Your yard is more than a decorative skirt

Landscaping in Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, November 01, 2000

Imagination, desire and design can lead one to paradise, or at least as close as landscaping can take you. Seek your innermost wishes, build a place to satisfy them and go to it. Adventurous climbing courses, spaces for contemplation and harmony, or settings to increase familial tranquility, all these are possible. Exercises in skill and patience, strength training and accuracy, or delving into the mysteries of exotic plant propagation -- any neighborhood yard might provide these settings.

People let themselves go when they begin to talk about what they want in their yards. Property owners indulge themselves with waterfalls or barbecue meccas, recreating settings from their childhood visits to a favorite place, and providing a place to grow organic produce is often included in lists of desirable design elements.

It is the most natural thing in the world to devote some portion of your outdoor living space to satisfy the desire of one of the children to practice their favorite game. People put up a basketball hoop on the garage, skateboard ramps can be set into the driveway, or bicycle jumps developed in the side yard. Children's gardens can rapidly become designated recreation areas with tether ball or pitch and putt zones.

I have seen archery ranges in people's yards, badminton and tennis courts, small putting greens and courses for the Old World game of Bocce still played in many places. One family asked for design help in creating a climbing wall on the unused northern side of their house. Creating spaces for the activities we love opens the outdoor portions of our homes helping integrate our family lives into the place. Looking at a couple of models might be helpful.

Juneau homes often have places for all the boat stuff: engine racks and net walks, outside butchering tables or fish smoking shacks. We have the useful and traditional outdoor areas, but these are often places apart, either hidden or jarringly placed with no regard for the rest of the landscape.

Looking at our older homes, those with a place to pull up the boat and walk to the house, we can get clues as to how to mix these needs into the domestic spaces without losing the desirable aspects of having a yard.

Layout and circulation are keys to functional land use. Having a comfortable way to move from activity area to passive space encourages use of both. Some interests will need more space, some will require vehicle access, and others call for protection and privacy. Designing for use calls for some choices and can't be done in a vacuum. All the players have to be in agreement for this to work. The payback is a functioning family place, with multiple users being satisfied, and friends and relatives feeling welcome to visit and participate. Some small changes will have tremendous results.

We added a net to our lawn furniture this summer. The activity level soared, volleyball and badminton became pickup, just like basketball. Visiting families and even some crotchety individuals found themselves screaming as they dove for edge shots or passed for surprise slams. This development was simple, no permanent changes or elaborate fixtures, posts in buckets of cement, and a five-dollar net. It gave us an opportunity to exercise some new skills and reveal some unknown abilities.

It is not just game spaces, although they are exceedingly important. Privacy screening and even the symbolic setting of perimeter planting islands transforms exposed front yards into private personal spaces. People will be much happier using outdoor areas that they sense are theirs, rather than places where the impression of public property runs right up to the front door.

Implied privacy can be just as effective as a complete barrier. Having people begin using their yards after we planted beds in the front corners of the lots showed that the personal space was defined by the outermost indications of their possession.

Small-scale changes in a personal back yard, or neighborhood-wide transformations can be set in motion by design decisions. Look at settings in which you feel comfortable. What are the first few characteristics that you notice? Feelings of personal space, no dead ends that cause you to have to retrace your path, and easy access are universals, others are as individual as we are.

Professional designers have these concepts at their fingertips; they use them everyday in laying out the functioning spaces for schools or industries. Residential designs are more important to our everyday lives and should receive just as much attention.

Your yard is not a decorative skirt surrounding your house; it is your living space, the place where you can fulfill desires and explore potentials.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Responses or questions can be sent to

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