Back Yard Triage: 5 Steps to Bring Any Outdoor Space Back to Life

Back Yard Triage: 5 Steps to Bring Any Outdoor Space Back to Life

Doug Scott
Jun 25, 2015

Welcome to Doug Scott from Redeem Your Ground, a landscape designer, blogger, husband, and father of two young daughters from Atlanta. This is the first in a series of posts he'll share this month on basic gardening and how to create beautiful and meaningful outdoor spaces.

My dad’s a physician and words like "stat" and "triage" were used on a fairly regular basis while I was growing up. So when I started our landscape design business, performing a "backyard triage" at the beginning of a client project seemed to make a lot of sense. After all, like triage in an emergency room, it's about prioritizing your efforts to increase the chances of bringing life to a threatened or otherwise lifeless space.

(Image credit: Redeem Your Ground)

Step #1: Define what outdoor life means to you

Unlike in an emergency room, where the meaning of life is clearly understood, life in a backyard is a more subjective term. It’s personal and what brings life to one person or family may not invigorate another. Pause and ask yourself: "How do I want to live outside?" Doing this first step will help you: a) prioritize what to do going forward; b) gain clarity about where you really want to go; and c) get it done faster and cheaper. Make a list of anything you want to do or have outside (or not do, not have). Allow yourself to dream a little: don’t let reality hem you in at this point. For example, you might want to:

  • Grow food (fruits, veggies, herbs) or flowers
  • Raise chickens or bees
  • Provide creative play spaces for your kids
  • Have cooking and gathering spaces for entertaining, or just hanging out – patio, deck, pergola, fire pit
  • Have a place to relax and retreat vs. work outside and get your hands dirty
  • Add a water feature for various forms of relaxation…pool, spa, or fountain
  • Focus on form over function…or vice versa
  • You hate insects and really only enjoy looking at your yard from inside your home

Some of these things might conflict with each other, but none of them are wrong, per se — unless they conflict with your meaning of life.

(Image credit: Redeem Your Ground)

Step #2: Make a quick sketch

With your list of priorities in hand, draw a rough sketch of your yard, starting with your property lines, house, driveway, sidewalk, larger trees, and any other major element in your yard. Don’t worry about straight lines or it being too accurate or pretty — just sketch something out. Then draw designated areas or blobs (I know, a really technical term) with labels where you’d like to do the things on your list. Think of these blobs as you would rooms in your home (e.g., dining room, living room, play room, etc.) and consider the following:

  • Place your food prep and dining spaces closer to your back door, nearer the kitchen so that all the back and forth will be made easier.
  • Living and entertaining spaces are more flexible and less dependent on being closely tied to your home. But don’t forget about the storage or access needs, e.g., cushions, electricity, plumbing, etc.).
  • Locate your kids’ play spaces in view from the kitchen window. Consider a small seating area nearby (that even doubles as toy storage) so you'll be comfortable and enjoy being out there as much as your kids.
  • Your veggie garden should be placed where there is a good deal of sun…but also near storage and easy access to water. Otherwise, your food-growing days are likely numbered.

Obviously, the smaller the outdoor space, the more creative you'll have to get. Play with your blobs a bit and move them around while considering your options. It’s a lot easier to move things around on paper than after you’ve already installed something!

(Image credit: Redeem Your Ground)

Step #3: Consider the Views From Inside Your Home

All too often people don’t consider how their indoor spaces flow with their outdoor spaces. And while the physical flow between the two is vitally important , the visual flow is just as, or even more, important (since most of your time is spent inside).

  • Walk around the inside your home and pause at those windows and doors where you spend most of your time looking or walking through, e.g., kitchen window, bay window, back door, etc.
  • Rearrange and center your outdoor spaces (i.e., blobs) to reflect what you want to see or not see from inside.
  • Add symbols to your sketch indicating what aesthetic element you want your views to focus on, e.g. a specimen plant, planter, bench or other interesting architectural feature.
(Image credit: Redeem Your Ground)

Step #4: Determine Which Elements to Highlight or Hide

Consider what to hide from view, or draw attention to. In the front yard, for example, you would highlight the front door so guests feel welcome and know how to get inside; you don’t want to hide your front door with a wall of shrubs or the ubiquitous crepe myrtle. You will have to make the same type of decisions in the backyard. Consider the following things, and what you need to do to de-emphasize them, or keep them out of view.

  • Your neighbor’s home or something else beyond your yard
  • Unsightly, but necessary storage (e.g., trash cans)
  • Utility boxes
(Image credit: Redeem Your Ground)

Step #5: Make a Decision & Do Something!

My dad always said, "the only bad decision is indecision, followed by inaction." So if you’ve been talking about doing something in your yard then make a decision to do something and just do it. Don’t feel like you have to do everything all at once. Instead, break things into phases or smaller projects. Not only will this make things more doable financially, it will also allow you to start enjoying some of your spaces sooner. Just take one step at a time.

I hope these tips will help you start enjoying all those living spaces waiting to be realized just outside your back door. It’s really my hope at Redeem Your Ground to help people extend the walls of their home outside.

With that, please be sure to check out the rest of my gardening series this month here on Apartment Therapy. Or jump on over to RYGblog to check out other ways we’re trying to help people bring life outside at home.

Doug is the owner and lead designer of Redeem Your Ground. He also writes a family, home & garden blog (RYGblog) with his wife, Brittany…where they hope to help others create beautiful, meaningful outdoor spaces that bring family, friends, and neighbors together.

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