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A funny thing happened this summer after leveling out the backyard: For the first time since moving into my house, I actually began to picture my dream backyard space. And the truth is, I have a long way to go.

new backyard plans

For myself and plenty of other first-time homeowners, it seems to be a little easier to picture the future potential of interior spaces: where the Christmas tree is going to go during the holidays, what hardwoods might look like instead of ugly carpet, etc.. But if you’re anything like me, being able to see a yard’s future potential just doesn’t come to mind as easily. I think it’s mainly because where the interior typically has defined areas and specific functions, the yard often starts as more of a blank slate (or in my case, a mess that has to first be cleaned up before a blank slate is possible). As a result, I wound up constantly second-guessing my outdoor project plans, putting it off, and taking years longer than I probably should have to get started.

If I could go back in time, I would have started on my dream yard a lot sooner. But now that I’ve had the opportunity for some trial and error, I can now see what I was missing all along. The key elements that add the wow factor for a beautiful back yard is actually quite simple: divide and conquer.

5 backyard design ideas — from entertaining to storage — great for your new home.

A Place for Storage

When I first bought my house, I had no idea how important the space in my one-car garage would be. Even though I do an annual clean-out, it’s just not enough space for renovation supplies, outdoor equipment, paint, power tools and lumber. The items I need for the interior upgrades compete for storage space with the equipment to maintain a healthy lawn and garden, leading to one massive mess that I’m constantly stepping over (and bumping my shin into).

diy garage pegboard wall
related: garage pegboard wall

Through years of organizing the interior spaces, I’ve learned a key lesson in home improvement: make the space around you work for how you live your life. I know that sounds like both strange and obvious advice, but it isn’t until you live in a space for a little while before you realize what your habits are. Many times, new homeowners (including myself) will work toward a design that is totally wrong for them, focusing on how it “should be” and neglecting the reality of their everyday needs. If you have an aunt who has that formal living room that never gets used, you’re plenty familiar with this concept; she’s basically paying for hundreds of square feet of under-utilized space, heating and cooling it, and for what? A nice couch that the family never sits on?!

This same lesson works for outdoor spaces: it’s about how the space gets used today, tomorrow, and a year from now. Have a place for gardening tools, the mower etc. in an easy-to-reach and well-organized location, and the existing space is much more efficient. The garden improves by force of habit  because you’ll be going out there more often, working in your garden more often, etc. Since I have just about used every possible square inch of my garage, my next big project will be building my own outdoor storage shed, ideal for gardening and related equipment. The design of the structure will be custom, but I’m taking heavy inspiration from fellow bloggers like Finding Silver Pennies; rather than just serving as a dumping ground for extra stuff, this shed is more like an extension of the home’s design. I love the idea of adding trim, decorative hardware, and little garden boxes!

coastal she sed
photo: Finding Silver Pennies 

Room for Entertaining

When I moved into my house, there was one space that I knew would need an upgrade: the 8×10 slab leading out from my kitchen and into the back yard. Prepare yourself for a hideous photo in 3…2…1…

old backyard patio 2009
things nightmares are made of

It is my only true space for placing outdoor furniture at the moment, and even though it got a little bit of a makeover a few years ago, what I really want to do is expand this space for more guests and entertaining (just two seats isn’t going to cut it!).

patio after the 2013 mini makeover
related: mini backyard makeover

For a while, I thought that I might have to hire help to expand the patio or bust up the concrete, but that might not be necessary. Kelly from View Along the Way came up with a great DIY option for her slab makeover turned wooden deck, which I think is a genius option!

Before: Like mine, it’s not much to look at.

old patio View Along the Way
photo: View Along The Way 

After: no more stepping down onto the discolored concrete.

after - new deck - View Along the Way
photo: View Along The Way 

By building a new deck (or as an extension) over existing concrete, it also gives me the option to expand the area as a whole. I’ll have to add in some additional supports in expanded areas, but it beats having only 80 square feet of space for furniture. Guests won’t be crowded, and I’ll be more inclined to actually use this area rather than constantly avoiding it.

A Beautiful Garden

It’s hard to plan for a beautiful garden if you have a habit of killing indoor plants. If you too have a black thumb like I once did, take it from me: there is hope! The secret is to pick plants that are either native to the area or to the natural climate you live in, which allows the plants you pick to thrive — even if they are eventually neglected (ahem, guilty!). In the southeastern U.S. where I live, that means plants like hydrangeas, azaleas, and gardenias.

tips for growing hydrangeas
related: hydrangeas

Local nurseries and home improvement stores often carry plenty of options that do well in your surrounding climate (and the less exotic choices are often the most affordable plants, too). I’ve also found that raised garden beds have been the easiest to start with since they help deter weeds and provide plenty of quality soil for growing. They can even help cover over neighbor-neglected fences like the one to the right of my property. There was nothing I could really do about a fence that I didn’t own, but I could try to dress it up from my side!

Before: While I’m glad my neighborhood doesn’t have the added expense of an HOA, it does mean that neighbors have to work out problem areas amongst themselves. With a little creativity, I took a neglected fence and made it into something I liked.

old fenced yard on left side

After: By adding some low-maintenance garden beds along one side of my yard, I created a spot that would eventually fill in with a living, flowering hedge.

diy raised garden beds with gardenias

The plan is to later expand on this concept with the rest of the yard once the new deck and shed are in; these two additions will open the door for creating new gardening spaces next to each structure. I suppose I won’t get to call myself a “black” thumb for much longer!

Nighttime Lighting

I just love the idea of nighttime outdoor entertaining. Cozy seating, plenty of space for evening chatter, and the ambience of delicate lighting make for a breathtaking space! Stefanie from Brooklyn Limestone has a great example of how to separate “zones” in the yard using outdoor lights (below). This small patio area is surrounded by a series of string lights suspended above, which separates it from the hammock and dining area nearby.

Brooklyn Limestone's beautiful nighttime backyard
photo: Brooklyn Limestone

An Inviting Fire

Once the need-to-have things are in, it will be time to build some furniture and create a fire pit area for people to sit around and enjoy the new yard. There are lots of DIY options out there, and since store-bought kits for fire pits tend to be on the pricey side, I’m planning to use inexpensive concrete blocks, similar to how A Beautiful Mess created their awesome s’mores fire pit.

outdoor fire pit from A Beautiful Mess
photo: A Beautiful Mess

After years of working on the interior, one tends to lose a little momentum and inspiration to keep the DIY train moving along. But transitioning my thought process to these exterior improvements has given me a serious boost in energy to continue making changes and hang on to my home improvement mojo (new homeowners: don’t make my same mistake! Start working on your yard as a process long before you think you’ll need to). Now that I know the true potential waiting in my backyard, I can focus on making these dream outdoor zones into a reality. With any luck, this will be the year for lots of outdoor entertaining in a brilliant new space.

This post is sponsored by The National Association of Realtors. All opinions are 100% my own. For additional posts in this series, check out HouseLogic.com

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  1. I didn’t realize that HOA’s added costs to home ownership?! Where I live, we have a community association, we pay $20 in our municipal taxes, that gets funnelled directly into the association. The fact that I’m part of the association means the cost is higher for me personally, in time, but $20 per household is nothing, really.
    We also have restrictive convenances on our property, that were created by the developers, so the area would maintain a higher quality than those without (no mechanic shops in residential garages, no livestock, properties to be adequately maintained etc). Granted, my neighbour is a mechanic and the convenance doesn’t stop him from doing work, but it’s personal and he keeps his place tidy and free of debris.
    Is there really nothing in place to motivate your neighbours to maintain their properties?

    1. It honestly depends on where you live and often the age of the home. Some HOA dues can be REALLY high (hundreds of dollars per month instead of $20!) and REALLY restrictive with rules (such as needing permission to paint my front door – no thank you), and as a kid, I grew up in an older neighborhood that didn’t have such expenses or rules (but people still maintained their property well). So when I went looking for a budget fixer upper, I deliberately chose one that didn’t have an HOA because with the amount I do on this house, the last thing I wanted was to constantly deal with an HOA nagging me left and right… dealing with whether or not I need a permit from the county is enough headache for me. The downside is that you don’t have an HOA to enforce any rules beyond the ones that the city/county has, but that’s also pretty much who you call when something is happening that really shouldn’t be, such as a downed tree.

      1. (NB It’s $20 per year for our community association! And in Canadian money, so like, $15 in your fancy American money ;) )
        Once upon a time I was looking into buying a condo, and when I realized how much extra you have to pay in maintenance fees every month I thought, F THAT!! HOA’s, I’ve heard (and seen in movies, haha) can be a huge pain in the ass, and the fact that people are willing to pay more for what could arguably be seen as greater restrictions… it just seems weird to me. HOA’s are not prevalent in the places I’ve lived, though I could see them being a thing in newer developments in urban areas (I tend to avoid urban areas, I have a thing against municipal water :P) It sounds like you made the right decision (in my opinion, but also best decision for you) by avoiding an area with an HOA.
        But standards bylaws are(/should be) another thing altogether! There are some neighbourhoods adjacent to the community I live in whose properties are so covered in detritus that they appear to be health hazards. I know cities/counties have only so many resources at their disposal, and I guess there are just people who don’t care/ are unable to expend the energy to do anything about it (I realize money, ability, family structure are all reasons homes could become alleged disaster areas)… And even if the city hired someone to clean up a bylaw infraction, some people would lose their homes over being unable to reimburse the city.
        That turned into a rant with no real point. I started out on the side of homeowners who take care of their homes (like you and me) and ended up realizing that sometimes there’s more to the story for those who don’t/can’t maintain their properties.
        I Hope you do get your situation resolved with ease, though, and that it doesn’t cause any additional strain on your relationship with your neighbours. It’s much easier getting along or at least having a passing friendliness with your neighbours than anger or aggression.

        1. I get ya! And yeah, sometimes it’s just easier to pick up stray branches, cut down what they aren’t, etc. (because it’s not like they’re really going to object when they aren’t maintaining something). I plan to actually replace a few boards if/when I get a chance on my neighbor’s fence, but not until I’ve had an opportunity to dress up things from my side first.

  2. I can’t wait to see your progress. We started working in our yard on Easter. We have a small yard that butts up to a lot of brush and woods that goes down a slope. So we started ripping out a section of it. We got a third of the way in 4 hours but it isn’t perfect. It is going to be a battle. We have a lot of vines and some very invasive plants that need to come out. We plan to one day tier the slope with a couple retaining walls and hopefully gain an extra 15-20 feet of flat grassy depth to our yard.

    1. I have SO many things already in the queue, on their way to the blogging queue and needing photography, and one project that just got rained out (so until it dries, I don’t have any desire to do anything with it). But just take things little by little, weekend by weekend, and things will eventually change drastically!

  3. Glad to find this post today. I am working on decorating four areas of our yard this Spring and I’ve put myself on a tight budget to keep it interesting and just published a post about my progress on my blog today. I’ve been watching for Memorial Day sales, shopping at places where I can get discounts or use coupons and looking at ways I can DIY if it actually will cost less – which isn’t always the case – ha. Thanks for the inspiration! Love the new decking & the fence solution.