Plan overview

In the Studio | Problem-solving in a large back yard

In the studio

Good design solves problems. This project from a few years ago remains one of my favorite ways to solve problems. We took a lawn-heavy, pretty boring yard and designed a lush, established landscape that looks like it is SUPPOSED to be there.  Landscape Design blends the outside and inside together, so that a home is part of its surroundings.

These clients had plain grass right up to their back foundation, with a few small unhealthy plants around the yard. They love their home and family, and want to have outdoor living space that makes sense for them.

"before" photo

The project scope

You can see in the image above how enormous the yard is! In this project, our clients asked for a plan to add a fire pit, patio, and hot tub to the back yard. This item is all about extending the living space and blending outside and inside. Most importantly, we needed to think about where to site these features so that they would get used.

A steep hill in back of the yard posed a huge challenge. Way up at the northeast corner of the property, you can see all the way downtown. There are gorgeous views of the gleaming dome of the Capitol building. However, that height comes at a cost. The slope on that corner is very steep, making mowing a pain at best and treacherous at worst.

Lastly, an existing element in the yard needed attention. This is true so often! Back to the problem-solving role of a designer, we take what is already there and help it make sense. Previous owners created a retaining wall and planting bed, but since then, both were just one more thing to mow and mow around.

Restoration and redemption are major themes for Red Fern and for me, personally. One of the best parts of my job is that I get to take something discarded or overwhelming or problematic and turn it into a welcome solution.


The inspiration board gives us a way to talk with clients about the design problems and solutions. Photos give us a way to talk about what’s on a clients’ wish list, to see elements that we can use. We also talk about things clients don’t like, and what doesn’t seem to work or maybe wouldn’t work in their yard.

inspiration board for project

For this project, the large sloped yard was such an issue that we took a number of images to explain how we might get control of that area. We also looked at fire pit, hot tub and patio inspiration.

From here, we talk about the plant options. Our plant palette inspires. It doesn’t promise exactly which species we are using in a project. It’s about the texture, colors, seasonality, and form of the plants. It’s about how plants make a space feel. Here, as in many projects, we focused on lower-maintenance plants with year-round interest. We needed screening in some areas. We wanted the plants to feel like a woodland, with flowers and birds and beautiful leaves.

plant inspiration images

Master plan

The plan overview shows the final master plan. We’ve filled in the steep portion of the sloped back yard with a meadow. We framed the sides and rear with large evergreens and flowering shrubs for privacy and sanctuary.  Next, we reclaimed the existing retaining wall area and made it into an intimate seating area. It serves double-duty as a lovely focal point from the kitchen and dining area of the house. Last, we added an outdoor living area with a hot tub hidden but easy to access, a fire pit that flows off of and connects with the deck, and paths to invite strolling through the yard.

plan overview

The planting plans

Fair warning: Don’t hire Red Fern if you don’t like plants.

planting bed layout

The thing is, softscape, or planting beds, settle a house into its surroundings. Plants are the tool we use to bridge the natural and the unnatural. Believe me, houses aren’t natural. Without the right planting beds, houses stick out like sore thumbs. They grab your attention as you come around the block and not in a good way.

Plants create problems, but they also solve problems. This property had a really steep slope in the back corner, which made mowing miserable. So, lawn was the problem: it requires weekly maintenance and never looked great. We planned out a meadow instead. With some work up front, you can establish a meadow and have a bit of wild and free right in your back yard. Mowing once a season keeps the meadow plants under control and reduces weed pressure. No solution comes without work, so here we are working smarter rather than harder. Problem solved.

In this project we move from a more formal, restrained look close to the house to a more wild, open feeling out near the back corner. Manicured, organized plantings around the house shift to upright shrubs softening the fence line and screening views, and finally the meadow and evergreens around it create an open area to explore or observe.  

Phasing it in

This was a huge space and phasing all the work in was the most reasonable way for this couple to tackle it. You can see from this picture how much of the yard would become planting beds. I promise, a big huge flat grass back yard does NOT feel intentional or welcoming. We kept plenty of lawn but framed it with plantings so that it feels like it’s SUPPOSED to be there.

phasing plan

We broke up this large project into phases. Each section can stand alone until our clients install the entire plan. Phasing always helps clients get behind a project.

3D views

Lastly, these views of the completed design help more than anything to visualize what will come. First we show the view from way up on the hill.  You can the meadow in front of you, and can see the small sitting area off the retaining wall in the center of the yard. To your right is a shrub bed that screens views form the neighbors, and straight ahead is the deck, hot tub and fire pit patio. Overall, the design softens the house and frames it well.

project view from the hill

In the last view, you can see what the yard looks like from the kitchen window- one of the most important viewpoints in every project. From here, the deck and hot tub invite you out to relax, while the fire pit patio is ready to host a gathering. Lovely shrubs frame this area, so it feels both welcoming and secluded.  Beyond this area, the other planting beds make the yard feel like a paradise, alive and beautiful. 

project view

This project was all about solving problems, and was such fun to take on.