No More Cookie Cutter Landscapes! How to Differentiate Your Yard

Having a landscape that breaks the mold of boring design is a lot easier than you might think. Here are fifteen extraordinary examples of things you can do to pump up the style around your home.

Carve Out Spaces

Having a large lot in a suburban or rural neighborhood can be challenging to tackle when you first move in. Instead of trying to landscape the entire place in one fell swoop, divide and conquer by creating more intimate spaces where you can rest and relax. That way, you won't spread yourself too thin and you can attack new sections the following year. In this garden, the homeowners opted for a small sunken sitting area with fire pit right off their back steps. They created a low wall of stacked stone and a clipped boxwood hedge and then "carpeted" the area with low-maintenance pea gravel. An additional "garden room" could be added the following year.

Add a Focal Point

Add drama and romance to your landscape with a focal point that draws the eye into your garden. Focal points can be anything from a large urn or fountain to a stone bench or tuteur located at the back of the garden. A classic moon gate also makes a wonderful focal point. This regal design originated in ancient China and is said to represent the circle of birth and renewal. Of course, it also has a practical side, guiding you through your landscape. In this garden, a white moon gate provides a portal through an informal border of roses, ornamental grasses, and shrubs.

Create a Pretty Pathway

There's nothing more satisfying than transforming an ordinary project into something extra special. Garden paths, for example, are generally made from concrete, stepping-stones, or gravel. Often, no one gives them a second thought. After all, their function is to simply move traffic from one spot in your garden to another. But if you have the time and inclination, you can transform a simple garden path into a work of art that's as spectacular as it is functional. Here, polished stones were placed one at a time into a layer of concrete in the same way you'd make a piece of mosaic art. Although it looks time consuming, the artist first created a pattern so the stones could be laid fairly quickly. Certainly it takes longer than tossing a few stepping-stones around, but a path like this is worth the time.

Let the Water Flow

Every garden should have at least one water feature. That’s because the sight and sound of moving water provides calming relief after a busy day. Plus, a fountain or two will attract colorful songbirds to your garden that revel in drinking and bathing in the cool waters. The key to success with a garden fountain is scale. Don’t buy a fountain suitable for the streets of Rome and drop it into your front yard. Take your time and find a fountain that matches the style and size of your home and nestle it into a flowerbed or border. Try to find a fountain that allows you to regulate its flow so you can turn it down a notch if it’s hard to have a conversation nearby. To add interest and color, the owner of this garden floated green glass balls in each layer of the fountain.

Disguise Foundations

It goes without saying that the foundation of a home or deck is often lacking in curb appeal. And no one appreciates the uninteresting infrastructure of a deck’s support system or lackluster gray block foundation. One way to camouflage the area is by building a raised bed in front of the eyesore and packing it with a rainbow of perennial and annual flowers. In this garden, an eye-catching mix of geranium, artemisia, coneflower, boxwood, coleus, purple Persian shield, croton, mandevilla vine, and red fountaingrass in a raised bed help hide the base of a spa deck. 

Perk Up a Side Yard

Too often, side yards end up being a catch all for garbage cans, dog kennels, and tool sheds. Instead of letting this valuable ribbon of ground go to seed, why not install some paving stones, flowering plants, and an inviting bench to create a secret garden between neighbors? It’s easy to do because most side yards are so small it doesn’t take much work or money to whip them into shape. This Japanese-style side yard is tucked behind a tall gate for privacy. Paving stones, bamboo, and Japanese forestgrass complete the scene.

Espalier a Wall

First perfected by the ancient Romans, the art of espalier (training primarily fruiting plants to a flat two-dimensional form) continues today, especially in small gardens where growing a standard-size fruit tree is out of the question. Trained against a wall or building, espaliered fruit trees take up little space and add plenty of eye appeal in every season. You can buy pretrained trees online or occasionally at your local garden center. Or, purchase a young sapling of your favorite apple or pear and train it yourself as it matures. You only need to prune a few times a year to keep an espalier looking its best. Here, a trio of espalier fruit trees are supported by wooden trellises against a brick shed.

Cope with a Slope

Hilly or steeply sloping backyards can be challenging to weed and mow, and they aren’t functional if you enjoy outdoor activities. So, instead of trying to push a mower up Mount Everest, it makes better sense to terrace the area with a wooden or stone retaining wall. This creates level space you can use for outdoor living or gardening. Here, a mountainous backyard was tamed with a 4-foot-tall stone and wall and staircase. The newly reclaimed land above the wall was transformed into a crazy quilt of easy-care perennials, shrubs, and edibles. A gravel path was added below the wall on land that was once too hilly to walk on.

Defy Drought

Consider your climate whenever you begin any landscaping project. You want to make sure that your vision matches up with what Mother Nature will allow you to do. For example, if you live in a dry climate, don’t try to create an English-style cottage garden like those you often see in garden books. Cottage-style perennials, such as peonies, phlox, and delphinium, just won’t thrive in super-heated climates. And, in the end, you’ll end up with a hot mess of dying plants and weeds. Instead, select plants that thrive in the same environment you live in. Here, for example, a southern California landscape was tamed with a stone and concrete retaining wall and then dressed up with a drought defying assembly of agave, euphorbia, yucca, aloe, and sedum. 

Create a Surprise Entry

Have you ever driven down a street and noticed how many front entries are exactly the same -- each one looking like the next with a ribbon of concrete leading to the front door through an ocean of grass? If so, it should tell you that it’s time to shake up your own landscaping with the element of surprise. Make family and friends take a turn or two before entering your home through a series of garden beds and steps with a path that combines materials such as brick, gravel, or concrete pavers. Add a piece of art or two and the stage is set. As an example, when you approach this ranch home, a set of low steps leads you to a front path that angles through a border of low trees and shrubs. The plants don’t hide the front door, but they do add a sense of mystery and privacy as you enter the home. An artistic trio of spheres helps point the way.

Include a Topiary

There was a time that the use of topiary (shrubs or trees trimmed into artful shapes) in landscapes was confined to botanical or public gardens. But, over the past few years, plants that have been shorn into elegant profiles have become commonly available at most garden centers, so it's easy to incorporate them in your own backyard. Either grown in containers or directly in garden beds, a topiary shrub or tree adds a touch of formality to any setting. Plus, they are a lot easier to care for than you might think. All you have to do is treat the plants as you would any other shrub of the same species. You'll just have to trim them to help maintain their beautiful figures. Hardier species such as spruce, juniper, and pine can be left outdoors all winter in cold climates. Tender species such as eugenia, tropical hibiscus, and oleander can be moved inside in the fall and grown near a sunny window. Here, a pair of Dwarf Globe Blue Spruce were trained to a single trunk (called a standard) and tucked into metal urns that flank the garden.

Move the Indoors Out

You don’t need a degree in landscape architecture to create an amazing garden. You simply take the same principles of design you use on interior spaces and transplant them outdoors. For example, check out this postage stamp-size backyard. The “walls” are created with wooden lattice panels, the furniture consists of weather-resistant teak with fat pillows for comfort (in weatherproof fabric), a serving table was built from two large ceramic urns connected by a stone top, and the flooring is a worn area rug living out its golden years in the garden. Even the color palette is coordinated with sunny yellow daylilies and cheerful golden coreopsis.

Stack a Wall

Walls and fences are essential elements in every landscape. Besides providing privacy, they create a sense of cozy comfort nestled away from the sounds of traffic, lawn mowers, and barking dogs. But, building a wall can be tricky. You don’t want something so tall that it makes your landscape feel like a prison yard. That’s why we found this solution so wonderful. The homeowners stacked wire gabion baskets and filled them with wood rounds to create an inspired blend of modern and rustic design. Spaces between some of the gabions were left to accommodate lamps that illuminate the wall.

Add Panache to Your Porch

If you're lucky enough to have a front porch, put it to good use by furnishing it with outdoor furniture, vintage items, and blooming plants. Your goal should be to create a seamless transition between indoor and outdoor spaces. On this delightful porch, a vintage swing was painted pale blue to complement the floor and porch railings. A beige outdoor rug, white wooden table, and small folding chair complete the simple yet sensational setting. Two sections of thick wooden lattice were added at one end of the porch to create sense of privacy. Baskets of pink annual flowers are the icing on the cake.

Light Up the Night

There's nothing more frustrating than coming home after the sun goes down and finding your outdoor spaces dark and inaccessible. That's why it's so important to incorporate lighting into your landscap -- either low voltage or solar. With low voltage you can adjust the beam and have more power to light up tall trees or structures. But, you'll have to run wire underground and hook it your electrical system. With solar, there's no wiring necessary, just install the lights and let the sun do the work. On the down side, solar lights aren't as powerful as low voltage and you can't use them to illuminate large objects. Whichever style of lighting you choose, don't overdo it. You don't need to land jets in the backyard, just enough lights to find your way around and create ambience. It's also important to choose outdoor lights that match your yard or garden style. In this shady border, for example, a pair of vertical wood lights guide you to the bamboo bench under the trees.

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