Backyard oasis

Lessons in transforming a little-used space into a haven for outdoor living
Article by Julie Chai

The most impressive landscapes sometimes aren't planned ― they just evolve.

When Kendra Phelps and Norbert Kappel had a new flagstone patio installed in their San Jose side yard, they had no intention of tackling a full-blown backyard renovation.

They simply wanted to replace the narrow concrete path with a patio. But that project led to another, then another, until the couple completely transformed every inch of their pie-shaped lot.

After adding the patio, Phelps and Kappel broke ground for a large pond. Phelps designed the structure and chose materials while Kappel tackled electrical, plumbing, and woodworking tasks. Both worked on the installation.

"We're of the mind-set that there's really nothing we can't do," Phelps says. "We asked a million questions along the way. I took inspiration from everywhere ― I stopped people on the street if I liked their garden."

A deck and pergola, new planting beds, and a lawn followed. The makeover took two years, but the couple is thrilled with the results.

Five great ideas from this garden

1. Build a retaining wall that doubles as seating. Phelps and Kappel set a band of flagstone pavers ― wide enough to sit on comfortably ― atop a low retaining wall adjacent to the pond.

2. Use an arbor to divide the garden into "rooms." Phelps and Kappel built a gently curving overhead trellis to serve as a subtle room divider between the pond area and the lawn.

3. Plant bold foliage for accents. Large-leafed elephant's ears, burgundy cannas, and Japanese maples enliven the pond's boundaries.

4. Use stones to make a water feature look natural. Phelps spent a lot of time placing boulders around the pond to make them look as they would in the wild.

5. Plant low-growing groundcovers between dry-laid pavers. Phelps used a mix of creeping and woolly thyme, blue star creeper, Scotch and Irish moss, and small grasses to soften the crevices.

See another DIY garden: First garden makeover