One backyard staple to avoid and one more affordable one to include for a relaxing space, says landscaping expert

Relaxed and sociable backyards are surely what alfresco spaces should be all about - and this landscape designer knows just how to achieve the right vibe

backyard with armchairs and coffee table
(Image credit: Future)

Backyards changed, recently. They're no longer viewed as a patch of lawn that needs to be maintained, or a a place to grow flowers and veg. In the eyes of the design world they're an opportunity to create a relaxed and sociable space - an extra living room, a place to unwind.

And no one creates such affable backyards as the San Francisco landscape designer Daniel Nolan.  'I make a deliberate point to design gardens that are about relaxation, and about getting you into a meditative mindset,' he says. His spaces always feature seating, lush planting to help you feel enclosed and low maintenance plants that don't take much work. But it's surprising what design staple he always chooses to avoid when creating a sociable space - and what more affordable option he goes for instead.

Daniel Nolan sat in a lush backyard

Based in San Francisco, landscape designer Daniel Nolan heads up his own studio, creating gardens that are full of lush planting and sociable spaces. He worked at Flora Grubb Gardens for a decade, and his work since launching Daniel Nolan Design in 2018 has been featured in Vogue, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor and the New York Times. His first book, Dry Gardens: High Style for Low Water Gardens is published by Rizzoli. 

The backyard design staple Daniel Nolan avoids

lush tropical backyard with palm trees for privacy and modern seating

(Image credit: Daniel Nolan Design)

Admittedly, in Daniel's backyard design above, the chairs sit invitingly around a fire pit. But including this source of heat as a centerpiece went against his better judgement.

'Here’s the truth about fire pits,' Daniel says. 'They don't actually conduct much heat. The vibe they create is nice - true. They invite you to congregate together in a round, all facing each other and looking inwards. It's cosy. But there are way to achieve this effect at a much lower price - while at the same time creating a more effective heat.'

How Daniel creates a sociable backyard instead

'A really great coffee table - and some comfortable seating - has just the same effect as a fire pit,' Daniel says. 'You can place one in the center of some chairs and it will still bring people together in the same way.' Plus it can be a fraction of the price of a fire pit, and without the running costs.

Still, cool evenings can be an issue if you're entertaining outdoors all night. 'I work with a company called Galanter and Jones which makes heated furniture,' he says. 'Its designs are super comfy, and uses about as much power as a hairdryer. Plus the heat it creates for whoever is sitting in them is really effective.'

So there you have it - firepits are out, coffee tables are in and if you have a power source then heated furniture is a the future. And if not, how about a selection of blankets instead?

The best outdoor furniture brands sell tables that look good enough to work indoors and outside.

Two blankets to buy now

And if you don't have a power source for your heated outdoor furniture, these will do nicely instead.

Pip Rich

The editor of Livingetc, Pip Rich (formerly Pip McCormac) is a lifestyle journalist of almost 20 years experience working for some of the UK's biggest titles. As well as holding staff positions at Sunday Times Style, Red and Grazia he has written for the Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times and ES Magazine. The host of Livingetc's podcast Home Truths, Pip has also published three books - his most recent, A New Leaf, was released in December 2021 and is about the homes of architects who have filled their spaces with houseplants.  He has recently moved out of London - and a home that ELLE Decoration called one of the ten best small spaces in the world - to start a new renovation project in Somerset.