By Elinor Bennett Markle
If the front yard of a residential landscape is the invitation, the backyard is the party itself. Although there are exceptions, it is the backyard where we entertain, swim, play sports and lounge around. It is also where we store our garbage and recyclables, grow the majority of our vegetable gardens and store the lawn mowers and garden hoses. Even if there is a lot of space in the back yard, it is a challenge to get it organized to accommodate all our needs.
The difference in the approach to the backyard as compared to the front is likely to be one of compartmentalizing, or closing in, rather than opening up and showcasing as in designing for curb appeal. While putting together the outdoor kitchen and dining room, seating areas and focal points, don’t forget to plan for the unlovely necessities.
In a well designed backyard, the outdoor kitchen and entertainment areas are close to the back doors and kitchen of the house proper. Circulation into these outdoor spaces is easy and obvious. Views from these spaces are considered and any needed screening is designed into the plan. Focal points are placed or used to keep the scenery consistent with the theme of the space. But where are the service areas? Surely the designer has not pushed them to the far corners of the yard in order to maintain the entertainment ambiance?
Early in my design career, I watched countless homeowners place the vegetable garden, dog kennel, and garbage cans as far as possible from the house. I also watched as vegetable gardens were ruined from lack of care, dogs paced and moped, and children put off taking out the trash. I knew from my own lazy ways that placing these service areas far from the house made going there a lonesome trip. It made more sense to me to make a space close to the back door for disposing of the trash, and for checking on the garden. Then, after talking to a vet or two, I learned that the family dog is much happier if it is close to the action. If the dog has to spend part of the day in a cage, at least put the cage near the rest of the family where it is also able to better watch for intruders around the property. So the not-so-obvious became obvious to me: place gardens and service areas close to the house to increase and improve their use. How do you do that and have the main entertainment area close to the house, too?
Bigger is better
As a part of the answer to that question, another kernel of wisdom — this one from pond designers — made sense to me: “First ponds are almost always too small, because once the homeowner gets it installed; they like it so much they wish it were bigger.” I applied this acquired knowledge about ponds to patios and decks. Who would really object if the outdoor kitchen and dining room was slightly oversized? In a typical situation, part of the family is hanging by the pool, and part of the family doing something completely different, not involved in the poolside scene. Why should someone’s trip to the vegetable garden take them through the middle of the sunbathers? No need if the space has been designed with two activities in mind in the first place. Therefore, I try to place the circulation routes for service areas on the outside edges of the kitchen and dining room to allow for service needs to occur during entertainment activities, and thus prevent conflicts between the various uses. This means that the entertainment area is a bit larger than absolutely necessary for the usual needs of the family, but it also means that someone can take out a garbage bag without walking through the middle of the entertainment area. So far, I have not had any complaints about the entertainment areas being too vast.
If I have oversized the hardscape for multiple concurrent uses, then how can I get the proper screening in between service areas and entertainment spaces? I am a huge fan of plants, but when space is tight, I believe that there are more practical methods of delineating space. I like fences and panels because they create a screen without taking valuable root or entertainment space.
Screening the content
In Sketch #1, the trellis between the pool and the vegetable garden screens the view into the vegetable garden. It can support vine type plants like tomatoes and beans as well. The bird bath in the center serves as a focal point for the space so that our eyes don’t dwell on bare ground, piles of compost or other work-related things when we are entertaining. The trellis behind the bird bath stops your view from the pool, and blocks the view to the pool from the neighbor’s yard. Tiny party lights could be attached to the trellis to add ambience to the pool area for nighttime entertaining.
Shadow-box-style fence patterns are a good backdrop for espalier trees and climbing vines such as trumpet honey suckle or clematis. Trellis work with closely spaced crosspieces do the same job with a lighter touch. Semi-solid fences like the shadow box style can also create wind blocks that help to extend use of the entertainment space in spring and fall. Any wall or structure that blocks the cold breeze and allows sunlight to warm the space is welcome. This will only work on the east, south or west exposures here in the Northern hemisphere, but can add weeks to the use of an entertainment area, as well as screen the service areas. Stone or brick walls can be highly ornamental and decorative, serving as focal points on their own, or when used to support art or plants.
Sketch #2 shows another series of panels that screen and house the garbage cans for this property, as well as add a bit of privacy for the pool and dining spaces. You would want to place pavers or a solid base of crushed gravel in this area to make maintenance easier.
No doubt it is more difficult to fully consider the service areas when designing the fabulous outdoor entertainment rooms, but it is also gratifying to hear your client remark on how convenient and comfortable the space is. When you accommodate the total party package, the result is a functional and aesthetically pleasing space that works for everyone.
Elinor Bennett Markle, RLA, ASLA, is a landscape architect practicing in Kentucky and Tennessee. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.