Our inventive readers show how to create the backyard of your dreams, even on a budget
3 Great Gardens from Our Readers
Marion Brenner
Despite its many elements, including stepped decks, a covered bench, and a teahouse, the garden is serene, not busy.

Bringing Japan Home

David Polifko • San Francisco • 3 years, start to finish

My Inspiration: The architecture of Japan, where I lived for five years in the 1990s.

Challenges: Budget and time. Solution: I divided the makeover into three separate projects and completed one a year.

Discovery: Working on the garden let me focus on something different from my venture-capital job; it inspired me to pursue a fine-arts degree too.

Advice: Have a vision and make a plan. Then stretch out the work depending on your time, budget, and energy.

Now … My garden is the first thing I see in the morning when I look outside―a great way to start the day.

Marion Brenner
David Polifko


Which project came first? Planning, and shaping the land. To extend the patio nearest the house, I dug out 5 cubic yards of soil and moved it to the yard’s far end, then built a retaining wall to keep it there.

Marion Brenner
Up a few steps is a deck for relaxing.

Then the decks? Yes. I built three decks of different sizes, at three different levels. At the same time, I added a fence on the property’s west side―stepped to follow the property’s slope―and a covered bench and arbor.

And the teahouse? That came last, in spring ’05. It’s a custom design, 8 feet square, with post-and-beam construction, a board-and-batten roof, shoji-style door, and wraparound deck. I angled the teahouse to fit the tight corner.

Marion Brenner

Potted bamboos and maples dress the gravel-covered patio inspired by the architecture of Japan.


More: See this Sunset reader’s Japanese-inspired garden

The best part? Seeing my vision come to life. And the cost: about $7,000 for materials and plants.

Johnson’s Beach 

Pam and John Johnson • Keizer, OR • “Never done!”

Our Inspiration: “Our fondest childhood memories: mine of the beautiful Oregon coast, and my husband John’s of sunny California.”

Challenge: No beach! We live 70 miles from the coast. So we turned our backyard into the scene we love most.

Highlight: Finding great stuff for our “beach” during our morning walks along the coast: netting, shells, rocks, and pieces of driftwood.

Advice: Leave room for plants to grow to their full height and spread. Read those tags on nursery plants.

Now … Our garden makes us feel we’re at the most important place in the world―the beach. But it’s our own backyard. Cost? Priceless!

Jon Jensen
Miniature pylons and clumps of blue oat grass surround windmill palms.


How’d you start? We dug up a small patch of sod, deeply, to get the roots, then brought in a few boxes of beach sand we’d found in parking lots near the coast―blown there from the dunes. We spread it around where the grass used to be, then gave away some of the discarded sod and sent the rest out for composting.

Then you planted? Yes. We fell in love with Chinese windmill palms; they grow well in Oregon as long as they’re planted high, out of frost pockets. We added native grasses, blue oat grass, fountain grass, and Carex flagellifera ‘Toffee Twist’. All look like beach grasses.

Where’d you get the beachy decor? Mostly from Greenanchors Nautical Shop in South Beach, Oregon (541/867-2977). They sell authentic nautical stuff, including netting, signs, floats, pylons. Our thatched umbrellas are from the Home Depot.

A Room on Her Own 

Laura St. Leger-Barter • Sonoma • Landscape makeover in a month

My Inspiration: Snooping around the neighborhood to see what landscapes could suit my yard.

Challenge: The house required a ton of work, and I needed to fix everything on a single mom’s budget.

Life lesson: I learned my limits when I dropped a big jackhammer on my foot and broke my toe. Moral: Leave the jackhammering to the boys!

Advice: Look at lots of yards. Start small, a corner at a time. Find a theme, expand on it.

Now … My garden is the private courtyard I head for every morning in my pajamas with a cup of coffee. It’s calming.

Marion Brenner
The new wall creates a private courtyard.


What did you tackle first? I removed some plants where I wanted my “statement entry” to go.

Did you install the paving yourself? No, I hired a guy to pour concrete for the courtyard, front walk, and footings for the pillars. He scored the concrete paving to look like 24-inch square tiles―cheaper to do than smaller squares. I stained the concrete to finish it.

What about the front wall? I found two guys to help build it of cinder block and stucco. But I chased down all the materials, and that front wall ate cement like candy. I made about four runs to the hardware store, filling my car to the brim with cement bags. Still, the guys needed more!

The plantings are all yours? Yes. I chose lots of red phormiums; they’re like little flames all over my yard. By doing much of the work myself, I saved a bundle.

More:   22 favorite backyard projects



Keep Reading: