Planning Your Outdoor Spaces, Part II: The Backyard

A photo of an outdoor kitchen

By Jerry Pence

(This article was first published in the March 2006 issue of The Gateway Gardener.)

In the first article in this series, we did a break down of the front yard space as it pertains to landscape design.  This month we will do the same thing with the backyard, remembering that the outdoor space can be looked at as an extension of the indoors of your home.

A photo of an outdoor kitchen

Outdoor kitchens are an increasingly popular component of backyard spaces.

Backyards come in all different sizes and shapes, depending on which part of town you live in.  The backyard also can be used for many purposes. It can be a place for entertaining guests, and might include a deck or patio, a cooking area and a dining area.  It might serve as the neighborhood soccer or baseball field. A smaller space might invite one to relax and “get away from it all” – your own little paradise in the city.  Or a space may serve one purpose for awhile, then be transformed for a different purpose as your family changes.

Because this space can be used for so many different things, the most important thing to do when planning it is deciding what exactly you want the space to do for you.

Entertaining Area

Let’s start with the most obvious place first – the entertaining area.  Consider this area an extension of your family room.  It can be a patio of various materials or decking.  Visit our many local landscape material yards to see the variety of materials available to you.  When figuring the size of this space, try to imagine the average sized gathering of people at one time you might have.  Larger crowds can overflow into the surrounding turf if necessary.  Remember to figure in space needed for tables and chairs.  Try to keep entrances into the turf areas away from the middle of your patio or deck, so as not to divide the space in half.

When planting around these areas, use plants with a lot of bright and vibrant colors (such as oranges and yellows) to provide the feeling of activity and liveliness.  For a more serene setting, use blues and greens with some white accents.  Avoid using plants with thorns close to gathering areas for obvious reasons!  Also be careful when picking out a mulch material or groundcover.  Rocks or gravel can spill onto the patio, creating an unsafe environment.  Some groundcovers can creep onto surfaces as well, creating a maintenance issue for you.  Lastly, know where the low point of your surface is (if it is at ground level) and be sure to allow water to escape from the area at that point.

Cooking and Dining Area

The next area to look at is the cooking area – an extension of your kitchen.  These areas have become very popular and elaborate in recent years.  As a general rule, it is best if this area is separate from the dining area to avoid people being around hot surfaces and smoke blowing in your face while you’re eating!  Keep your grill away from the house, but close to a water spigot if possible.  This might also be a good place to plant a kitchen garden with herbs and vegetables, though some people like to keep their vegetable gardens further away from the house.  Your dining area might have some sort of protection from the elements, such as an umbrella or lath type covering.  This area can be separate from your entertaining area or it can be part of the entertaining area.  Again, plan plenty of room for yourself.

Recreation Area

The next space in the back yard is the recreation area.  This might be the baseball field mentioned above, a swimming pool or just an open area of the yard that is occasionally used for badminton or volleyball.  This is generally, but not always, the largest part of the yard.  Recreation for you might be a space that has a “secret” garden included.  This changes the entire look of a back yard as well as the function of it.  If you live in a wooded area, you might want to clean up some of the ragged look and establish your own woodland garden.  If you like the looks of a woodland garden but don’t have the woods, you can begin by planting trees in groves or groupings to begin establishing the woodland area.

Work Area

Lastly, we have the work area.  This area might include a shed of some sort, a vegetable garden, a compost pile, or a woodpile.  This space must be functional, allowing room to maneuver equipment or accommodate the activities that might be happening in that space, such as potting plants or cleaning vegetables.

As you think about your landscape design, decide which of the above areas you’ll definitely want to have and which ones would be nice to have.  Think about space sizes and how you are going to accommodate the different activities that might take place in your back yard.  Next, consider some of your favorite plants and what function they might serve in your new landscape.  Shade trees, bright colors for active areas, cooler colors for serene areas or taller plants for screening might be some of the things to think about.  Maybe a waterfall is what you have in mind.  If that’s the case, get an idea of how much space it will use up and how you will plant or live around it.

As always, having a well thought out plan is the key to having a successful back yard landscape.  Being able to organize your thoughts on paper, either on your own or with the help of a hired professional, will eliminate questions, confusion and disappointment down the road.

Part III–The Forgotten Side Yard

Jerry Pence is an award-winning designer and Vice-President, Design Management & Horticulture for a local property management company, where he oversees grounds for properties in St. Louis and Florida. He also has been an instructor in the Horticulture Department at St. Louis Community College at Meramec for 15 years.