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.