Spicing Up the Backyard

A sprinkle of plants, a splash of paint, and a dash of design know-how--that’s the recipe for success in this garden.
Charlie Thigpen/ Photography Ralph Anderson/ Styling Lisa Powell Bailey

When Emeril Lagasse has a dish that tastes bland, he simply adds a few spices or a little hot sauce, and “bam!” he kicks it up a notch. When chef Mike Wilson looked at his neglected landscape, he wasn’t sure where to start. He knows his way around the kitchen, but he needed help in his Birmingham backyard. We decided to give Mike and his wife, Jennifer, a little assistance.

Mike’s mother, Suzanne Wilson, had designed an attractive shed for the couple. Once built, the outdoor structure looked great and helped with storage, but its surroundings were lackluster. The new landscape needed to embrace the shed and fulfill many of the Wilsons’ needs. Now they have a place to entertain, dine, relax, garden, and grill. Take a look at the six ideas that spruced up the small space.

1. A Little Addition
Before, the deck around the shed ran short, which made it hard to comfortably maneuver in and out of the storage area. Adding a couple of feet of decking to the platform solved this problem. The extra decking makes a big difference. Now Mike has more room to walk, and additional space for grilling and hidden storage is a bonus.

2. Fencing and Function
A panel of fencing with a built-in bar screens the grill and smoker. The bar is a great place to have a drink, or it can be used for outdoor dining. With the stools removed, it functions as a buffet for serving food hot off the grill. Setting a few potted plants along the bar softens the wooden structure and adds interest.

3. Open Up
Mike tore out the screen surrounding the small porch and had a carpenter add a large cedar column and finish out the small outdoor room. Adding a wraparound step makes it easy to walk down onto the patio. Now the space feels bigger and creates a better flow into the backyard. The covered area is a shady spot to sit and avoid the hot sun, or it can be a relaxing place to seek refuge during a summer rain. A large ceiling fan cools the space and keeps away bugs. New furniture and paint transform the porch, making it clean and comfortable.

4. Food and Flowers
The Wilsons wanted an area to plant a few vegetables, herbs, and flowers, so a small raised bed was created along the privacy fence. The elevated bed keeps the two family dogs out of the garden and makes it easier to work. The sides of the bed are made of three 6-foot x 18-inch cut stones. The end stone is 8 feet long and 18 inches wide. To secure the stones, we used 4 x 6 treated posts. The stones are a couple of inches thick and make a nice, clean, sturdy wall. For the back of the raised bed, we used tin to hold the soil and protect the fence. Planting summer herbs and vegetables in the garden supplies the family with flavorful produce.

5. Making Pavers
David Hicks of our landscape team actually made the concrete pavers. First we leveled the site with a few inches of crushed stone. The loose gravel was packed with a tamping machine, making the surface firm. Next we set the pavers in a basket-weave pattern and swept red crushed gravel between the gaps. We let the red gravel settle for a few weeks and then topped it off, flushing the gravel in the gaps with the tops of the pavers.

6. Plant-Filled Containers
For the finishing touch we added a little garden garnish to the patio: Large, medium, and small planters placed around the backyard add color, foliage, and texture. Some of the large containers have shrubs, while some of the smaller containers are filled with blooming annuals such as ‘Serena Purple’ angelonia and ‘Nirvana Cascade White’ vinca. Now the Wilsons don’t have to worry about what they need to do to their backyard. Instead they just look for more ways to enjoy their new multipurpose landscape.

Making Pavers
David Hicks’s Tips for Custom Pavers

When we found out that we were going to be doing a project that included a patio area constructed of concrete pavers, we soon decided on a pattern that would require that the pavers be twice as long as they were wide. We were unable to find anything at garden centers that met our needs, so we made our own. One bonus to doing this was that it was possible to make our pavers a size that required the least amount of cuts. This is how we did it.

Step 1:
First, calculate the paver dimensions that will work most efficiently for the area you will be covering. Take into consideration any pattern you might be considering and what size pavers will work best for your space (more whole pieces mean fewer cuts). For us, this turned out to be 123/4 x 251/2 x 13/4 inches.

Step 2:
Next, build a form for pouring your pavers. We decided to use a 4- x 8-foot sheet of OSB (oriented strand board) for the base of our form because of its textured surface that would be transferred to the pavers. For the outer edge and dividers, which form the individual cells and determine the depth, we used 2- x 2- x 8-foot pine (actually 13/4 x 13/4). Cut these to the proper length to achieve the dimensions you desire. Attach these to the OSB base using decking screws or something similar. The interior pieces will need to be notched at the points where they intersect. This is easily done with a circular or table saw set to half the depth of the piece you are cutting. For our purposes, this was 7/8 inch.

Step 3:
After securing all of the cut pieces to the base of the form, apply two coats of linseed oil to all surfaces that will come into contact with the concrete. This will help you later when trying to release the cured concrete from the form.

Step 4:
Because we were going to need more than 100 pavers, we decided to make our own concrete mix instead of using premixed bags. This allowed us to make our large pavers for about $1 each. Our mix was 3 parts sand to 1 part portland cement, which conveniently worked out to be 1 (90-pound) bag of portland cement to 6 (5-gallon) buckets of sand. We had access to a portable concrete mixer, which is highly recommended if you’re making more than just a few pavers. Using the mixer, we were able to combine the full amount of cement, sand, and water in one batch. This was just enough to fill the form, which produced nine pavers.

Step 5:
After mixing the concrete, pour it into the form, trying to fill the individual cells as evenly as possible. Using a hand trowel or board, smooth out the surface of each paver. Try to avoid overlapping the concrete mix from one paver to another. If you don’t fill the form all the way to the top, this won’t be a problem. The pavers will be easier to remove if done this way. There will also be fewer chips and cracks.

Step 6:
After you allow them to cure for at least 24 hours, the pavers can be removed from the form (they may take longer to dry, depending on temperature). Remove the screws, securing the form to the base, and then remove the individual boards separating the pavers. A rubber mallet can help with this task. Then remove the pavers from the base of the form. After that, apply a concrete sealer.

To order a plan for Gardener Shed #1560 ($39.95), call 1-866-892-3507, or visit www.southernlivinghouseplans.com, and click on “Browse All Project Plans.”



"Spicing Up the Backyard" is from the July 2008 issue of Southern Living.