Lovely outdoor deck patio space with white pergola, fire pit in the backyard of a luxury house.

So, you’ve decided it’s time your backyard could use improvement.

By Larry Atseff

While your front yard is for people to enjoy as they pass by, your backyard can and should be all about you and how you want to live outdoors. It could be a sanctuary for relaxation. Maybe you like to entertain. Maybe you just want it for play. Maybe you want to extend your seasonal use. Maybe you want a combination. Maybe you think you just need a facelift. But, don’t make the mistake of slapping a patio down here and a garden border there as time and budget allow and be done with it. Suggestion: before you call a landscaping firm or a deck company, save yourself a lot of time and money and do some planning on your own. Consider the space holistically, from how you want to use your backyard to how much time you want to spend working in it. Then call some of the finest landscaping firms in the area.

Start by Dreaming

Ask yourself some basic questions. What do you want out of the backyard — a playground for kids, a cozy retreat, and an entertaining patio? What materials do you like — brick pavers, water, sustainable plants? Dream a little, then see what you can afford and have time to maintain, Eventually, you’ll want to get real. Be honest about your level of involvement. A yard that requires little work and resources is the holy grail. Think about how to simplify the plans to make this happen for you.

Arbors can enhance a backyard entrance

Take Stock of your Property

Do a walk-around and consider what you like and don’t like about the space. Make a list of what’s salvageable (the 100-year-old oak tree) and what’s not (a sagging, rotten deck), as well as how permanent storage (shed, garage, etc.) is positioned and whether it needs to be moved or camouflaged. Don’t forget to factor in geographical considerations. If you adore roses but live in an area with a lot of deer, they’ll get eaten. Either plant something else or plan a fence.

Is a new Deck in the Plan?

If you want a deck that’s just for cooking with a grill, that’s one thing. If you want a deck that can serve as a center for outdoor entertaining, maybe you need an outdoor kitchen and bar, complete with plenty of room and outdoor furniture for entertaining. Today’s composite building materials and furnishings can help you extend the size and time you want to spend outside. Simply put, a new deck can transform your backyard.

Know the Rules

Your village or homeowner’s association may have specific regulations, like maximum fence height or projects that require permits. Know what’s allowed before you begin work, because if you break the rules and get caught, not only will you have to take down your project, but there will be fines involved.

Make a Plan, on Paper

A plan provides a birds-eye view of your overall project, which can then be implemented logically in steps. Draw a bubble to represent generic spaces like a patio, playground, garage and pool, then link the bubbles together with pathways, lawn areas, and gardens. Look at the relationships between spaces, then draw them to approximate scale. Each individual space should flow into the next, moving people from the front yard to back, from a primary patio to a secondary patio. Entryways, pathways and exits are transition opportunities make a statement or focus attention, or draw people to your next space. You can create the impression of separate spaces by simply changing the material or pattern, or by elevating one portion slightly above the other to establish distinct “rooms” without disrupting the flow.” If this effort is not quite your cup of tea, hire a professional, at least for the planning portion. They can open your eyes to brilliant options you may not think of yourself.

Check the Plan From Inside

Outdoor spaces should bring pleasure every day, even when you’re inside. When designed properly, your backyard becomes an artwork as you look through your windows. Start with the kitchen window, since homeowners spend more time looking out that window than any other. Be practical: Assess traffic patterns from the kitchen or mudroom. Make sure your plan allows you to move people in and out, to get the garbage out, everything you need for daily living.

Decks can be designed with privacy

Fine-Tune Each Area

With a big overview of your backyard, you can then focus on specific areas. Maybe a patio is not as fitting as a raised deck, or deck on the ground, depending on entrances and exits from the house to your backyard. Or, your patio area is just too small and not easily accessible. Have you ever considered an arbor as an entry to your backyard? Do you look forward to getting out into the garden and tending it? What kind of garden? Flowers or vegetables or just rocks, native grass and pebbles? Or would you rather relax and look out over a nice yard of grass? Or, a hardscape of bricks and pavers? Have the kids outgrown your swing set? Is that a place for a garden? Is it time for fencing?

Now, look at the backyard as a whole

Now, look at your yard in context, both in relation to the house and to itself. Flowers, hardscapes, and even lawns literally become the wallpaper of your outdoor room. Speaking of lawns, looking for a “set it and forget it” approach? The robotic vacuum market has grown exponentially over the years cleaning our floors and carpets indoors. The new trend? Auto mowers that run quietly on electric power and create a healthier lawn over time. In addition to eliminating noise pollution and carbon emissions, these robots allow homeowners to reallocate time and resources for other outdoor enhancements. Nearly five years ago, Mariani Landscape started testing robotic mowers and has not looked back. The company has embraced the new technology passing the benefits onto homeowners by providing the installation, programming, and maintenance for the auto mower. Technology is constantly evolving and these self-guided machines that are 100% eco-friendly certainly allow homeowners to go green. And their grass too.

Execute in Logical Stages

The best thing about a comprehensive plan? You don’t need to do it all at once. Work on one area at a time, but make sure you’re always thinking ahead. For example, if you’re redoing the patio and eventually want to do an outdoor kitchen, don’t wait to install the gas hookup, since it’s more cost-effective to do when the ground is already dug up. Now, if all these preliminary planning steps are not quite your cup of tea, hire a professional. They are booking appointments right now. At the very least, we’ve given you some food for thought when you meet. Before you know it, you can be outdoors, so don’t wait. Get started.

*Photos provided by