6 Tips For Designing A Stunning Backyard

Strong transitions make moving through the space a satisfying experience.

November 3, 2015

Gardeners love plants, no news in that. Often this enthusiasm results in beds and borders planted all over a property, with no rhyme or reason. A landscape filled with planting areas that don’t relate to each other doesn’t look good or feel right. What’s needed are transitions. When the transitions between garden areas are good, a landscape flows.

Related: Design Your Ideal Shade Garden


Ted Nyquist and his wife, Gidget, bought a house on nearly 7 acres in Bartlett, Illinois, about 50 miles west of Chicago. Nyquist traveled for business before he retired and would often visit arboreta and public gardens for inspiration. Nowadays, he works in his garden mostly single-handedly while Gidget uses her artistic skills in potting up the containers.

Nyquist didn’t have a master plan when he began setting out his garden 23 years ago, but this former organic chemist and avid photographer who is also president of the Midwest Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society is adept at tying the varied spaces together. Whether we have small spaces or large ones, we can all learn from the design elements he uses to guide visitors through his garden.

Make A Statement
The first, and most obvious, way to announce a new space is to create an entry. At the top of Nyquist’s circular driveway he placed an ornamental iron arbor that can’t be missed. It frames a vista of the garden, extending an invitation to enter.

To draw attention to the entry of a different garden area, Nyquist uses containers, and in another instance, he built a frame around a door.

“I needed something at a spot going around a curve in the yard from one garden into another,” says Nyquist. He found a large, antique-looking door in California, brought it home, and then built around it to make it self-standing in the yard, creating the passageway he needed from one area to another.

Adding recognizable features at human scale, such as the doors, arbors, and benches that Nyquist uses, is like placing magnets in a garden, says Bob Hursthouse, a landscape architect, horticulturist, and lecturer in nearby Bolingbrook. “We relate to them. That’s why every garden should have a bench,” he says.


Set The Path
A wood-chip path leading through a wood shifts visitors between garden areas. Nyquist calls this his “strolling garden.” He wanted it to be secluded from other areas of his property, so after laying the path near the edge of the woods, he flanked it with dense plantings of Canadian hemlocks, junipers, rhododendrons, and other shrubs that would hide the rest of the yard year-round. “I wanted lots of structure and a visible barrier,” he said.

On the other hand, an open expanse of lawn also makes a great transition between spaces. The central lawn area provides a 360-degree view, including entrances to several different locations in the yard.

“A lawn is an area you can move across comfortably,” says Hursthouse, drawing a comparison between walking on smooth, level grass and the more uneven tread of a wood-mulched path. Loose path material slows us down as we walk through a space. Walking onto a lawn with its even feel underfoot invites a quicker pace, taking us onward. And visually, a lawn is a unifying and simplifying element, says Hursthouse. The smooth texture and restful green color lead our eye to the next focal point.


Draw The Eye
Focal points draw us to different areas in a garden. Nyquist dots terra-cotta pots throughout his landscape. Repeating the same material not only pulls a person through the various spaces but also ties different spaces together.

Continuity is a critical element of the garden, says Hursthouse, because it serves as a compass for way-finding. “As humans, we relate to order and structure. We find comfort in that. It helps define an area to repeat an element throughout a space.”

In contrast, the blue ceramic pots in Nyquist’s conifer garden serve as exclamation points and draw the eye to that particular bed. In the same vein, a formal fountain at the center of the rose garden stands out against the more rustic elements throughout the rest of the yard. At the end of a long arbor lined with hostas, Nyquist placed a stone fountain as a destination to entice visitors through the structure.

Change The Levels
Elevation changes also mark movement from one area to another. At the driveway arbor, massive stone steps lead visitors down a steep incline from the public area and into a more intimate garden space.

Change in elevation can effect the pace of a garden, says Hursthouse. A gradual shift is more inviting than a quick change in levels. “For instance, a wide, gracious stair beckons you,” he says.

A sunken area or room can help define a space or emphasize its importance; this is particularly useful when making function or style changes in a garden. For instance, an effective design element is to have a seating area that is just a little bit lower than the rest of the garden.

Play With Styles
There’s no strict rule that says gardeners have to keep the same style throughout their gardens; however, a style change should be a pleasant surprise, not a garish contrast that competes with other elements. Most of Nyquist’s garden is rustic country, but a formal rose garden is tucked into one corner of the yard separate from the rest, while a more Asian-looking specimen conifer bed edges the lawn area.

Just as there may be different decorating styles in the rooms in a home, the same thing can happen in a yard, says Hursthouse. “In a house, there may be a transition through French doors from a traditional dining room into a casual family area.” A formal garden outside may have a terminus such as a wall or hedge, beyond which is a less formal area, such as a grove of trees, he says.

Combining different styles fits our modern lifestyle, where homeowners may want an outdoor entertaining space for adults with a nearby play area for the children.

Create Mystery
Perhaps the best reason to learn how to create attractive and effective transitions within a garden is to engender a sense of mystery, so that a garden’s treasures may be discovered and savored. Nyquist says that Jens Jensen, an early-20th-century Midwest landscape architect who was known for his naturalistic style, was a master at this. “Jensen used curves a lot rather than straight lines,” he says, “so that you want to go and see what’s at the other end of that curve.”

Hursthouse likes gardens that entice someone from the threshold of a house into the outdoors. He loves it when a person stands in a doorway and asks, “I wonder what the yard looks like from over there, what is around that corner?” Once people are drawn outside, they can be guided, using transitions, to discover the rest of the garden and to experience and enjoy it. •

More Ways to Create Flow in a Garden

Color and texture Bright colors and interesting textures attract attention, so to move people through a space, use these elements to create a destination.

Materials A change of materials underfoot marks divisions between spaces. When a hard stone surface changes to a loose gravel, it signals that this is a different area.

Rhythm + movement Nyquist’s long arbor is shaped like a tunnel, beckoning to be walked through. Lining the sides of the walkway is a stream of hostas, all the same variety, that repeat the sense of movement through the space.

Hallways Some garden areas, such as the side area of a house going from front to back yards, serve the same function as hallways in a home. “They’re not spaces for lingering,” says Hursthouse. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be attractive transitional spaces.

Walls Hedges and walls divide spaces, serving as pronounced transitions from one area to another. Use them to effectively and quickly change from one garden style to another.

Seasons Use different elements throughout the season to create focal points or mark an entry. Bold-colored spring bulbs, winter’s dancing grass plumes, and autumn’s fiery-leaved shrubs are seasonal elements that encourage movement through a space.