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Backyard Landscape Ideas from Award-Winning Designers

Backyard Landscape Ideas from Award-Winning Designers

Photos courtesy of APLD

Ever wonder what the secret is to designing a backyard landscape worthy of admiration, awards, and acclaim? We worked with the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD) to crack the code. Guess what? It turns out that the secret to award-worthy design doesn't have to be complicated.

APLD recently released its full list of award-winning landscapes, and we chose five of our favorite gold- and silver-winning backyard landscape designs to share with you here. You'll get an inside look at design approaches, influencing garden trends (see the latest in this webinar), and plant choices. 

We wrap up with an overview of design themes and decisions that we see again and again in the most beautifully designed gardens. Here's a teaser: there's a common thread in every backyard landscape—simple, climate-appropriate plant palettes. If you approach your garden design from that idea alone, you're already set for success.

We're pulling everything together to help you grow beautifully and design confidently—there's a treasure trove of design resources at the bottom of the story, as well. 

(Pictured above and below) Sacha McCrae's gold-winning "Laguna Charm" backyard landscape design wraps a charming outdoor living and dining space in the soft foliage of grasses, foxtail ferns, and lambs ear. 

1. Dressed-Up Bohemian: "Laguna Charm"

white fence with green landscaping on retaining wall

Overview: Sacha McCrae combined a simple color palette with soft textures to create the cozy feel of this outdoor room. The fine, fuzzy texture of plants like lambs ear, foxtail fern, carpet rosemary, and maiden grass surround the dining room in a soft glow. The color palette sticks to shades of whites and purples for the blooms, which adds to the soothing neutral color palette of the hardscape and house paint color. White shrub roses, purple bellflowers, and salvia are used to create a calming color scheme.

Design Advice: Keep your plant palette simple and focus on soft textures to create a cozy feel. Use color as well as texture to your advantage when designing your space, considering how you want to feel when enjoying your outdoor room. Colors play a big role in the feel of the environment that you are trying to accomplish. Choose cool colors like purple, blue, and white to achieve a calming feel. Warmer colors can be inviting and cozy, while bright, "hot" colors often cultivate an energizing, exciting feel. 

Photo: Brett Hilton

Design: Sacha McCrae of Living Gardens Landscape Design

3 Plants to Get this Look

Foxtail
Fern

A beautiful, structural choice for containers with a unique upright habit that features fine, soft leaves and a bright green color. Up to 2' tall by 3' wide. Zones 9-11.

Nitty Gritty™ White
Rose

A durable and versatile rose with a compact habit and gorgeous white double blooms that continue all season long. Up to 3' tall by 4' wide. Zones 4-9.

Dwarf
Maiden Grass

A compact form of maiden grass that is perfect for narrow gardens. Topped by silvery white blooms in summer. Up to 3' tall and wide. Zones 5-9.

2. Refined Cottage Garden: Monument Street Garden

boxwoods and hydrangeas in landscape around backyard dining area

Overview: Matthew Cunningham's silver-winning landscape design is a beautiful example of the Architectural Simplicity trend outlined in our recent garden trends webinar. In "Monument Street Garden," Matthew uses the repetition of rounded boxwoods as the foundation for a soothing backyard design. The plant and color palette is centered around the texture and form of hydrangea, astilbe, and boxwood. Low-growing grasses and cranesbill crawl throughout to unite the garden in an elevated version of the classic cottage garden. All of these plants perform well in the partial shade of the surrounding mature trees.

Design Advice: Use repetition of form to achieve a simple yet grand landscape. This approach is well suited for historic architecture, elegant styles, and grand estates. Your hardscape choices can play a big role in this style; the stone terraces and brick paving in the Monument Street Garden make this garden feel like it's been here for generations. 

3 Plants to Get this Look

Green Velvet
Boxwood

The evergreen foliage and naturally dense, rounded form of this boxwood make it perfect for providing structure in the garden. Up to 4' tall and wide. Zones 4-9.

Limelight
Hardy Hydrangea

A sturdy and hardy panicle hydrangea from Holland, with chartreuse blooms that change to pink in fall. Up to 8' tall and wide. Zones 3-9.

Happy Day
Astilbe

An exceptional compact variety that produces copious plumes of snowy, feathery flowers. Up to 20" tall and wide. Zones 3-8.

3. Artful Pathways: Serene Outdoor Living Amongst the Oaks

landscaped pathway to outdoor dining area

Overview: 

This thoughtful silver-winning design by Eileen Kelly is an example of how a sense of place makes a garden design shine. The use of climate-appropriate plants including drought-resistant grasses adds movement and softness to the structure created by the outdoor living spaces. Artful pathways weave around the property and encourage garden visitors to enjoy everything it has to offer.

landscaped pathway around deck

Eileen explains, "The design intent was to create a landscape that flows throughout this peaceful setting with a variety of areas for lounging, dining and entertaining, for the homeowners to enjoy year-round in the mild California climate. The patios are stepping stones were constructed with travertine stone along with natural pathways that meander throughout and below the majestic oak trees."  

She chose low-water and low-maintenance plants like Karley Rose Fountain Grass, Elijah Blue Blue Fescue, Angelina Stonecrop, and Variegated Flax Lily. A Marina Strawberry Tree was planted between the patios, as well. Of her plant choices she says, "All are chosen for their beauty while providing bio-diversity for the birds, bees, and butterflies and protecting the ecosystem below the native trees." A large bowl is filled with a variety of easy-care succulents, including Variegated Dwarf Smooth Agave, Sedums, and Echeverias

Design Advice: The first step in designing a beautiful garden is taking the time for a little observation. Spend time in your space and think about the ways in which you'd like to use it. Eileen knew that her clients wanted a "welcoming outdoor retreat to enjoy throughout the seasons," so her design integrated a travertine stone patio, stairways, pathways, and an expanded deck to ensure that a lot of time was spent enjoying the beautiful outdoor space under the mature oak and locust trees. 

Your local climate, conditions, and wildlife should be closely observed, as well. Eileen chose drought-tolerant plants and trees "that thrive under the oaks and support the natural ecosystem." This close attention to the space and land resulted in a design that is not only award-winning in its beauty, but in its thoughtfulness, too. 

Design and photo: Eileen Kelly, Dig Your Garden Landscape Design

3 Plants to Get This Look

Karley Rose
Fountain Grass

Smoky, purple-rose flower spikes with a long bloom season and graceful, arching foliage. Up to 4' tall and wide. Zones 5-10.

Elijah
Blue Fescue

Icy-blue coloration to this clumping ornamental grass holds up even through the heat of summer. Up to 12" tall and wide. Zones 4-11.

Angelina
Stonecrop

A great waterwise groundcover, with chartreuse needle-like leaves. Turns orange in winter in cool climates. Up to 6" tall and 36" wide. Zones 3-11.

4. Outdoor Room with a View: Meadow View

landscape with wildflowers surrounding lounge chairs
sunset at landscaped outdoor seating area

Overview: Jim Douthit created an outdoor room with a view in this gold-winning "Meadow View" design. The sloped backyard faced west over a wooded vista, making it the perfect place to enjoy a sunset. Jim created three outdoor rooms in this space, all with a specific function.

The dining, fire pit, and lounge rooms had hardscaped stairs and floors, but the walls were created with plants. Here, boxwoods work as dense hedges to clearly mark the entrance to the room.

Catmint surrounds the space, working as a border of soft, airy, and consistent blooms. A variety of coneflowers add a pop of low-maintenance color throughout, and fountain grass offers a layer of soft texture, movement, and tall structure.

These green walls don't interfere with the view or the feeling of being enveloped by the beautiful natural surroundings, in fact, they add to them.

Design Advice: Outdoor rooms don't need to be large, expensive, or complicated structures. Similar to the ways in which plants can be used to beckon garden visitors forward, they can also be used to signal that they should stop, sit, and enjoy the view. Plants can also be used to delineate specific outdoor rooms from the rest of the garden. Use climate-appropriate grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs that are inspired by the environment. This only adds to the experience of enjoying your outdoor room. 

Design: Jim Douthit of a Blade of Grass

3 Plants to Get this Look

Ginger Love
Fountain Grass

Showy, upright, red plumes bloom from late summer through winter on this easy-care, waterwise grass. Up to 3' tall and wide. Zones 5-9.

Walkers Low
Catmint

Showy periwinkle flower spikes cover the fragrant mound of gray-green foliage. Attracts hummingbirds, birds, and butterflies. Up to 2' tall and 3' wide. Zones 4-9.

Evolution™ Embers™
Fever Coneflower

Heat- and drought-tolerant, with large red blooms on a tidy, well-branching plant. Up to 29" tall and 18" wide. Zones 4-9.

5. Layers of Color and Contrast: Bridle Trails Garden

Overview:

We weren't surprised to find Robin Parsons' "Bridle Trails Garden" in the list of gold-winning designs. We featured Robin and this gorgeous property on the blog, after all. We love her design because she achieves the homeowners' goal of a "modern farmhouse" style by expertly layering a simple plant palette around the whole property. 

She used a series of curved rolled-steel walls and planter boxes for both style and function. Robin says, "One of the challenges of this property was a steep slope on which very little was going to thrive. The water just ran down the slope and the compacted clay soil was not plant-friendly." The steel walls solved that problem by retaining soil and directing rainwater through the property. Plus, they add that elevated modern style the homeowners were looking for.

As for her plant choices, "varieties here were chosen for their color but also for their shape—some are soft and round, others are spiky and showy. Heights are staggered to create movement. At the very top of the slope begins the transition from this more densely planted area to the raised vegetable beds and the leveled-out lawns. I wanted this part of the garden to not only be a solution to a problem but bring the modern farmhouse sensibility to life."

Design Advice: Challenges often provide opportunities for innovation and beauty. Ask yourself how to achieve your desired look while also creating a place for plants and wildlife to thrive. This landscape is a lesson in artful layering to achieve a "Garden of Abundance" style. Forms, colors, and textures are layered in the landscape to create a feeling of abundance.  Get more design advice and plant lists for this design here.

Photo: Doreen Wynja

Design: Spring Greenworks' Robin Parsons 

3 of Our Favorite Plants From This Garden

Winterglow
Heart-Leaved Bergenia

Low-growing rosette of large glossy leaves with stalks of small magenta flowers in early to late spring. Partial shade. Up to 3' tall and wide. Zones 3-9.

Blue Jean Baby
Russian Sage

One of the earliest to bloom. Shorter, compact variety with upright stems that resist flopping. Full sun. Up to 3' tall and wide. Zones 4-9.

Southern Moon®
Yedda Hawthorn

Compact with proven strong disease resistance; dense, mounding habit, and spring white flowers. Full sun. Up to 6' tall and wide. Zones 7-10.

Lessons from Award-Winning Landscape Designers

  • Use the unique challenges of your space as opportunities to be creative with the form and function of your landscape. A steep slope could be the perfect place for terraces; a hot, dry corner lends itself to a xeriscaped wonderland. Get to know your land first, then use it to inspire your vision.
  • Decide on a simple plant palette that takes color, texture, and form into account. Repetition and layering of plants create a cohesive design. 
  • Use the forms and colors of the permanent fixtures around you to inspire your plant palette. A dark wall could be the perfect backdrop to spotlight fine textures or light blooms; a wooded lot lends itself well to the lush feel of a foliage-focused palette.  
  • Use hardscape materials to complement your style. Stones, old brick, and cobbles are a great complement to an old-world "architectural simplicity" approach. Geometric pavers, dark metals, and dark pebbles are welcome additions to a more modern design. 
  • Always choose plants that perform well in your climate, light, and soil. Let your natural surroundings inform your plant and design approach. 

More Garden Design Resources