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Backyards from the ground up.

You've bought a house in a new development. You love its look, its location, its neighborhood ambience.

There's just one problem: The backyard is bare ground.

How do you create your dream garden without breaking the bank?

Around the West, in cities and suburbs, big houses on small lots mean one thing: Space for outdoor living is diminishing--especially in new developments. Sunset staff members jumped at the chance to meet this challenge by designing gardens for four model homes in the Esperanza Estates development in Esparto, near Davis, California.

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Julie Chai, Lauren Bonar Swezey, Bud Stuckey, and Peter O. Whiteley set to work converting bare earth to a backyard paradise over several months. Their goal was to provide a variety of affordable landscape designs for modest backyards (about 60 by 30 feet) on a budget of roughly $15,000 each, plus installation. The gardens had to be easy to maintain and simple to modify as the future owners' needs change.

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The sites, which all faced north, were challenging, with wind, hot sun, shade near the house, little privacy, and compacted soil. But as you'll see on the following pages, our designers succeeded, putting together plans for a personal retreat, a play space, a coastal haven, and a family garden with a party deck--all loaded with innovative ideas you can use.

GARDEN #1

A low-maintenance landscape for couples without kids

DESIGN: JULIE CHAI

What would be the ideal garden for empty nesters or a young couple in their first home? An area for entertaining and a personal retreat for rejuvenation would top the list, so the plan pictured here reserves room for both. The backyard was conceived as a place of serenity--which its wandering pathways, relaxing views, and fragrant plants provide.

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On one side of the garden, a spacious entertainment patio is easily accessible from the family room and kitchen. On the other side, set as far away as possible from the home's primary activity centers, is a smaller patio shaded by an arbor.

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Low-care perennials that bloom over a long period yet require little water--catmint, lamb's ears, penstemon, salvia, and Santa Barbara daisy--fill much of the garden. Near windows and gathering spots are plants that add delicious scents to the air: jasmine, lemon, osmanthus, and sarcococca.

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A simple, elegant arbor is the focal point at one end of the garden. The planter behind is filled with fragrant vines; two 'Royal Cape' plumbagos in red pots flank the front posts.

Where two paths come together, the slate pavers enclose a planting of colorful perennials, including coneflower, lamb's ears, and purple verbena.

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Planters are stocked with perennials in shades of purple and pink: fragrant lavender and Verbena lilacina (foreground), and ruby snapdragon and trailing green bacopa (rear).

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GARDEN #2

A landscape for a family with small children

DESIGN: LAUREN BONAR SWEZEY

As the parent of an 11-year-old son, Lauren Bonar Swezey knows what a kid-friendly garden is all about. When her son, Drake, was younger, she learned a few lessons quickly. Among them: Prickly plants and toddlers don't mix, and plants with pretty but poisonous berries (cotoneaster, for instance) aren't worth the risk. A family garden needs space for kids to romp, very sturdy plants, and room for entertaining.

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In Esparto, the long, narrow backyard provided the perfect space for a patio and a wide path that doubles as a tricycle track. On one end, the path circles an in-ground sandbox, making a roundabout for the three-wheelers. On the other end, the path widens into a patio large enough for entertaining.

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Plants are Mediterranean, in keeping with the architecture of the house: lavenders, New Zealand flax, ornamental grasses. Strawberry trees grow along the back fence.

Trees will grow to offer privacy and some shade for the playhouse and sandpit. Plants that take part shade grow in a bed next to the playhouse.

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As blue fescue plants get bigger, they'll fringe the fountain with greenery to give it a settled-in look. Geranium 'Johnson's Blue' and heucheras grow nearby.

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Set on decomposed granite, a portable metal firepit, which can be screened when in use, adds a touch of informality beyond the paved surfaces. Ornamental grasses soften the fence.

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GARDEN #3

A coastal-inspired backyard escape

DESIGN: BUD STUCKEY

This large home's seaside bungalow style inspired a design for a family that loves the outdoors--especially the coast.

During the planning process, Bud Stuckey researched coastal plants and designs, visited a nursery not far from the house, and drove around the area to see which existing plants thrive in Esparto's valley climate.

The plan features three settings for outdoor living: a patio just outside the family room, a satellite deck, and a cozy firepit area. A dry creek bed, built of boulders and smaller stones, connects these spaces. Two lawn areas where children can play frame the east and west sides of the yard.

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Backed by a screen of golden bamboo, the satellite deck, dressed with cushions and candles, angles into a corner of the garden and functions as a tropical retreat.

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Edging the patio, the planter boxes are filled with coral diascias, lime thyme, and stock. Boulders and river rock add naturalistic, coastal accents in foreground.

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Colorful flowering plants mix with soft, textural grasses among the rocks to frame an inviting passageway to the firepit. Young Mexican fan palms are planted at rear.

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GARDEN #4

Party space for a family with teenagers

DESIGN: PETER O. WHITELEY

Imagine a backyard gathering on a warm evening with dinner from the grill served at the picnic table, while candlelight flickers and soft music plays in the background. That scenario inspired this Esparto garden designed to suit such get-togethers. A deck serves as a hangout for teenage children and their friends; it's also a destination where family members can enjoy the sun. A homeowner who is handy could easily build this deck, which lies close to the ground and includes a space-saving perimeter bench. Other outdoor rooms include a bed for shade plants beside the house and a small lawn.

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A built-in bench seat around the deck's back edge embraces a metal-and-glass fireplace. Ornamental pears along the fence will grow into a shady privacy screen.

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A glazed ceramic urn fountain burbles and spills water into a reservoir hidden beneath the stone mulch. Red coreopsis and purple Mexican bush sage grow beyond.

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Against the side and back walls, raised beds hold a changing cast of herbs and flowers. This spring medley includes orange calendulas, lettuce, and pansies.

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RELATED ARTICLE: Key elements

* Arbor. Made of redwood and copper, the arbor shelters a small patio just big enough for two. Set away from the house and from the garden's main activity hubs, it's a perfect retreat for cozy morning coffees or for relaxing at day's end with a glass of wine.

* Path and patios. Kashmere slate used for the patios and for paths that connect them visually links the garden's various "rooms." The path's dry-laid pavers are placed randomly, rather than uniformly as on the patios. The slate complements the home's steel gray color.

* Planters. Raised beds, covered with slate pavers to match the patio, provide room to grow herbs, veggies, and cutting flowers. The beds are close to the kitchen for quick harvests, and elevated for ease of tending.

RELATED ARTICLE: Getting started

* Consider your needs. Determine the activities that are most important to you and your family: relaxation, sports, growing edibles and flowers? What features does your family most want: a pool, spa, fountain, or outdoor barbecue or kitchen? Look for ideas in magazines and books.

* Study light conditions. Watch the sun and shade patterns at different times of the day in both summer and winter. Where does the sun rise and set? Does the house shade the garden in winter? What about nearby trees and other structures?

* Check the soil. The quickest way to determine how well the soil drains is to dig a 2-foot-deep hole and fill it with water. After it drains away, fill it again. If the water doesn't drain away in several hours, the soil is poorly drained. A hardpan or impervious layer of soil (called caliche in the Southwest's low deserts) might be the cause. You can break it up if it's shallow. Otherwise, install tile drains to direct excess water away from patios and plantings.

* Determine your climate zone. How much rainfall do you get? What are the minimum and maximum temperatures? Look in the Sunset Western Garden Book for your climate zone.

* Choose a theme. It can be based on a color scheme or house style (Mediterranean, tropical, or Japanese, for instance).

RELATED ARTICLE: Key elements

* Play area. The flagstone path, wide enough for tricycle travel, circles a sandbox. Once the kids outgrow the sandbox, its location will be ideal for a shade tree and flower bed. A play-house sits adjacent to the path. Beneath it, a mulch of shredded rubber tires cushions any falls.

* Fountain. A focal point at the rear of the garden, the simple, two-tiered fountain fills the air with the soothing sounds of trickling water.

* Firepit. Just off the main patio, a portable firepit flanked by chairs makes a good spot for evening get-togethers.

RELATED ARTICLE: Tips for designing a small space

* Be practical. Don't try to cram too many elements into the garden. Decide what you really need and will use.

* Think big. Make the patio large enough to accommodate a dining table and chairs with plenty of space around them to move about. If there's no room for an adequate lawn, forget it and expand the size of the patio or planting beds instead. Don't chop up the yard into unusable spaces.

* Design for flexibility. A patio can function as both outdoor dining room and tricycle track.

* Simple is often better. Choose one or two paving materials and keep patterns fairly uncomplicated. For continuity, repeat the use of building materials in a deck, bench, and planter.

* Create illusion. Make a small garden feel larger by layering plants. Set taller shrubs and small trees in the background, medium-size plants in the middle of the bed, and eye-catching low growers in the foreground.

* Develop focal points. Use sculpture, big containers, objets d'art, and showy plants to devise vignettes or points of interest.

* Create a destination. Situate a remote patio or bench away from the house, frame it with plants, and position a pot or piece of sculpture nearby.

* Add built-in furniture. Form a raised planter along the edge of a patio and add a wide ledge for seating.

RELATED ARTICLE: Key elements

* Satellite deck. The rectangular platform is raised slightly so it appears to float above a bed of river rock.

* Patio. Covered with square clay pavers, the patio is edged with raised planter boxes for herbs and flowers.

* Dry creek bed. Made from rocks of various sizes, it's surrounded with hardy plants that mimic natural beach plantings yet thrive in hot, dry, windy conditions.

* "Beach" firepit. A sand-filled depression surrounds the portable metal firepit, a gateway spot for gatherings on starlit nights.

RELATED ARTICLE: Key elements

* Deck. Set at a 30[degrees] angle from the home's rear wall, the 20- by 22-foot deck is made of Trex (www.trex.com or 800/289-8739), a composite lumber, as are the benches and raised planters.

* Fountain. Sold as a ceramic Egyptian watering vase, the urn fountain is from Beckett (about $130; www.888beckett.com or 888/232-5388).

* Raised bed. An L-shaped set of raised beds fits into a back corner. Also built of Trex, the beds include a covered bin for hiding a hose.
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Publication:Sunset
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2005
Words:1968
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