Backyard Landscape Ideas for the 21st Century
Many people are not satisfied with the look and feel of their backyards. Often our property takes a lot of work to maintain, yet we don’t get a whole lot of satisfaction from it.
So it is not a surprise that many people scour the internet and books to get backyard landscape ideas.
Have you ever gone over to someone’s house for a party or get together and just wanted to chill out and never leave? What was it that created that feel?
It was probably a subtle combination of things, some planned, some perhaps unintentional. I’m sure most people have had this experience, but sadly, it doesn’t happen often because the typical backyard is very boring.
In researching organic gardening techniques and permaculture design over a lot of years, I have come across some really awesome things that the average homeowner can do to spice things up in their tired backyards, and I’ll share some of my favorites in this article.
If you are familiar with this site, then you will probably predict that I will suggest a garden, and you would be correct.
But there are so many other cool things that can be done. And the “garden” that I will propose is not going to be a typical one. In fact, the casual observer at your future backyard get together may not even notice it (unless you want them to).
To begin designing your new backyard sanctuary, it is important to first think about the following question:
What do you want to do back there?
In skipping directly to the awesome landscaping design pictures and diagrams in glossy magazines and fancy internet sites, we often bypass this important initial question.
This is your yard and it should reflect your personality if it is ultimately going to be successful.
Copying someone else’s aesthetic or trying to mimic aspects of a wealthier person’s property is not ultimately going to be rewarding to you or your guests.
To further this point, I would say that in no case should you hire a traditional landscaping service. All they do is mimic the tired looks that the masses think they want: those antiseptic yardscapes that homeowners derive little satisfaction from.
Plus, a landscaping company’s design is usually set up to require a lot of ongoing maintenance like frequent mowing, mulching, trimming, etc., not to mention all of the chemicals they will want to spray to keep everything looking tidy.
The design should be yours, and if done correctly, you will not need any outside help. Maintaining one’s own design is half of the rewarding part of this adventure. The other half is spending time actually enjoying your new space.
So make a list of the things that you want to ultimately do in your backyard. Here’s a list to get the juices flowing.
- Lounging, barbecue, sunning, etc.
- Place for the kids to play
- Place for the pets to play
- Meditation / yoga
- A place to wander through a maze of lush vegetation
- Badminton / cornhole / lawn bowling / shuffleboard
- Place that attracts wildlife / birds
- Outdoor office (Why not?)
- Organic produce generator
You get the idea. I recommend that you take a moment and write down all of the things that, in a perfect world, with all of the time and money, you would want to have/do in your backyard.
You can’t really get into designing until you have done this first step.
It is important in doing this exercise that you do not sacrifice one thing for another at this point in the design process. For example, all of the things on the above list could potentially be accomplished in a small backyard. How? By designating areas for each thing and overlapping functions when possible.
One of the main tenets of permaculture is to get multiple benefits from something.
So for example, If I like to drink wine on my patio, but it’s too damn hot, I could could train grapes up and over a pergola to create shade while growing supplies for a DIY wine making adventure.
Or if it’s beer, vine up some hops over top.
If I want a water feature, wildlife such as fish and birds, a place for meditation, and a swimming hole, the same 10×6 feet area, for example, could accommodate all of these things for a very low cost with little maintenance.
People spend more time (and money sometimes) on organizing their closets than they do on their backyards. A lot is possible, so list out everything at this point and, only later, cut things out that don’t seem doable.
Feng Shui and permaculture and old-world techniques can be applied to your outdoor space in a easy-going, low-maintenance way that will leave your next party guests wondering why they feel so relaxed and comfortable in your backyard.
There are amazing, space saving ideas abound, but one first must know what they want to get out of the backyard. Enough said. Once this step is done, proceed to the next step below.
Make a scale drawing of the space
This step is important, but should not be intimidating.
If your backyard is a rectangle, then draw a large rectangle on a piece of paper. Draw your house and the existing features as close to the proportional size as you can.
You could go out and measure everything, but this is not necessary. Humans are eerily adept at drawing scale models on the fly.
Note: If you are so inclined and want to nerd-out on this step, go for it. I’ll be sharing some really cool techniques, tools, and software that will help…but it is not necessary. A pen and a legal pad can suffice.
Once you have the basic layout of your existing yard, look at the list of “wants” and start to draw in areas or sections that could make sense for these activities. This is a rough draft so who cares. Keep revising until it makes more and more intuitive sense.
That’s it, you are a designer.
The next step would be to begin to implement things, one piece at a time, slowly. Good luck. Observe, tweak, and go forward. The next section will be about some awesome ideas that you may not have thought of.
Bookmark this page now (and sign up for our email list), because I’m going to be expanding it with side articles that will take a deep dive into many of these ideas.
Also, check around our site and read up on the existing free articles that we have.
The new swimming pool
This is not for everyone, but the new swimming pool does not use chlorine or other weird, harsh chemicals. Pool chemicals kill everything. I’m not a scientist or doctor, but this cannot be good.
The new swimming pool is the old school swimming pool, aka, a pond. So let’s go with that. What, really, is the problem with swimming in a pond? My kid brain would say that (1) fish are going to bite me and (2) ponds are stinky and gross.
There are a lot of ways to respond to this. First of all, the kind of really cool fish that one could maintain in a very small backyard pond are not going to bite you. But they might swim by your leg, which your kid brain should probably get over.
Secondly, if a backyard pond is functioning correctly, with live plants, fish and microbes, it will not be stinky. It will have a smell that is both different and better than the freakishly bleached-out YMCA pool.
So it comes down to the game of “would you rather.” I would rather dip in a natural, healthy pool than a chemically toxic, dead one. Enough said.
There are many resources on the net on how to make a small backyard pond on the cheap, so at this time, we’ll not throw our hat into it, but open your mind to the idea of it.
Existing in-ground pools are being converted to living ponds these days, but one can also build their own for a relatively low cost.
The cool thing about the new swimming pool is that once it is established and all of the plants and fish are doing fine, it maintains itself for the most part.
Reigning in the lawn
The major hassle of backyard maintenance can be mitigated by reigning in the lawn.
There is no reason to have to spend so much time mowing the entire property once or twice per week.
Regardless of the size of your property, isn’t it true that we have become slaves to these huge lawns that don’t do anything for us?
Why am I mowing way over there where no one ever goes? Because there’s nothing else there, and that is my problem. Maybe there should be something else there.
Maybe there should be asparagus or raspberries over there. If there were, I wouldn’t have to mow and I wouldn’t have to buy raspberries. Maybe there should be an outdoor shower over there, or a horse shoe pit…you get the idea.
Lawns are great, but only the parts we use and enjoy as lawns.
I love lawns so much, and they are useful for accomplishing many of the things that might be on your “list” but they do not need to sprawl out to the edge of your property.
Like anything else, a lawn should be planned, no differently than any other sector of the newly designed backyard. When drawing one’s design, designate a place for the lawn and keep it to that area.
This is a radical concept. Why? Why would it be radical for a person to designate certain functions for their own property with a lawn being one of many?
So the point is, Don’t maintain the lawn. Maintain a lawn.
If you designate a certain area for a lawn, you will then have the time and willingness to make it beautiful. I want to maintain my pear tree, my blackberry bushes, and my lawn, and I don’t make one way more important than the other. Why has the lawn taken over our whole idea of how to conduct operations in our own backyard? Enough said.
Make the plants edible
Ever been to the dentist’s office? Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to linger in and around the parking lot before I go in because, well, I don’t want to go in there.
Their landscaping is usually pretty good, right? With ornamental cherry trees, weeping plums, and weird smelling desert-like creeping plants? But why didn’t they pant actual cherry trees, actual plums, and perennial vegetables that come up year after year?
Well, it would be a real mess if all of these edible fruits should start dropping everywhere, with people stepping on them and what not.
This is the world we live in and it is played-out.
Back in the day, people hated their fruit trees so much because they littered down messy, rotten, and stinky fruit all over their yards which were supposed to be kept pristine at all times in order to keep up with the Jones’.
And so “ornamental” varieties were invented, to enable one to have the look and feel of a natural environment without all of the mess of apples on the ground.
The fast food restaurant by my house has weird desert plants (in Ohio) mulched with lava rock. Where does lava rock even come from (volcanoes, I guess)? We don’t have any nearby lava laying around in Ohio.
Does it take more money and time for their landscape company to do that than it would for them to plant fruit, vegetables, or berries that naturally grow in Ohio?
No, it takes less time and money, but it doesn’t look right, or does it?
Plus, we can’t have bums picking fruit outside of the OBGYN office, can we? (joke)
OK you get the idea. In the 21st century, we should probably get past this weird craving to have things look antiseptic. Taking this into account, what do the backyard design magazines grow in their absolutely beautiful designs? What they think the people want, which is weird, non-edible plants.
So, in any plan that you may see, consider substituting out the bushes, hostas, and non-edible trees, for edible plants.
Blueberry can be hedged just like taxus (generic bushes).
An ornamental plum can be switched for an edible plum; kale for hostas, corn for ornamental grasses (some of which are made to look just like corn without all of the messy food involved). You get the idea. That is how your garden can be sneaky. Even in my front yard I harvest some of my landscape in the fall, pulling out potatoes for example. No one would even know they were there.
Other Ideas, some of which may sound crazy
Ever taken a shower outdoors? It is divine.
Once again, not for everyone, but it is possible to set up a solar-heated outdoor shower for very little money. You can check the “youtubes” for this if you don’t believe me, but there are some really cool set-ups in typical backyards that involve a very small, private space in which to take a shower.
Some have even heated collected rain water by running coiled hose through compost piles. But, less radically, if you have a spot close to the house, a plumber can easily run hot and cold water to the outside. Maybe that would create a shady, drippy, damp spot on one side: grow shiitake mushrooms.
They also have pretty inexpensive outdoor showers that run on propane I have this one I linked to — it’s awesome..
If your zoning laws permit (and a lot of cities are starting to relax their laws on this) you can keep a couple of hens on the property for eggs. You could harvest their manure, grow their food, use them to eat garden pests, etc. They don’t take a ton of maintenance, but once, again, not for everyone.
It is relatively simple to collect rainwater from your home, shed, or garage to water the garden. Additionally, there are ways to keep rain on your property to water your plants, such as hugelkultur swales on contour. Check around this site for articles on these topics.
Brick patios and garden paths
It is pretty easy to build your own brick paths or even patios and fire-pit gathering areas. Ash can be used in the garden. Heat soaked up by stone can benefit plants that may thrive nowhere else in your space. This is permaculture. Often, old bricks, stones, and pavers are available for free on Craigslist. A little sand and and some elbow grease can turn your garden paths into stunning rustic walkways.
Not for everyone (including myself), but there are ways to set up very private outside toilets that can conserve water and actually benefit the garden. Look it up.
Solar heated small pools
If you aren’t ready for the “new swimming pool” you can heat your small above ground pool very easily. We have an extremely short, low-quality video on this.
Just to give you and idea of what is possible, with a container like an old hot tub, and some flexible copper and fittings, you could fashion a hot tub that requires nothing but a fire, and could be placed anywhere on the property, perhaps behind some dwarf apple trees and trellised temperate kiwi.
If you are into backyard games, try something a little different. If you love baggo or corn hole, designate a spot for it and mulch out the playing ends. This way, you don’t have to worry about damaged lawn.
If you do something on a regular basis, why not designate a place for it and make it permanent? Ultimately, it provides a better look and feel for your guests. People worry that it will hurt the lawn, but that’s because it hasn’t been designed in.
Pro tip: Want to do something that your neighbor’s haven’t? Try shuffleboard. This old-school game works well in medium to large sized backyards and is much more challenging and sophisticated than “corn hole,” but conveys the same fun, party atmosphere. You will have to dedicate a section of cement and paint it, but it is a really awesome, trendy game that no one else has.
Horse shoes is another one. Heck, design in a regulation croquet course…this is your sanctuary. Design it in, and use permaculture principles to get something extra out of it. Border in garlic or horseradish, for example.
Another really fun party game is bocce. If you have not tried this game, check it out. The nice thing about it is that in can be played on the lawn and is not as damaging as corn hole because in the open style of playing: the participants move around.
There are two teams, each with 4 balls. One team throws out the little white ball and the basic object is to see who can get their colored balls the closest. The cool thing in open play is that once a round is completed, the new play starts from wherever the white ball landed, and in this way, the game continues around the entire property.
For many people, privacy is important, and there are creative ways to achieve this. For example, blackberries not only grow big, thick, and sprawling, but they have thorns which keep out people, deer, and anything else.
Sunflower patches are great for privacy during the warm season as is temperate bamboo.
A trellis or chain link fence with grapes or other climbing varieties can sometimes do the trick, depending on what you want to achieve.
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