Backyard Design - What would you do?

busybee123April 14, 2012

We purchased a fixer-upper with desperate landscaping nearly 3 years ago and are finally ready to turn our attentions to the backyard, only we aren't quite sure what to do or where to start. We made some improvements right after purchasing but haven't done much since. The space gets so hot & sunny in the summer, it becomes almost unusable. I'm an aspiring novice on a budget dreaming of a pretty, family-friendly, usable space & hoping for some help forming a plan. A little background info:

- Location: Memphis, TN. House faces North.

- Conditions: Main yard area gets full sun, almost all day. Bed along carport gets full morning sun & is shaded in afternoon. East side of house gets a little morning sun but is shaded for most of day. Very back of lot is heavily overgrown privet jungle; not really sure what all is in there...

- Goals:

1. SHADE - 1 year old little girl needs a place to play.

2. Visual Improvement - it's just so darn stark & boring!

3. Low(er) maintenance design.

- Existing Structures:

1. Small covered porch & concrete patio against house.

2. Bermuda lawn (pro help getting the weeds under control).

3. Bed 1: against carport - We removed 15' tall overgrown holly, added cobblestone border, gardenia (very happy), akebia growing up brick column, hydrangeas (should probably move - too much sun/heat in summer), acuba (definitely should move), zinnias in summer at far end. Full morning sun & mostly shaded by the carport in afternoon (except far end gets full sun all day).

4. Bed 2: in front of A/C near house - Added Chinese recurve privets to block A/C units but it's not providing as much coverage as we had hoped. Full sun all day.

5. Crepe myrtles - 1 established at edge of patio & 1 small new one at corner of house (full sun), 2 established along East side of house (shaded almost all day). All dark fuchsia flowers.

6. Privet hedge (filled with other junk) lining property. All terribly overgrown. East side just trimmed by nice neighbor.

7. Dog pen & dog house - pre-existing and not in use. Should probably be removed...

- Obstacles:

1. Sewer line running from house through middle of yard to very back of property (blue line in 1st pic).

2. Possible far future addition coming off back of east side of house (near trimmed privet hedge).

Our house is a 2 story brick Colonial and our style is more on the traditional side - nothing too wacky. I believe we need trees but don't know what kind or where to put them. I would love to grow some kind of vines or climbing plants on the back of the house - perhaps climbing roses? That's about as far as I've gotten. Thank you in advance; any and all suggestions will be greatly appreciated!

Aerial View:

Survey with dimensions:

View toward back of property from patio:

View toward back east corner of property:

View of bed along carport:

View toward house:

View toward house and east side privet hedge:

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busylittlebee123, may I commend you on the nice initial presentation? It's good! Rarely do people include all the necessary information in such an organized fashion.

Question... if the privet hedge were removed, what would one find on the other side? Civilization... or tangle of the Amazon jungle?

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 3:26PM
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Hi Yardvaark, thank you so much for reading and responding. Neighbors on all sides beyond the privet hedge. Unfortunately, I think we are the only ones in the neighborhood with anything remotely resembling the Amazon jungle... We would not have planted the privet (and especially not all the junk mixed in) but it does provide privacy. I expect it will do so much less effectively if we ever muster up enough bravery to attempt taming it!

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 5:29PM
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Dense planting some tree may work.

    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 7:25PM
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    Bookmark   April 14, 2012 at 7:51PM
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Hi desidnoline6, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Both plans look nice but I worry the lack of shade would still be an issue for us.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 11:30AM
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If that "privet" is Japanese Ligustrum, You can expect to be instructed by our resident "guardians of the environment" that it outdoes itself in "invasiveness," birds finding its berries delectable. You couldn't find a tougher plant for a hedge, though, and it should shortly recover from this severe pruning to assume a lush, dense, dark green appearance.

Were it me, I would be studying on a spacious, DIY deck, with trees appropriately situated to provide afternoon shade. Don't know about that sewer line.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 12:47PM
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If that dog run and house aren't being used, you should get rid of them. If you list them on Craigslist, you can probably find someone to come, dig it up and take them for free.

That should give you a nice area to think about planting a tree further into the yard. The photos show that there is already quite a bit of shade.

It's tough to tell because you mention a covered patio that I can't see but the patio in the pictures looks small for the house and yard. Do you have a barbecue that you keep on the covered porch? I would look into increasing the patio's size. I also think the crape myrtle is planted a little too close to the edge of the patio. Moving it would give you an opportunity to make the patio larger.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 12:57PM
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Whitecap2, thank you for your thoughts. I'm not sure what kind of privet we have inherited. It was planted by the original owner, probably in 1976 when the house was built. Right now it is covered with little white flower clusters if that is any clue. I don't like the idea of keeping an invasive plant (if in fact it is so) but it just is not in our budget to dig up the entire thing and replace it with something capable of providing the same level of privacy we now enjoy. A spacious patio/deck would be really nice and trees providing afternoon shade (morning & midday too, perhaps!) would be wonderful. What kind of trees would you recommend and where, roughly, would you place them? How would you extend the patio? In which direction(s)?

Tanowicki, the Craigslist idea for getting rid of the dog pen is brilliant. And thank you for pointing out how shady my photos appear - I hadn't even noticed! Let me assure you, the only shade the yard sees is at the very end of the day. I took the pictures around 5:00pm back in March, which could explain it. The first picture (aerial) is more representative of the daytime conditions in summer (spring & fall, too, really): SUNNY & HOT. What kind of tree(s) would you suggest planting? The small covered patio (8'x18') is the area between the carport & the back side of the house. You're right; it is difficult to see. And I agree, the patio does feel undersized. If we were to increase the size, how would you suggest doing it? By continuing along the carport and moving the bed?

Thanks again. Please keep the suggestions coming!

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 2:33PM
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In front of the, more or less, blank space at the far right 1/3 of house would be a good place to install a flowering tree (like Redbud) in order to add interest. Create a bed below.

I would consider an architectural solution to the air conditioner screen... such as a high quality "L"-shape lattice structure with nice details. Shrubs used to screen often grow the problem and become the eyesore and a maintenance chore trying to keep them from impeding AC air flow.

A possible place for a shade tree would be off the carport wall near the end, centered in front of the white sided area and set about half the distance from it to where you show the sewer line. You would keep it well limbed up to clear the carport (for high shade.) Where trees go would determine how beds are configured as it would be lower maintenance and better looking to have them be in landscape beds. In general, the minor elements of the landscape would defer to the major elements. Thus, shrubs would be incorporated and configured depending on nearby trees, not the other way around. In general, shorter plants defer to taller.

Crape myrtles will not be plants to place in a shaded area. The one in sun is fine.

Once weeds and tangles invade a large, established hedge, it's a lot of work trying to clean it up. One must decide first, if the hedge is something they wish to keep long term or if they wish it to be a different plant. For a while, you can keep it "beat back" as if it were a "natural" area. But, doing this has limitations as it will never really be nice. It could be improved by rejuvenating it. This would be cutting it back severely. At that time you'd also deal with all the weeds and then let the hedge re-grow while ruthlessly monitoring weeds. To many this sounds like a painful thing to do, but the regrowth is actually quite rapid as its coming from a fully developed root system. If I were living there, I would find a plant that offers more than Privet.

Whatever work you do, you'll want to create (or have it done) a landscape plan that shows the location of all improvements that are to be made. That way, you can make sure everything will fit and work. You can get feedback on your ideas here.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 3:29PM
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I'm not a designer, just thinking out loud. Is your covered patio on the opposite side of the house from the small patio shown in the photos? I can see a roof of some sort over there. It might be helpful to get a better idea of how all this fits into the "big picture," before talking about a deck.

I hear what you're saying about that hedge. It would be quite expensive to replace it with mature screening plants. Myself, there's no substitute for privacy, no matter how comely the alternatives. Too, if it lies on the property line, your neighbor may feel he has some proprietary interest in the matter. It appears to me that part of it has been trimmed by just cutting back the top and side growth with shears. That is a sure formula for making shrubs "leggy," forcing all the foliage to the top. If you decide to retain it, you might think about making some low pruning cuts, to force some lower foliage growth.

I know "hedges" are oh-so-60's, but I've got a couple, and I wouldn't part with them. So little light gets through to the ground beneath them that the only weed I have trouble with is bindweed, wild morning glory. Your mileage may vary.

I'm in Central Texas, so I don't know beans about Memphis shade trees.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 3:53PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

The aerial photo shows where the shadows fall from the existing trees, making it simple enough to plot where another large tree would have to go to cast shade on the patio -- in the middle of the grass almost on top of the sewer line. No go. Not to mention the years it will take to get a tree up to effective shade production size.

You mention a future addition off the east end of the house. You could create a courtyard effect with the addition, and incorporate a structural shade pergola connecting the new wing to the carport. Perhaps the pergola could be constructed now, and the addition later, as long as the total design concept is predetermined.

Your hedge can provide a green background to some deep planting beds loaded with contrasting foliage or flowers. Somewhere I saw a very cute garden made with a little girl in mind. There was a playhouse, a vegetable garden,a path made with stepping stones, and some bent willow fencing, very informal, and all pure charm. I'll look for those photos...

Here is a link that might be useful: garden project

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 6:29PM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

It looks like the current shade is mostly occupied by the dog run. Once that goes, the area can be occupied by something else.

Shade trees take a while to get going. They also tend to cast the most shade directly underneath them. So for example, to shade the house means planting a tree almost on top of the house. This was an understood fact pre-air conditioning, but now it seems it is overwhelmed by sylvaphobia. However, if I was planting a large tree in that yard for shade, I'd plant it off the lower right hand corner of the carport. It shouldn't be an issue with the sewer line so long as it isn't directly on top.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 7:10PM
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Well, an unshaded deck wouldn't do much to enhance your "outdoor living space," and pergolas don't seem to offer as much real relief from the sun as one would like, where skies are hot and bright. A gazebo, maybe? Just where do the afternoon shadows fall?

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 8:35PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I'd recommend purchasing a copy of the Southern Living equivalent to the Sunset Western Garden Book that is a landscape Bible for west coast homeowners, and the sister publication by Southern Living magazine is equally useful for giving general landscape advice and plenty of information on plant and tree
choices for your area. This reference book would also address issues of which trees and plants might be problem invasives in your area, some of the privets do spread into the woods or creeks via birds, but that isn't insurmountable if they are sheared back before the set berries. Privet hedges do have the advantage that they can be cut back hard and regrow quickly, I'd also agree that there are more interesting/beautiful choices for evergreen hedges or small screen trees than privets. I bet your local library has a copy of the book.

I'd be a bit reluctant to offer more specific tree recommendations for your area, because I may not be aware of local pest or disease problems for fast growing shade trees in your location; my comfort zone is here in California. Out here I might recommend something like a Gleditsia triacanthos or the beautiful chartreuse foliaged Robinia pseudoacacia Frisia as fast growing shade trees that don't get huge. The Southern Living Garden book would have good lists of possible trees which you could then read up on.

The idea of building an arbor off the back of the house, and also planting a deciduous flowering vine such as Wisteria could definitely give you immediate shade right where you want it.

I also want to complement you on a good thorough presentation of your lot and preferences, it makes it quite easy to offer suggestions that are more targeted to your situation. If your sewer line is of newer installation of the type that doesn't have easily root penetrated joints; just keeping 5 to 8 feet away from the line may be perfectly safe for new trees, but more distance is always better.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 9:30PM
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That's an awful lot of sunny turf grass to keep up with for so little "payback" in terms of usable space. Any sort of overhead screen isn't going to help much when the afternoon sun starts coming in at an angle. Odd how that property could have gone so long without someone planting something to at least shade the south side of the house.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 9:04AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Late afternoon sun is most likely already moderated/blocked by the garage/carport wing off the house. It's more likely the mid-day full sun on the south house wall and patio that is too hot in summer, and a simple arbor and vine cover, with some judiciously placed shade trees would take care of that. It might pay to consider that large turf areas are easier to maintain than shrub borders or perennials, especially in parts of the country where supplemental irrigation isn't required. I'd assume you have a power mower to knock out mowing the entire lawn in less than an hour a week. I doubt any other planting solution is as easy to maintain, the only advantage being that non-lawn areas don't require weekly attention, but more skillful attention when they do need work.

I also would question the usefulness of proposing decks here on what looks to be a flat site. At grade patios or terraces are much less maintenance intensive and longer lasting. Decks typically make more sense when you have a sloping lot with limited level ground close to the house, or no walkout access at ground level and want to open up outdoor space adjacent the house without stairs down to the ground. Just some thoughts on more logic based landscape design that may better apply to your circumstances.

You might also consider adding another use area further out in the back yard. An additional larger tree shaded terrace to act as a focal point from the house, and would also get you out into the garden with views back to the house which could be supplemented with more garden plantings, and designed with a future house wing remodel in mind.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 12:22PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

If a pergola is constructed outside the existing patio space, i.e. between the sun and the patio, not directly overhead the patio, the shade benefit should be greater.

I imagine your future addition off the east end extending into the back, creating a courtyard effect within 3 walls for your (enlarged) patio, then a pergola along the south connecting east and west wings. A pergola can take on any shape needed to battle the sun's rays, even having the top at an angle against the sun, with translucent panels, pierced metal, stained glass, sunshade fabric, or angled wood panels, vines or no vines. Unleash the creative juices!

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 1:28PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

To clarify my post above, if a pergola is constructed directly attached to the house, it will only shade the wall of the house, not the patio. Thus the pergola should be a structure out away from the house, so the resulting shade will fall on the patio. If you google photos of "pergolas for shade", you will see the shade pattern is not directly under the roof of the structure.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 1:40PM
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Well, sure, who wouldn't like to have a nice bluestone patio in lieu of a deck? That can get a little pricey, though, and ground level decks are much more DIY friendly. Such decks are widely used in my area, as an alternative to turf grass. You can do more on it than you can on grass, and it doesn't require watering. This lawn is bermuda, which will demand supplemental watering (if you want to keep it looking nice and green.) That said, I wouldn't propose an unshaded deck. That's the reason I was wondering about afternoon shade. Some of the trees behind and extending past the car port are quite tall, and it would be interesting to know just where the afternoon shadows fall. I understand the point about a vine covered arbor providing midday shade. It just seems to me regrettable that so large a space should be usable for such a short duration. I am much less confident about the utility of a pergola in an area uncooled by Pacific breezes. But who knows (certainly not me.)

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 2:24PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I'd expect summer rainfall in Memphis might be sufficient to keep it green in most summers, and lawn irrigation systems aren't necessarily standard there, I could be wrong about that. Certainly it will require less irrigation than it would in central Texas. I understand that at grade decks are popular in some parts of the country, but they generally don't last as long, require more upkeep, and the plastic/wood composite materials or higher end tropical hardwoods or cedar aren't cheap either. I wouldn't recommend a wood or composite at grade deck for a new client unless they specifically wanted one; because of the additional maintenance/durability issues and not incidental costs. Patios can also be a DIY project depending on the material chosen, not all patios need be bluestone pavers, there are plenty of suitable lower cost materials available such as brick, modular concrete, flagstone, etc.

I really think Kim's suggestion for a pergola set out from the patio as a connecting bridge across a courtyard formed by the proposed future addition is a very savvy design suggestion. A secondary terrace area further away from the house could also be designed with immediate shading from trees in mind, and would potentially have more chances of cooling breezes unimpeded by the house. I'd suspect that most use of outdoor terraces in this part of the country would be in the cooler parts of the day in any case, rather than mid day hot humid summers, could be wrong about that not knowing much about the OP's habits.

The idea of a shaded play area for the daughter doesn't really elaborate what might be desired. A play equipment set, lawn area for ball games or running around, a secret garden or play house? Sited to be easily viewable/supervised by parents from indoors, etc.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 3:50PM
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I'm in the process of replacing the 2x4 flooring on my deck. It has lasted about 25 years, and looks like I will be able to use the existing framing. Seems like I saw pressure treated 2x4x8's at BigBox the other day priced at $2.25 or so each. So, it will be a relatively inexpensive project.

There's much more to maintaining a bermuda (and I've got some) lawn than mowing and watering. Edging is a tedious business, and there are always problems with weed infestations. I'm sure you noted that OP's lawn, in some of the photos, is looking a bit stressed. But to each his own.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 4:24PM
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Busylittlebee, how much patio space would you want to add? ...Desire vs cost being the main determining factors. And please clarify future addition. Is it punching out the east side, south side, or both?

    Bookmark   April 17, 2012 at 6:25PM
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Wow, thanks to each of you for sharing your thoughts - I feel like a kid on Christmas seeing so many responses!

Before I start addressing all comments, I want to note the "secret garden" I forgot to mention in my original post. Right now it's just a heavily shaded area in the back corner (SE) of the yard enclosed by major overgrowth accessed by a gate from inside the dog pen. I'm not sure how shaded it would be if we were to seriously get after the privet/junk hedge jungle, but I thought I would mention it in case any of you have brilliant ideas for it as I think it could be a really special little area. No grass, some purple flowering ground cover, a scraggly old tree with a thick L shaped branch (would be a great climber). Now on to business. I'll start by topic, & try to answer any questions.

The privet hedge: Frankly, it scares me. I've been pretending it doesn't exist for the past 2.5 years but it's time to start facing it. Ideally, I would love to replace it but it's just not in the budget so I suppose we will try to cut it back and clean it up (per Yardvaark & Whitecap2's instructions - lower cuts, full-on weed war). As unsightly as it is, it does provide invaluable privacy and effectively blocks out the houses behind us. Yes, our nice neighbor to the east just had the stretch between us heavily cut back but the weed eradication remains our problem to tackle - yikes...

Possible future addition: This is really just a dream at this point but I want to avoid extensive or large planting in the area in case my dream does one day come true. The new wing would ideally extend south & a bit east as shown in blue in the pic below. I've probably made it a little over sized but that should give you an idea.

Afternoon shade: The carport wing of the house does cast shade starting at about 2:00 or so in the summer. It takes a while to extend much further than the bed but eventually about 1/3 of the lawn becomes shaded.

Yardvaark, I like the a/c screen & tree placement suggestions. And thank your for explaining the major down to minor (tall to short) planning method. Such a basic concept but one I'd never thought about before, with this being my first from-scratch landscaping project. I will definitely return with a plan for you all to review before starting any work. This forum is such an incredible resource & I am so grateful to each of you for sharing your knowledge!

Whitecap2, the small covered porch (8'x18') is up against the house & steps down to the exposed patio. I have marked it in green in the pic below. I had no idea hedges were passe ("so 60's"); I think they can be quite lovely when not grotesquely overgrown like ours!

Catkim, I adore the idea of a courtyard - so very charming. Beds along the hedge also sound very nice. And that link to the children's garden - how adorable! This would be a great time to start something like that as my little girl is now 16 months.

Mad_gallica, the dog run does eat up almost all of the existing shade but I'm afraid most of that shade is created by the junk growing in the privet hedge. If we were to clean up the hedge, I don't know how much shade would remain in that area. Regardless, the pen & dog house have to go.

Bahia, I'm ordering my own copy of the Southern Living Garden Book today. Thank you so much for the suggestion. I'm shocked my green thumbed mother & grandmother had not mentioned this book to me! Unfortunately, the sewer line is the original clay pipe. Depending on the type of design we settle on, it may be something we need to address before any landscaping begins.

Whitecap2, yes; lots of high maintenance, sun-drenched, thirsty grass. We purchased the house from the elderly widow of the original owner/builder who we have discovered made many odd decisions. But that's another story entirely.

Bahia, the carport does provide late afternoon shade, perhaps to about 1/3 of the back yard. As mentioned above, the turf is high maintenance. We have recently been working on the weeds more aggressively but the past 2 summers it required mowing every 5-7 days & lots of supplemental watering. I love the idea of adding another shaded terrace further out in the yard. I will definitely give this more thought.

Catkim, thank you so much for your comments on pergola placement. I have toyed with the idea of a pretty vine covered pergola in the past but never would have thought to place it further out to cast the properly desired shade. Thank you for keeping me from making a big mistake!

Whitecap2, visually I would prefer a patio over a deck in our situation. But I agree, anything would be more usable & less maintenance than our wide open grass field! You totally nailed my sentiment toward our current backyard: "It just seems to me regrettable that so large a space should be usable for such a short duration." We want to get outside & play!

Bahia, I wish we did have sufficient summer rainfall but Memphis tends to get hot & dry, irrigation systems being a must have for any well landscaped yard. Regarding our outdoor habits, they are definitely evolving as our child grows. A year ago I probably would not have sought a space for midday/afternoon play but now it is a real priority. As this is our first child, I'm not sure what to expect in terms of future needs but everything you mentioned ("play equipment set, lawn area for ball games or running around, a secret garden or play house? Sited to be easily viewable/supervised by parents from indoors, etc.") sound like great ideas. Any additional advice for planing with a child in mind would be wonderful!

Whitecap2, you are again right on. The lawn has not been overly happy even with all the attention we give it. I think the spots in the pictures are probably a result of the professional monthly spraying we started at the end of 2011.

Yardvaark, I'm not sure how much more patio space we would want. I think it would definitely be a budgetary decision. The current patio is yucky pebble concrete & I wouldn't even know how to go about expanding it. I certainly wouldn't want any more of the pebble stuff. Would the whole thing have to be ripped up or could some kind of stone be laid on top and extended further out?

I hope I touched on everything. Again, thank you so much for all your help. I can't tell you how much I appreciate it!

Possible future addition (blue) & current covered patio (green):

    Bookmark   April 18, 2012 at 4:37PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

Interesting that your proposed room addition is about exactly where I pictured it would go. The new enclosed courtyard formed will probably feel a little tight within that footprint, but if enclosed with an open arbor/pergola with a climbing rose or similar could be a nice transition to the rest of the yard. As you've mentioned that the existing sewer line is clay tile, I'd suggest that small Crape Myrtle is too close to the line, and as it runs across the middle of your yard, might be worth upgrading prior to adding any further trees.

If you have sufficient grade drop at your back door opening on the existing patio to allow finishing off with flagstone/slate/tile and thinset or regular mortar bed, it's possible to leave that concrete in place, but jacking it out isn't that hard/expensive to do, and would give you a clean slate to change the size/configuration/materials to something you prefer. As you've mentioned your tight budget, you'll want to read up on general landscape installation and costs, there are plenty of books or articles in magazines such as Southern Living that could give you ideas. It may also be worth your while to hire a landscape architect or garden designer to consult on a master plan/review the specifics of your site at some point;to better help you pull a plan together. You'll probably quickly realize that unless you do it all yourselves as DIY projects, it may require phasing over time to do the entire garden.

It's not clear to me whether you currently have an irrigation system for the lawn, I assume you don't? It sounds like the Bermuda grass lawn wasn't a good choice of grass for your location, but I'm not familiar enough with conditions in Memphis to recommend a better/lower water use/less maintenance intensive alternative. I do know that here in California Bermuda grass has fallen out of favor because it isn't really drought tolerant if you like a lush green look, and it is a pain to keep it out of planting areas. Hybrid Bermuda grass is generally a more durable/aesthetic choice in new installations, but not any more drought tolerant.

If you don't replace that sewer line, I'd be careful to keep any new trees to at least 15 feet off the line, and be prepared to clear it for tree roots in the future if drainage slows down. Good luck with your project, it would be interesting to see follow up posts of your design/layout/materials choices as you pin down your solutions.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 7:11AM
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It's just a fact that clay tile is troublesome in regard to tree roots penetrating it. The roots of a large tree eventually go very far... like 40, 50' or more. It's doubtful that there is anywhere in your back yard you could put a tree and be free of fear of root penetration of the sewer. If the pipe is in good condition, you may escape problems even if you have trees. But eventually, without notice they may come. If the line ever becomes clogged because of roots, the problem will be chronic as long as the offending tree lives. The solution is replacement of the line with PVC which, for all practical purposes, will be trouble free. If you plan to replace the line at some point, planting trees now will not likely cause damage to the existing line for a few years. A plumbers bid to replace the line will likely be expensive, but in fact, the process of installing a new line is, theoretically, relatively simple. What adds a great deal to the expense is that the line is underground (facts about it unseen and unknown), digging, and that plumbers will have you over a barrel if the line has failed. I went through this experience at my first house. Because the bids were unmanageable, I rented a backhoe and did it myself and even with my having to replace the driveway, it was cheaper than having plumbers replace the line. If you ever have to replace the line, it would be worth your money to hire unskilled labor to hand-excavate down to the line where it comes out of the house in order to ascertain it's depth. The depth is what will determine the machinery needed to excavate for a new line. (The old line would just be abandoned.)

I see a crack in your patio. If building over the patio with any hard material that is directly connected to the old patio, the crack will transfer to the surface of the new material. I see a step down to the patio. If that condition is how it connects to the structure, it would be possible to build over the existing patio with pavers on sand and the crack would not transfer.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 8:57AM
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You're very kind.

If that sewer line is tile, it's just a matter of time before it causes a crisis of some sort, perhaps one that will oblige you to seek temporary living quarters. I'd move replacing it close to the top of my priority list. I'm sure you will want to investigate the possibility of relocating it. If you don't have underground rock to contend with, you might even be able to do the trenching yourself, with a rented trencher. You could also do the trenching for an irrigation system, while you were at it. When I installed mine, some years ago, some of the major irrigation equipment suppliers were providing free, detailed design advice, and I assume they still do.

Check the Landscaping Math thread for a foretaste of what laying stone or pavers entails. Also check the elegant "L" shaped patio in the photo posted by deviant-designer. I could see something like this extending down your carport, where the available shade seems to be.

I wouldn't waste any time on tree selection and placement, because it will soon be too late to plant. Quality trees will be a sound investment, even if you don't "stay in place" long enough to get the full benefit of them. I've heard that the longleaf pine is your "state tree," but it's said to grow slowly. Perhaps there might be a faster growing alternative. I see that the University of Tennessee has a county extension service. If this is anything like the Texas A&M extension service, it would be a valuable resource. Whenever I have an "issue," I just call the county office and, as often as not, find myself talking with a master gardener. I've haven't tried it, but I've heard that you can splice a few lengths of PVC together and raise them aloft, to get a good idea of where the shadows of your mature tree will fall.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 9:51AM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

It's also perfectly feasible to keep the old clay tile line working by snaking it to cut the offending tree roots on an as needed basis. No dissent here on the fact that tree roots grow very far and there is no magic number for safe distance to plant, but a good 15 foot minimum buys you time/minimizes the immediate problems.

If you are doing new permanent paving or substantial work over the line,it will make sense to replace it first, then build. The trenching is most definitely doable as a DIY project; no impeded access issues, no existing tree roots or trees, and it's even possible to use special equipment to horizontal drill the last bit below the patio if desired to leave it intact. On the otherhand, as it's cracked, you don't like the material and it doesn't conform to the logical shape for a future addition; why not rip it out now? Installing a new larger terrace of nonmortared brick or flagstone over sand base would allow you to layout something that might even extend across the future room addition, but could be easily adjusted later without demolishing new construction.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 1:38PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I find it quite noticeable that you are using the one part of your yard that is shady and thus ideal for a place to be/child to play for a flowerbed. That would be the stretch along the carport arm. If I were you I would have that flowerbed out of there and the area done in pavers or decking or something similar so fast your head would spin.

Plants can survive out in the sun way better than people can. And putting the plants further out in the yard (maybe in a bed adjoining this new patio) will allow you to
(a) use plants to shade the paved area in the morning (depending on how tall they are),
(b) avoid paving over the sewer line or building anything on top of it, thus allowing you to delay that decision, and
(c) allow you to create a flexible space that will function for your child(ren) now and when they are older.

Plants will grow better out there than they do at the foundation, and you will probably be able to enjoy them more, maybe even from inside. And you get to leave a long green pitch that will be good for ball-playing, running, and so forth.

Having made every mistake in the book with trying to design a yard for my kids, I feel qualified to offer advice - they are now near 20. Here are the things about kids. First, they grow. They actually grow almost faster than you can build things for them. And anything you build, you eventually have to dismantle and change (and with kids, who has time?). Second thing about kids is that they are individuals who may not turn into the people you imagine they will be. You may picture a sedate well-dressed, clean child admiring the flowers and loving a secret garden, and spend a year creating just such a space for them. Then you turn around and see you have a child whose idea of happiness is a shovel and a pile of dirt. Third thing about kids is that they are adaptable. Within the type of person they are, they will find a way to create enjoyment in the space they have.

My advice is to make a space out there that YOU like to be. Your child wants to be with you (and you probably want it that way too). If the space is fairly empty, you will bring toys outside, and if the space offers scope for doing things, the child will find those things. From a bare patio with a bench to a riotous garden, from a soccer pitch to an adventure playground, the child will find a way to make it hers.

We built a playhouse for our kids. They played in it a bit (we never did get a roof on it) and it stood there for years after they lost interest before I got around to dismantling it. As we then recrafted the yard into a nicer patio arrangement, they horsed around in whatever the condition of the yard was at the time (they were old enough to help by then too). I also gardened ferociously the whole time they were growing up, and because it took me a while to meet all my challenges, the space was constantly changing. They occupied themselves for hours with digging and building, collecting and arranging everything from sticks and flowers to stones and leaves. They learned about gardening too - they learned plant names (partly for safety) and they used to shop for plants with me and got to pick some too and plant them. Elder offspring actually just got a summer job in a garden centre :-) (not just on the basis of play at home; my parents also have a holiday place that allowed real garden experimentation). Younger offspring was my flower arranger, and loved picking them and putting them in vases.

In this way the space sort of makes the child, too. Mine developed excellent fine motor skills and attention to detail :-) I'm sure they'd be different if they'd had a soccer pitch or a skateboard ramp (we used the local schoolyard for big space).

In short, create a space where people can be, and you will find your child can be there now, and also when she is 15 and wants to hang out with friends (which will conveniently be under your eye!).

On the sewer question: if you ever replace it, don't just put in a new line, but also an outdoor clean-out through which you can run the rotorooter to any offending tree roots. Again, this is the voice of hard-won experience talking, which once had to run 100 feet of rotorooter line from the basement toilet (had to be taken off, of course) to where the willow tree had found the line's junction with the city line. The willow tree stayed there for another 12 years or so and we had to clean the line every year or two. After the first time, however, we installed a clean-out down in the yard, and could do it from outside. Never fun, but way less fun the first time.

Sorry for the essay...

Karin L

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 6:21PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Amazing that I could have forgotten anything with the amount I wrote, but if/as your child is old enough to be outside from time to time unattended or at some distance from you is a perimeter containment system of some sort. I found a full fence to be quite relaxing for me; child could not leave without me knowing, and no one, person or animal (local dogs for example) could come sashaying in. Balls stay in yard better too. Your hedge might do one side quite well, but consider the others.

Karin L

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 7:07PM
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I'd better retract the words I improvidently uttered about that sewer lateral before someone invites me to eat them. The municipal main could easily be 8 ft. or more below grade.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 7:24PM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

If you look at the aerial photographs, it looks like the neighbors to the south and west have fairly large trees near the property line. The blue line ends in the crown of one.

Depending on where the nearest park/recreational open space is, I'd definitely think two or three times before doing anything to break up that open space. When my daughter was little, we did spend much of our time outside in the back yard under the trees. When she got older, we moved to the side yard for softball, soccer, croquet, and the unofficial neighborhood sport, volleyball.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2012 at 7:48PM
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