Make your space an oasis of calm and relaxation.

After spending all our time and budget building our house, our backyard was the last place to receive attention. Devoid of healthy soil and pockmarked with holes from the many machines that had visited during construction, the only thing our yard had going for it was a generous fringe of native trees.

A decade later, these trees became the framework for our project to create an oasis of calm in our backyard.

What is a backyard sanctuary?

You’ve probably visited a space, public or private, that makes you pause, breathe deeply and slow down as you take in the details. Maybe there were some fragrant plants or finely-textured trees that made you stop and look. Maybe a bench beckoned you to sit down and stay a while.

More than just a place to barbecue and visit with friends, the backyard can offer this same chance to pause and recover from your busy day. With the sights and sounds of nature and just a few simple tweaks, you can sink into bliss as you refresh your senses.

Of course, what you find peaceful might be different from others, but there are some simple design principles that can help you pinpoint what works best. From a personal healing retreat to a relaxing nook, your backyard sanctuary is only a few steps away.

Some simple design principles that can help you pinpoint what works best for you and your yard.

Getting started

Begin by taking an inventory of what you already have. Your yard may seem empty when you start a project like this one, but there are usually elements that can contribute to your overall design and save you money along the way. Things to watch for include:

  • Fencing or trellises
  • Trees and shrubs
  • Flower or vegetable beds
  • Containers and planters
  • Sunny or shady areas

Next, decide what you’ll use your sanctuary for. Will it be a place to relax by yourself at the end of the day? A place to do yoga, read or gather with friends? Knowing what you plan to do there will help you locate your space in the most appropriate area and get a head start thinking about which elements to include.

Finally, review the tips below. Choose the ones that best fit your needs and your space. Remember to include the features from your inventory above.

Design your personal oasis

1. Use paths to create flow

While most homeowners use paths to get from one place to another, they can have other purposes. Drawing the eye around a corner, highlighting a focal point, or revealing (or concealing) garden elements are all jobs for a carefully considered path.

While straight paths are often associated with formal design, curving paths appeal to our senses in another way. Their soft, meandering shapes suggest adventure and beckon us to areas of interest. They also evoke relaxation. When considering how to link the elements in your backyard oasis, opt for gently flowing paths made from informal materials. This includes:

  • Gravel
  • Ground covers
  • Flagstone
  • Weathered bricks or pavers
microclover garden path and trellis

Soft, flowing lines evoke relaxation, like this garden path made from pavers and microclover.

2. Create a feeling of enclosure

Think back to childhood when the most comfortable spaces were usually under a bed or in a blanket fort. Informal enclosures offer a sense of safety and solitude. While you don’t have to build a four-sided fortress, adding shelter on one or more sides will help create the framework for a quiet, unburdened space.

To create a feeling of enclosure, consider the following:

  • Planter boxes: Standing on four legs, planter boxes come in a variety of elevations that can easily create edges for your space. Fill with ornamentals, edibles or a mix–or pack with fragrant herbs for calming scents.
  • Living walls: Growing succulent or leafy plants in a wall planter or other vertical receptacles adds softness and interest to your space.
  • Trellises: With or without plants, trellises define borders of your area and offer a framework for hanging or mounting garden elements.
  • Trees and shrubs: Like our fringe of native trees, leafy, deciduous borders add color, texture and depth to your space. Consider especially those that grow quickly but maintain a dwarf shape and size.
  • Privacy screens: Solid or slatted fence panels mounted between posts work well as a backdrop.

3. Add structures for four-season use

If you plan to use your personal sanctuary year-round, consider adding an awning or simple shed to keep you dry during wet weather. A gazebo is another beautiful option if you have the space.

Adding a garden structure can extend your sanctuary’s use. Pictured left, Natural Cedar 8 x 8 Sunshed, and right, 10′ Cedar Panelized Gazebo.

4. Consider a water feature

While we can’t all live on the waterfront, we can bring water elements into the garden with little effort and a dash of creativity. In its simplest form, a water feature can be a birdbath or recycling pump mounted in a container. Larger options include animal troughs and ponds with waterfalls, adding soothing sounds to your personal oasis.

Thanks to the wonder of skill-sharing, there are many DIY videos online about creating your own water feature. Favorites include this tutorial about building a container fountain and this guide to building a backyard waterfall in one weekend.

bird at fountain

Adding a water feature, like a fountain or birdbath, makes your space welcoming to wildlife and can introduce soothing sounds to the landscape.

5. Use plants as focal points and to soften edges

The biophilia hypothesis states that humans are innately drawn to natural shapes and seek them out wherever possible. Many studies also show that being surrounded by nature benefits us, both physically and psychologically.

Insert image: garden beds with chair in foreground

Using plants in your backyard can help draw the eye and soften shapes that otherwise appear harsh.

  • Vegetable garden beds provide edible alternatives to traditional plantings while looking neat and contained. Raised beds made from natural cedar, recycled materials or metal are all available.
  • Ornamental trees like Japanese maples, laburnum, flowering dogwood and saucer magnolias offer three-season interest with buds, blooms and/or delicate leaves. They’re large enough to help enclose your space, but small enough to remain easy to manage.
  • Edible landscaping includes plants that offer visual interest as well as opportunities for eating. Our list of edible landscape plants includes over 25 to choose from.
  • Groundcovers like microclover, creeping thyme and chamomile make excellent, living fillers between patio stones or along pathways. They’re also easy to grow and establish quickly.
  • Border plants like daylilies, catmint, lavender and bush roses do well in swaths around sanctuary spaces. Pollinators also love them.

Related: Grow a Beautiful Pollinator Garden

6. Don’t forget a gathering place

Whether you plan to use your space alone or with friends and family, it helps to have a seating area. A cafe table, bench or chairs arranged around your other garden elements all provide soothing spaces to take in the sanctuary vibe. Sip tea in the morning or soda in the afternoon while enjoying the scenery.

Including a gathering space or sitting area means a place to relax and soak up the scenery. Photo by Robin Wersich on Unsplash.

7. Furnish for comfort

If a more formal gathering area isn’t what you had in mind, adding a chaise lounge, soft bench, or even a hammock will provide a relaxing space to unwind. Pillows further soften the look.

Putting it all together

No matter what size your space, it likely offers many options for relaxation. You can even create a sanctuary on your balcony. Having a relaxing place that beckons you to explore and enjoy means you’ll spend more time there and get the most from your home.

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