From building a new structure, to plantings, and small finishing touches, first determine the motivation for planning a new outdoor project. Perhaps the outdoor project would add home value, provide relaxation, improve functionality, create a sense of comfort, or simply improve the home’s outdoor aesthetic appeal. Outdoor projects begin with site planning, progress to design layout, and finish with construction planning. Select materials that coordinate with the design theme and fit the personality of the home and its homeowners. Allow our guide to spark imagination and to provide some helpful tips that can help accomplish the new outdoor project.
Begin an exciting, new outdoor project first by taking a survey of many factors from within the landscape and around the home. Specifically, look at the following categories.
On graph paper, mark shrubs, trees, flowers and any other vegetation that the homeowner would like to remove. Then, develop a list of desired new plants and approximate locations. Take care to evaluate the sun versus shade factors, watering needs, and soil conditions for the plant list.
Gather information that clearly defines the property’s boundaries so that structures do not cross over into neighbors’ yards and so that the homeowner can make full use of the site. Consider how the edge of the property can be defined with fences and vegetation.
Structures and access patterns
Note existing structures and whether or not they need to be removed or renovated. Jot down a list and perhaps a few sketches to record ideas for new structures. Record access pathways and entrances that interact with areas on site, such as: foot paths, gates, home entrances, and driveways. Perhaps the new projects’ designs will need to be adapted according to access point locations.
Call local utility companies to mark the underground utilities within the site to avoid any danger incurred to a worker while digging. Determine whether an outdoor lighting system or an irrigation system would be a desirable addition. An outdoor lighting system could help to make the use of the landscape during the night more viable, could improve the aesthetics of the home, and even improve security. An irrigation system could help to keep the landscaping watered efficiently.
On a copy of the site plan, mark the views from certain locations and sightlines from those locations. Then brainstorm some ideas for how to make better, more meaningful use of the sightlines. There also may be some ideas to improve the privacy of the backyard.
Consider the landforms on the site and how changes to the landforms would be an improvement. Perhaps a flat site could have a rolling hill that includes a retaining wall that doubles as a bench. If a pond is in the plans, the soil removed to construct the pond could be used to add visual interest to the site.
Analyze and record the prevailing winds patterns that cross through the home’s landscaping. Then, plan for taking advantage of these natural winds to cool the outdoor spaces. Occasionally, a site may be prone to abnormally strong winds. If so, make a note to build structures that are rated for the typical strength of wind.
Draw a site plan showing sunlight patterns that cross throughout the landscape. Depending on the climate and the types of activities planned for the landscape, the sunlight will either need to be shaded from the site or kept from obstruction.
Record the night time lighting on the site. Consider adding an outdoor lighting system. If so, also record structures and areas that would benefit from lighting at night so these areas can be used for longer areas of the day.
Define the climate conditions for the site along with characteristics for each season. Perhaps larger areas of the landscape may be used for greater lengths of the year.
The next step is to determine what areas and activities you need in order to carefully plan each ones location.
Garden and landscape area
No matter the type of garden selected, design it to be as aesthetically pleasing as practical. Complete any garden design with garden accessories. Artwork, sculpture, bird baths, foundations, foot bridges, and decorative pathways can add an aesthetic touch to a functional garden. Consider what the garden areas will look like when the trees have lost leaves and the flowers have finished their bloom. If the garden area relies on privacy provided by such flowering and leaved plantings, consider selecting conifers to take their place.
Sustain the garden’s functions by adding an irrigation system. Define the garden’s edges with fences and retaining walls. Perhaps add a pond onto the site that would attract wildlife and could be coupled with a waterfall or fountain.
Types of gardens include:
Raised beds to keep animals such as rabbits from snacking and to be at a more accessible height for the gardener. Raised beds can be constructed from a kit or from scratch plans.
Vegetable gardens are designed for the family, children, and canning. Plan how the plants will be compatible as they grow throughout the season. For example, squash vines become quite large and long.
Herb gardens are fun because fresh herbs have intense flavors. Consider planting an herb garden with design principals similar to that of flower gardens where colors and textures are juxtaposed to add visual interest.
Kitchen gardens were designed to look wild, yet are well maintained. Kitchen gardens provide freshly cut flowers for interior home decor.
Flower beds can be located anywhere including around the base of a tree. Consider the type of soil, watering needs, and sunlight requirements for the flowers when designing the beds.
Water gardens are a beautiful cohabitation of water and water plants. Visit our guide on how to build a water garden.
Rain gardens take advantage of rain water as a natural irrigation system for the plants.
Meditation gardens are designed to encourage relaxation within nature. Visit images of medieval cloister gardens for inspirational ideas as these enclosed gardens were specifically designed for meditation and serenity within nature.
Potted plants can be used as extra added decor throughout the property.
Hanging and climbing vines are used to decorate structures throughout the landscape. There are varieties that have beautiful flowers and pleasant aromas.
Relaxing respite area
An outdoor living room is a relaxing respite that contrasts with a busy work schedule. Designing a relaxing outdoor room may include privacy features such as outdoor curtains or lattice with vine plants, outdoor living room furniture including a coffee table, a hammock, potted plants, outdoor lighting, and perhaps a meditation garden nearby.
Design relaxing areas to be useful during colder months as well as warmer months. Warming features such as an outdoor fireplace, fire pits, or heated lamps help to take away the chill. Avoid locating the relaxing respite in direct sunlight. Consider planting conifers for privacy rather than trees that lose foliage during the winter. Install an outdoor lighting system that makes the space enjoyable during the night time.
Find ways to make the landscape more enjoyable by adding a play structure depending on the kids’ ages and play styles, an area for lawn games such as croquet, or water features such as a swimming pool or a hot tub. Lawn games could be designed into the landscape such as croquet, putting greens, tennis, and basketball courts. Children’s play areas need sufficient shade to keep the equipment from reaching extreme temperatures and to prevent sunburns. Think about recreation activities that can be done during each season.
For entertaining, decide how many guests are typically invited and define the activities. Outdoor dining is a popular option that can be accompanied with an adjacent outdoor kitchen and barbecue area. The more guests typically invited, the more an outdoor kitchen would add practicality to the outdoor entertaining space. Building an outdoor fireplace adds visual interest to the landscape, enables the space to be used during colder weather, and gathers people together socially. Dining outside is preferable in the shade of an umbrella, pergola, or a porch roof.
Outdoor storage area
Large storage sheds can house every garden and landscape tool in one location. Large sheds can even be used as plant staging areas where seeds can be started, and potting can be done on a work bench.
Smaller sheds house any type of tool needed within its close proximity and can be quite decorative. Some storage sheds can be designed to protect outdoor furniture cushions during rain. There are several construction kits and construction plans available.
If a shed could be useful during the winter months as well, a through-wall heating system can be installed to take the chill out of the air. This application may be beneficial if the homeowner would perhaps use the shed for starting planting seeds.
Similar to a storage shed, but not quite as large a project is the potting bench. Potting benches can be three-tiered, have wire mesh backing, and can store tools. Outdoor storage trunks could double as coffee tables in the outdoor living room areas.
Engage all the senses
One way to begin to design an outdoor project is to think about how each of the five senses can be addressed while spending time outdoors.
Sight: Plan the sightlines to have a purpose, e.g. a fountain at the end of an alley of trees or other shrubs. Perhaps a variety of colorful and textured plants can add visual interest.
Hearing: Many people believe the sound of trickling water from a fountain, pool, or waterfall is relaxing. At the same time, perhaps there are unwanted noises from nearby streets or close neighbours that could be buffered with a privacy wall.
Smelling: While flowers are so often chosen for their visual characteristics, they can also be selected by scent. Consider planting highly aromatic flowers such as hearty lavender that grows in hot, dry climates, is moisture tolerant, and cold tolerant. Other types of flowers, shrubs, and trees can augment the scent of nature within the landscape.
Tasting: A walk through the garden to find delicious vegetables and herbs can be rewarding. Homeowners control the types and organic quality of produce by planting food producing gardens. Canning and drying herbs has recently become a trend.
Feeling: Adding a fire pit for cold evenings warms not only the body, but the conversation, and the comfort of the outdoor. Conversely, an outdoor ceiling fan cools the outdoor space when the wind is quiet and the temperatures are high.
Thematic outdoor design ideas
Homeowners often can identify with a thematic design theme that helps to guide design decisions as the design planning progresses. Exotic, tropical, and traditional outdoor room themes are trends.
Trends and design tips
Regardless of the project, choosing the materials so they are all coordinated is an important design concept. Plan all the materials before construction. Choose styles that fit the home’s and the homeowners’ personalities.
Outdoor structures such as decks, pergolas, trellises, fences, and arbours can be constructed of: pine treated wood, cedar, redwood, tropical woods such as Ipe, bamboo, composite, vinyl (PVC), or metal. Refer to our buyers guide for deck materials.
Systematically select outdoor structure materials by first making a list of new construction projects. Select materials based on characteristics such as:
Hard surface materials can be made with paving stones, natural stones, brick, concrete, gravel, and even granite slabs. Take care that some hard surface materials are slippery when wet. Popular areas suggested for hard surface materials are pathways, patios, and retaining walls.
Furniture fabrics come in a variety of materials, patterns, and colour schemes. Cotton is cool and comfortable. Polyester is soft and easy to clean. PVC-coated fabrics tend to last long and are easy to clean. Colour themes can vary from neutrals, to soft pastel tones, to bright bold schemes. When choosing furniture, consider plans for storing the furniture frames and cushions during the winter.
Furniture frames are built with materials that are weather-resistant and maintenance-friendly. Frame materials are made from resin, aluminum, wrought iron, wood, rattan, wicker, or woven PVC.
Plants and trees
Plants are categorized by sun or shade requirements; per plant zones, watering needs, and expected sizes. Select a variety of plants that have beautiful color and texture contrasts. Plants can be added to planters, flower beds, pots, tubs, and any other creative type of container. Climbing plants add privacy and optimize the growing space available.
1. Conduct a site survey.
a. Follow site planning recommendations.
2. Develop design ideas.
a. Gather design ideas onto foam core boards with fabric samples, materials samples, sketches, photos.
3. Begin drawing plans.
a. A site plan has the property boundaries, an outline of the home, fences, and any other existing structures and information that are part of the outdoor project’s design.
b. Draw the project’s plans.
i. Existing elements are shown by a light line weight.
ii. New structures, fences, and other features are shown with darker lines.
iii. The property’s boundaries and the outline of the home are shown as solid, dark lines.
c. Demolition plans show elements to be removed with dashed lines.
d. Phased drawings are necessary if the all the projects cannot be accomplished at the same time.
i. Draw several different new construction plans at the beginning of the process, then build each phase individually and as time and funds permit.
ii. Have all phases approved for a permit at the same time.
e. Add dimensions to all plans.
f. Add notes to all plans.
4. Visit the local building department.
a. Ask questions about structural design and building code regulations.
b. Find out information about the permit process.
5. Complete detailed drawings.
6. Apply for a permit.
7. Calculate an accurate supplies and materials list.
8. Purchase supplies and tools needed.
9. Begin construction.
10. Have the building department verify construction.
11. Finish the project with small details to complete its aesthetic appeal.
Add a tree swing to a sturdy branch.
Create table centerpieces such as a garden dishes filled with succulent plants that do not need much watering.
Locate a birdbath or bird feeder within the garden.
Include cast-stone sculptures within flower beds, along a pathway, or as visual focal points within the landscape.
Boston ivy can be planted as decoration for the home, walls, side of a deck, or even outdoor concrete steps. Boston ivy will not destroy built structures and will need to be trimmed yearly.
Paint outdoor structures with new, bold paint colors.
Mirrors can be used outdoors as well as indoors. When adding a mirror to a space, it makes the area seem larger. The reflective quality of mirror adds a sparkle to the landscape.
Outdoor-grade ceiling fans cool outdoor spaces when the prevailing winds are low.
For relaxing naps in the shade, a hammock can be installed between two trees or on a stand.
A shade sail is a great, more transient alternative than a permanent structure to provide shade to a patio or a dining area located in full sun. Shade sails can be attached to brackets that are attached to an outside wall of the home and to a fence.
Chalkboards are fun additions especially for the gardening family that would like to make lists of needed gardening items during the growing season.
Wind chimes are playful decorative items that play impromptu tones when blowing in the wind.
Patio screens, often made of bamboo, provide shade, privacy, and can help to create a room-like feeling for the patio.
For outdoor water spigots, the wheel-turns can be changed out with decorative brass handles such as those shaped like a dragonfly or a bird.
Install a rain gauge to help plan whether or not plants need supplementary watering. Children may view rain gauges as entertainment.
Wall clock and outdoor thermometers are practical outdoor decorative items.
Garden plantings markers help to keep herbs and vegetable plants sorted. There are a variety of decorative options available.
If the home has outdoor furniture without cushions or cushions that are outdated, consider buying new versions to freshen up the furniture.
Decorate the mailbox with pre-made overlays or with grouted broken tile.
Learn how to espalier a fruit tree onto a fence or onto the home’s exterior wall. Fruit trees that respond well to espalier techniques are pear, apple, and fig.
Trellises come in many different styles. For example, a garden arbor may define the entrance to the backyard, an obelisk trellis is a type of sculpture in the garden, and lattice trellises are fitted with flowering vines to add privacy.
Picnic tables are practical, bring together people socially, and can’t help but to bring joy to the homeowner.
Table umbrellas can be purchased separately. The bases of the umbrellas can be concealed within a potted plant.
Build a small, relaxing fountain from a kit with a few large stones, a pump, and municipal water.
Add outdoor furniture to the landscape, deck, and patio.
Consider adding a porch swing to the front or back yard.
Benches can provide relaxation and storage. An arbor bench is ideal for a reading spot. Benches can have planters built within the structure to make the bench more decorative. A tree bench surrounds the base of a tree where the tree itself is a back rest.
The lawn could be reseeded with a new type of grass that does not need to be mowed; commonly called no-mow grass. No-mow really means that it needs to be mowed only once or twice a year rather than weekly during the growing season. Consider no-mow grass first in small areas to observe how well it works in its geographic location.
Organic lawn products including natural plant food reduce the amount of herbicide and pesticide chemicals that may eventually make it to fresh water sources. Find an area within the landscape to start a compost pile for natural, rich garden fertilizer. Compost bins are available for purchase for convenience.
Reuse old outdoor structures with a fresh cleaning and repair. An old barbecue that has been faded in the sun can be repainted with its burners cleaned or replaced. Older furniture can be repaired and refurbished. Wood needs to be cleaned with a solvent, sanded, and refinished. Metal furniture needs to be sanded and repainted with non-corrosive paints.
When it rains, take advantage of the water. Locate rain barrels in the back yard so that its collected water can be used for watering the garden sustainably. Build a rain garden that takes advantage of the flow of water from the home’s downspouts by directing it towards a garden.
Replace hard surfaces with permeable pavement, gravel, or other materials that allow rain water to slowly filter through the soil rather than to runoff the site. Rainwater runoff creates a greater demand on municipal sewer systems.