Wouldn't you love to walk out your back door and see something beautiful, unique, alive and growing instead of a few kids' toys, a wheelbarrow and a patchy stretch of yard? Your backyard garden can be your shelter, your retreat from the world that doesn't require a vacation budget. The design is the beginning, and you should put in plenty of time for this part of the process. Give yourself at least a week to assess what you already have, to figure out how the space is used, and then to dream up the way you want to incorporate more beauty into this part of your home.
Assess the light of the area in your backyard. What is full sun and what is shady? Full sun means at least six to eight hours of sunlight per day. You'll usually get that on the southern side of the yard unless it is blocked by trees or other structures. The easiest way to figure out what you have is just spend a day at home and look outside every hour or two, noting what is in shade and what is in sun. At the end of the day, add up how many hours of sun and how many hours of shade the yard receives.
Assess the existing trees, plants and structures. Is there anything you want to remove? That needs to be done before you put in new plantings; you'll need to consider the space that will be opened up by removing a plant or structure. Trees create shade and great spots for benches, swings and woodland plants. Open spaces can be used to play, socializing and for full-sun plants.
Draw a simple sketch of your backyard and make notes of the light and the existing stuff.
Note your usage patterns. How do you walk? Where do you go? How is the space used by other members of your family? Sketch in the natural walking patterns. It's far better to work with how the space is already being used than to try to retrain all the members of your family.
Pick three spots in your backyard in which to create focal points; one should be close to the house, one about midway down the backyard and one at the furthest point of the backyard in which you plan to garden. Walk around in your backyard to note where your eye naturally goes, or where you find kind of a blank, and then compare with the sketch you have. Note your focal points on the sketch.
Choose large, showy plants as the centerpiece of each focal point, such as azalea, gardenia, rose, lilac, bottlebrush shrub, rose of Sharon or canna lily.
Plan to work outward from the centerpiece plants with additional plants. You can go for more color by choosing big bloomers, or you can highlight with green, lush plants.
Keep your light needs in mind; choose shade-loving plants for the shady areas and sun-loving plants for the sunny areas.
Work with the structures in your yard next. Create rings of lush, shade-loving plants around your trees, perhaps with space for a bench or swing. Plan for vines or tall flowers next to the sides of buildings, such as sheds or garages so that they seem to be part of the garden design rather than fighting against it.