Backyard Landscaping Not Looking as Good as You’d Like? Here’s Why

Gen here – today’s article is a guest post from my friend Rachel Mathews of Successful Garden Design. Rachel’s an established landscape designer in the UK, and I’ve been been enjoying her landscape design eBooks and courses for some time. Today she’ll share one of the biggest secrets to success in designing a landscape:

What’s the most important part of a garden? Not just your garden, ANY garden? (BTW I’m from the UK so when I say garden, I mean your whole yard, not just the plants).

What is it that makes a garden go from being dull and boring to truly fantastic?

Was your answer “The plants and flowers”? – nope

Perhaps “The deck”? – no

“Nice lawn”? – no

“The gazebo”? – another no

“Water features”? – still no

Or perhaps you said “Sun chair for sipping G&Ts, beer or other beverage of oblivion”? As much as I’d like to give you that, alas, still no.

So what is the magic ingredient in a great garden?

If you’re thinking the only thing that is left now is the soil and I’m about to get evangelical about worms and compost, fear not, as good as those things are, what I’m talking about is an above ground thing.

It’s not something you have to buy and it can be really inexpensive to do (though there may be some cost involved).

You don’t need a degree in landscape architecture to do it.

And, what’s more, if you get this part right, it will get you 60% of the way there to creating a fantastic looking garden.

So, have I tantalised you enough? Want to know what it is that REALLY creates a great looking front or backyard?

I’ll assume you said yes; here it is: shape.

It’s the shape that really makes the winning difference.

Yup that’s it. Shape.

“Shape of what?” I hear you ask. Well NOT the shape of your overall yard, that’s not remotely important. What is critical are the shapes that you create within it.

Most people start landscaping their backyard with either the plants or the patio/deck area and then the bits that are left are usually lawn or random empty spaces which get filled over time with ‘stuff’ from the garden centre.

But that’s like starting to make a cake with the icing and cherries. Doesn’t matter how gorgeous your end ingredients are, you’ve got to start with the right framework underneath. Otherwise you’ll just end up with a blobbly mess that in theory should look amazing but just doesn’t, despite your best efforts.

Any great garden also has a framework underneath it. The framework is the defined shapes of the lawn and patio areas. These need to be specific shapes that enhance the entire garden and bring it together as a whole thing rather than a series of unrelated features.


See the difference a shaped lawn and patio make!

Where to start:

The exact place you start will depend on what you have in your garden already. But the main thing you need to do, regardless of what is there now, is to create defined shapes with your lawn and patio area. Re-shaping your lawn is not expensive and the difference it will make is mind-blowing! There are ways to get around having to re-shape existing patio areas, so you don’t have to go to that expense unless you want to.

Choose simple, geometric shapes like circles, squares, ovals etc. Even if you want to create a ‘wild’ or natural looking landscape, still start out with a simple shape and evolve it from there.

Create a coherent design shape to bring the whole yard together. If you look at your current backyard, it’s probably a series of unrelated elements like patio, shed, plant areas etc. You need to visually join up the dots, so to speak.

You need to get the right design shapes in place to enhance your garden and make the best use of the available space. If you have a long, narrow garden, you need to make it look wider than it really is. Or if your yard is small, you need to make it look visually longer than it really is and create more interest and feelings of space. Getting this right will dramatically improve your garden and help it look good all year round, not just when plants are flowering.

Once you’ve done that, then you can sit back with that G&T and know that your garden truly is fantastic!

If you want to learn all the steps involved with shaping and landscaping your backyard, check out Rachel’s online garden design courses on her website and eBooks on Amazon.

Garden Design Course Giveaway

If you’d like to win Rachel’s Great Garden Formula online garden design course (normally $297) leave a comment below about where you feel stuck with your garden and we’ll randomly pick a winner in a ‘number out the hat’ style draw! Two runners up will receive a mini-course on either patio or deck design (a $37 value).



(EDIT: Dennis, Laura and Stevie are the winners! Congrats, all!)


Garden Design Prizes

Author Bio

Rachel has been an international garden designer for the last 20 years. She passionately believes that the ‘average’ garden can and should be so much more than average. She has set up the Successful Garden Design website to teach garden design using simple methods that anyone can use to transform their own garden, no matter what it’s like now. Rachel has put together a series on ‘where to start with your garden’ and a free pdf guide, simply signup to her Design Tips email group to get it.

43 responses to “Backyard Landscaping Not Looking as Good as You’d Like? Here’s Why”

  1. I completely agree with what Rachel says here… As a photographer, I know that it is composition (of elements in a frame) that totally makes or breaks an image.

  2. As a garden designer I’ve often felt that the greatest thing I have brought to my clients is an overall cohesiveness to the garde, just like discussed here. And the shapes are never to elaborate: snaky curves are shunned in favor of simples geometrics

  3. My garden is of the “I want that plant…I’ll just fit it in here” variety, so perhaps a study course is just what the doctor ordered !

  4. I have 2 acres of lawn that gets mowed so my “garden” is huge! I have a hard time thinking BIG! I find myself always shoving more plants in around my house and not venturing out into my landscape/lawn area to find creative ways to connect the space. I think I am almost afraid of it! 🙂 Thanks for a chance at another giveaway!

  5. I have seen a lot of gardens with great trees, shrubs and all kind of flowers, almost randomly planted into the garden! It’s true that the shapes and the spaces that are created into a garden make the difference, as you said! A garden that has ”cheap” plants but it’s very well shaped, can be amazing! The main difference is the luck of knowledge about shaping a garden! Great post, very helpful!
    Thank you! 🙂

  6. Shape, wow.. so simple, but so effective.. Great guest post! After establishing our 2000 sq ft kitchen garden, the landscaping has gone to the wayside.. but, I’m back on it now and trying to spruce up the yard.. this post was super helpful!! 🙂

  7. Oh, it would be so helpful to take this course. I have 2/3 acre in S. California and about half of it is “unimproved”. I need a framework in which to plant. I know that pathways are important, part of the shaping, but beyond that I am so lost. Thanks for the information Gen.

  8. Terrific informative article, thanks to you and Rachel!
    An area that I could benefit is in level change. Though I do have some experience I know I will be further challenged due to the rather steep terrain here in the southern Smokey Mtns. This online course will certainly be a great advantage for me because of the new eco-village project I am a part of creating. I need to build and landscape around my straw bale house, create my new future business there, the village herb farm and shop, and will be assisting other residents in creating their landscape designs.
    This is perfect timing, Thanks!

  9. This makes a lot of sense. I wonder how it would apply to a front yard, like mine, which is mostly flowers and where the lawn is just a path among the flower beds.

  10. What a terrifically generous giveaway–thanks! My garden is huge, encompassing areas of forest, a swimming pool and deck, rock walkways, a fire pit, a grape arbor, an outdoor shower, a three-bay woodshed and a smaller summer shed, a wood-burning oven, and a great big lawn. That’s not to mention the tractor sitting right in the middle of everything . . .

    The design of the entire thing could use some attention, I fear–perhaps one of these courses would be just the thing (:

  11. I really do need to re-think my back yard someday soon…this would be a great help.

  12. All these years of planting and it’s still not right. This is just the kind of help I need to tie it all together.

  13. I know the ‘bones’ of a garden must be in place before anything else, but I feel stuck because my garden has ‘some stuff,’ but not necessarily good ‘bones’ & it has a lot of shade. Plus, there are 3 English Walnut & 1 Black Walnut trees & I like the shade, so I don’t want to remove any of the trees, but finding plants that will grow in harmony with a Black Walnut, especially, is challenging! I want a mostly native (Pacific NW) garden & that adds to my uncertainties. Help, please!

  14. I am in desperate need of such a course as I tackle the severely under-maintained and overgrown shrubbery in our new home in the Boston suburbs. I admit I’ve been a member of the “fill-in holes with random stuff from the garden center” team!

  15. Here are two more characteristics of successful garden design: integration and aging. By integration I mean selection and placement of plants (and other garden elements such as stone) that “sit well” with one another, with complementary and/or contrasting flowers, foliage, or even, to borrow from Rachel, shapes. By aging I mean aging; in the same way that a winemaker ages his or her product before it is ready to drink (of course, there are exceptions to this rule), a successful garden designer anticipates how a garden will age (and, presumably, grow and/or change) so that its elements coalesce into a unified whole.

  16. Gardening : my passion & my challenge. I continue to learn, to experiment and to enjoy. I am self-taught but eager to be shown better, more efficient ways to make my space beautiful. I get the concept of shape & and use it on the softscape, but how do I make my patio seem less “hard?”

  17. I have been trying to envision how to redesign my front yard and garden, which now has quite a bit of lawn, into a garden with pleasing shapes and interest, and much less lawn, but it’s hard to know where to start. I am sure this resource would help immensely!

  18. We have small garden which triangular in shape. Having just built a conservatory with full height windows, we want to create a garden design that can be enjoyed from both inside and outside. You have some great ideas and I hope to incorporate them in our garden design.

  19. I have problems with my side yard- it is narrow (8 – 12 ft wide) and I am working on filling it with trees and plants but I really need a garden path- one that I can afford and can do on my own. It is a challenge!! Once I get that I can fill in with things that I love and will have no problem with that part!!

  20. I would love to read more about landscape design! I want to add more zest and appeal.

  21. What a super givaway, just what I need. I have a small area at the entrance to my garden, 20 paces by 12 paces.

    My husband has collected lots of paving flags over the years and wants to lay them on sand, so the water would run through them. I have seen some videos on laying flags, and they all seem to use cement. If cement is used, where will rain water go, does the paving need to slope slightly. I’m just afraid if we do use cement and the water runs towards the garden it might undermine the garden steps. which are just bedded into soil. Hey ho, I’m sure with the help of your new book we shall over come this problem.

  22. We’re just beginning the process of turning our rectangle of lawn and square of patio into something more interesting, but are already encountering the problem of how to tie together the disparate elements we would like to include. Help needed!

  23. I have been staring at my patio and garden space for 2.5 years wondering how to pull it all together. Rachel’s books could be my ticket to backyard heaven!

  24. I have an acre around my house and it is sloped. So in addition to shape, I need to learn how to deal with elevation changes that look pleasing. I would love a design course!

  25. I totally get this. I guess I am stuck because I have a small urban garden that seems made up of rectangles…..have to find a way to create more curves somehow.

  26. Thank you all for your kind comments and sharing where you’re stuck with your garden. I hope that this post has helped a bit.

    Gillian – with regards to your question about the flags – if you don’t use cement they will move and then they are likely to become uneven and a trip hazard. If you are laying a patio, you might be able to compact a hardcore base, lay on sand and just use cement around the edges, like they do for block paver drives. However, I wouldn’t recommend doing it that way without speaking to a local landscaper, as they will know if that will work in your location.

    Paving should be laid with a slight fall so that water can drain off them to the rest of the garden or to a drain. I do cover basic construction in my books but the main focus is on design.

    Good luck to everyone in the prize draw – I look forward to seeing the winners in the course 🙂

  27. I’m in the midst of doing just this! I like to think about flow between the ‘rooms’ too. In our long narrow yard it is a challenge to avoid the ‘corridor’ feeling. Tips would be great!

  28. I spent years sorting out design and could definitely use a formula to help out. It really does make all of the difference. This year I am getting more involved in creating healing gardens – spaces that offer some sort of therapeutic benefit and I would love the background this course provides. Thanks for sharing Gen & Rachel!

  29. This is a great post. I just put in a LOT of snaking curves and I’m now wondering if that was the best move. Definitely a bit more challenging to mow. I never thought about shape before – but I’m thinking about it now. For me, the challenge is in connecting the dots and making the different elements of my yard work together.
    By the way, I just found your blog and I’m really enjoying it.

  30. I just moved into a house that has somewhat of a landscape started, I feel a little stuck trying to care and update what its done and it is getting out of control.

  31. I’m a city boy… Just moved into a suburban paradise with WAY more lawn and garden than I know what to do with! Help!

  32. My problem is xeriscapeing gone wrong. I dreamt big and failed. Not sure if I should reseed or restart.

  33. My city lot had surviving foundation plants from 1959 when I came here in 2004. I have marginal skills in spatial visualizing. The idea of a complete plan that I can work on year-by-year is a fantastic notion.

  34. Firsts of all, HELLO!!! 🙂 the problem that I have is that my patio is a BIG rectangular space with water problem and no grass… and also NO PRIVACY!!! … every time I felt in love with a flower or a plant I just can’t buy it because at the end either the water or no protection against the sun is gonna kill them… From what I saw in the before/after picture, I can only say that YOU gave me some hope, winning this prize will be really great so I could finally say Voulá!!! here it is, my very first well design Patio!!!

  35. We really want to try and do the front yard ourselves so this guide would be awesome. Will sign up for her tips also. Thanks!

  36. Boy, I sure could use the help from this guide. I have no sense of landscaping. Thanks.

  37. I guess I’m stuck with just getting started. My goal is to have a beautiful, functional space to entertain – a place to eat, sit by the fire, and watch a game of pickup ball on a half court with friends and family. A place that provides interest in all four seasons and one that is inviting in the day and intimate with the right lighting at night. A place that I can go to escape with a cup of tea, an intimate dinner, or host a graduation party. A place that makes you feel like anything is possible – within a reasonable budget. I realize it’s a tall order – and maybe that’s why I’m stuck and can’t seem to get started.