Our backyard makeover is finally complete, and I've been reflecting on the process which had its fair share of highs and lows. It definitely wasn't as smooth (or as quick) as we'd have liked it to be, and there are a few things that choose to do differently if we had the opportunity to do it again. However there are also a lot of things I love about our backyard, and we did land on some great solutions to a fairly tricky space—thank goodness!
Learning from mistakes and less than perfect choices are all part of the renovation experience, and I've had to make peace with that. But there is also a lot that can be gained from the experiences of other people, which is why I'm choosing to share all of this with you!
(Frankly I'm a little embarrassed to share some of this, but the context/justification is that we were at the tail end of a very stressful and long renovation, and stress sometimes makes people do crazy things...)
So, what kinds of things should you consider before you get started your backyard renovation? What are some of the potential mistakes you can avoid?
Note: I've tried to keep these tips as general as possible so that they can be related to your specific situation. I'm always happy to answer questions (find me on Instagram) if there's something you'd like me to expand on further!
DO decide on your priorities early on
We began this process wanting EVERYTHING. I think after living in renovation chaos for so long and our backyard being completely unusable, we had time to dream up some pretty big ideas. Not a bad thing in itself, but when you don't take a few moments to figure out which of those big ideas are a priority and which you can let go of, then the budget gets eaten up very quickly.
Related: Planning a Backyard Space
We hired a fellow dreamer who said "yes" to everything that we wanted, promised it to us on a pretty modest budget and said he could get it done within a month. The renovation had exhausted us and we made an emotional rather than a rational decision in hiring this person. And we learned the hard lesson that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
We chose the wrong person for the job because we didn't have a clear idea of what was most important to us ahead of time. It turned out that our contractor was unable to do the job right, so we had to ask someone else to finish the work. If we had spent more time discussing our priorities for the space, then we probably would have hired someone with a different skill-set. (It turns out that timeline and quality of work matter to me...A LOT.) Plus we probably would have cut a few elements or at least simplified the design, saving us time, money and a whole lot of stress.
DON'T get distracted by unrealistic inspiration images
Pinterest is my favorite place to find inspiration. But it needs to be used carefully—especially with outdoor spaces. Designing an outdoor space comes with so many different variables, and drawing from an inspiration photo of a backyard located somewhere with a very different climate to yours might not translate well to your particular spot. Being aware of this as you browse for inspiration helps you filter out unrealistic options early on.
The other thing I've noticed about those inspiration images is that they are often very highly styled—lots of accessories, a beautiful tablescape with candles and fresh flowers, and blankets draped over crisp white upholstered furniture. I was definitely drawn to these types of images. But the work that goes into that kind of upkeep isn't the kind of backyard that I want. I don't want to spend an hour setting it up, and an hour packing it away each time we use it.
Which leads me into my next point...
DO visualize (realistically) how you will use the space
Our main use of the backyard is family time and date nights, but we designed this space with entertaining in mind. I envisioned us having lots of backyard parties and hosting sophisticated dinner parties. I'm not really sure where I got that idea from! (...maybe Pinterest?) Firstly, I'm an introvert. And secondly—whilst we do enjoy hosting people, it usually tends to be one family at a time, and pretty casual at that (paper plates and hot dogs.) I would love to host fancy dinner parties one day, but I am not in that season of life right now.
Having this realization ahead of time may have changed some of the choices and purchases we made—in particular the large, custom dining table that we have since sold on Facebook Marketplace! We are so happy with our smaller table as it's the perfect size for our family and also has made our dining patio feel a lot bigger.
DON'T splurge on the wrong things
Ultimately, I would say our main regret is not how much money we spent (although we did go a little over budget) but more the way we allocated the money within our budget. We overspent on things that we now consider are a bit of a waste—both in terms of how much we appreciate them, as well as how much value they have added to the house. As I said at the top, we have made peace with those decisions and we love our backyard, but we could have got there without wasting money on the wrong things (hindsight is a beautiful thing!)
Some of the things we didn't need to spend so much money on:
- The putting green. (For the record, this was never on my wish list...)
- The "all-bells-and-whistles" hot tub that has an A/C function. We do use it over the summer months so that the kids have their own "pool," but I'm not sure it was worth the extra cost, and we probably would have been happy with a less expensive option.
- The reclaimed brick pavers (they cost more than regular "new" pavers)
Some of the things I wish we had invested more in:
- Better quality wood for the fence & deck. (We've stained it dark to cover up the mold.)
- A screened in/covered area. The big oak tree overhanging our yard constantly sheds—although we do appreciate the shade it provides! A sheltered area might not have even been possible in our tight space, but it would have been worth exploring.
DO create different zones
Whether your outdoor space is large or small, a great way to approach the layout of your backyard is by creating different zones for different purposes—for example: dining, lounge seating, kids play area. This may happen naturally if you have elements such a covered porch/pergola, playground equipment or a pool to work into the design, but if you have a smaller space to work with, you could simply use different materials to define those areas (we have a brick patio for our dining area, a wooden deck for our seating area and artifical grass for the kids area.)
DON'T plant things that won't grow
This isn't a metaphor. Don't put in plants that you don't have the right conditions for. You'll waste your money. The End.
OK, to expand on this a little—we originally put in some pretty flowering climbing plants on the trellises, but most of them died before they got very far, because we don't have good sunlight in the backyard. We've since replaced the dead plants with some free snake plants that my friend was giving away, and a tray of English Ivy since it's inexpensive and incredibly difficult to kill—some people would even consider it a weed! We're waiting to see if it survives, but so far it's looking good.
DO think about climate when choosing materials
Much like plants, certain materials will do well in the climate you live in, and some will not. We made some good choices and some less good choices here. The artificial grass was a great choice. With all the shade of the oak tree, grass doesn't grow well at all, so we opted for something that would survive under those conditions. On the other hand, our reclaimed brick pavers were a choice that I probably wouldn't make again—even though they are beautiful. They are incredibly difficult to maintain as mildew grows very quickly on them.
In terms of furniture, we have found that resin wicker is the best option in terms of style and practicality. It's very hard wearing and easy to clean, plus there are a ton of affordable and on trend options available. Our resin wicker furniture has survived two Florida summers so far and still looks great. On the flip side, we've thrown out a lot of metal and wooden pieces that haven't held up well. I think with the right sealer and treatment they may have lasted longer, but in terms of value for money and ease of maintenance, resin wicker wins for me every time.
Here's a round-up of some of my current favorites:
DON'T forget the maintenance
At first, we expected our yard to look great with zero effort. ("But we chose synthetic lawn so we wouldn't have to do any yard work!") A few seasons in, we've accepted that our low-maintainance backyard still needs regular work to keep it looking its best. We have a yard company to take care of weekly lawn maintenance which helps a ton, but there's also pressure washing the brick, cleaning out the gutters, re-staining the deck...and the list goes on. We block out time to tackle these jobs a few times a times a year in order of what is most urgent, and we've managed to keep on top of it this way.
DO go with the string lights
This is hands down the best way to add magic to your backyard. Since we had a large space to cover, we hired an electrician hang and hardwire them so that we can turn them on and off from inside the house. This was money well spent and I wouldn't change a thing. We've had ours for over two years now and they are still going strong:
DON'T forget to USE your backyard space
This one might seem obvious, but I'm sharing it anyway. After all that hard work, make sure you are intentional about using your space. We went through a season of NOT using our backyard (even after all that work and money!) because it felt like too much of an effort to get out there. Staying indoors was just easier for me—I'm a homebird, after all.
Then I realized how ridiculous this was, and we started blocking out time to use it—evenings in the hot tub, happy hour drinks before dinner, and long lazy weekends reading books in the swing chairs. And the funny thing? The more we used it, the more we kept up with those nagging maintenance tasks that used to feel like such a big deal. It's becoming one of my favorite places to be, and I'm thankful and appreciative of every hour and dollar that went into it—even with all those "mistakes" along the way.