Backyard Dreams

By Patricia Acton with the NG

When you start thinking about your yard as place to live in, not just to garden in, a shift in priorities occurs. Where you once saw places for flower beds, shrub borders, and a vegetable garden, you now see the need for places where human activities can take place comfortably. Which is not to say that a yard planned for outdoor living won't have room for flower beds, shrub borders, and a vegetable garden; it probably will. It's just that those features will take up less space, leaving more room for living outdoors and enjoying it.

Two Practical Matters

Design and construction professionals call the nonliving components of any landscape the hardscape. It may not be the most appealing of words, but it aptly defines the nature of fences, patios, decks, terraces, porches, and walkways. If your goal is to create an outdoor living space, it is important to resist the temptation to plant any trees, shrubs, flowers, and vines until after the hardscape is in place--a rule that holds true whether you are dealing with a brand-new, bare landscape, or an established one filled with plants you may want and some you may not.

The two most important hardscape features essential to the enjoyment of outdoor living are a flat, stable surface at ground level and some degree of privacy. Fortunately for those with homes in new developments, most now come complete with privacy fences and a patio or wooden deck. For those of you without these two components, they should be at the top of your "to do" list. Fences, patios, and decks may not be the most glamorous or alluring additions to your yard, but without them, outdoor living is just plain uncomfortable.

Choices for creating that flat, stable surface for outdoor living run the gamut from patios and terraces, to wooden decks and porches, all of which are usually connected directly to the house itself. But, if the most comfortable and inviting place to sit is further afield, say at the far corner of your yard, you might want to consider a freestanding garden patio or deck.

Getting Your Priorities Straight, Naturally

Once you find a comfortable place to sit outdoors and have a morning cup of coffee or an evening sundowner, a funny thing happens. First off, you'll find yourself spending more and more time out there. Little by little, ideas will pop into your head, like "it's so nice out here, I think I'll move the barbecue grill close to the table and eat outdoors tonight," or "this patio is nice, but I'd really like to dress it up a bit with a few big terra cotta pots filled with bright red geraniums," or (hopefully) "I never realized it before, but those two trees are just the right distance apart to hang a hammock between them."

No matter what anyone else tells you, this is the best way to create a yard devoted to the joys of outdoor living one small step at a time. Many have tried to come up with the "grand master plan," intent on creating the perfect outdoor environment for everyone involved. The truth is, such all-encompassing plans rarely encompass all the potential your yard holds, especially if the plan was developed in a hurry. If you want to maximize your outdoor living enjoyment, it pays to take your time and dream a little.

Allow Yourself to Dream

If you're lucky enough to have some outdoor space to call your own, you might as well really make it your own, filled with your personal dreams made real. After all, where else can you have this kind of freedom? Make yourself comfortable in that outdoor spot and make a list of things that would enhance your outdoor living. How about:

  • A built-in barbecue grill, with lights for night-use, to make outdoor entertaining more convenient and pleasant.
  • A really large picnic table, so you can invite the whole gang over for a relaxed, informal backyard meal.
  • A series of raised beds filled with wonderful topsoil (the kind that practically guarantees all your gardening efforts will turn out successful) to concentrate your gardening efforts just the herbs, vegetables, and flowers that really please you.
  • A sandbox for kids to play in. Or a "secret garden" for teddy bear tea parties, under the shade of the tree at the rear of the yard.
  • A small recirculating fountain to add the charms of falling water to a summer-warm garden.
  • A big white canvas market umbrella to provide shade from the noonday sun.
  • A swing hanging from that sturdy limb? A treehouse for the adults to use as a retreat from the kids?
  • How about a swimming pool? Or a hot tub?

Obviously, some of your dreams are going to be more feasible than others. The trick is to start with the "do-able" ones and then plan and budget for the more extravagant additions. Armed with your master dream plan, you can rest assured that eventually you'll have an outdoor space custom-designed to your own desires.

And what could be better than that?

Photography by National Gardening Association

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