Backyard makeover: How to go from a blank slate to an oasis

Is a backyard makeover on your to-do list but you’re not sure where to start? Whether it’s a blank slate or a previously finished space in need of a complete overhaul, it can be transformed with a little vision, a little time and some effort – or by hiring someone to do it for you.

It begins with a plan

Landscape experts will generally agree that whatever you do to your yard should be planned. “Start with an overall plan even if the implementation period will be a few years,” says Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton, a volunteer group of experienced gardeners who provide free and impartial advice to other gardeners.

But how do you create that plan? If you’re an enthusiastic do-it-yourselfer who doesn’t mind spending the time to research, you can create it yourself. Or you can turn to a landscape professional.


“An experienced set of eyes can help you make sense of the space,” says Candace Mallette of Candace Mallette Landscape & Garden Design in Orléans. “We view the outdoor space similar to the way we would view the inside of the home, by breaking it into useful ‘rooms.’”

Those spaces could include an outdoor cooking and entertainment area or a quiet spot to sit with a glass of wine and contemplate your garden.

Think ahead

It’s important to not only consider how you will use the space now but how you will want to use it in the future. “If you have young children, how will their outdoor space needs change?” asks Master Gardeners. A space may go from a sandbox to a play structure to a “tree” house to a basketball net over a period of years.


This is also where having a plan can come in handy, allowing you to prepare for shifts in how the space will be used.

And if you’re doing the work in stages over time, your plan should take into account how to maximize the look and usefulness of the parts of your yard that are complete. But keep in mind, when it comes to garden beds, you should never think of them as being finished. As living, growing things, they are always changing and always “in progress.”

What about the costs?

Mallette’s company charges $150-$190 for a consultation, which runs an hour to an hour and a half. The service includes plant lists, quantities, options and pricing, including a PDF file of suggested plantings. Depending on your property, rough sketches and other assistance may be part of the consultation.


Based on the consultation, you can decide how much of the work you want to tackle yourself and how much you want to contract out.

Again, planning is key, adds landscape and interior designer Chantale Charette, owner of Ottawa-based Studio 853 Design. That’s especially so when doing a project in phases. Working in stages over a couple of years or more means you can break the project down into affordable chunks.

Having a firm plan also means that all contractors are on the same page when giving you quotes, making it easier for you to choose which one to go with.


Just as importantly, a plan can help rein in impulse buying. That’s important because while there’s always room in a garden for an unexpected purchase, you don’t want to wind up with a mere hotchpotch in the back forty.

Need some ideas?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when defining your outdoor space.

  1. Think of your yard, and especially a patio area, as an extension of your indoor space. That means keep things like furniture, area rugs, lighting and decor in mind.
  2. Determine what you want your yard to do or have and consider zones for each. Do you need somewhere to eat, cook, relax with a book, play, entertain, escape from the sun or enjoy the view?
  3. If you’re close to your neighbours, factor in your need for privacy. That could be done with a pergola or sun shade, lattice screens, cedar hedging, fencing or even hanging fabric.
  4. Just add water? Do you like the sound of a gurgling brook or the gentle effect of a Koi pond? Perhaps you’re keen to fit in a hot tub or a pool. Water features can have a tremendous effect on our sense of escape and relaxation. Is a water feature something you have considered?
  5. If you have the space, think about creating surprises in your yard. That could be garden art that can’t be seen unless you move off the patio or a tucked away sitting spot hidden beyond a curved pathway. Designing your space so that it is discovered in stages can also create a sense of well-being.

About the Author

Anita Murray

Anita Murray

Anita Murray is the co-founder of All Things Home Inc. and owner of Three C Communications. The veteran journalist has covered the Ottawa housing industry since 2011.



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