clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

7 Steps to Creating a Backyard from Scratch

These 7 features will transform a plain stretch of lawn into a lush landscape you'll really use and enjoy

Wooden chair in backyard garden Webb Chappell

Finding room outside for a table and chairs is at the top of most homeowners' wish list—whether as a place for open-air family dinners, casual get-togethers with friends, or just kicking back with the paper. It was all three for best-selling author Doris Kearns Goodwin and her writer-husband, Richard Goodwin, whose home is shown throughout this story. Their vision: a plant-filled stone patio incorporating a stream and a koi pond.

Pathway through garden in backyard Webb Chappell

Before: Outdoor furniture was plunked down on grass that ran right up to the French doors lining the back of the house.

After: The doors now open onto a bluestone terrace that overlooks the rest of the property, where This Old House landscape contractor Roger Cook has carved out pathways and planting beds that he fills with a mix of annuals and perennials.

Creating a Backyard from Scratch

1. Add a stone patio

Outdoor dining table and chair on patio in backyard Keller & Keller

Paved surfaces next to the house make taking a seat outdoors more comfortable and convenient. So landscape architect Paul Maue nestled a bluestone terrace right outside French doors that lead from three keys areas of the house: the dining room, the great room, and the library.

The stone is cut in neat rectangles that echo the lines of the house, but the patio has a naturalistic, irregular shape, bordered with curved beds and trees, that ties it to the rest of the property. "Before, the space was completely exposed to the sky," says Maue. "Now, as the new trees grow, their canopy will make it feel more intimate, comfortable, and protected."

how to install a backyard patio Aaron Ashley

Tips for creating a patio

  • “Make sure the patio is big enough,” says landscape architect Paul Maue. “Getting the scale right is the hardest thing—you always need more space than you think.” Try setting up a table and chairs on the lawn first to see how much room they need. Maue’s rule of thumb: Allow 25 square feet per person for a seat and room to move.
  • Consider a Change in Grade: A step up or down by just a few inches can make a small yard seem larger and break up the expanse of a large yard, making it more interesting.
  • Prepare a Proper Base: After determining the finished grade of the patio, TOH landscape contractor Roger Cook removes enough loamy material to allow for 8 to 10 inches of compacted gravel, topped with about 1 inch of stone dust. Because bluestone is variable in thickness—from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches—Roger mixes 10 parts stone dust to 1 part cement and wets it till it's the consistency of thick mud. "This helps settle the stones in and fill any gaps on the underside," he says. Once the stones are in place he'll brush more stone dust between them to lock them in place—where winters bring snow and ice, frost heaves will crack a patio that's been mortared in with concrete.
  • Preplan for Irrigation: If irrigation or outdoor lighting systems aren't fully in place, Roger runs pairs of PVC pipes in the patio's base. "That way you can come back later and run water lines or electrical conduit without disturbing the hardscape," he says. Just be sure to mark the pipes' location with stones or to note it on the plan.
  • Get the Pitch Right: "The last thing you want is standing water," says Roger. To encourage runoff, slope the patio away from the house, 1/8 inch per foot. Stones also need to be level to each other for a smooth, stable walking surface. So before he begins, Roger runs two sets of string lines about 1/8 inch above the finished surface. To establish the grade, he sets control lines on either side of the patio, leveling them to each other and checking the slope. Then he sets up a header line along the edge closest to the house; this establishes a starting level line for laying the stone. He runs another string line 4 feet from the header, so he can use a 4-foot level to check each stone as it's laid. With that row complete, he runs another "set line" 4 feet down—and so on, until the entire surface is paved.

2. Plant with the four seasons in mind

Path through backyard garden Webb Chappell

A well-chosen mix of annuals, perennials, flowering shrubs, and ornamental trees provide year-round color. Most gardens are loaded with blossoms in spring and early summer, which is when the majority of flowering perennials, shrubs, and trees bloom.

With a little careful planning, though, there can be something in a garden to delight the senses at every time of the year. In this landscape, spring-flowering daffodils, tulips, forsythia, azaleas, lilacs, rhododendrons, and dogwoods give way to summer-flowering poppies, peonies, daylilies, iris, catmint, astilbe, and hydrangeas.

Shade-loving hostas and golden hakone grass brighten beds with their foliage. Annual petunias and impatiens maintain their color till fall, when Japanese maples go fiery red and birch leaves turn golden. These trees' ornamental bark also adds interest throughout the winter, as do the red fruits of the hawthorn tree and the enduring form and color of the conifers, which range from towering blue spruces to long-needled white pines.

To achieve a similar succession of bloom and continuing interest in your yard, whatever its size, keep a record of what flowers when to figure out what holes in the calendar you need to fill. Then do some research in books or catalogs and at local nurseries to learn about plants that have ornamental value during those times of the year.

3. Make space for moving water

Backyard water fountain in garden From left: Webb Chappell; Keller & Keller

Waterfalls, streams, fountains, and fish ponds bring wildlife and soothing sound to your door. Water features have a naturalizing influence on a place, bringing birds, frogs, fish, and beneficial insects closer to home. And the sound of moving water isn't just calming, it can mask less desirable noise like road traffic and neighbors' mowers.

The Goodwins' stream runs right by the French doors in back, leading to a waterfall and koi pond at one end, and at the other to a fountain made from bluestone pavers stacked like books—appropriate to the home of a pair of writers. The water features can be seen from most downstairs areas of the house, and heard even from the second-story bedrooms. Water-loving frogs herald spring, and birds come through all winter long. "The great thing has been how it's made us much more connected to nature, and to the changing seasons," says Doris.

Though water elements are commonly made from free-form synthetic rubber liners or premolded fiberglass forms, the Goodwins' is constructed like a gunite swimming pool, with the filter above ground (and screened from view); pipes are built in to recirculate the water.

Build a fountain

A fountain can be as simple as a concrete birdbath, a terra-cotta urn, or a stone trough fitted with a recirculation pump and a length of tubing to send the water upward. For safety, a pump should always be plugged into an outdoor GFCI outlet.

How to build a pond fountain Aaron Ashley
  • Protect the Pump's Longevity: To keep from shortening the life of a submersible pump, never let the water level drop so its housing is exposed. In areas prone to a hard freeze, bring the pump inside until spring unless you plan to heat the water basin or keep the fountain running all winter. Indoors, store it submerged in water mixed with a few drops of dishwashing liquid to prevent calcification.
  • Calculate the Power You Need: The average pump found at a garden center will suffice for a tabletop fountain. But for a larger-scale installation, look for one that can recirculate 15 to 20 gallons of water per minute.
  • Create the look of a ground-source spring. For a natural-looking DIY installation, a "pebble fountain" can be built at ground level so that the water drains back to an underground basin. Check out the illustration above to see how a stacked-stone pebble fountain could be constructed.

4. A garden path

Creating a path in a backyard garden Webb Chappell

Curving walks slow down the pace and highlight points along the way. Paths show us where to go and urge us to explore. One that wends its way also reveals the landscape slowly, building in a surprise with every twist and turn. Bends in the road also put your attention directly on what's in front of you, whether it's the papery white bark of a multistemmed birch or a dramatic natural rock formation.

It's easy to make an informal path amid planting beds or woodland by clearing a swath of and putting down a layer of mulch, pine needles, or loose stone. This kind of casual paving blends into the surroundings, providing just enough definition to show off the plant material on either side and to keep strollers in line. Keep in mind, though, that over time such surface materials naturally deteriorate and scatter, so you'll have to replenish them periodically.

5. Build a garden arbor

Garden arbor in backyard Webb Chappell

Vertical architectural elements tie the landscape to the house and offset a yard's horizontal lines. Arches and arbors can be used to dress up a path, frame a view, support climbing plants, or mark an entry, as the one shown here does. Garden gates with an arbor roof feel welcoming and protected, marking the transition from one setting to another—from driveway to backyard, for instance.

The clean lines of this arch echo those of the house and the spindle-style picket fence. The curved top offers a break from the rectangular geometry of the surrounding structures, putting even more of a spotlight on it. Eight to 10 feet is generally a good height for a garden arch. And if it's to hold a double gate, as this one does, it should be at least 6 feet wide for a gracious entry that could accommodate two people walking side by side.

Tips for building an arbor

Building a garden arbor Aaron Ashley
  • A natural cedar or redwood arbor is pretty low-maintenance. But if you want it to be a crisp white (or another color), skip the paint and coat it with solid stain instead. Solid stain fades over time without blistering and peeling, making for much less of an upkeep hassle down the road.
  • You see them all the time at the garden center: wooden arbors with feet that sit on the ground. These might serve as a trellis for vines or a roof over a freestanding bench, but they won't stand up to the stresses on a fence line or a swinging gate.
  • To take that load, sink the posts 30 to 36 inches below grade, says Pro Fence's Mike McLaughlin, who custom-fabricated and installed the arbor here. Where soil is naturally gravelly, using it to backfill the hole—hand-tamping it every few inches—may provide enough stability and drainage.
  • But where soil is sandy or clay, a better bet is to sink the bottom of the post in 4 to 6 inches of tamped gravel, then fill the hole with a tamped mix of soil and gravel, packing it around the post slightly above grade and sloping it away from the post.
  • Where a post bears the stress of a hinged gate, using concrete helps stabilize it even more. Just be sure to sink the post end in gravel first so it won't stand in water, then fill the hole with a sloped concrete footing.
  • Driving two 12-inch lengths of 1/2-inch rebar through the part of the post to be buried will help keep it anchored. Surround the joint where wood meets concrete with silicone caulk to seal out moisture that could cause the post to rot.
Installing a backyard gate Aaron Ashley

Include a gate

Even a well-built gate installed with high-quality stainless steel hardware has to fight the pull of gravity. To keep it from sagging, install a diagonal wooden brace that runs from the upper latch-side corner to the lower hinge-side corner to stiffen it.

Or, if a gate is already starting to sag, attach a turnbuckle along the opposite axis that allows you to tighten threaded rods to bring up the corner that's sinking toward the ground.

6. Add a place to play

Bocce ball in backyard Webb Chappell

From swing sets to treehouses, play areas for young kids have found a place in suburban yards as long as there have been subdivisions. But at-home recreation areas don't have to be limited to children's use or to costly, space-hogging tennis courts and swimming pools. Croquet lawns, putting greens, horseshoe pits, and the like are popping up in more backyards as homeowners strive to build in areas for family and friends to have fun on their home turf.

The Goodwins thought they were putting in the bocce ball court for the benefit of three grown sons who live nearby. "But we go out there all the time with guests, too," says Doris.

A simple bocce court, such as the one shown here, can be assembled in a couple of weekends for about $750: All it takes is enough 2x12s and wooden pegs to make a 12-by-60-foot frame, several tons of gravel for a well-tamped base, and enough stone dust for a 6-inch playing surface. Bocce balls not included.

7. Make a quiet destination

Bench in backyard garden Webb Chappell

No landscape should be without a bench sheltered under the canopy of a tree, tucked in the crook of a woodland walk, or set at the far end of the yard with a view back to the house, with all its hustle and bustle. After all, the point of landscaping your surroundings is to spend time outdoors enjoying the feel of the warm sun and cool breezes, the scent of cut grass and blooming flowers, the buzz of insects and the twittering of birds. Taking a seat and being still for a bit allows you to do that.

In choosing a bench, consider how near it will be to the house; the closer it is, the more it should reflect your home's style. An ornate metal bench might suit a brick house with wrought-iron railings, whereas a simple white-painted wood bench will look right outside a modest cottage.

Farther away from the house, though, natural-looking materials blend best with the landscape: simple stone slabs that will grow mossy or encrusted with lichen over the years; water-resistant woods such as teak and cedar that will weather naturally; even a fallen trunk hollowed out for a seat. But whatever a bench is made of, the invitation it issues remains the same: Why not take it easy, and sit awhile?