11 Steps to a Better Backyard

How to Create a Well-Thought-Out Plan

Comfort and utility are among the most important qualities to consider when developing a garden design. Because tastes and styles differ, beauty is often in the eye of the beholder. But the fundamental principles behind comfort and utility are universal. By considering these elemental concepts at the beginning of your design process, you can ensure that your garden will contain all of the components needed for a pleasing and beautiful space.


1. Build an arbor or a pergola

Make this structure at least 7 feet tall for safe clearance. Add another 18 inches for good measure if you’re planning to train climbing plants to grow over it. Need help building an easy arbor? 

Rose arbor after rain with fallen petals. So romantic!


2. Add a walkway

Select paving materials with a coarse texture, and set them at a 1 to 2 percent slope to encourage water runoff and to keep walkways hazard-free. Learn what it takes to build a brick pathway.

Photo: courtesy of Jane Horn


3. Locate utilities before digging in

There’s nothing worse than hitting pipes when making grade changes or excavating trenches.

4. Know the mature size of a plant at planting time

It’s important to leave enough space between plants to accommodate their ultimate size.

Photo: courtesy of Amy Stafford


5. Design primary paths to be at least 5 feet wide

Secondary paths can be smaller (but no less than 3 feet wide) and still retain a pleasant and hospitable passage.

Photo: courtesy of Jo Busha



6. Don’t crowd pathways or patios

Site tall plants (more than 30 inches in height) at least 2 to 3 feet back from the edge.

Seating area at the end of the path (In bloom: Allium ‘Purple Sensation’, Nepeta X faassenii, gaura, euphorbia, and pansies in the foreground, dianthus and geraniums in the background. Budding: Allium multibulbosum, Nigella damascena, Thalictrum flavum ssp. glaucum, Siberian iris, and peonies. Photo: courtesy of Wendy Kremer



7. Allow at least 3 feet of open space around patio furniture to ensure easy passage

Patios are most comfortable when you plan for at least 4 square feet of space per person.


8. Choose plants that do more than just bloom

Look for plants with interesting foliage, bark, or fruit to extend seasonal displays.

This is Viburnum rhytidophylloides ‘Willowwood’.


9. Create a relaxing environment

Block out hot sun, harsh winds, and public areas using trees, shrubs, and large-scale perennials.


10. Strike a balance between lawn and planting areas

Create a lower-maintenance garden that can be used for recreation and enjoyed for its beauty.

Photo: courtesy of Julie Witmer

11. Give steps a rise of 6 inches or less for com­fortable navigation

Once you determine the rise, use this equation to figure out the ideal dimensions for your run: 26 inches – (2 × the rise) = the run. Place landings at every fourth or fifth step if you have more than 10 steps in your stairway. Landings should be at least as deep as the steps are wide.



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