Designing for Ourselves

Humans are naturally drawn to the outdoors and our urge to plant comes easily. Gandhi said, “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend to the soil is to forget ourselves.”

How does our relationship with nature affect our design of our yards? In fact, there are many ways. We use plants and hardscape to create spaces that guide us on either a path or to a place in our yard.  For example, we are either walking somewhere in our yard (like to the front door) or we are pausing in a space to enjoy it (eating a meal on the patio). Good landscape design makes those two activities easy and enjoyable.

Front Yard: If we go from space to space in a typical yard, there are relationships that we have with our surroundings that can be highlighted to create well-designed areas. Let’s start at the front door. The path to the front door should feel welcoming to a guest as well and simple. The forms that greet the guest should feel like open arms. This can be translated to the path from the sidewalk to the front door. By making the pathway slightly wider at the sidewalk and then narrower as it approaches the front door, the pathway feels like it is welcoming the guest.  This relationship can also be seen in plant placement or with steps and columns. Whatever is placed farthest from the front door should then get narrower along the path as it approaches the front door. This simple design concept can improve the design of the front yard.


 Caption: Pathway is slightly wider where it meets the sidewalk.

Side Yard: Our relationship to our surrounding can also be examined in our design of the side yard. Often this is a narrow strip of land that serves as the pathway between the front yard and the back yard. Design elements can determine how this space is used and enjoyed. The walker’s speed is affected by the walking surface. Is the path a surface where walking is easy? Or is it bark chips or pebbles where walking is slightly slower and deliberate. Stepping stones will slow the walker down even more as one needs to look down for each step.  Are there things to stop and look at along the way, or is the side yard simply for circulation? 

Back Yard: Our back yards have a number of relationships that can be explored. Many back yards have views beyond the property lines. There’s a Japanese landscape design concept called “Shakkei” which means “borrowed landscape.” We “borrow” the view of our close and distant neighbors to add design value to our landscape. Sometimes we want to highlight the view by framing it with trees or other landscape elements. At other times we want to hide a view that is less desirable. We can do this by using screens of plants, walls or fences.

Back Door: Even the smallest yard can be broken up into even smaller areas to serve the multiple uses of the backyard. Perhaps you have an outdoor dining area, a vegetable garden, and an open lawn area. How do these three areas relate to each other? What is it like to stand at your back door, looking out to the back yard? Are you blinded by sunlight? If it’s raining, do you get wet? Do you step down onto a stoop or dirt?  Ideally, a backdoor threshold should be covered and paved. This offers a transition between the inside and outside world. If the area is exposed to the elements, the experience will be unpleasant and will make you resistant to going outside. A pleasant transition area lets you pause to evaluate the outdoors before embarking.

Patio: Once the transition zone is designed properly, then we can move on to the rest of the yard. Places in the yard should to feel safe for the user. In garden design terms, safe means partially enclosed. For a patio area, for instance, that is in a corner of a yard or nestled next to the house, the corner makes two so-called walls that create a sense of safety for the user. Don’t forget about the overhead plane that can be highlighted with trellises. The overhead plane can add to the enclosure feel. In contrast, if you put a patio in the middle of a lawn area, surrounded by lawn, it won’t be comfortable. Users will feel exposed and vulnerable. A gathering space should have one to three sides enclosed. 

 Caption: Patio is nestled in corner of yard.

Paths: The next issue is how do you get to the patio? Is there a clear path made of easy to walk on material? For example, the path could consist of stepping stones cut into lawn or just lawn. The stepping stones or other paved surface will invite a person to walk to the patio. Just lawn will not.

Good design entails embracing how humans use spaces. Design elements can move us along a path or make us want to stay in one place. The good news is that we are designing for ourselves, so whatever “feels good” in your yard is probably going to be good design. Follow your intuition and enjoy.


We Share our Front Yards with Our Neighbors.

From my home office, I have a great view to the backyard and can hear the fountain gurgling away. Even though I spend more time and effort on the backyard than the front yard, it is the front yard that I think serves a greater purpose. The front yard serves as the transition from the public world (our car or the sidewalk) to the private world of our houses. However, it serves our neighborhood as well.  We create and maintain the front yard for the neighborhood and the backyard for ourselves. One is the public garden and one is the private.

If the front yard is so important, how do we make it great?

Finding the Front Door:  Sometimes this is a challenge. I once visited a home in 4S Ranch where I had to bend down to avoid getting hit in the head by a giant banana tree while searching for the doorbell. I did not feel welcome.  Another poor design is a walkway leading to the front door that is lined with bee-loving shrubs like lavender.  I had to walk on the lawn to avoid the bees. The solution:  make the front door accessible with well-trimmed shrubs and trees and also with the right kind of plants.  Also, does the visitor need to walk along the driveway to get to the front door? I prefer to create a walkway from the sidewalk to the front door. This is an opportunity for nicely-designed steps or entry courtyard.  A separate walkway is nicer than asking your visitor to squeeze by your parked car in the driveway.

Driveways and Garages:  For many, the driveway is used only seconds a day as we traverse it in our cars to get to and from the garage. In this case, we only see the front yard from our cars as we go in and out of the garage.  If you have an alley garage, the front yard is experienced even less. Thus, visitors to your house are the prime users of the front yard.

 If you park your car on the street or in the driveway, pedestrian circulation should allow for an easy transition to your front door.  It is up to you how well and enjoyable that transition will be. Do you have to squeeze by your car that is parked in your driveway; trying not to get your clothes dirty as you brush by the overgrown shrubs; dodging lawn toys and potted plants to eventually find your front door?  Alternatively, as a solution, you could have a meandering path that guides you along a nicely-planted sidewalk with a fountain or specimen tree to catch your gaze?

Front Stoop: The front stoop is the last place your guest will be before entering your house. Make it comfortable. Stand outside your front door with a couple other people and ask yourself:  Do you feel crowded? Are you worrying about stepping on a plant or knocking over a potted plant? Is there a cover over your head? Is the stoop well-lit? If it’s raining, will your guest be protected from the rain? How does the stoop feel on a hot day? A well-positioned tree can help make the stoop shady and comfortable.

Pleasant view from the street:  Another characteristic of a well-designed front yard is the view from the street. Since we share our front yards with our neighbors, ask:  How does your front yard look from the other side of the street? You probably can’t see the tiny weeds that might bother you as you walk to your front yard, but you might notice larger scale items like an unbalanced pruning job on a tree.  General tidiness, or lack thereof, can be noticed from that distance.  The front yards in 4S Ranch and Del Sur are typically small.  As a general rule, small spaces are more pleasing to the eye when they are simple.  Some simple design ideas are a hedge that follows the walkway to the front door, a few trees for scale and shade, and perennials and annuals for seasonal color. When choosing flower colors, stick to 2 or 3 because too many colors in a front yard can ultimately look messy. There are many variations on this design idea, but just remember the simpler the better.

To sum up, it might feel like you are holding back your creativity in your design of your front yard. Save that for the backyard – where you can really express yourself.