Do I need to sell one kidney or two? That was the main question I had as we waited for our landscape designer to send over his estimate of what it would cost to complete the plan he’d presented the week before.
My husband, DC, and I loved the vision Tony Evans, owner of Orlando Landscape Designs, created to transform our ho-hum backyard into a place we would actually look forward to coming home to — as opposed to one we hid behind pulled drapes.
However, before budget realities could dash our dreams — The fountain! The fire feature! The spa! — we indulged in the fantasy of seeing our backyard through the magic spectacles of a professionally rendered design in which almost anything is possible.
“I could sell my first-born son,” I said to DC.
“You don’t have a son.”
“Oh, right. But you do!”
“Let’s wait to see how the numbers come in.”
Meanwhile, we played how much do you think? We bandied about numbers as much as a year of college tuition — for the plan without the pool and spa, which was an option. Adding the pool, we figured, would double the cost. (P.S. We weren’t wrong.)
DC had the cardiac paddles ready as I opened the email containing the estimate. Meanwhile, Evans got on the phone to talk me through the initial shock.
“It’s all phase-able,” Evans said, as I began to digest the numbers. “We can start small, and work a bit at a time.”
To prevent hyperventilation, he wisely submitted the cost estimate in three ways: good, better, best.
For instance, good didn’t include the pool, and used mulch instead of the more expensive beach rock, among other trade-offs.
Although the price estimates were not too far from our calculated guesses, none included must-have features like the wall fountain, the fire bowls, the patio furniture or the lighting. To get this yard, we were going to have to get creative or win the lotto. But this much we knew: Now that we’ve seen what’s possible, we’re not turning back.
As DC and I mulled which organ or child to sell, we revisited the factors that Evans considered when designing our yard — or any yard:
Take inventory. “When approaching a design, first I look at what the property has that we want to keep,” Evans said, when explaining his design approach. As I looked across our yard, I asked, “What’s here to salvage?” I couldn’t imagine. His answer: a couple of trees, a blooming bougainvillea, and the fence, which we couldn’t move if we’d wanted to.
Privacy as priority. Next he works on secluding the yard. “Privacy is number one,” he said. “If people can see you in your backyard, you won’t use it.” To screen the neighbor’s view into our yard, Evans’s plan calls for a row of tall bamboo trees (the kind that don’t send runners), and more hedge material along the back fence.
Downplay negatives. A good landscape design should play up a property’s strengths and play down its weaknesses, he said. Like every yard, ours had both. “It’s like coming up with an outfit that works with your figure flaws,” I say, putting this into terms I could relate to. He dodges that thistle patch, and notes, for example, that at our place, a long garage wall with no windows needed to be minimized. “On its own it’s not nice to look at,” said Evans, “but some of best gardens in the world have courtyard gardens up against walls.” His plan calls for covering the wall with fig ivy, putting a fountain against it, and flanking the fountain with generous potted urns, turning a minus into an appealing plus.
Play up positives. “Similarly, I try to take what’s good — like your view — and make it better,” he said. Our yard’s best feature is the green space it opens onto, which is visible when you walk in the front door. To capitalize on that, Evans developed site lines down the property, and placed eye-catching fire bowls, to draw the eye out.
Create rooms to scale. When designing outdoor rooms, Evans routinely steals proportions from the home’s interior. “If your eating area is 13 x 10, match that outside. Similarly if your living room is 16×20, recreate that proportion outdoors. Our yard’s plan turns the covered patio into a living room, offers an eating area off to the side with an adjacent outdoor barbecue station, and, completing the triangle, has an entertainment “room” with chairs circling a fire. It fits the home’s proportions, and makes sense.
Design for flow and connection. Our outdoor dining table currently sits on our covered patio by the backdoor, interrupting the flow between the house and yard. “It creates a barrier rather than an invitation,” Evans pointed out. His plan moves the table out into the yard, and replaces it with a sitting area you can walk through. Like an indoor floorplan that flows, the outdoor rooms are well connected. From the house, you step into the outdoor living room, then can move to the outdoor dining room, and afterward, to the hearth room with the fire.
As you can see, the possibilities for a great yard are practically infinite. I just wish our budget were, too.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of five home and lifestyle books, including Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go and the just-released Downsizing the Blended Home – When Two Households Become One (Sterling Publishing, Dec. 2019). You may reach her at www.marnijameson.com.