Canadian Contractor

Dave Gray   

How to prepare and plan the perfect backyard for your clients – even if you’re not a landscaper

Renovation Contractor audio system backyard backyard makeovers Exterior Garden landscaping raised beds

How to prepare and plan the perfect outdoor space for your clients – even if you're not a landscaper.

Most contractors find backyard makeovers a “a pain in the butt,” says Toronto-based landscape designer Fausto Presta, so when clients ask for planning help, you’re best to at least develop a friendly relationship with a landscaper. Working with one is cost-effective, since some things are easier and cheaper to put in early, like gas and electric lines for BBQs, kitchens, outdoor lighting, or water features.

A lot depends on the client, though, says TV show host and landscape designer Carson Arthurs. He breaks down by generation: Baby boomers who like to garden and want someone to create the structure, but not the planting; hard-working Gen Xers happy to pay for someone to do the work; and “Millennials who have greater debt than the other two generations combined, and are very careful how they spend.”

However this plays out, you’ll want to have some working knowledge of basic backyard principles as well as a few of the latest trends.


Start at the beginning

Arthurs directs clients to sites like Houzz, so they can build a dream file to share with the contractor. “Often homeowners don’t know what they want until they see it,” he says. He finds they also need help with furniture and feature sizes, especially in small urban yards where space is a premium. He usually recommends they find the furniture and appliances first before designing the yard, and plan the yard around those elements.

He also recommends figuring out the privacy angles in the yard. Take a chair and sit in spots you have in mind for seating and look around. “You’d be surprised what you see – and more importantly who can see you – from that perspective.” This helps plan where the privacy hedge or fence should go.

For vegetable gardens, raised beds are the way to go. It’s easier to control the nutrients and moisture levels, plus they’re accessible for older clients.

Raised beds

If your clients are big into vegetable gardening, raised beds are the way to go. It’s easier to control the soil, nutrients, and moisture levels, plus they’re accessible for older clients. Soil in most back yards isn’t all that good and usually needs amending – raised beds offer the containment to make a good healthy soil mix.

You’ll want to site the bed where it gets at least six hours sunlight a day. Arthurs has a neat trick for determining the light levels – place a solar-powered dancing toy from the dollar store where the bed will go. Keep track of how long the toy dances to know hours of sunlight.

When it comes to building the bed, you can use pretty much anything – stone, corrugated metal, wood – as long as it works with the yard’s existing materials, says Arthurs. “But don’t forget that some materials negatively impact the soil, like railway ties, which leave toxic residue in the soil that nourishes the veg that end up on your dinner table.”

There are kits from big box stores but most landscape designers don’t like to use them because they look, well, a little kit-like. Consider instead well-placed large planters – terracotta or corten steel are two popular materials, come in any shape, and add visual interest to the yard.

Dimensions are important, Arthurs adds. “Up to eight feet long but no wider than four, because no matter how much yoga you do, that’s too big an expanse to bend over.”

Arthurs’s best tip? Line the bottom with flattened cardboard boxes. “In Canada, they’re soy-based so there’s no leeching of harmful chemicals, plus it prevents weeds from coming up through the soil below.”

Audio systems

Nothing like a little music wafting out over the deck on a lazy summer day as you’re snoozing in the hammock. Technology has made this very simple to do – just connect an app like Sonos, Spotify, or Amazon to a wireless system like Bose. Otherwise you’re into some serious wiring.

The environmental client

An environmental garden generally functions at a micro level of design – that is, it’s the kind of plants chosen – but some elements can be put in place to make that happen.

The two essentials to a sustainable garden are reducing water and pesticide use, says Presta. “Getting rid of the lawn is a start, and then choose drought-resistant plants that don’t need much water.”

Contractors can install sustainable watering systems, Presta says. “Those that spray mist use less water, and can be timed to come on at 3 am when the water will sink in the soil rather than evaporate like it does midday.”

Even greener practices include water retention systems. “An up and coming thing is taking water from the roof,” he says. “You dig a pit for a cistern then run the downspout into it. Then it needs a pump to circulate the water into the garden.”

Arthurs isn’t a fan of rain barrels, however, because homeowners tend to forget about them, because it’s difficult to circulate the water for the garden or washing the car and the water stagnates. Not a wise choice, with the reality of West Nile.

He is a fan of bee houses, though. These are manufactured for mason bees, which “don’t sting, are non-aggressive, solitary, and only lay their eggs there. But they’re great pollinators and you’re creating valuable habitat.”

The bees lay their eggs in tubes and seal the holes – the longer the tube the farther back they can push the eggs so birds can’t get at them.


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