Creating Backyard Serenity

Simple design principles are the keys to crafting a soothing sanctuary

Mitchell Smith and Evette Gee of Seattle have the type of backyard retreat where many people would like to spend their vacation. One step outside the kitchen’s sliding-glass doors and you’re enveloped by a sense of tranquility. Within the landscape is a series of rooms perfect for meditation, but they are just as easily utilized for large-scale parties. The couple left corporate jobs to travel the world, eventually implementing the principles of clean, uncomplicated outdoor design they learned along the way in their own private space.


Back garden—inner courtyard dining area and water feature
Back garden—side patio

The success of this serene spot is as much about what is left out of the space as what the couple decided to put in. Clutter is nowhere to be found. Even the plantings around the patio and pathways are well behaved. By installing relaxing features in the garden, providing a sense of security through plantings and fencing, and keeping things simple, these homeowners were able to create a truly serene environment.

Back garden—inner courtyard dining area and water feature

Water features encourage relaxation

Throughout the space, accessories add a sense of peace. Most prominent among them is a modern water feature adorning one wall of the outdoor dining room. The clean lines and elegant waterfall fountain lure guests into the space and are often responsible for keeping them at the table long after dinner is over. Soft lights bathe the pools of water in a mellow yellow hue, adding to the overall serenity.

A square pond filled with lush aquatic plants at the opposite end of the landscape beautifully reflects the surrounding vegetation and sky in its mirrorlike surface. Guests are welcome to stop at the edge of the pool and gaze across at the large statue of Buddha sitting under a canopy of bamboo and tall shade trees. The pond is also visible from another outdoor lounging area not far away. Although the water in the pond does not flow, its stillness provides a tranquility to match the soothing rush of water from the dining-area feature. Floating candles and garden lanterns sometimes adorn the outer edges and surface of the pond, their soft light further enhancing the peaceful mood.

Enclosure equals comfort

Back garden—Indonesian joglo seating area

Tall wooden fences surround the property, giving Mitchell and Evette’s outdoor living area not only privacy but also comfort and protection from the often damp and dreary climate of the Pacific Northwest. “You could be anywhere in the world when you’re here,” Evette says. “It doesn’t feel one bit like Seattle.” The tall stands of bamboo planted throughout the landscape add to the feeling of safety, enclosure, and relaxation. Any time someone brushes past the vegetation or the breeze picks up, the rustling of the leaves is enough to soothe guests into a peaceful sleep. A small seating area with two wooden chairs sits amid the tall canes, allowing anyone to take in the serenity of the space.

An additional seating area farther into the heart of the garden was created around a joglo (an open-air outdoor room) from Java. Mitchell and Evette shipped the structure back from one of their many trips abroad. The 250-year-old, hand-carved ceiling gives the space a cozy, well-worn sense of safety. Simple yet soft wicker furniture adds an additional calming quality to the space. The dining area, too, has a ceiling enclosure—of sorts. Large beams stretch across the space like a pergola. Although the sunlight and fresh air can still permeate the space below, the ceiling provides a sense of open intimacy to the diners below.

Back garden—inner courtyard dining area and water feature

Know what to leave out

Although many complex elements and fanciful accessories adorn this culturally diverse space, what’s not included in the design is nearly as important as what is included. The plantings surrounding all of the living and dining areas are purposeful; plants don’t encroach on the pathways or spill onto the patio. Everything boasts clean lines, from the furniture—wooden or wicker—to the decking and stonework, to the long, unpretentious dining table. Clutter is absent, and although a few accessories are scattered here and there, they have been selected with obvious care and attention to detail. Even the table settings for parties are kept minimal. Simple, monochromatic dishes sit atop unfussy woven placemats. The clear-cut lines and lack of over-the-top accessories give the living area an inviting feel because guests are not overwhelmed by chaos, and this makes them want to stay and linger for a while.


Back garden—inner courtyard dining area and water feature
Front entry water feature

By keeping things simple, incorporating relaxing features, and creating a sense of enclosure, an outdoor space can be the soothing oasis you’ve always dreamed of.



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