8 Essential Elements of a Spectacular Outdoor Living Space


outdoor-landscape-1It’s a beautiful day—perfect for spending time in your own backyard. With something to drink in hand, you head outside. Settling into a lounge chair to relax, you quickly survey your yard. Then you begin to focus on each imperfection. The patio looks worn and tired. It’s not the right shape or in the best location. The plantings are scraggly with no color. And right in your line of vision, is your neighbor waving at you.

You begin to feel unsettled and dissatisfied. This is not the relaxing outdoor day you had envisioned.

Could this person be you?

I’m Judith Lipson-Rubin. As a landscape designer, I have experience making clients happy with their outdoor living space. My clients rely on me to transform their outdoor space into one that is perfect for them. I want to help you, too.

Judith-Lipson-Rubin-PhotoLet’s imagine that I am visiting your home for the first time. Let’s take an imaginary tour of your outdoor living space. As we walk through your yard, I’ll explain to you the Eight Essential Elements of a Spectacular Outdoor Living Space.

But before we begin, let’s get you thinking about what you want your outdoor space to become. Here are some questions to ask yourself: Does my outdoor space provide for the kinds of activities my family enjoys doing? Am I in love with the plantings and their arrangement in my landscape? Do I have enough privacy?

I would like you to appraise honestly the positives and negatives of your current space. Allow yourself to look at those aspects of your yard that you usually try to ignore. To critically evaluate your yard, you must be able to view it as a new visitor to your home might.

With these considerations in mind, let’s take a walk around your yard. We’ll begin at your entryway.

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Essential Element 1: Appealing Front Entrance and Yard

Let me explain why an appealing front entrance is so important. Your entrance greets you as you arrive home. An entryway that you love makes every arrival a special event. Admiring your home, plantings, and yard views at different times of day and seasons is an experience that welcomes you whenever you come home.

  • What has bloomed today?
  • What scents waft up to meet you?
  • How do the leaves reflect light at that hour?

Each time you arrive, there is so much to enjoy. Yes, you are glad to be home again! Your mood is elevated.

To visitors, a beautiful and interesting entry is an introduction to your indoor and outdoor living spaces. Your walkways, steps, and driveway beckon guests into your home and yard.

  • What awaits behind the front door of your home?
  • What features adorn your backyard?

outdoor living space

An appealing entrance does not happen by accident. It is designed with intention. So, let’s look at your front entry:

  • Do you love it?
  • Does it draw you into your home?
  • Are the walkways, driveway, and steps to your home attractive and conveniently placed?
  • Do these materials match or coordinate with each other, and are they in good condition?
  • Does the walkway flow from the driveway to the front door in an inviting way?

What about the plantings in your landscape?

  • Do they provide an anchor for your house?
  • Do they give you privacy?
  • Are the shrubs and plants healthy and attractive?

gardening tipsGood outdoor lighting is very important, not only for safety but to highlight your plantings and hardscape features such as statuary and planted pots. There are so many beautiful lighting fixtures to choose from.

You can attain a pleasing and inviting focus through the use of trees, gardens, and decorative water features. Perhaps you would like to add a seating area or an arbor.

Begin to think about how you want your entryway to look. Consider your personal taste:

  • Do you prefer a formal or dramatic presentation of hardscapes and plantings?
  • Or is your style more casual and comfortable?
  • How much open space do you like?
  • How do you feel about lawn?

A plan that tastefully integrates several features makes for an interesting and personalized entryway.

Now, let’s continue on our imaginary tour by moving to the back of your house.

Essential Element 2: Backyard Gathering Areas

gardening tipsWe walk around the corner of your home, past decorative shrubs and plantings that border the house. We head up the stairs to your deck and find a spot of shade where we can sit for a bit to survey your backyard. 

How comfortable are you with the amount of sun and shade you experience while sitting on your deck?

A deck should be big enough for seating your family and guests, but not so large that it overtakes the yard. You want enough space on a deck for furniture and perhaps a grill.

What about convenience? Grilling requires easy access to the kitchen so that you can bring food and other necessities in and out.

I notice that sitting here, we are visible to the neighbors on each side of you. Is privacy an issue for you, or do you prefer the view from above that a deck gives you?

Here’s another thought: Perhaps you would like to add a patio on the ground level. Having seating areas other than just on a deck provides places for small groups of people to gather and visit.

backyard patio design

A patio also provides a cozier, more protective feeling than a deck. Sitting on the same level as your plantings promotes an intimate mood.

Where is the best location for a patio? If you need some shade, it is easy to provide with trees and shrubs or a vine-covered pergola or a gazebo.

If you prefer more sunlight, perhaps you want to replace some large trees in the backyard with smaller varieties. Blooming fruit trees provide magic in the spring.

The view from a deck or patio is an important consideration. Since you want to spend a lot of time outside, seating should show off your yard to best advantage. You want to be able to see your gardens and decorative hardscapes such as water features and sculptures. A raised deck and a patio on the ground level will give different views of your garden areas as the seasons progress and plants bloom.

Let’s think about some other areas of your yard, moving to the back of your house.

Essential Element 3: Relaxation Area

garden relaxation areaA private area, nestled among your gardens, where one or two people can relax and enjoy solitude brings many joys. Would you consider this as part of your overall outdoor plan? The benefits are many.

Sometimes after a hard day, you want a place to unwind and enjoy the beauty of nature. If you have a difficult decision to make, a quiet alone place can help you generate an answer.

And if you are feeling depressed and overwhelmed, somewhere to meditate in nature can help bring peace and comfort. This space will also be where you can talk with someone without interruption. How do you make such a place?

In the design for your outdoor space, leave aside an area that is in the most private part of your yard. Plan to surround comfortable seating with plantings that provide privacy. Choose plants that help set a mood.

For instance, pastel flowers can promote contemplation; bright colors exude cheer; different shades of green leaves, calm. Include a water feature and/or pleasant-sounding wind chimes. Use rock formations to help promote a feeling of being grounded.

gardening tips

Make the space your own with features that make you happy. You will seek out this special place often.

Essential Element 4: Open Areas for Drama and Fun

outdoor living designFrom our view on the deck, I notice that you have few open areas in your backyard. Many of your plantings have grown large and block the view of your gardens. What if you removed these plantings to make your yard more spacious?

Open areas are important to show off the plantings in the back of your yard. You want to see the vistas from your deck.

Just as when you step back from a painting to see the overall effect, open areas let you see the overall design, color, and texture of your landscape. Open areas help link the gardens, seating areas, and hardscape features into a cohesive landscape.

You may prefer lawn as a ground covering for your open spaces, but also consider alternatives such as groundcovers or low-growing plants. Stone dust and stones are also possibilities. These options to a lawn may be easier to maintain, especially with children and pets.

gardening tipsBy the way, I notice that you have children and a dog. Places that are open for playing outside games, such as badminton and kick ball, will give children, as well as animals, room to run.

You may want a gym set in the backyard. Choose a place away from the street within view of where you will be sitting. When your children outgrow the gym set, you can convert the space into a place for them to visit with their friends.

Do you like your pet to have free run of the whole yard? Then choose plants that are easy to care for, pliable, and tough, such as ornamental grasses.

Include walkways that are paw friendly. Opt for alternatives to a lawn for your open spaces.

Give your dog a sandbox for digging. Use a low fence or stonewall to discourage dogs from garden beds.

Being creative about incorporating spaces for children and pets into your backyard while maintaining safety and beauty is a challenge, but it can be done. There are many options offered on the Internet.

Now let’s think about solving the crucial matter of privacy in your outdoor space.

Essential Element 5: Privacy

backyard privacy ideasYou’ve told me that you are bothered by the lack of privacy in your yard. A view of your neighbors, the street noises, and lights from the neighborhood may all hamper your privacy.

There are solutions to your privacy problems.

The first privacy enhancer you may think of is a fence. If you have children and pets, a fence might be a necessity. A fence can help with noise abatement, light glare from the street, and the view of the neighbors. Layered with shrubs, ornamental grasses, and flowering plants, the fence will disappear.

If you don’t need a fence, a living fence of plantings in varied heights and shapes may provide enough privacy for you. The living fence becomes a sight and sound barrier as well as a source of seasonal interest.

gardening tipsTrees throughout your yard absorb not only noise but also unwanted artificial light. The gurgling water features found in fountains, koi ponds, and waterfalls mask noise and add dramatic focal points.

Add wind chimes in strategic locations. These features promote a peaceful mood while muting noise that may sneak through the fence and planting barriers.

Garden beds can also alleviate privacy problems by providing cover and absorbing noise. I see that you have a few gardens in your yard. Let’s take a walk through them.

Essential Element 6: Garden Beds

garden bedsDo you consider yourself an ardent gardener or a reluctant one? Would you like to expand your gardens or are there already too many to maintain with ease? Perhaps you’d like to add fruit trees or a vegetable garden to your yard.

From your planting selections, I see that you know about the sun and shade, soil, and watering requirements of the plants you are growing. You have ornamental plants appropriate for the region.

Let me suggest adding flowers such as lilacs or viburnum that evoke a mood as their scent floats through the yard. Remember to include plants with varying bloom times to make a garden that is always lush with color.

Have fun with unusual color combinations and out-of-the-ordinary blooms. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your gardens.

gardening tipsHow do your plantings look from inside your house in all seasons? Your ornamental grasses have plumes that will blow in the wind and look lovely covered in snow. You could add plants and shrubs that have berries or interesting foliage or bark.

Before deciding where to place plants, view your yard from each window of your home. Where will the plant best be appreciated from inside?

Think about where you spend time, such as by the window over your kitchen sink or in your favorite reading chair. You want to enjoy your plantings year round from outside and inside.

You can enjoy many native plants year round. Let me tell you a bit about them.

Essential Element 7: Environmentally Friendly and Safe Space

A native plant is one that grows naturally in a particular region, ecosystem, or habitat. Native flowers, grasses, vines, trees, and shrubs grow best in the areas where they have evolved.

In our region, or zone, examples are coneflower, blue-eyed grass, mountain laurel, sugar maple, and swamp azalea. These are only a few of the thousand of native choices available to prosper in your yard.

So, why would you want to grow native plants in your yard? Let me explain.

outdoor space design ideas

Native plants are vital to the ecosystem, that community of living organisms which depend on each other and the environment to survive. For example, hummingbirds need nectar from blossoms for food.

In turn, the hummingbirds inadvertently pollinate plants that produce seeds. The seeds fall to the ground. Some of the seeds root, while some provide food for other birds, insects, and various wildlife. Animals excrete undigested seeds, and new plants root and grow. The cycle continues.

Every organism has a part to play in the survival of others—and so it goes with bees, birds, butterflies, and a wealth of other insects, wildlife, and plants. Native plants provide food and shelter to other native living organisms.

gardening tipsWith native species in your yard, you maintain the balance of nature. To the gardeners’ benefit, natives are just as beautiful as any nonnative species you can choose.

However, over the years that I’ve been landscaping, I’ve found that improving the soil is the best guarantee of healthy plants and lawn.

I recommend testing your soil to understand what’s in it and what’s not. This can save you time and money in the long run!

You may learn that your soil isn’t rich enough in nutrients for growing the plants you want to grow. You may have to add compost, top soil and other nutrients.

Let me take this opportunity to voice my concerns about the environment and what you as a homeowner can do to help your own family and the earth stay healthy. 

I encourage you to avoid chemical fertilizers and weed controllers in your gardens and on your lawn. Consider using only natural fertilizers and supplements. Natural, or organic, fertilizers and compost will improve the soil as well as increase the beneficial microorganisms.

You may ask how I feel about chemical pesticides. In my own gardens, I depend on beneficial insects, such as ladybugs and green lacewings.

Some of my clients feel they need more protection. I suggest pesticides and fungicides approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute. For more information, search OMRI online.

But there are other pollutants than chemical fertilizers and pesticides. You might observe that rainwater runs from the street into your driveway and then into your yard.

Pollutants in water runoff from asphalt pavement and shingles can contribute to contaminants in your own yard— in addition to polluting public waters. Solutions include building rain gardens, swales, French drains, and berms. 

Let’s end our tour by heading back to your deck so that we can have a panoramic view of your back yard. From there, we can consider the final and decisive element of your landscape design: the characteristics of your property.

Essential Element 8: Property Characteristics

gardening tipsYou’ve told me that ideally you’d like your back yard to be completely flat. Unlike your level front yard, your back yard is comprised of flat land close to your home with an upward slope that ends toward the back of your property.

So, how can we create alignment between what you want in your landscape and what you currently have?

Let’s work with the land you have to find the landscaping solutions to this slope problem. A common solution in such a situation is plantings on the slope to prevent erosion; but this will not give you any flat land.

But, you could build low retaining walls to terrace the slope into usable flat space for gardens. The wider the terraces, the more space for a pergola or sitting area. Imagine the view looking back at your yard from the top of the slope!

Another option is to remove the slope to make the whole back yard level. This is the most costly solution, but it is doable. Working with you, I can produce plans that will assist you in visualizing your options.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this imaginary tour—and learned a little about landscape design.

Now it’s up to you to apply what you’ve read. Draw up a design plan for your yard using the Eight Essential Elements of a Spectacular Outdoor Living Space.

Then get to work.

Do I think you can make your ideal outdoor space by yourself? I believe it’s possible.

But remember that partnership with a professional will help you avoid the costly mistakes that may occur when you don’t have the experience or skill of a seasoned landscape designer working at your side.

And if you make the decision to do your landscape by yourself, I will miss what I love the most—the joy of transforming your outdoor space into the space that you dream of.


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