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Creating A Beautiful Home Garden Without Spending Too Much

When summer arrives, there's no better way to spend your time than outside. The backyard, deck or patio can become some of the most usable space of the house. With so much time spent outdoors, it makes sense to create a welcoming, relaxing space with the same amount of detail to decorating as is given to any other "room." But sometimes taming the wild and bringing the comforts of home outside can be rather intimidating. However, with the right planning and a bit of planting and decorating, that boring backyard can be transformed into a versatile family fun spot.

The Basics

If you've decided to upgrade that standard square of lawn into a functional, stylish retreat, here are steps to ease the transition. Mary Donovan, owner of Donovan Design in Georgia, has over 25 years' experience with interior, exterior and landscape designing. Her advice for the standard lawn: "Let's make it more interesting! You can do that by adding paths and seating areas made out of pavers or stone. Another suggestion would be to bring in soil and create some raised planting areas."

One trip to Chanticleer Garden, a 35-acre pleasure garden located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and it's easy to be inspired to create a beautiful landscape. R. William Thompson, the executive director of Chanticleer, has some suggestions on how to create a breathtaking landscape in your own backyard. "I think No. 1 is to think about what pleases you; do something to make your own garden special," he says. "Freedom of design is key. Let your imagination guide you to making the garden you really want."

When selecting plants for the garden, first think native. Not only will they attract songbirds and butterflies, but the plants native to your area will also be perfectly suited to the climate and therefore need less care. However, Thompson suggests something a bit more exotic. "We use a lot of tropical plants," he says. "This allows us to use plants that thrive in the heat of the summer – when many plants are wilting – and create dramatic effects with color, height and texture. But we don't rely solely on flowers to give us color; we've planted much more colorful foliage for color and texture that lasts a lot longer."

When planting colorful flowers or foliage, Thompson also suggests creating dramatic effects by thinking big. "If you're tempted to plant 10 daffodils, instead plant 100 in one spot, and next year, plant 100 in another area," he says. "An easy way to add impact is by planting in huge clusters with one color."

Perk up That Path of Grass

Just because you're trying to add some color to the backyard doesn't mean you should forgo the grass completely. Think of how good it can feel to walk through the grass barefoot for the first time in spring or how the kids love to roll around in it. The green stuff can also work well in complementing the gardening you have done. "Keeping open spaces allows for the eye to take in the pops of color and the overall design," says Thompson. "Open spaces can be quite relaxing when they flow right; flowers are complemented with grass and the lawn creates a sense of place."

At Chanticleer, rolling hills of lush green grass are actually just as beautiful to look at as the multitude of plants. To maintain a thick, lush lawn like those of Chanticleer, Thompson suggests caring not just for the grass, but the soil. "Think below the ground when growing anything," he says. "The problem is usually in the ground. Aerate carefully with a fertilizer, using organics to get the soil healthy."

Another way to add some interest to your outdoor space is to include touches of your personality. If you like to play chess or checkers, why not make an outdoor large-scale board. If you have a passion for art, maybe paint a mural on a retaining wall or even on a paved area of ground.

Wayne Rizor of Kalamazoo, Mich., used a lucky find to bring his garden together. "While cleaning out some old storage boxes, I came across an octagonal-shaped, horizontal sundial that I had made years earlier," he says. "My wife and I saw the possibilities and found a pedestal and started planning a garden around it. Between the three gardens, I laid out a 10-foot circle, placed pavers around the perimeter and made a paver path on the north-south and east-west axes of the circle. We placed the sundial in the center. My wife took over and planted three rings of flowers outside the circle. The sundial garden is now the focal point of the yard and gardens."

Incidentally, Rizor's find inspired a business, Garden Sundials. By calculating the longitude and latitude, he can create accurate dials, which actually tell the time, unlike the ones you buy at the store. Each has to be custom made for every customer's specific location.

Entertaining in Style

One of the main reasons we work so hard on our outdoor settings is so we can have a great, open space to entertain guests. Whether it's the neighborhood toddler playgroup, a boisterous family barbecue or a chic nighttime affair, there are some basic rules to follow when designing an outdoor entertaining space. "If you want an area to be well used, be sure it provides comfortable seating and, if possible, some protection from the sun and rain," says Donovan.

When choosing the seating area, think about your indoor spaces first. "I like to carry some of the color scheme and furnishing styles that I use in a home's interior rooms and repeat it in the home's exterior rooms," says Donovan. "That keeps the 'flow' going, creating a sense of unity. For example, I am currently designing the interiors of a home using the popular black-painted, traditionally-styled wood cabinets and tables. To continue the look, I'll be using black, traditional metal and black wrought iron furnishings on the back patio and out in the backyard."

Another way to get inspired by the interiors is by creating an outdoor living room. Sheer, light, water-resistant material through a white fabric works well because it reflects the sun. Add furnishings such as wicker tables and chairs, an ottoman-style coffee table and big oversized pillows in a heavy-duty fabric. Don't forget to include the little touches of home, like candle holders, decorative bowls of fruit and coordinating serving trays.

Donovan also suggests giving concrete a more "finished" look by staining it or resurfacing it with stone or pavers. "Bring in planters of various sizes: large ones to hold small trees, then shrubs and flowers," she says. "If there is a wall or fence available, run plants up using a trellis system. I love adding wall fountains as well."

For nighttime entertaining, there are some special considerations. "Think safety first," says Donovan. "We don't want a guest getting hurt. Are walkways and steps adequately illuminated? Lighting can be positioned so it doesn't glare, but offers a soft glow. Also, other lighting should be used to gently accent interesting plants and water features. The best plantings for nighttime enjoyment include those with white flowers, so they show up in low light. Also, don't forget scented flowers."

Cost Talk

Setting the scene for style doesn't have to cost much. As Donovan explains, it just takes some simple touches that appeal to all the senses. "For me, elegant outdoor dining is created through comfortable seating, soft lighting, soft music and privacy," she says. "Monochromatic color schemes, such as using only shades of green and white, result in an elegant appearance. Traditional metal seating with comfortable cushions, a glass top table and a true candle-holding candelabra hanging over that table will set the scene. All these items can be found for reasonable prices. Don't forget to look in flea markets, used-furniture stores and home-improvement centers."

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