Backyard ideas – 12 ideas from the design pros to elevate your outdoor space to new realms
These backyard ideas draw on the freshest outdoor trends for a space that’s just as well-designed as the rest of your home
The wishlist of backyard ideas for the modern home is getting longer and longer. A simple patch of lawn and a space for the grill just doesn’t cut it in 2022. We’re seeing more intricately landscaped spaces and areas dedicated to all kinds of outdoor living become much more common - outdoor spaces are now being given just as much weight in the design of a house as the interiors.
With that in mind, we’re not going to offer up a list of basic design considerations for your backyard – rather, explore some of the more exciting and interesting ways you can elevate your space to make it both better looking and more functional.
We caught up with a few of our favorite designers of outdoor spaces to get the lowdown on the backyard ideas that have captured their attention of late, from simple additions for better outdoor living to the trends in landscaping that’ll help you enjoy your garden more.
Hugh is an experienced homes writer and editor. He has written hundreds of articles for various titles helping readers make the best home design choices, and spends his days interviewing interiors industry experts to bring the latest ideas to his readers. For this piece he spoke to the world's best designers and studios who have created some of the most inspiring outdoor spaces, so as to get the most up to the minute advice.
14 backyard ideas that will take outdoor living to the next level
1. Design in an outdoor fireplace
The firepit has become a mainstay of entertaining outdoors, but they’re not without their drawbacks. Ambiance, sure, but deck ideas with firepits are often not conducive for a social outdoor seating space. Consider, instead the outdoor fireplace.
‘You can’t go wrong with either option, but we love a fireplace for the elevated and unique look it provides an outdoor space,’ says Aly Morford, co-founder of Pure Salt Interiors. ‘It feels both classic and unexpected to have a full fireplace in your yard, and we love the versatility and opportunity the variety of different finishes and materials can offer.
‘And from a functional standpoint, fireplaces allow for easy gathering and entertaining—it’s a built-in zone for guests to congregate and enjoy,’ Aly adds.
Getting seating right around an outdoor fireplace is key, however. ‘Just like your indoor living area, outdoor seating arrangements work best when you mix in a few styles of furniture—a sofa or two with an accent chair, all angled towards the feature fireplace, allowing for easy gathering and a beautiful design statement,’ suggests Leigh Lincoln, Pure Salt Interiors' other co founder. ‘And outdoor spaces offer more opportunity for play in your design. You could mix up the accent chairs for cozy loungers or swings if you have a pergola or covered patio to work with.’
2. Introduce pattern through creative flooring
Plain pavers and standard decks have their place in any well-designed backyard, but there are also some inventive, invigorating patio ideas you can employ to make this element sing in your design.
This design, by Lucas Interior, introduces patterned floor tiles alongside an on trend checkerboard flooring idea to add character to the outdoor space, both around the pool and under the covered portion of the garden.
‘Using eclectic tiles in this home was a way to bring interesting patterns and colors into the palette,’ explains David Lucas, co founder of Lucas Interior. ‘We created the effect of an area rug with tile within the covered outdoor space as a way to define the room and bring in warmth.’
‘We purposefully set up this type of opportunity throughout this home so that we could explore different patterns and color combinations in an organized and cohesive way,’ David adds.
3. Grow vegetables
Modern vegetable garden ideas might not sound like a sexy garden trend, but there’s more to this adopting these practices than simply living the good life.
‘Small-scale food production is future thinking,’ says landscaper designer and edible garden specialist Christian Douglas. ‘Growing a portion of produce at home and supporting local farms for the rest is the sweet spot. As a company of designers and organic farmers, we spend our days exploring opportunities of integrating food in well designed, beautiful homes.’
Designs like Christian’s also go to show that growing your own can look good too, with these plants doubling up as beautiful additions to your space and food-producers. ‘Going beyond vegetables is key, there are so many fruits, berries, herbs that look gorgeous sown into an ornamental landscape,’ Christian says.
4. Step up an infinity pool design
Ah the cool of a pool on a hot day and, as climate change brings warmer temperatures, they are becoming increasingly popular as part of the outdoor living environment, rather than tucked away in a corner. 'Clean lines and simple designs are definitely trending right now,' says Thomas Flint, who runs an eponymous New Jersey landscape design company, which creates award-winning pools. “The sound of the water; the mirror-like images that are reflected off the water, and lighting are all things that should be considered when adding a swimming pool to an outdoor living space.”
There are a lot of different elements that you can play with in the design, if you want to make a real feature of your pool ideas. 'We even install fibre-optic stars at the bottom of some pools for a beautiful night-time effect,' says Thomas.
Wide baja - or tanning - steps are also popular; somewhere for children to play, or you place your lounger on a hot day to be surrounded by the cool water.
For those with a view they want to draw attention to, infinity-edge pools will connect you to the landscape. But, slot or lautner-edge detail is even more dramatic says Thomas Brownlee, who has been designing pools for 17 years in Tennessee. 'This is where the water level is elevated to match the pool deck for a seamless connection,' he says.
He also uses fire bowls around the edge. 'There is a visceral elemental draw to fire features that brings visitors out to experience the space at night,' he explains.
5. Cook outdoor in style
The outdoor kitchen has to be the defining backyard idea of the moment. Al fresco eating has become such a part of the DNA of our outdoor spaces, that wheeling out a BBQ every time you want to gather friends and family in your yard just doesn’t cut it anymore.
‘Living and dining outdoors is such a big part of Southern California culture, and definitely influenced our design POV, so I knew for my own home that I wanted unique zones in my backyard to facilitate different living opportunities and maximize every inch of my yard,’ says Pure Salt Interiors Leigh Lincoln.
‘The outdoor kitchen was designed to feel warm and inviting, and encourage my family and friends to sit and stay awhile—I especially love the Saltillo tile! This was a ‘risky’ design decision as my home is not a Spanish style build, but I love bringing in this unique element to create a feeling of my favorite retreat and allow my home to feel like a getaway everyday.’
6. Plan a broken plan outdoor space
This idea of creating zones in your backyard is one that’s transformed garden design in recent times. Of course, gardens are, by nature, open plan, and the idea of a broken plan garden usually doesn’t involve adding in large screening fences of hedges from the rest of the outdoor space, but rather making clear distinctions between areas of use.
This can be signified by modern garden ideas like level changes, for example, changing in flooring materials, or just distinct groupings of furniture in different styles.
This Texan property designed by Christina Simon at Mark Ashby Design and the landscape architect Ten Eyck offers the perfect example of how to zone a garden, creating two discrete and separate seating areas for different uses.
7. Create a sunken seating area
You might remember the ‘conversation pit’ as a throwback living room trend from the 70s, but it’s been reimagined (carpet-free, of course) as a lust-worthy outdoor seating idea for backyards.
‘Sunken seating areas create an opportunity for intimate gathering,’ explains David Lucas of Lucas Interior. ‘There is something about being nestled into the earth that gives a sense of security and calm.’
‘In this home we used a sunken seating area within the entry courtyard as a way to divide the functions between active circulation and passive repose. Rather than using loose furniture, we built in the seating for a more clean-lined, architectural finish that feels tailored to the garden,’ David explains.
8. Incorporate shaded areas into your backyard design
While it’s easy to imagine all of your time spent in the garden bathed in golden sunshine, sometimes you need an escape from the heat, especially in the middle of the day, or when dining outside.
Fortunately, the style factor has gone up a notch when it comes to outdoor shade ideas in recent times, especially in parts of the world with more predictable, less tumultuous weather, where they’re not required to shield your outdoor furniture from rain, too.
‘We got creative and played with texture to provide a functional option for both shade and sun,’ says Pure Salt Interiors’ Aly Morford. ‘The lounge area is covered with draped outdoor-treated fabric for a soft and elegant look we love, and the practicality is doubled as we added the option to retract the shades to allow the sun to shine in when wanted.’
‘Versatility is key in outdoor design as you need to work with weather and the elements to build your design into the natural environment to create a cohesive and organic look,’ she continues.
9. Introduce smart watering
Smart gardening is a growing area, and one that it can be worthwhile considering, especially when it comes to watering your plants.
'Invest in an irrigation system,’ suggest Mel Brasier and Garrett Mage of The Manscapers. ‘It is a bit of an investment upfront, but it will add an extra layer of insurance to the lifespan of the plants. Irrigation also makes travel possible without having to be tied down to a daily watering routine.'
There are different styles of smart watering systems to suit different plots, too. ‘Many city dwellers opt for the 'leaky hose' type of irrigation,’ says landscape designer David Andersen. ‘This is a continuous hose that snakes through the planting with evenly-spaced holes that allow the water to seep out. This system is then simply covered over with mulch.’
10. Blur the lines between indoors and out
Indoor-outdoor living is a garden trend that's been around for a while, but thinking out your outdoor space as an extension of your living area has never been higher on the agenda for most homes.
'We develop and build the space around what the client will use it for, so we often mirror what is going on inside, on the outside,’ says The Manscapers’ James DeSantis. 'If you have a big sliding glass door, it looks like you are doubling that space. Your living room becomes two living rooms,’
‘Also, bring some of your interior textiles outside, bring out some pillows and some blankets and throws. Decorate your coffee table with things that you cherish from your interior and take it outside. It’s a great way to use your space,’ he adds.
11. Tie in the deck with the exterior of the property
Decking is a brilliant way to add warmth to your space, a natural flooring that creates a great contrast to starker paving slabs. But choosing the right style is important. ‘I tend to work to integrate the deck with the type of wood used on the residence,’ suggests Steve Ritchey of Seed Studio Landscape Design.
‘If there's no specific architectural wood to coordinate with my current go-to is Thermory Ash. Ages really well and needs no finish, very durable surface.’ When it comes to garden trends to avoid, Steve has a few suggestions when it comes to specifying a deck. ‘I don't recommend tropical hardwoods on environmental grounds, or composite decking,’ he says.
What planting styles are popular for backyards right now?
Key trends are making a place for nurture and a sanctuary to share with the local wildlife. Also the sustainable use of plants and materials by making sure they come from a non-exploitative source, have been recycled or have the potential to be used again. And, as we work from home and are more likely to be staring out of the kitchen window over a cup of coffee, rather than scuttling off before dawn for the commuter train, making sure there is something of interest out there at all times of year.
So fill up your space with as many plants as you can: they don’t have to be high maintenance - trees and evergreen shrubs will soon gain height and volume. If they provide food and flavour, then so much the better.
Harry Rich, who with his brother David makes up the Rich Brothers, a Chelsea Flower Show Gold medal-winning team, designed this London back garden, in which the planting has precedence over the paving and provides a wonderful green picture to look out on from the glass-walled extension of this town house. “One specimen tree in a garden dramatically changes it,” says Harry. He’s keen on trees and shrubs that provide a modest green backdrop in summer but come into their own in winter, such as hamamelis and Cornus mas to draw you outside on a cold day to admire them.
As we are spending so much time at home, small outdoor spaces have to work extra hard. 'People want to connect with nature and be enclosed in their own multi-purpose green oasis,' says Isabelle Palmer of London-based design company The Balcony Gardener. 'They want it to be somewhere to work, relax and entertain - perhaps with compartmentalised zones for kids and adults.; That’s a lot to ask, but it can be done: strangely, the more you divide it up, the bigger it will seem.'
Hugh is the Deputy Editor of Livingetc.com. From working on a number of home, design and property publications and websites, including Grand Designs, ICON and specialist kitchen and bathroom magazines, Hugh has developed a passion for modern architecture, impactful interiors and green homes. Whether moonlighting as an interior decorator for private clients or renovating the Victorian terrace in Essex where he lives (DIYing as much of the work as possible), you’ll find that Hugh has an overarching fondness for luxurious minimalism, abstract shapes and all things beige. He’s just finished a kitchen and garden renovation, and has eyes set on a bathroom makeover for 2023.
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