These dramatic before and afters will inspire you to transform your outdoor living space and gain curb appeal in the process
With no privacy, no personality, and—the biggest drawback of all—no place to sit, this 550-square-foot side yard had little charm.
Luckily for homeowners Amy Swift Crosby and Josh Crosby, a truckload of salvaged redwood came to the rescue. The designer used some of the boards to add height to the existing cement-block wall; others he turned into a sturdy dining table as well as the backs and bottoms of cushion-topped, built-in seating. What’s more, the aged redwood brought with it the character the yard had been missing. With space to dine, gather, and play, the area is now the family’s favorite hangout in the garden.
Thomas J. Story
At the height of California’s drought, Sue Smith and Georganne Rosenberger did everything they could think of to save water at their Albany, CA, home—including letting their front lawn die. “It was the zeitgeist,” says Smith. “Everyone was doing it.”
But tired of the grim landscape, they enlisted the help of garden designer Rebecca Sweet (harmonyinthegarden.com). As they learned from Sweet, simply letting a lawn die—however well intentioned—isn’t actually the most sustainable choice. “Established trees, bees, and birds all suffer,” says Sweet. “Having a low-water garden helps the ecosystem survive a drought.”
Thomas J. Story
To bring lushness to Smith and Rosenberger’s yard, Sweet clustered large swaths of plants in jewel tones that echo the home’s colors. Though nearly all of the plants are low-water once established, the designer took a multipronged approach to save every drop possible, from installing a drip-irrigation system that operates on a smart timer to placing a rain barrel under a downspout to catch runoff. (Even though droughts ebb and flow in the West, California is still a summer-dry climate, making a water-wise garden a smart idea regardless of winter rainfall.)
Half a year later, Smith and Rosenberger couldn’t be happier with the garden as it has grown in. “We sit in the living room and stare out the window in complete disbelief that this is ours,” says Smith. And when they open their water bill each month, they’re equally shocked: The amount hasn’t budged.
When garden designer Rebecca Sweet and her husband, Tom Urban, bought their property from her parents in 2000, their garden shed was run down . “It was nearly a man cave,” Sweet says. “I decided to take a stand against all that nonsense—ha!” Besides, she adds, she needed an office for her landscape-design business, Harmony in the Garden.
Together the couple converted the structure into the backyard retreat it is now. They pushed up the ceiling to create a peaked roof; installed skylights and recycled windows; hung window boxes on outside walls with planting beds beneath; and created an outdoor potting table and tool storage area behind the shed near the back fence. Through additional smart detailing, the former "man cave" has been transformed into a backyard "chick shack" where Sweet can be inspired and lounge with company.
Steve A. Gunther
This West Hollywood front yard went from dull to dazzling with this makeover by designer Katherine Spitz (katherinespitzassociates.com). The problem before was a boring lawn, with no privacy (West Hollywood bans any kind of fence taller than 42 inches that fully encloses a front yard).
Steve A. Gunther
As a solution Spitz ditched the lawn and got creative with screening. She put up color panels, added vivid plants, and created multi-use areas to make the yard inviting and livable.
Long and skinny, this paved side yard looked like a bowling alley. That was, however, before someone took a jackhammer to it. Layered plantings, an irregular path, and giant pavers transform the small backyard into a soothing garden escape.
With the concrete gone, landscape designer Darcy Daniels used foliage to give the space a warm, lush feel.
Rich goldenrod walls now set the mood, and drifts of gold-tinted perennials—Japanese forest grass, autumn fern, and ‘Bowles Golden’ sedge—reinforce it. Blue Hosta ‘Halcyon’ adds contrasting color, and Japanese maple and variegated fatshedera give a sense of volume. Now the soothing garden is a pleasure to walk through.
Design by: Darcy Daniels, Bloomtown Gardens, Portland, bloomtown.net
Thomas J. Story
The house had no proper entryway— just three wooden steps—and almost no plants at all.
Thomas J. Story
Traversed by a concrete stairway—that sleek handrail is ipe wood—the yard is now home to veggie beds, water-wise plants, and “endless mulch”—all of it built, planted, or spread by homeowners Lisa Wong Jackson and Nick Jackson.
Thomas J. Story
The yard was plagued with weeds, invasive bamboo, and a not-so-retaining wall that was rotting away.
Covered with decomposed granite and sloping awkwardly toward the rear of the property, this small backyard was no place for a party.
Owners Susan and Warren Byrne love to entertain, though, so landscape architect Jude Hellewell and landscape designer Laura White created a split-level living space complete with built-in seating and a peekaboo fence.
The gravel was replaced with two levels of colored concrete. The Byrnes use the upper terrace mostly for dining and hanging out; three steps down, a built-in bench invites guests to lounge around the firepit.
A gappy ipe fence gives a sense of spaciousness while preserving privacy. Low care plants, such as autumn moor grass, Mexican weeping bamboo, and yucca, soften the angular design. Now, Susan says, "People can’t get enough of our backyard. All our guests want to go out there."
Design by: Outer Space Landscape Architecture, San Francisco, outerspacela.com
This Costa Mesa yard was little more than 1,500 square feet of tired lawn and broken tiles in a challengingly arid climate.
Landscape designer Brooke Dietrich added a fence and then—inspired by the king palm —went for size and color in her plantings. Building this garden around an existing king palm called for vibrant flowers, cool foliage, and strong shapes. Dietrich chose to paint her fence a plant-framing black. To cut costs, she kept her hardscaping to a minimum, adding only a new front walk made of budget-friendly concrete. Then she planted shrubs and perennials, placing colorful blooms outside the fence and quieter green plants inside the fence. The effect is breathtaking, especially in winter and spring, when almost the whole yard is in full bloom.
Surrounded by bleak concrete blocks, the pool in Mary and Paul Schweikher’s backyard felt hemmed in. Designer Christy Ten Eyck transformed the space with a new rock wall, raised planters, sculptural planters, and less-severe paving.
Now, backed by the enveloping curves of a stone-filled wire-mesh wall, this part of the yard feels cozy. The new rock wall was installed in front of the old wall. The space created between the two conceals pool equipment and a new outdoor shower. Yellow and gray shade sails overhead provide much-needed respite from sun, and raised planting beds, made of steel, balance the heft and drama of the river-rock wall. A generous sprinkling of lush plants adds softness. Because of the intense sun, these plants were chosen for endurance as much as beauty: yellow-flowered Euphorbia rigida, verbena, and, along the wall, candelilla.
Design by: Christy Ten Eyck, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, Phoenix, teneyckla.com
The only way to get to the front door of Ginny Mellinger’s house in Redwood City was to cross the driveway or lawn. Even though—or because—the space was wide open to the street, it was useless.
A new fence, a path, and the understated plantings that replaced the lawn add huge curb appeal. The beauty of Ginny Mellinger’s new front garden is that the plants look good all year with minimal care. It now has two parts—a public one and a more private one—separated by fencing. In the woodsy “public” section, shapely Arbutus ‘Marina’ trees are underplanted with mounded deep green Carex tumulicola, which spills onto the entry path in a haze of fine, soft leaves. Closer to the house, scattered around the patio, an exuberant mix of plants adds some color—yellows, blues, and deep plum-chocolate.
With its scraggly lawn and rickety fence, this yard looked neglected. With the help of landscape designer Mark Tessier, Rika Houston and her architect husband Brian Ten overhauled their yard to create a gathering spot for the family, which includes 9-year-old daughter Maya and teenage sons Cole and Taro. With a simple set-up, they transformed it into an outdoor movie-screening space. As movie night took off, the neighbors started to join in.
Sinking into the cushy sofa with lanterns lit overhead, guests watch The Birds or The Sound of Music on a screen nearly as big as the garage wall. “In the summer, every Friday is movie night,” says Houston.
Once upon a time, there was a house that was not exactly welcoming. Overgrown Monterey pines obscured the front door, making the approach gloomy. And for guests, getting from the driveway to the front door was a pain—after parking, you had to return to the sidewalk, skirting a jungle of juniper, and climb a steep staircase. (And if you thought you could maybe slip through the juniper, forget it: A wooden railing stood guard.)
See the after on how Kendra Berger and John Eisenhart created a brighter entry with sculptural steps and graphic plants.
Removing the pines and replacing the junipers with a garden of carex, 'Tiny Monster' geranium, and Scotch moss groundcover definitely brightened things up; a row of low-growing purple 'Tom Thumb' phormium and a single showy 'Red Star' cordyline punctuate the palette of lime and dark greens. And now, broad stairs lead hospitably from the driveway straight to the front door.
A dated façade and a bleak concrete front yard—that’s what the owners of this ’50s rancher got when they bought their house in Encino, California. Instead of remodeling the home, though, the couple used a simpler, less costly strategy to solve both problems...
This may look like a whole new house, but the sleek façade is really a wall masking a brand new open-air living room. Click below for how they did it, plus a peek at the outdoor room within.
A scruffy lawn and an oddly configured walkway do nothing for this Phoenix house–the yard is wasted space.
Thomas J. Story
They replaced the lawn with drought-tolerant grasses, then added young trees and a paved area beside the front door.
The front yard of this Bremerton, Washington home used to be all lawn―and not very happy lawn at that. There was another problem. Because the street sloped sharply downhill, there was a dangerous drop-off between the front walk and the deeply recessed driveway.
Enclosing the yard solved the drop-off problem – the fence runs along the driveway as well as along the sidewalk. Thanks to its interesting stepped back sectional design and lively color the lattice fence adds plenty of decorative appeal as well. The row of Spanish lavender in front of it accentuates the fence's cheery color.
Lawns require an inch of water a week to maintain during the growing season. And except for a big clump of overgrown wisteria, this large Seattle front yard was all grass―a real water hog. Landscape designer Stacie Crooks knew it had to go.
Now Crooks' front yard stops traffic. Instead of lawn she has a large mixed border. It includes evergreen shrubs like Ceanothus and Viburnum, grassy foliage plants like Carex and Phormium, and tons of perennials, including asters, penstemon, and euphorbia. Best of all, this extravaganza of plants requires less than one-half the water the lawn needed.
Summers are hot in Grants Pass, Oregon, and a front yard that is mostly rocky mulch makes them feel more so. When homeowners Ken and Beverly Behymer bought their house, they asked landscape architect Jim Love to make the space feel cooler but without causing their water bill to spike significantly.
A variety of plants with low water requirements replace the former sterile expanse of rocks. They are all heat-tolerant and were chosen to provide year-round interest. Oriental fountain grass (Pennisetum orientale), in full plume here, is one of the garden's stars. Behind the low wall, flame grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Purpurascens') is just beginning its transition to brilliant orange fall color. Between the pavers, adding a touch of coolness, is 'Red Carpet' sedum.
The front wall of this mid-century modern house was designed to be minimal–its blank façade broken only by high clerestory windows. But a previous owner had added a conventional window at head height, spoiling the simple design. The brick patio didn't work either. The pattern was too complicated for the style of the house and its surface was broken and uneven.
The offending window is gone. And simple concrete pads replace the broken, buckling bricks--a much better fit for the clean, simple lines of the house.
The front yard of this Leucadia, California house had a pretty view of the Pacific coastline, but the patio was so small it discouraged settling down and enjoying it. The shape of the lot was awkward, too–sharply sloping and angled.
A new larger patio of stained, scored concrete is sheltered behind a curved wall topped with an arbor. An outdoor fireplace, covered with slate tiles, anchors the other end of the space. The old front door was removed and replaced by two sets of sliding doors, one off the living room, another off the family room, making the whole area, in effect, an open-air foyer.
A 700-square-foot home is a tight squeeze, even for two people. But Michelle and Jeremy Walker knew they could turn their modest Ventura home into a mini-bungalow and find space for a little jewel of a garden besides. The Walkers added a new gable that spanned the width of the house, and underneath they installed two stone pillars topped with vertical wood posts and an overhead beam. They also poured a wider concrete porch and added a wall. But they weren't finished.
The next step―despite having only 18 feet between porch and wall to work with―was creating a convincing garden. Michelle managed to squeeze in a maple tree, wisteria vine, weeping bamboo, ornamental grasses, a fountain, and a dry river bed to create good feng shui―all without the space feeling crowded.
The original front yard of this Santa Cruz residence was dominated by an asphalt driveway, gravel parking area, and two large trees. Except for car parking, it was an unused space.
The pair of 6-foot-tall concrete walls that now enclose the front yard shelter an outdoor dining area. The dining alcove was placed here because this spot is west-facing, and warm and sunny is a good thing in the home's chilly, coastal climate. The staggered walls provide room for generous planting pockets for green and burgundy foliage plants.
Before the remodel, the couple's front yard was a sea of gravel surrounding a single saguaro cactus. What's more, the space offered little in the way of privacy.
The homeowners carved out a spacious front yard courtyard and screened it behind a series of staggered walls. There's the craggy-textured cast-earth wall pictured here, plus two flanking walls of smooth stucco, which provide contrast. A lower wall of gabions (stone-filled wire cages) adds more texture. And now that it has agaves and desert perennials for company, the agave looks more at home.
Hidden from the street behind the sheltering walls is a comfortable space for relaxing and entertaining alfresco. It's ample enough for two separate seating areas plus a dining space. Plant-filled raised beds add texture, while furnishings and accessories provide pops of color.
An asphalt driveway butted directly against the stark white walls of this unadorned Mediterranean-style home. There were no attractive plantings to soften the appearance and draw the eye.
This family’s only outdoor space was a lifeless rectangular parking pad of concrete, gravel, and asphalt next to their busy street. There was no fence for privacy and no plants to soften the landscape.
Now it’s a courtyard for summer dining and entertaining. Fencing across the back of the driveway creates a private 33- by 25-foot outdoor room paved with Pennsylvania bluestone. Greenery and a garden shed creates a sheltering screen.
This crumbling garage seemed to hold little promise for stylish live/work space.
The remodel enlarged the building to include a bathroom, loft, and a small roof deck, so it can double as guest quarters. It can also still function as a garage thanks to a set of glass-paneled Dutch doors opening on the plywood-paneled office side.
Evan Sagerman and Marci Riseman found space for this guest suite and entertaining area in an unlikely place: a tiny, ramshackle shed in the backyard of their San Francisco Victorian home.
Abandoned for six years, this Alaska cabin was a dump. Its previous owners had left behind moldy bags of clothes and thrown out their furniture in the yard. The porch had collapsed, the basement walls had rotted, and a hemlock tree was growing through the roof. Apart from the basement, the house measured only 740 square feet―and the only access was by boat or by hiking down a half-mile trail.
After a monumental cleanup, the young homeowners ripped off the hazardous porch and re-plumbed the house. They took out walls and stripped the kitchen and bath down to the studs. Western red cedar shingles replaced the rotting siding, and the front door was painted crimson. Now the revamped cabin makes the most of its small scale.
Overgrown ivy and brick retaining walls cluttered the front of this home in Sherman Oaks, California.
For Guy and Jennifer Genis, renovating their midcentury modern home meant returning to its roots. Their goal: to unearth the original design features while endowing the space with ease and comfort. Outside, the stripped-down symmetry of the front entry is set off by a row of phormium flanking the sidewalk.