Plus, this slower approach gave us time to dream, get creative, and allow the design to evolve as our own personal styles evolved over the years.
In fact, I’m really grateful that we doesn’t have the budget to completely finish the backyard when we moved into our house. I probably would have done things very differently, and I’m glad my 38-year-old self made some of the design decisions that my 25-year-old self wouldn’t have. So, as it’s been a long time coming, let’s do a quick recap of how the lower court has come together since we started working on it three years ago, and then I’ll share the latest photos so you can see what new changes we made this summer.
For the first 10 years we lived in the house, we focused entirely on the top level of our backyard design – this is the much smaller space to which our living room opens and includes our swimming pool. , so naturally we put our budget into this most visible and used space. We looked over the railing at the overgrown forest that lay 30 feet below the pool deck and imagined what it might look like with a lot of work. We knew this space had tons of potential, but we also knew it would be a huge project, and we wanted to wait until we were ready.
Phase 1: Levels and Earthworks
In 2019, we decided to start the project of earthmoving some areas of the backyard to make them flat enough to be usable. Our backyard is mostly on a slope, and I learned that there really wasn’t much you could do on a hill like that without building terraced walls and bringing in enough soil to fill. We dreamed of a backyard where our kids could explore, where we could gather around an open fire and have campfire-style dinners with friends, and really, where we could be truly immersed in nature.
Phase 2: Hearth and Steps
The following year we had leveled things enough to bring in gravel and added a huge fire pit and stone steps leading from the upper terrace to the two lower terraces.
Stage 3: Plants!
We also made the very exciting decision to add lots of plants, turning it into a lush garden of olive trees, rosemary, piles of agaves, and boxwood. It truly was like heaven, and even Architectural Digest ran a story about our backyard space.
Phase 4: The big frost (goodbye, plants)
Then in 2021, the big Texas freeze happened, and like everyone in Austin, we lost almost every plant we had added. It was heartbreaking to see our new olive trees having to be cut down to the stump, huge agaves completely frozen, and much of our ivy and jasmine vines that we had been growing for years did not survive. We left everything dormant for a year, then finally in the spring of 2022 we could see what was still alive and where we needed to start from scratch.
The backyard design lesson we learned the hard way? Native plants are those that will survive the elements. The heartiest plants are the ones we used as the dominant varieties when replanting, and we avoided the more tropical varieties like palms, plumeria, bougainvillea, and American agaves which simply can’t stand the extreme cold.
Phase 5: Wooden terrace and raised vegetable gardens
This summer, we started the next phase: a large wooden deck and raised vegetable beds, which I had dreamed of having here for years. When I started planning vegetable gardens, I imagined a very simple project. Bring in some dirt, build the frames and call it a day. However, it turned into a colossal undertaking. The ground here was then un-level that we actually had to build two more levels of decking just to make it flat enough for Adam to add the raised beds.
above: Indio lounge chairs, 11′ market umbrella with teak base, outdoor slate barn pottery cushions
Building the stone terraces took a few months, so once that phase was complete, it was time to replant the areas of the backyard that had died due to frost.
above: Indio extendable dining table, indio eucalyptus dining chairs, gray willow lanterns, decker mango wood lanterns
Phase 6: Replant, this time with more native varieties
Adam’s 2022 planting strategy embraced more negative space, grouping new plants into “clumps” with a few complementary varieties. Not only did this add height differences which created a beautiful overall backyard design, but it also gave us the best value for money, as there was no need to scatter plants in all areas of the backyard. this vast space.
After the freeze, we cut off most of the plants that looked dead but left them in the ground to give them a chance to come back. We were pleasantly surprised that the olive trees returned as beautiful olive trees, which we pruned into domes and adopted as part of the natural design. The jasmine vines along the perimeter fence have also returned, and while it is sad to have to “start over” from scratch, we are amazed at how much they have already grown the fence in a year.
above: Belgian linen fringed knotted table throw, handcrafted ceramic hurricane, Bondi terracotta vases, outdoor globe string lights
In order to use more native varieties, here are the plants we focused on:
- Japanese boxwood
- Cherry laurels
- Indian hawthorns
- Mexican sage
- Little Ollies (they struggled in the freeze, but they came back)
- whale tongue agave
- white guara
The end result was a more fluid, organic design using sturdier plants that can withstand the elements (if cared for properly). It actually seems more aligned with our Mediterranean-inspired aesthetic and I like where we ended up.
Adam and his dad built this deck out of Ipe wood. I am delighted to have a large flat area for yoga sessions, dinners with friends, and relaxing at sunset with a view of the vegetable gardens.
Adam and his dad also built our three raised beds, and I’m so excited for this next phase! This will be my own project, and I’ll be sharing a lot more about how they built the beds (and what I’m planting!) in a separate post next month.
above: Indio lounge chairs, 11′ market umbrella with teak base, outdoor slate barn pottery cushions, decker mango wood lanterns, drum side table
Phase 7: Here’s what’s next
What else is next for the backyard? Well, we’d like to create more pathways to different areas of the space, and we want to lay out a path through the woods behind the backyard for the kids to explore. I also want to plant wildflowers in a clearing there, and one day I would also like to put a pizza oven near the vegetable plots. But that’s all for future projects! For now, we’re going to play horseshoes, make s’mores, and enjoy the last days of summer in the garden. And I definitely have my work cut out for me as I start planning my fall garden.