My Backyard Oasis Makeover, Before and After

When we moved into our house last year, the back yard was a disaster zone with rotting fences, a foot of soil washed out from beneath the mildew-blackened patio and a lawn so choked with invasive weeds that... well, I just gave up. I've found lots of articles showing how to distract from an eyesore in the garden, but what if the whole backyard is a bleeping eyesore? I'll eventually replace the fences and get my stuff together, but what I really needed in the meantime was a diversion.



How the yard looked shortly after moving in. That's the previous owner's tent to the right.

My Problems

Here are just a few of the problems that I hoped to solve in my backyard:

It was boring! Other than the interesting bits of trash I would find, that is.
No soil: Before we moved in, all of the soil had washed away, leaving maple roots and a steep drop.
Eyesores: Thanks to the slope, your eye is immediately drawn to the rotting fence.
Danger: Erosion made the area adjacent to the patio unsightly and unsafe. See 'no soil'.
Oddly shaped yard: The wide lot should look expansive, but instead looked shallow and small.
No privacy: The wide patio had no sense of enclosure or intimacy. It felt like a parking lot.
It's just too hot. The big patio feels like a frying pan in summer.

My Solutions:


Install a Water Feature

I wanted to turn the washed out area along the patio into a refreshing oasis, and Laguna was kind enough to send me a sample of their new Segada pondless water feature to do just that. Now all I had to do was install it and plant a garden!

Installing the brimming urn fountain couldn't have been much easier. First I prepared a level surface so that the top of the tray would sit just above the soil line - this keeps dirt and debris from running off into the feature and clogging the pump. Normally you would have to dig a hole for the reservoir, but since I was putting it at the eroded edge of the patio, I actually had to add dirt until it was level with the patio and the top of the black plastic tray. It helps to cover the plastic reservoir while you're doing this so that it doesn't get contaminated with dirt.


The tricky part was installing the pump, since doing so requires that you hold the fountain over the tray while lining up the tubing beneath the tray... but it's a lot easier if you have a helping hand. All I did was follow the simple picture instructions on the box.

After I had plugged in the fountain and saw that it actually worked, it was time to clean and add the two bags of river rocks to the tray. I poured the river rocks into a dump cart (you can use the bag too) and hosed them off with a nozzle to wash away any debris. If you don't do this you'll end up with a lot of cloudy sediment in the water. Then I arranged the rocks on the plastic tray. Installation was a breeze, but my one complaint is that the supplied pump has a really short cord - which means that you might have a hard time finding a nearby outdoor outlet. I used a heavy duty outdoor extension cord myself, but am careful to keep it out of the rain. If anyone has any other recommendations, I'm all ears!


Bring the Garden Closer
Your first instinct when planting a new garden bed is to plant it against the house or at the rear of the property, right along the fence. The problem with that approach is that objects that are farther away look smaller. Not only that; your eyes (and feet) has to travel all the way over the weedy lawn to the rotting fence to check out the flowers!

The trick is to tackle the part of the garden that you see the most and make it so pretty that you don't even notice the ugly stuff. In our case, the perfect place for a visual interception was the area visible from our sliding glass doors, right between the patio and a stretch of dilapidated fencing. Since we had to fill in all of the dirt that eroded from beneath the patio anyways, we got to kill two birds with one stone.

The closer the garden is to the viewer, the larger it appears. When you plant along a patio or deck it becomes much easier to care for and admire the garden that you worked so hard to create. When I don't have to travel across my muddy, weedy lawn to enjoy my garden, I don't have to track dirt or those irritatingly clingy weed seeds (you know the ones) into the house.


Repeat Forms and Colors
Repetition in a garden bed creates a feeling of rest and unity. To reinforce the look of the bubbling fountain, I was sure to include the fountain-like forms of bromeliads (Aechmea 'Blue Cone', zone 8b-11), 'Fireworks' fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum 'Fireworks', zones 9-11), lilyturf (Liriope muscari 'Evergreen Giant', zones 6-10) and Evergold sedge (Carex oshimensis 'Evergold', zones 5-9b).


Even though I used some pretty intense colors, the scene doesn't look too overwhelming. This is because those same colors are repeated throughout - from the magenta spattered white and chartreuse leaves of the 'Miss Muffet' caladium (Caladium 'Miss Muffet', zones 9-11) to the frosty white edged pink and green leaves of the 'Snow Queen' hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis 'Snow Queen', zones 9-11).


Use Eye-Popping Color
I'm all for relaxing and tastefully muted color schemes, but I'll need a better distraction if the rest of my garden looks like crap. The key to using bright colors without making them also look like crap is a having a quick consultation with the color wheel. I went with a split-complementary color scheme of bright lemon-greens, magenta-pinks and turquoise. Rebecca Sweet calls this 'controlled conflict' in her book Refresh your Garden Design with Color, Texture and Form, and I couldn't agree more.

I had already combined magenta-pink and lemon-green with great results in another garden, so Mrs. Rainforest Garden insisted upon again combining them in our new backyard. She also wanted me to paint our faded metal table turquoise, and despite my skepticism, I went with it. It turns out she was right! The blue table and our blue recycled rope doormat both look superb from inside the house - especially since we have a similar color scheme in our living room. Another benefit is that the cool colors bring the visual temperature down a notch on glaring hot days.


Oh Yeah. Pressure Wash that Patio

I hired some guys to come out and pressure-wash our house, sidewalks, driveway and patio. Even though they stepped on some of my bromeliads, it was the best money I ever spent. I mean, the concrete was nearly black one minute, and white the next. Do it and your spouse will love you forever.


Create Intimate Details
Even though I'll have to wait a year or two for my privacy hedges to fill in, this garden still feels intimate and secluded thanks to thoughtful details like the aforementioned Segada water feature by Laguna, a ceramic snail from my friend Christina Salwitz, a collection of beachcombed sea glass at the base of the fountain, and a blown glass ball crafted by Barbara Sanderson bobbing at the top of the brimming urn. The fences surrounding my garden are rotting and I'm still trying to take apart the previous owner's extremely well-built doghouse, but when a friend visited our house today, she didn't even notice. All eyes were on that garden.


There's still a dropoff from the edge of the fountain basin, but I will be adding soil and plants soon.
What's next in my backyard oasis? I still need to add more compost and topsoil to create a smoother transition from the water feature to the eroded yard, but I still haven't decided which plants to use there! I'm thinking that a nice mass of native evergreen schillings holly (Ilex vomitoria 'Schilling's Dwarf', zones 7-11) would provide a nice deep green backdrop in from winter through fall. What do you think?

Disclosure: The Sagada fountain kit was provided to me by Laguna Ponds in exchange for a review. I was honestly a little skeptical since my last Laguna product, a Patio Pond, was a bit artificial looking for my taste, but the Sagada left me pleasantly surprised. The granite-fiberglass composite is a lot more natural-looking and everything has been working as I had hoped... but more importantly, I love this thing. I will update this post if that changes.

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