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The Importance of Hardscaping in your Backyard

By Dan Wells, owner MyLandscaper.com and WetYardFix.com

When I enter a space such as a backyard for the very first time, I am not looking at it as it currently is. I am looking at it as it could be when it achieves its full design potential based on the budget that the owner has to work with.

So many homeowners can only see a yard that is flat with green grass as their ultimate backyard. Yet a yard of nothing but grass lacks character, uniqueness and greater potential. When your kids are young, having a yard of grass offers a place for the kids to play openly and the pets to run. So there is a time in each family’s life when a yard of grass can make sense. Yet if the yard is left that way, you simply have a large patch of grass to maintain by mowing, watering, aerating, and treating with fertilizer and herbicides for life. There is so much more potential in your yard than a fantasy land of grass that requires high maintenance.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m probably the biggest fan of grass you will ever meet and I love all cultivars of grass when they are planted correctly, cared for and sodded in the correct zones for their climate preferences. Yet, in my designer opinion, grass is one element of a complete backyard haven and should be used in moderation much like building a delicious salad. You could serve someone a bowl of lettuce and call it a salad. You would be correct in calling it a salad too, yet we would all agree that would be a boring salad. The best salads have texture, colors, many flavors, a dressing and really great crispy greens many times beyond just lettuce too. This is how we should design your yard as well.

Hardscaping is the use of gravel, stone, bricks, pavers, concrete and the like to establish form, structure, walkability and design elements in your yard. All the elements are hard to the touch, hence the name hardscaping. When we begin a project the first step is grading the yard for drainage, tying off all downspouts and ensuring the storm water will drain from the yard in a controlled predictable manner. Then the next step is to install hardscaping before any planting happens. Yet, that is usually the part that so many homeowners want to leave out. They want to jump right to sod and plants, while not thinking long enough about what functional hardscaping could offer their yard for the many years they will live in the house.

Your young children will become teenagers, they will then appreciate a place they can hang with their friends versus a large grass yard where they once kicked a soccer ball back to you. If that is considered in the original design, both elements can coexist while allowing you more options over the lifetime you live in your current house.

I love gravel paths or paver paths to meander a yard. This gives a yard function, helps establish logic to the yard and gives us the ability to create beds and useful areas along the paths that make sense to your guests. These have to go in before any grass or plants can be added. Even just using large pieces of flagstone assembled in a casual style can lead your guests logically around your property, where at night the path can be lit with low-voltage lighting to help them do so safely. Paths are great additions and offer structure beyond what grass can do.

Firepits and outdoor fireplaces go hand in hand with patios and flagstone areas as well. Fire is such a dynamic element that invites people to come together and socialize around it. Fire is brilliant at night, it casts a romantic glow, it sets an amazing tone, and it perfumes the air with the scent of the chosen fire wood burning that can be smelled around the entire neighborhood. The smell of wood burning is one of the most recognizable and nostalgic smells for humans that has been known by man for thousands of years. The smell of oak smoke burning at night, takes me back to my childhood and many cozy memories of youth in the fall with my own family. All great backyards should have a fire element.

Water features come in many forms, there are fountains, bird baths, pools, spas, and koi ponds in one camp. Then there are functional drains that include dry creek beds, drain boxes, and the like that help drain water that will run after rains that offer sounds and places for nature to drink. Both elements center on water and its value in nature. We cannot live without water, and all backyards should invite one or many water centered elements into the yard to attract nature and offer a calming sensation. Water and fire go great together and round out a backyard design.

Patios and deck areas will be the areas where people hang out, outdoor kitchens can be added and bar areas to enhance the livability of the space if budget allows but these need to be installed before planting can take place.

Think about what parts of your yard you will dedicate to patio and deck areas and go bigger than you originally want to as a word to the wise. No one ever complained that their patio was too large, yet many homeowners think their patio and deck area is too small after construction and wish they had gone larger.

In Georgia screened porches are great entertainment areas with the plague of mosquitoes the south is so well known for. Great memories are made in screened porches sipping wine listening to the cicadas, tree frogs and crickets serenade one another on long, humid summer nights under the gentle breeze of a well-placed ceiling fan. No better place than a screened porch to listen to nature’s orchestra in the summertime at night by candlelight.

Once all hardscaping elements are planned, then we can begin to think about how we will water the plants that we will add. Irrigation and lighting are critical aspects of a polished yard. A beautiful selection of newly planted trees, shrubs and grass will all struggle in the Georgia heat if irrigation is not added. Many homeowners on a budget want to pass on irrigation, yet it is essential, and all majestic yards have irrigation. Don’t pass on irrigation, you won’t regret it later. Pay for it now and be glad you did later.

Likewise, your yard will be nothing but black darkness at night if you do not light it up. An amazing yard that has a fire burning with strategically placed landscape lighting elements can be even more dazzling at night than it can be in the bright sun of daytime. A yard transforms at night with landscape lighting. Plan it early in your design and you will be glad you did.

Mulch is an afterthought for many homeowners, yet the mulch you choose can have an amazing design impact on your property and your wallet. Many people don’t understand the pros and cons of each type of mulch, so I do my best to offer education to which types of mulch work best in key areas of your home. Many times, using a few different types of mulch is better than attempting to only use one type of mulch throughout your property.

Pine straw, hardwood mulches in black, brown, cypress and red have their uses, and river rock and gravel all have their applications. Picking the right mulch can make a big difference in maintaining your project, so take some time to really think about what mulch will be best for your project in each bed.

Finally, when we arrive at grass, tree and plant selection there is so much to consider. All plantings however will now compliment your hardscape structures as accessories and can offer shade, color, scents and beauty to what you created to use in your backyard.

The trees and plants should be the very last thing we think about when designing a yard, just as grass should be. Yet for many homeowners, they are the first thing that is discussed and thought about – grass most times being the absolute first, when it should be last. Drainage and hardscaping are always first, never last.

As you contemplate your budget for your backyard makeover, think about all the elements and how they will work together for your family and the resale value of your home. Ask yourself:

– How can I improve the drainage in my yard?
– How will my guests navigate my yard?
– How can I add entertaining areas for my family and friends?
– How will we cook in the yard?
– How will I light and irrigate the yard?
– How can we use fire and water elements to create an amazing back yard for our family and friends?
– What trees, plants and grass make sense in all 4 seasons?
– How big will the trees and shrubs I want ultimately get?
– What type of debris do these trees and shrubs produce as they grow?
– Will the plants I choose attract bees, birds, butterflies?
– How will nature impact my yard? Are there deer in the area? What plants are deer and rabbit resistant?
– How will I or a maintenance crew get access to maintain my yard?
– Does my design offer my family privacy with trees, tall shrubs and fencing from my neighbors?
– Is my yard pet friendly in my design, will my dogs damage the elements I am considering installing in my yard?
– Does the design make sense for my family today and in the future?
– If we are on a limited budget, what elements must go in today so we don’t have to mess up the yard up later installing something that should have gone in first? Which elements can be installed in future years?
– How will a fence help or hurt our yard? What type of fencing makes the most sense for our design?
– Do we need a pool? Or should we avoid a pool?
– Will my design today still provide access to get heavy equipment into the yard in later years if we want to add more elements?
– Others?

These are the critical design questions you really need to ponder as you think of your yard in phases over the next several years. When there is budget to create a complete yard at once, then all these elements need to be decided on today. When the yard will be installed in phases over years however, the yard needs to be developed and phased as such with plans for expansion and yard access still needed in future years.

Regardless, plan your drainage, irrigation, lighting and hardscaping needs first. Get the structure in place today. If that is all you accomplish together with nothing but empty mulched beds in year one, you will have accomplished a lot – even if your yard has no plants, grass or trees when you complete Phase 1. That is so hard for many homeowners to accept, yet it’s smart landscaping that allows for so much more to be added later.

When you get the drainage and hardscaping elements right up front, then you can have an amazing oasis later down the road with the majesty of a green emerald forest with lush lawns, amazing trees and flowering shrubs.

Do the boring stuff first, and the fun stuff later and your yard will be amazing!

– Dan

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