Creating a Better Yard – This Old House
When we say “yard’, it usually has another word in front of it, such as “front”, “side”, or “back”. Those descriptors aren’t just locations, either. They usually imply a function as well.
Front yards are the face we present to the world. Back yards are where we live our lives. Side yards connect those spaces.
The Front Yard Does the Welcoming Work
Our ideal front yards are public spaces with a green lawn, a welcoming entry, and some well-tended shrubs to anchor our houses to the site. It’s here that we often put the most thought into walkways and foundation plantings, or at least we should if we want guests using the front door.
What often happens though is that we forget about the front entry. Most people rarely use it and enter their home through the garage. In time, the builder-installed walkway heaves with frost and neglect, and the low evergreens planted when the house was new are no longer low, and sometimes impinge on the walk.
Replacing a walkway is a great DIY project, and there are a lot of product options to choose from. As to the shrubbery, often a good pruning is all that’s needed to spruce them right back up. Alternatively, now might be just the time to tear out the old greenery and freshen the look of your home with new.
A porch is a classic front-yard feature in urban and rural settings. Facing the street, porches are welcoming to guests and provide the opportunity to interact with neighbors. Modern suburban porches though tend to be more an architectural feature than a practical one, often built too shallow to be conducive to sitting.
The Side Yard Has Some Special Assignments
With most houses, one side yard is composed of a swath of lawn. Very likely, the air conditioning condenser is located here, and maybe there’s a fence or some privacy plantings to screen the house from the neighbor. And that’s okay—utility spaces are needed.
The other side yard is typically not a yard so much as a driveway and parking. It’s important to have adequate parking, and for the landscape features to clearly indicate to guests how to get to the front door or to the back yard, if that’s where the party is.
The Back Yard is the Big Ticket Item
The back yard is the destination at most houses. It’s there that decks and patios, pools and spas, horseshoe pits and vegetable gardens are found. Privacy is an important factor to most people, and back yards are often enclosed by a fence. Fences can be utilitarian chain-link affairs, or more attractive wood or plastic versions.
Fences keep neighbors out and pets in. To keep pets in, a vertical fence may not be needed, and an in-ground electric fence that triggers a shock collar is used. In some areas, stone walls are used to delineate the yard. Evergreen shrubs are another approach.
Most back yards have a focal point, typically a deck, patio, or pool. Decks have come a long way since first becoming popular 50 years ago. No longer limited to pressure-treated or naturally rot-resistant woods such as cedar or redwood, a variety of synthetic decking and railing materials promise lower maintenance.
An alternative to decks is the patio. Stone or brick pavers were the original patio material, and they’re still popular. Today though, homeowners can also choose from stamped concrete and precast concrete pavers. Precast concrete blocks are also made for easily building structures such as retaining walls and fire pits.
One issue with back yards is bugs. To make decks more useful, they’re often roofed and screened in. Patios in the south frequently get a free-standing lanai. Maybe bugs aren’t a big issue, but you want some shade. In that case, shade structures such as pergolas are a great option.
Back-yard pools are another common feature. Whether above-ground or in-ground, a pool can be a welcome relief on a hot summer day. Algae and bacteria are kept in check with either chlorine or a salt system. Both require regular maintenance.
Another way to add water to your back yard is with a feature such as a pond or a waterfall. In dryer climates, the added humidity can have a cooling effect, and the sound of running water is calming in any climate.
One concern with all yards can be fire. Particularly in the South and West, certain fire-prone areas come under the Wildland/Urban Interface code. A properly built and maintained yard keeps wildfire a safe distance away, and can be the difference between the house surviving a fire or not.
If Space is Available, Consider Exterior Extras
and berry bushes to just a few pots of tomato plants, back yards often provide an opportunity to grow food. If you want a vegetable garden that’s easier to maintain, try a raised bed where a wooden box is filled with topsoil, and you don’t have to kneel to weed.
Depending on how intensely you garden, you may need a shed. Even if you never touch a weed and hire a landscape service to maintain your property, you probably still need somewhere to store outdoor play equipment such as badminton nets. The more your own involvement in maintenance, the bigger the shed you need for a mower, string trimmer, rototiller, and so on.
The outside areas of your home can be a source of great joy. Just be sure to match the built environment with the activities you really want to do.