A before and after shot of a backyard makover

Follow along as a landscape design professional shares her design principles, common mistakes homeowners make, and tips you can borrow to add that special something to your own backyard redesign.

Imagine, if you will, a perfectly fine yard, yet no one is out there enjoying it. That was the problem that Elida Rivera, Designer at All Oregon Landscaping Inc. was faced with when she started her backyard makeover for one of her clients. This busy family in Lake Oswego wanted their entire family to take full advantage of their outdoor space that was not being used at all at the time.

Elida has enjoyed 19 years of experience in the horticulture industry, including earning a Bachelor's Degree in Horticulture from Oregon State University, and now spends her time wowing clients at All Oregon Landscaping, Inc. - a family owned business designing and building landscapes since 1989.

Today, we’ll talk about her design choices while she worked to fulfill the dream of her clients, to “bring the kids outside as much as possible, for as much of the year as possible,” a huge feat in the rainy Pacific Northwest. But Elida was up for the challenge.

Why a Makeover?

This family wanted a welcoming backyard that could be enjoyed all year long as a family living space, and added a personal sanctuary for mom to escape to after a long day at work as a medical professional.

What they had at the time of their initial meeting was a perfectly fine backyard, filled with established plants, a lawn that was struggling a bit in the shade, and no incentive to draw the family outside. Nothing was particularly wrong with it, but something was missing.

A fine backyard and lawnWhile far from a disaster, this yard had plenty of room for improvement to achieve the perfect outdoor living space.

Creating The Sanctuary

A true sanctuary engages all the senses, and the scent of the 'Fragrant Valley' Sarcoccoca really delivers!

Creating someone else’s perfect sanctuary is a tall order. Elida’s client wanted to use this area to meditate and read all year. So she planned for a garden in which all the senses could be engaged and included interest throughout the seasons.

She added fragrance with Gardenia and ‘Fragrant Valley’ Sarcoccoca, created a sense of lushness around the pavers and around the pondless fountain by placing sword ferns and hostas, and added a variety of textures in ‘Evergold’ Sedge and ‘Soft Caress Mahonia.

Elida ensured the garden would have lots of color in the blooms with Hellebore, Astilbe, and Exbury Azalea, including year-round interest with a variety of colorful plants like Japanese maple, vine maple, and moonbay nandina. Then she played the black mondo grass off the red of the coral bark maple for a vibrant contrast, and added a mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees, varying the heights and texture to draw the eye. Japanese Forest Grass was planted throughout the yard to create continuity.

A Family Gathering Area

Beckoning the family out from the warmth and comfort of the indoors isn’t always easy. Elida achieved this by creating three locations for family activities. She expanded the existing patio to make an enticing dining area while at the same time widening the lawn for games. She created a covered living space with relaxed seating with a sectional from Al’s, a fire pit to gather around, an outdoor kitchen, and an extended patio for table tennis. Infrared heating in the covered area was added to keep the space warm and inviting throughout all seasons.

Making It Practical

The measure of success for this backyard makeover was in its effectiveness of bringing the family outside. To do that, they needed to make it easy to come and enjoy the space.

Elida created an accessible place for outdoor cooking and dining directly off the kitchen. The raised bed near the kitchen allowed for herb gardening in a convenient spot where the sun was best. Including heating, comfortable seating, and outdoor lighting was the perfect way to encourage the family to stay and linger. The pondless water feature provided a wonderful focal point and serene background noise, without the maintenance that a traditional pond would have required.

Tips from the Professionals

  • Many of us are simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of a full yard makeover. It’s important for a homeowner to feel a sense of confidence in order to tackle a project of this size, so Elida has given us a few pro tips to keep in mind when planning our own backyard makeover.
  • Understand the basic exposure of your yard. Note where the trees are and how they will shade certain parts of your yard at different times of day. Once you understand your yard’s microclimates, share that information with the experts at your garden center.
  • Plant choice should depend on competition factor (which shrubs or trees may compete with the new plant for water and nutrients) and plant survival. Do not to get too hung up on one specific plant but - considering texture and growth habits - come up with alternatives that can easily fit the bill.
  • Plant placement requires an understanding of the size of the plant when it reaches maturity, and the space you are able to provide for it.
  • Use the designer’s rule of three: Group complementary plants together into a triangle, varying the texture. Use the last one in that grouping to play off the next group of three, and carry that pattern throughout the space.
  • Plant in “echos”. Repeat colors and textures in other parts of your yard. This creates continuity throughout the entire space.
  • For a big impact, group together multiples of one plant to create a large swath of color or texture.

And finally, keep in mind that circumstances change, and we do not have to consider it a personal failure when we have to move or remove a plant because it’s just not working in the space any longer.