You can see exactly how much my life has changed over the past few years just by looking at my backyard. There’s the raised concrete bed filled with flax, artichoke, and California lilac that my husband built not long after I first moved in. Back then, I didn’t even know the difference between guara and Santa Barbara daisy.
There’s the chicken coop I lobbied for after we tied the knot (the project that keeps on giving) and the monster heirloom tomato plants I sowed this past spring that are already busting out of their cages.
There’s a DIY rainwater catchment system swimming with mosquito-fattened fish who are all named Daryl, a mess of buckets and PVC pipe that collect gray water from the sink, and a 1960s fireplace I still hope to one day transform into a retro chic outdoor fire pit.
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- SMALL SPACES: A teepee, like this one pictured at SLO’s Ruby Rose, can provide a quiet place for reading, napping, and generally enjoying your backyard with a sense of peace.
Then there’s the game changer. The single thing that really transformed our humble backyard into something else entirely: the sunroom.
Built over the course of two weekends this summer, this outdoor hideaway acts as an awesome barrier against the wind that howls through our backyard near Laguna Lake.
Constructed from upcycled sliding glass doors and windows found at ReStore in SLO, it didn’t cost an arm and a leg. And now, dear reader, my husband and I can actually “eat outside”—the kind of luxury I once assumed to be reserved only for Sunset magazine photo spreads. It got me thinking about how a few small changes can really change your perspective on “living outside.”
I’m not gloating here. This is just my own little backyard transformation story. Yours is still unwritten. Maybe it starts with a simple row of lavender plants or ripping out that thirsty lawn. Maybe it starts with building a reading teepee in a forgotten corner of your patio or bringing a hunk of bark into your bedroom. I enlisted the help of SLO’s two best indoor/outdoor gurus to help jump-start your imagination. Because your backyard is truly what you make it. Why not make it your own?
Turn it inside out
Walking into Ruby Rose on Monterey Street, my eye is always instantly drawn to the massive teepee that towers above all else. Constructed with 10-foot-high wooden beams and draped with a collage of stars, stripes, and Mexican blankets, it looks like something out of Easy Rider.
“A teepee can shut out the mess in the corner of your yard or the clutter of kids toys,” Ruby Rose Owner Stephanie Hendry said. “Small enclosed spaces allow us to relax. We want to crawl in and shut things out.”
And that’s not all. Open, green spaces encourage us to do just the opposite. At Ruby Rose, succulents pop out of rusty drawers, and bold floral fabric lends contrast to shabby chic patio sets.
It’s easy to wonder: Are we inside or outside? This is the disorientation she loves to cultivate in her shoppers.
“Everyone wants to be outside and live in nature and enjoy outdoor living,” Hendry said. “People want to bring their indoors outdoors, and those of who spend all day indoors want to bring the outside in.”
According to the antique queen, there are no rules anymore. Concrete flooring, bamboo, and reclaimed wood work in rustic harmony. Repurposing vintage pieces for new uses is all the rage. With a little ingenuity, you, too, can break from your inner Martha Stewart.
“One woman bought a vintage hutch and some shutters, and she made it into a potting bench to put in her backyard,” Hendry said. “We have people who hang chandeliers outside. Right now, it’s very eclectic, and everyone is injecting their own personalities into their style as they bring their living rooms outside.”
Potted plants aren’t the only way to smudge the line between in and out. Try a coffee table made from a slice of a tree. Hang branches from your ceiling. Whatever you do, follow your bliss.
“You can do something as simple as play with seashells or put a glass bowl of pebbles on your dinning room table,” Hendry said. “It’s about whatever calms you; whatever motivates you; whatever makes you happy. If that means bringing a couch outdoors, do it.”
- PHOTO BY ANNETTE POLLOCK
- GO NATIVE: A good rule of thumb: Shop for plants at local nurseries where you won’t be as tempted to purchase an exotic specimen unaccustomed to your area. Pictured, Avant Gardner Annette Pollock uses native plants to add green to arid climates.
Annette Pollock, the creative green thumb behind North County landscaping business Avant Gardner, knows how to create edible gardens for wineries, balanced landscaping for businesses, and drought-tolerant alternatives for water-strapped homeowners.
That being said, she’s full of tricks that don’t require a Pinterest board or even a broad knowledge of plants. When starting a backyard project, she said you should ask yourself exactly what she asks her clients. That is: What plants naturally grow in your area? How much work are you willing to put in for upkeep? And, finally, how do you want to actually use the space?
“Do you want low maintenance and stress free? Pick natives that come from climates similar to ours,” Pollock said. “Fruit trees are wonderful and useful, but you need to be willing to learn a bit about that tree.”
The gardener suggests starting at your local, independently owned nursery—one that won’t tempt you with exotic, faraway species. Ask for a plant that suits your specific microclimate. Being vocal pays off.
Pollock also advises readers wait till fall to plant, when the air is cooler, and there’s more chance of rain—two good factors when establishing new greenery.
“Always utilize nature when you can,” Pollock said, adding that she is hoping for an El Niño fall.
- PHOTO BY HAYLEY THOMAS
- GREEN VIBES: Whether sprouting from an upcycled file cabinet or potted in a traditional flower box, succulents and cacti can add a pop of water-conscious color to your patio, backyard, or living room.
When it comes to design, Pollock has a simple rule of thumb: Go for impact, and take a page from wineries like Niner and JUSTIN.
“Think about planting en masse, rather than buying just one or two of something,” Pollock said. “If you want a beautiful hedge, look for a 4-inch lavender plant in the early spring and put in 10 of them. That’s what wineries and professional landscapers are doing. Up your numbers for a simple way to bring impact.”
If you want to go a bit bigger, research whether a potager garden is right for your yard (basically an ornamental veggie patch). Pollock emailed me a photo of one that boasted a geometrical design and sitting area made with recycled tree limbs. Edible plants sprung forth all around.
“It serves multi purposes: food, beauty, social, and fitness,” Pollock said. In other words, it serves as a glowing example of what a garden should really do: Reward you for all that hard work you put in.
“When I plant, I always want to receive something in return,” Pollock said.
When I look out at my backyard from the rose-tinted windows of my little sunroom, I receive exactly what I set out to get: Relaxation, a sunny place to read, and the perfect nook to munch on home-grown strawberries.
Watch out, Sunset. I’m coming for you next.
Hayley Thomas is one with nature at firstname.lastname@example.org.