How to Turn Your Backyard Into a Retreat — "It's the Ultimate R&R"

Knowing how to turn your backyard into retreats means you can relax in style all Summer long - designers explain what to do

Home with large modern pool with two shapely deck chairs
(Image credit: Life Created for Living with Lolo)

An escape, a break, a refuge; the word 'retreat' has different meanings to everybody, but ultimately if you want to learn how to turn your backyard into a retreat, you are here to bring charming escapism to your outdoor space. 

Backyards can be vibrant places where we go to unwind, but when we feel like it is a true sense of restoration that the doctor ordered, there are edits to be made. From planting methods to decorative and functional additions for a next-level setup, we asked the experts for their best recommendations. Get ready to take your design soul on a voyage of self-discovery and relaxation. This is how to set your outdoor space up for the ultimate R&R.

1. Include the elements like fire and water

Patio space with shaped hedge in the distance, framing rectangular fire pit and black wicker chairs surrounding

(Image credit: Life Created for Living with Lolo)

When you go to a retreat, it is about the entire sensory experience. Naturally, the elements are present in our yards anyhow, but when we want to turn a backyard into a haven, designers encourage us to take it up a notch. 

'Transform your backyard into a tranquil retreat by incorporating a captivating water feature or a mesmerizing fire feature,' recommends Lauren Lerner of Living with Lolo. Could it be that the call of a babbling brook or a roaring fire is all you need to turn your backyard into the ultimate getaway? For you and invitees alike, including interesting elements will kickstart serenity and, no doubt, ignite a little conversation too. That is unless you are going after a silent retreat atmosphere. This can be arranged with guests.

'If a permanent installation exceeds your budget, fret not! Numerous freestanding options exist that exude authenticity and seamlessly blend into your space.'

2. Create serenity corners

Two white fabric deck chairs on green lawn with scalloped sun umbrella overhead, with black trim

Styled by Laëtitia Wajnapel, creator of Cinquième Gauche, photography by Jessica Isaac.

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac for Cinquième Gauche)

To while away the hours, elegantly, no retreat is complete without the finer detail of sumptuous fabrics, and serene soft furnishings. To keep your space inviting in all seasons and ripe for entertaining the more discerning of guests, style with only the best modern outdoor furniture. 'Elevate the ambiance further by introducing premium outdoor furnishings, infusing a touch of luxury that truly transforms your backyard into a personal sanctuary,' continues Lauren.

Plus, closing your eyes under a patio umbrella, only to open them again to green hues and luscious leaves, is pure retreat bliss. Tap into a scalloped design like in this picturesque setup by designer Laëtitia Wajnapel and you will only be a cocktail away from perfection. 'When it comes to backyard ambiance, it's all about lushness to me,' says Laëtitia, creator of Cinquième Gauche.

'Consider your current landscaping and add a few additional potted plants (think palms, banana leaf plants, birds of paradise) in strategic places, for example near the dining or lounge area.'

3. Design the space to co-exist with flora and fauna

Backyard patio area with coral furniture looking into back of home

(Image credit: Courtesy of Sarah Barnard Design)

The benefits of immersing yourself in nature needn't be explained, and a backyard that is thriving with colorful plants and a guest list of insects will bring an instant retreat quality to it. Make yours a sensory garden with a difference by nurturing nature. 'When transforming your backyard into a retreat, consider creating a space that welcomes wildlife,' says designer Sarah Barnard.

'Rewilding is the practice of restoring native flora and fauna to our gardens. Gardening with plants native to our region helps to encourage biodiversity, attracting wildlife and pollinators to create a natural oasis that inspires joy in day-to-day living. Consider removing some or all of the existing turf grass to make room for flowering plants and no-mow native grass.'

For avid wildlife gardeners, Sarah recommends a few that should make it into your seed mix this year: 'Some of my favorite California native wildflowers are the Matilija Poppy and Bush Mallow. As well as being beautiful to look at, wildflowers also attract a variety of pollinators, such as butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds.'

It might well be time to invest in a bird bath too: 'I recommend including a water feature such as a recirculating bird bath to attract local bird life to the garden. Studies have shown that observing wildlife and birding can have significant mental health benefits. I regularly enjoy watching birds drink and bathe in my garden.'

4. Carve out space for a more interesting splash

Home with large modern pool with two shapely deck chairs

(Image credit: Life Created for Living with Lolo)

Winding shapes can bring intrigue to indoor and outdoor spaces, but look beyond uniform rectangular forms for more fluidity. 'Speaking of pools, I currently love soaking pools with stone surrounds for small backyards, but my all-time favorite pool shape has to be the kidney-shaped pool, evocative of a Palm Springs 1950's oasis,' says Laëtitia. 'These can be landscaped / hardscaped in many different ways from tropical style to pared down minimalism.'

Furthermore, enhancing the 'humble' above-ground or plunge pool is worth considering to turn your backyard into a retreat too. Not only Goop fans will be familiar with the Wim Hof method, but ice baths are becoming key fixtures in luxe hotels and even city apartments; for good reason. It seems it is almost on par with the sauna these days, if not more in demand. 'A backyard “spa” retreat is an idea that many homeowners are incorporating,' says Shelagh Conway - Principal and Founder of Triple Heart Design. 'Saunas and ice baths along with outdoor showers are becoming popular in backyard retreats. Since the pandemic, the focus has turned inward, and finding wellness for your family seems to be taking priority over entertaining. 

'The bar cart is being replaced by the ice bath!' If the inside of Gweneth Paltrow's Goop villa is anything to go by, we hope the wellness and design trendsetter would approve. 

5. Soften the setting with lighting and cohesive colors

Patio space with outdoor furniture, black fence and greenery with mixture of fairy lights and lanterns

Styled by Laëtitia Wajnapel, creator of Cinquième Gauche, photography by Jessica Isaac.

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac for Cinquième Gauche)

When you're trying to bring calm and serenity to your surroundings, you want to avoid anything too stark in color and form. Seek to create harmony through gentle hues, textures, and all-important lighting. Combined together, these subtle features will tie your backyard retreat together effortlessly.

'Choosing colors, materials, and textile patterns that reflect the surrounding natural environment can help to create a harmonious outdoor palette,' notes Sarah.

Including lighting at all levels for more interesting surroundings by day, and by night. 'I am a sucker for fairy lights, particularly when wrapped around mature trees for a very magical night time vibe,' Laëtitia tells us. 'I also love Moroccan lanterns, but any perforated lighting fixture works. Think about adding different light sources and mix pendant lights, string lights, candles in vessels, or even floating orbs if you have a pool.'

Camille Dubuis-Welch
Contributing Editor

Camille is a freelance interiors writer and the former deputy editor of Real Homes where she covered a broad range of topics, including DIY, small space design, and gardens. She studied English language and Italian at the University of Manchester and it was during her year abroad studying in Bologna that she started documenting her adventures and observations in a blog. Camille has a passion for art and beautiful spaces. When not writing or refreshing her home, you will find her gallery hopping, taking photos, painting, and traveling to seek out interiors inspiration.