Matt Blashaw, host of DIY Network's 'Yard Crashers', wants to plant 15 doable ideas for outdoors. / Larsen & Talbert for USA WEEKEND.
Before working on any yard, I always ask the owners, “How do you use it?”
More often than not, they say they don’t use it at all — a perfectly functional outdoor space gone to waste. This is almost always because the design doesn’t make it easy.
Maybe you like to entertain and need more hardscape ... and a table! Each part of your yard, whether for dining, relaxing, gardening or sitting, should be shaped by its purpose.
With that in mind — and a few Saturdays free to work outside — the possibilities are endless. Here are a few specifics I like.
LOVE THAT HARDSCAPE.
When it comes to patios and paths, you can do a lot for very little money. Dress up inexpensive drab concrete pavers with acrylic water-based stain. I like to do an Old World look with a golden-honey color dabbed with brown — and I’ve seen it in really cool checkerboard patterns. Another option: Lay flagstone, planting low-lying thyme or moss between the joints.
BREAK UP THE YARD.
Not unlike the rooms in your house, outdoor spaces can be divided based on what you intend to do there. So instead of having one giant expanse, you could position a dining table on a patio, some couches near the fence, a little gliding chair under a Japanese maple in the back, a nice shade spot with a hammock off to the side. Each “room” should have its own purpose.
MAKE 'INVISIBLE' SEATING.
For people who like to host barbecues and other big gatherings, hidden seating is an asset when you run out of chairs. Try a raised planting bed, which allows you to tend the garden without having to get down on your knees. So if you raise the sides of the bed to seating height (18 to 22 inches) and put on a cap, you could comfortably seat as many as 30 additional people at your next backyard party. Plus, flowers and vegetables will really thrive in the raised bed.
GET THE SHED ORGANIZED.
In many yards, I see stuff everywhere — toys, lawn mowers, you name it. Who wants to go into a yard with all that stuff? If you have a shed, fix it up by adding a window or a flower box, and dedicate it to only gardening tools. Make it warm and inviting so that you actually want to garden.
TOYS NEED A HOME.
Kids shouldn’t be going in and out of a shed that stores fertilizer or weed killer, so consider a small plastic shed in the side yard, out of the way, for their toys. Or stash the toys in benches that open up with storage. When you provide a designated spot for toys, kids are more inclined to clean up after themselves.
MAKE A TOOL 'BOX.'
I like to find an old mailbox and paint it as funky as I want. Then I put it in the middle of the garden, and use it to stash little garden tools (pruners, snips, gloves). It’s so cool because it adds a pop of color and provides storage.
ADD A WATER FEATURE.
If you live next to a noisy area — traffic, trains, pedestrian chatter — a water feature can help drown out the racket. To make your own fountain, install a pump kit from a nursery or big-box store in about a 4-foot-tall urn (the brighter the color, the better). Add a bubbler, and you have a fountain. The best spot for it? The middle of the garden, so that in the winter when everything is drab and gray, your garden will still have color.
Homeowners often tell me that they buy “one of everything pretty,” but nothing survives. So the No. 1 thing people should do — from Alaska to Florida to Maine — is to go to a nursery or garden center with a notebook and open ears. Learn about the plants you may want. Find out details like how tall they will grow. Many people tell me they bought what they thought was a 3-foot hedge but they have to keep trimming it because it grew to 10 feet. In other words, choose plants that will be the right size at maturity.
MAKE IT EDIBLE.
People used to create separate planting beds for produce, but the trend now is to scatter them throughout the yard. You can do this with tomato plants, citrus trees, berry vines, swiss chard (which is delicious and has nice colors). It’s also an option with herbs like thyme, oregano and rosemary, which have the added benefit of smelling great.
PLANT LIKE A PRO.
For high impact with urns or planters, think “thriller, filler, spiller.” First the thriller: a large showpiece, like a tall spiky plant. Then fillers: a few with blooms and foliage, like bright annuals. Then a variety that grows down the sides (the spiller), like a licorice plant. The end result is very professional looking.
If you’re putting in an irrigation system, choose a model that will “target water.” This allows you to water just specific plants, not the whole yard. The result is fewer pesky weeds (because they aren’t being watered), and a lower water bill.
DIY PLAY AREA.
You don’t have to spend thousands on a play set. Children are often as happy with homemade $40 monkey bars as they are with a $3,000 store-bought structure. To make your own monkey bars, attach pieces of metal pipe (the rungs) to 2-by-4s screwed into posts that are secured in the ground with concrete. Rubber mulch underneath can break any falls. While you’re at it, build for the future: a 3-foot-high monkey bar for young kids, and then right next to it a 5- or 7-foot structure for older ones.
CLEAN UP LEFTOVER FIREWOOD.
A designated spot for firewood makes for a tidier yard. Have someone on staff at a construction-supply store cut a 3- to 5-foot-diameter culvert pipe into a 2-foot-long piece. Grind off the edges so they’re smooth, anchor on each side with a few rocks, and use it to store firewood.
GO FOR LOW-MAINTENANCE.
Sod requires a lot of resources — it has to be watered, mowed, fertilized. So for an easy-to-care-for yard, consider cutting back on turf grass. Instead, choose native plants for your area. They’ll need to be watered to become established, but after that they’ll be able to survive without much from you.
GET TO KNOW YOUR SOIL.
You’ll waste a lot of money on plants that won’t survive if you don’t first find out what amendments your soil needs. Buy a testing kit from a gardening supply store or extension service, and send in a sample to be analyzed. If it’s acidic, you may have to add wood ash or lime; if it’s alkaline, sulfur or pine needles. With healthy soil, you’re ready to start planting.
The ninth season of 'Yard Crashers' begins April 1 on DIY Network.