Backyard oasis

Lessons in transforming a little-used space into a haven for outdoor living

Backyard oasis

A flagstone path edges a curving deck. Low-growing groundcovers ― blue star creeper, woolly thyme, and Scotch and Iris mosses ― fill in around the stones. See more great garden paths.

Thomas J. Story

Backyard oasis

Water spills down rocks and through an urn into a mirror-smooth pond. Boulders were carefully placed to look as they would in the wild. Large-leafed elephant’s ears, burgundy cannas, and Japanese maples enliven the pond’s boundaries.

Thomas J. Story

Backyard oasis

Homeowner Kendra Phelps saved and reused many plants that had been moved from other areas of the garden during the remodel. Here she paired pink petunias with Mexican feather grass.

Thomas J. Story

Backyard oasis

Phelps and Kappel set a band of flagstone pavers ― wide enough to sit on comfortably ― atop a low retaining wall adjacent to the pond. Their garden makeover evolved over two years, but they are thrilled with the result.

Thomas J. Story

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

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