The front of the house may be a place to keep up appearances, but the backyard is where you can let your bucolic fantasies run wild to create a private sanctuary that’s all about you. “Backyards should be beautiful places that ask you to engage in some manner,” says Maria von Brincken, a certified landscape designer and lecturer on creating special outdoor spaces. “You can stroll through the garden, watch wildlife, listen to birdsong, dead-head flowers, play catch, have dinner with friends, or just relax.” Keep these tips in mind to create your own personal retreat.

  • Make a list of what you want to do in your backyard—such as grow vegetables, feed fish in a pond, entertain, or play sports. Post the list on your refrigerator and develop it over a few months, adding to it as you think of favorite outdoor activities.
  • Make a list of the views you love and the views you hate. If your neighbor’s house is a bit too close for comfort, a privacy hedge may be in order. If the sun setting to the west of your property is the highlight of the day, keep large trees out of that spot.
  • Plan for winter views (when only the bare minimum of foliage is left), and then add the other seasons to that structure. This will ensure year-round interest. Include flowering shrubs and trees to complement perennials and conifers.
  • Before you take any action, share these lists with a landscape designer. He or she can advise you about special needs for various activities and how life should circulate around your plantings. Even if you plan on doing the work yourself, a designer can help you with plant choice, scale, and location. That way you won’t be stuck with hardscape or plantings that don’t work.
  • Hardscape and plantings should work together to create visually pleasing areas. Doghouses, sheds, and swing sets don’t have to be eyesores. Proper landscaping can add charm and appeal to these areas. But make sure there are practical transitions from one area of your yard to the next: You don’t want the kids tramping through your heirloom boxwoods to get to their playhouse. Stone, brick, or mulched pathways will lead people in the right direction.

Backyard’s Finest

“Native and non-invasive plants top the list” for backyard plantings, says landscape designer Maria von Brincken. For spectacular bursts of color and interest, plant in groves (rows of plantings with little or no undergrowth) and drifts (large groups of the same species).

  • For shadeMaples (Norway, red, silver)OaksTulip tree
  • For hedgesArborvitaeJunipersHemlockYews
  • For privacy screens (vines)WisteriaClimbing hydrangeaMandevilla
  • For wildlifeFlowering dogwood“Little Lantern” columbineSwamp milkweedBalsam fir
  • For pathwaysLily-of-the-valley“Lemon Lime” hostasWinter daphne
  • For movementGoldenchain treePampas grassVanhoutte spiraea
  • For colorCommon lilac“Yaku” rhododendronViburnumDahlias
  • For winter interestWinter King hawthornWeeping crabappleCorkscrew willow
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