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Backyard Renovation: Creating a Low-Maintenance Yard

Using no-fuss materials and water-thrifty plantings, this landscaping pro gave his small urban lot plenty of visual punch

Backyard dining area and fireplace Lisa Romerein

Using no-fuss materials and water-thrifty plantings, this landscaping pro gave his small urban lot plenty of visual punch and practical outdoor living space while minimizing upkeep. Coming up: five key ideas he put to work—and you can too.

Vincent Ocampo and family in backyard
Westchester, California, homeowner Vincent Ocampo and his daughter, Alexis, get set to enjoy a meal outdoors.
Lisa Romerein

One reward of overhauling other people's properties for a living is experience that you can put to use on your own place—eventually. For eight years, Vincent Ocampo worked as the contractor half of a design-build team in Southern California with garden designer Nicole Lopez. He loved how their work blurred the boundaries between indoors and out.

Garden Plan

Backyard renovation illustration Arthur Mount

More privacy, more areas for outdoor living designer Nicole Lopez tamed the front-yard slope with a wide walkway with four steps that takes two turns as it leads to the front door. Garden beds flow down to the street; a fence with driveway gates establishes the home’s privacy zone. Keeping a mature sycamore tree helped soften the hardscape. In back, outdoor-living areas are delineated with different materials underfoot, from tile to turf grass.

Before: Bland & Bare

Before the backyard renovation Lisa Romerein

Finally, a year after he and his wife, Ilianet, bought a house and had a baby, it was his turn. Where there was just a small, sloping lawn in front and more struggling grass in back, he and Lopez imagined an easy-to-maintain landscape alive with color and texture and divvied up into lots of outdoor seating and entertaining areas for friends and a large extended family. Read on for the principles they followed in revamping their landscape.

Tips for Creating a Low Maintenance Yard

1. Plant a front-yard garden

Front yard garden Lisa Romerein

Front lawns demand regular watering, mowing, and weed control. The Ocampos' sloping front-yard garden adds privacy, beauty, and plenty of play space for their young daughter with a virtually maintenance-free garden.

A stepped-up slate-tile path winds through the center, flanked by dramatic palms, colorful succulents, and other low-water plants. An airy metal fence establishes the private part of the yard. Gates close off the driveway (which cuts in front of the house to the garage) and a parking pad. Concrete paving tinted a deep purple gives the whole yard a rosy hue. Safely behind the gates, daughter Alexis and her friends ride bikes and play hopscotch on the driveway or do artwork on the small front deck.

2. Keep the lawn to a minimum

Minimal yard in backyard Lisa Romerein

The Ocampos kept a patch of lawn, but it's so small—about 16 feet square—that it seems more like an area rug than wall-to-wall carpet. It sits to one side in the backyard and is the first thing you come to if you enter from the side yard. They thought they needed it as a play space for their daughter, but it mostly serves as a lush counterpoint to the hardscaping around the fireplace area.

Vincent constructed a focal-point pebble fountain against one of the garden walls where it is surrounded by palms and feathery Chilean mesquite trees. Now the sound of splashing water enlivens this quiet corner of the yard.

3. Rely on low-maintenance hardscape for outdoor living

Ocampos family in front of backyard fireplace Lisa Romerein

The Ocampos' garden is so easy to care for partly because it substitutes paving and planters for lawn and traditional perennial beds. But with a lot of hardscapes, you need a good design or you could wind up with a yard that looks like an industrial parking lot. Lopez's solution was to create an underlying grid of lines that gives the spaces a sense of order. Changes in elevation help tame the slope in front and delineate the spaces in back.

Outdoor kitchen grill area Lisa Romerein

The front walkway leading up from the sidewalk has four steps and takes two 90-degree bends about 6 feet apart, then ends where the concrete driveway cuts across the yard to the garage. But your eye continues because the concrete is scored into 6-foot-wide squares whose edges visually connect the path to the front steps.

In the backyard are three nearly square areas—the lawn, the fireplace patio, and the dining patio—though the yard jogs in and out to match bumpouts in the house. Planting beds of different sizes fill in the odd spaces to make it look more symmetrical overall.

Backyard dining area Lisa Romerein

Dividing the backyard into three distinct "rooms," the design gives each a slightly different elevation and paving material underfoot. The poured-concrete floor of the dining area is largest; level with the floor of the house, it connects via a wood deck accessed by two sets of doors. On one side of it sits the outdoor kitchen, which is paved with broken flagstone surrounded by softer-looking decomposed granite.

On the other side, a step leads down to the fireplace area, which is paved with the same slate tile as in front, and a small ribbon of decomposed granite outlines the sitting wall and surround. This area steps down to the patch of lawn, the smallest and lowest "room"—fitting for the section most closely rooted to earth.

"The step-ups are subtle," says Lopez, "but they really do make the space seem bigger." The poured concrete and mortared stone just need a quick sweep for cleaning. The decomposed granite might need to be replenished with a couple of new shovelfuls once a year.

4. Focus on water-thrifty perennials to provide color and texture

Perennials in backyard Lisa Romerein

A low-maintenance garden means forgoing annuals and plants that need to be coddled. "I always tell people, 'Don't plant anything that needs to be swapped out," says Vincent. Because of the region's hot, dry climate and water restrictions, the Ocampos used a lot of native plants and succulents.

Low-growers cover the ground around stepping stones and shrubs, and soften the edges of hardscape areas. Says Vincent: "If I knew then what I know now, I'd have saved money by just walking and plucking." Today, passersby often ask to do just that, harvesting easy-to-root sprigs from his street-side succulents to stick in pots and grow at home.

5. Add containers as sculptural decorative elements

Sculptural planters in backyard Lisa Romerein

Containers serve a practical purpose, of course, but they can also double as garden art. The Ocampos invested in three tall chartreuse pots to act as focal points and draw the eye upward in their small yard. Stationed by the barbecue in front of a jasmine-covered privacy wall, one vessel holds a burgundy-leaved bromeliad.

Another holds a small palm, and the third is the focal point in a pebble fountain near the lawn. Similarly shaped vessels in earthy terra-cotta hold blue-green succulents and red-veined cannas.

Low Maintenance Plants for Yards

You don't have to live in Southern California to grow exotic-looking, water-thrifty specimens like those found in the Ocampos' garden and showcased here. We've included suggestions for hardier plants with similar forms that will do well where summer rains are common and winter temperatures dip very low.

Canary Island Aeonium and ‘Lipstick’ Echeveria Lisa Romerein

Canary Island Aeonium (Aeonium canariense)

This showy succulent is also known as velvet rose because of the fine fuzz on its leaves. Its varieties are hardy only to 25 to 30 degrees F, though, so gardeners in colder climates need to overwinter them indoors in containers. Or substitute cobweb houseleek (Sempervivum arachnoideum), which also has fine hairs on its leaves but survives down to –20 degrees F.

'Lipstick' Echeveria (Echeveria agavoides 'Lipstick')

The Ocampos grow numerous kinds of this showy succulent, which is hardy to around 15 to 20 degrees F. The variety shown here features vivid pink edging. Where winters are colder, stand-ins with red edges on rosettes of leaves include 'Sundancer' and 'Fandango' Jovibarba (J. heuffelii), which are hardy to 10 degrees F, and 'Alta' Sempervivum, which survives to around –20 degrees F.

‘Tropicana’ Canna and ‘Yellow Wave’ New Zealand Flax Lisa Romerein

'Afterglow' Echeveria (Echeveria agavoides 'Afterglow')

This variety has a pinkish-purple post- sunset glow. Cold-tolerant options include 'Purple Passion' and 'Purple Beauty' Sempervivum, hardy to –20 degrees F, and purplish varieties of two-row stonecrop (Sedum spurium) that form low mats, rather than rosettes, hardy to –30 degrees F.

Octopus Agave (Agave vilmoriniana)

This accent plant is known for its long and narrow arching and twisting leaves. Unlike many agaves, its leaves have fine,soft serrations and a relatively soft spine at the end. It's hardy to 20 degrees F. Cold-hardy Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) also has an arching form but with sharp-tipped, narrower leaves; it's hardy to –20 degrees F.

‘Tropicana’ Canna and ‘Yellow Wave’ New Zealand Flax Lisa Romerein

'Tropicana' Canna (Canna x gerealix 'Tropicana')

Though most cannas are grown for their flowers, many have showy, tropical-looking leaves that range from deep green striped with red to purple streaked with orange. They're hardy to 5 degrees F if roots are well mulched in winter. In colder areas, grow them in pots that you overwinter indoors, or consider 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard, an edible annual with red, orange, and yellow veining on dark green leaves.

'Yellow Wave' New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax 'Yellow Wave')

The sword-shaped leaves of New Zealand flax create a lush look but require virtually no care, so the Ocampos used several varieties of it in the front bed, the side yard and the back. It's hardy to 20 degrees F. New Zealand hook sedge (Uncinia rubra) is a somewhat hardier substitute that is cold-tolerant to 10 degrees F.

Yellow Kangaroo Paw and Silver Yucca Lisa Romerein

Yellow Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos pulcherrimus)

This evergreen perennial forms curious flowers on stiff, 5-foot-tall stems that rise above clumps of swordlike leaves and is hardy to 40 degrees F. The small blooms are tubular, curved,and hairy, yellow-green tinged with red. For a similar look, try false yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), which is hardy to –20 degrees F. Most have red flowers, but there is also a yellow form.

Silver Yucca (Yucca rostrata)

Surely the most surreal plant in the Ocampos' front garden, this plant has a thick, fuzzy trunk topped by a pom-pom of stiff, thin blades. Gardeners in most parts of the country can grow it, though, since it's hardy to –15 degrees F.