minimised. Think low maintenance, rather than no maintenance and a happy balance will be achieved,' adds Kate.
In the above design by Kate Gould as a sloped backyard idea formal elegance and the change of levels with hard landscaping increases the feeling of space in a small garden by adding depth while the structural and low maintenance planting looks elegant even in winter. The natural stone paving will weather gently and is easy to maintain.
3. Remember less is often more
Trying to achieve too much in a backyard can sometimes result in a dilution of the overall effect. 'Pare down the design, assess the absolute minimum that you need and work from there,' advises Kate Gould.
It is hard when we have inspiration from all around not to include elements of many things that we see and like, but the result may be too overcrowded and clumsy.
'It is helpful to draw up a grid to scale and then cut out the items you want to include, such as raised beds, seating and dining spaces, flower bed ideas, focal points, such as a water feature, and other structures including pergola ideas, then experiment with them until you are happy with the layout design,' advises Leigh Clapp.
An aesthetically pleasing whole is made of an array of elements. Avoid the desire to have a bit of this and a bit of that and try to ensure all the elements in your garden are in harmony.
4. Consider the design
How to landscape a backyard depends on what you want from the space. 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, such as in a cottage garden or naturalistic planting design?
‘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 (opens in new tab).
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 deck ideas, through to outbuildings, a garden for growing veggies, pool ideas, play areas for kids, arches, arbors and pergolas. And the garden fence and garden wall ideas you prefer for boundaries and within the backyard to zone it.
In the design above, James Scott of The Garden Company uses stonework in neutral soft greys and buffs to help showcase the softscaping and be sympathetic to the planting palette.
Consider how large paved and decked areas need to be to accommodate dining furniture and seating for family and guests, or how much space is needed for family games, flower beds or for growing edible crops.
Areas of the backyard may need levelling if you looking at how to design a sloping garden, 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 – it may be possible and desirable to incorporate them into the design, but they could be in the way.
5. 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.
The serene country garden shown above has been designed by Maïtanne Hunt of Maïtanne Hunt Gardens and Landscapes (opens in new tab) using fewer hard materials, but instead topiary and evergreen hedging to help promote biodiversity
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 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.’
In this design by Maïtanne Hunt, above, a backyard becomes an extension of the home, with zones for dining and relaxing, to be enjoyed all year round, surrounding by seasonal planting.
6. Decide on the professionals you’ll work with
If you not too sure about how to landscape a backyard, 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. It is also worth getting an idea of how much backyard landscaping costs.
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 (opens in new tab).
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.
7. 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.
‘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 (opens in new tab), MSGD.
'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,' which is also a sustainable garden idea.
Levelling the yard may be necessary, too, to create flat lawns, as well as provide a place for a patio or deck. Clever sloping garden 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.
8. 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, or, if space permits, garden building ideas.
A shed or garden building 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.
9. Choose appropriate materials
According to garden designer Cheryl Cummings (opens in new tab), ‘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 color palette,’ he says.
10. Put in hard landscaping
Hard landscaping takes in the structural features of a backyard, such as garden paths ideas, patios, decks, walls, garden fence ideas, garden 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, composite and PVC boards can all be considered, and the best option will likely depend on funds available for landscaping. There are many deck color ideas and options for deck edging for creating a unique outdoor space with different deck planting ideas.
Be mindful, though, that initial landscaping cost should not be the only consideration as, depending on the wood, regular maintenance can be required, such as knowing how to remove mold from a wood deck, bringing extra costs over the lifetime of the deck.
Gravel garden ideas 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 for small deck ideas and contrast beautifully with the rich red and browns of any brickwork used in a house or wall.’
11. 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.
In the design above, Cheryl has planted soft mounds of grasses and flowering hummocks to cushion the edges of the path.
‘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,’ she adds.
If, however, you are opting for a contemporary outdoor space then you may wish to include a higher percentage of hard landscaping, particularly for courtyard garden ideas.
12. 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 learn how to plant 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 (opens in new tab) 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,' he adds, in which case it would be necessary to explore the best shrubs for shade and shade plants or even woodland plants that would cope with the conditions.
‘Drainage is very important because what kills the most plants in winter is not the cold as such, it is the cold and wet. So plants are hardier in a well drained environment in general,' he adds.
If wet can’t be avoided, even with a raised surface, then marginals, pond plants or so called bi-modal plants – plants which can manage in flood or drought – are the only reliable options.
13. 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, such as the design above by Jamie Innes of Artisan Landscapes.
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 garden – whether in the city or country.
14. Design in verticals
Vertical elements are an important part of any backyard design. ‘They create more interest,’ says Ana Sanchez-Martin (opens in new tab) 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 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, such as the design above by John Davies Landscapes, 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 ideas and growing climbing plants, including flowering 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 fragrant roses 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 layout my backyard?
To layout your backyard you can either decide to use a garden designer or 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.
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 can I make my backyard look nice?
To make your backyard look nice, 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 (opens in new tab). ‘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.
How do you do a simple landscape?
To do a simple landscape, planting with evergreens to provide structure rather than hard landscaping it simpler. 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.
How do I make my backyard look professionally landscaped?
This could also include a feature such as a pretty shed, 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 when it comes to how to landscape a backyard. 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.
In the design above, James Scott of The Garden Company has used a sculpture to draw the eye through swathes of planting to this sheltered dining spot.
‘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 garden color schemes is that the hotter colors (oranges, reds, yellows) tend to concentrate in the summer in average climates and early fall 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, choose cool colors.’
What is the average cost to landscape a yard?
It is hard to decipher a ballpark figure when it comes to the average cost to landscape a design as it depends on so many variables, not least the size of the site and materials used. 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.