Home & Garden

How to Make Your Backyard Look Beautiful

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Is your backyard attractive, scenic, and relaxing? If it could use a little work, there’s help. Discover how the right combination of water, plantings, and other focal points can make a big difference.

The key to making your backyard beautiful? Make it look like a destination from inside the home, says Kyle Ritchey, a designer for Barrington Pools, the firm that designed this cozy backyard retreat.

When you step outside your back door and look around your yard, is it beautiful?

Does it have luscious, green grass, tall trees and colorful flowers? Does it have a pool and hot tub? An outdoor dining area? A fire pit? A fountain?

What exactly does it need to be beautiful?

When customers ask Sean Ducey about transforming their backyard into a scenic retreat, he first has to figure out what their idea of “beautiful” entails.

“Some want their grass to look like a golf course – no trees, no shade, just grass,” says Ducey, manager of Whispering Hills Garden and Landscape Center in Crystal Lake. “The more common thought process people have when it comes to a beautiful backyard is mimicking what is going on around them, what happens in nature, like when they see the crabapples blooming along the road. Other people want an outdoor kitchen and just a few outdoor shrubs around it. It can go a bunch of ways.”

How you incorporate beauty into your backyard is your choice, but here are a few ideas to get you started.

Beautiful, Well-Designed Spaces

There are many ways to design the quintessential getaway spot, but a few ground rules can make the transformation easier.

“When someone’s looking to make a beautiful backyard, it needs to look like a destination from inside the home,” says Kyle Ritchey, designer for Barrington Pools, in Barrington, a firm that creates custom in-ground pools and landscapes. “It should be what draws you outside on a nice day. It should be dynamic.”

Start by creating one to three focal points that will draw your eye from inside your house. Place those focal points in main traffic areas that are within the sightline of the main entrance to the backyard or your kitchen window.

“Focal points can be any object – a bird bath or piece of art, a destination space like a fire pit or patio, or a water feature on the end of a pool,” Ritchey says.

By creating these focal points, you’ll also create a terminal point – the place where your gaze stops and rests. It’s critical to make those terminal points aesthetically pleasing.

Ritchey currently is working on a project that features a 6.5-foot tall water wall that’s 11 to 13 feet wide and has three sconces pouring water into a pool of natural stone.

“That will be along the property line, which is by open space,” he says. “It will create a good wall, in this case literally, that gives good definition to where the homeowner’s space ends, so they don’t feel they’re staring into this vast space in their neighbor’s yard.”

Backyard beauty can also be accompanied by a bit of technological wizardry.

“We’re all about making this space not only visually accessible, but as hassle-free as any place can be,” Ritchey says. “All things can be controlled by phone or wireless remote, like automatic sensors to relight your outdoor kitchen burners, if they blow out in the wind.”

Overall, a beautiful backyard design should create interest. You can achieve that with individual spaces, says Ritchey. Try installing a pergola off the house to create nice, dappled shade where you can read a book. Or, build a fire pit where you can extend your outdoor life into the evening while the kids roast marshmallows and someone plays the guitar.

You also can create interest through contrast, using textures, forms, shapes or colors. Choose different building materials between the decking and the house, accent areas with complementing color palettes, or change the architectural features of smaller structures, like a pool house, to contrast with the main residence. The goal is to catch the attention of your eye.

“There are times when somebody just lays down that one type of stone and that’s what you see everywhere,” Ritchey says. “That stone could be great, but it’s just lost. It doesn’t have its own moment to make you pay attention to it.”

Beautiful & Healthy Spaces

Backyard beauty and wellness can, in fact, go hand-in-hand, says Dennis Marunde, president of Arvidson Pools and Spas, which has locations in Crystal Lake, St. Charles and Palatine.

Marunde has been researching the subject, and he’s come to this conclusion: a beautiful and healthy backyard should involve water, such that it enhances your enjoyment of the whole setting.

“Our conviction is that our products have a tremendous amount of impact on what these backyard settings can do for us, emotionally and physically,” he says. “Research is showing that water has a very calming and restorative effect on us. We’re naturally drawn to it, even if we don’t realize it.”

An emerging trend is to maximize the auditory benefits of water through structures that provide the tranquil, trickling sound of a brook or the rushing of rapids.

From a physical standpoint, hot water has many natural health benefits, Marunde says, which is why hot tubs remain popular. And, because water reduces the gravitational weight of one’s body, a pool or hot tub can have physical therapy benefits, too.

Manufacturers are meeting consumers somewhere in the middle with the swim spa – a hybrid of a pool and hot tub. Usually 6 to 8 feet wide and 12 to 21 feet long, the swim spa contains warm water and uses a series of jets or propulsions at one end that enable someone to swim or walk against the current.

“Senior citizens, athletes or those recovering from accidents can very safely walk against a current in a swim spa for their therapy,” Marunde says. “It’s a really terrific way of staying in shape or getting back in shape.”

Getting water into your backyard doesn’t have to cost a fortune. An above-ground pool costs less than a traditional in-ground pool, but it still provides the same benefits that come with a hot tub, swim spa or in-ground pool, Marunde says.

An above-ground pool doesn’t have to be an eyesore, either. Some products can be partially dropped into the ground so that homeowners see the water, rather than the side of the pool, from inside the house or from an adjoining outdoor space. A transition deck from an existing deck or patio to the elevated pool deck also masks the pool.

“Placement is an important component to making sure an above-ground pool enhances the beauty of the backyard and gives you the enhancements of physical water,” Marunde says.

You don’t have to create your dream backyard overnight. A pool might be the first step in your master plan, but the rest of the space can be built up as time goes on.

“A really beautifully designed backyard, for me, is going to include a water feature of some sort that has both the tangible and intangible benefits of water, but it’s also going to be incorporated into a larger plan so that it’s an integral part of the backyard,” Marunde says. “It’s about building a bigger picture of your backyard, even if you’re not going to do it all right now.”

Beautiful Natural Spaces

Many people simply want a natural-looking backyard that makes them succumb to the space.

Often, their landscape will incorporate a variety of flowering trees and shrubs, fall colors and varying sizes, shapes and textures. Whatever makes the backyard fun and inviting will win over the hearts of homeowners and visitors alike, says Sean Ducey, of Whispering Hills.

“If you can touch on all aspects of what happens outside naturally – water, sun, shade, flowers, green grass – there’s no one around who’s going to say that’s ugly,” Ducey adds.

If you’re just starting out and you’re not sure what to plant, hydrangeas are easy to grow and care for.

The most popular style, Paniculata, features large flowers that start out white and fade out to soft pink or red, depending on the variety. These plants can grow 8 to 10 feet tall and block out the neighbor’s home, while others top off at 3 to 4 feet – perfect for planting under your window.

“You can’t really go wrong with those,” Ducey says. “Hydrangeas have been popular for years, but breeders seem to be adding more and more varieties to the lineup.”

If you want to broaden the palette of your garden, choose some plants that are known for their long-lasting, attractive foliage, if not flowers.

Diervilla Kodiak Series is a flowering shrub that is primarily purchased for its foliage colors. The lush plant comes in shades of orange, red and a variety so dark purple that it almost looks black, Ducey says.

Evergreens will give you color all season long, and they don’t have to be green. You can incorporate blues and yellows with nontraditional evergreens like Lemon Thread Cypress or Globe Blue Spruce.

Many of the latest plant varieties are being bred so that they require a minimum of upkeep. But remember: there’s no such thing as a no-maintenance landscape.

“There isn’t a single garden out there that will require zero maintenance,” Ducey says. “But, you don’t have to be out there all the time. On a sunny day, go out and pull some weeds. It’s the experience of being outdoors – getting away from your computer, getting away from the TV, getting away from the phone – that’s my idea of beauty. Get away. The plants don’t talk back, they just listen.”

Beautiful, Edible Spaces

Who says beauty is only in the eye, and not the stomach, of the beholder? More people are buying into the farm-to-table concept and creating colorful agricultural spaces to call their own.

“We’re seeing a lot more people growing vegetables in their backyard,” says Lori Harms, greenhouse manager at Countryside Flower Shop, Nursery and Garden Center in Crystal Lake. “Young parents who are raising small children want to make sure the food they’re feeding their kids is organic, and by having it in their backyard, they’re controlling what’s being put on it.”

When people think of vegetable gardens, they often picture an 8-by-10-foot patch of dirt that’s been hoed into rows.
Such a plot is still the preference of many traditional gardeners, but Harms and the team at Countryside are embracing a new trend for vegetable gardening at home: planting edibles within existing flower gardens to create spaces that are both ornamental and functional.

“Everyone has mulch all over the place,” Harms says. “Go into the mulch area. You don’t have to necessarily expand into your yard. You can put in Swiss chard that comes in a rainbow of colors. The stems are orange, yellow or green. So, coordinate that with the coloring of the blooming bush that tucks into it.”

Proven Winners – a well-known grower of annuals, perennials and flowering shrubs – has come up with several pairings of flowers and edibles that can be planted in small spaces. Harms suggests a few combinations:
• Create contrast with orange and red habanero peppers against blue salvia (sage).
• Display shades of red my matching up tomatoes with a copper-colored coleus.
• Blend purples by planting Chinese eggplant and a coleus that has purple-edged leaves.
• Plant a darker eggplant to create a striking contrast against orange lantana.
• Pair green poblano peppers and a coleus featuring red leaves with lime-green edges.
• Try lime-green sweet potato vines or a bright-green coleus behind tomatoes.

Fully utilize the space in your backyard. Use your fence as a natural trellis for climbing beans and cucumbers, and you’ll not only have fresh produce but a screen from your neighbors.

Before you plant, keep in mind that most vegetables need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight, although lettuce and peas can take a little more shade, Harms says, which can add some textures to your existing yard. Add in some colors with a variety of red romaine that grows a little more upright and tucks in nicely among spireas – yellow or white flowering bushes often used as ground cover.

Broccoli has very large leaves that could easily take up a 3-foot area and would look nice behind some ground covers.
“There are just numerous ways to put in different kinds of edibles throughout existing landscapes, without digging through any lawns,” Harms says.

If you’re really tight on space, don’t underestimate the power of container gardening. Pole beans grow perfectly well on a trellis mixed in with a pot on your deck, and sweet potato plants cascade happily down pots.

Harms’ office window overlooks the Countryside backyard, where a large vegetable garden is planted.
“I admire it every day,” she says. “To me, that’s beauty.”

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