Garden Makeover: Blank-Slate Backyard Becomes Best on the Block

modern chairs by fire pit

Jeremy Samuelson / Getty Images

Owning a new home is the goal of many buyers—everything, of course, is updated, unused, with fresh materials and appliances.

If there's a backyard, it's pretty much a blank slate, which is easier to work with than an older, established garden that has mature trees (and roots), shrubs, and hardscape that must be excavated, removed, and recycled.

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    Before: A Lawn and Small Patio

    plain back yard
    The backyard before: grass and not much more. Paradise Restored

    When Mark and Wendy Finch and their two young daughters bought a two-story home in a new tract in northwest Portland, Oregon, it came equipped with modern conveniences and a bare backyard, save for a lawn and what landscape designer Micah Dennis laughingly refer to as "an ugly little concrete patio."

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  • 02 of 29

    Minimal Front Yards

    tract homes
    New homes have limited setback. Paradise Restored

    With limited setback and the control of a homeowners association (HOA), residents in the neighborhood focus more on their larger backyards than what's going on in front. Northwest Portland is an area made up of Old-Portland and Craftsman-style houses along with condos and apartment buildings, restaurants, and shops in nearby Nob Hill.

    For hikers and outdoorsy types, Forest Park is a 5,200-acre urban escape with trails, lots of trees, and community-minded conservation activities. The architectural style of the Finch's neighborhood is what Dennis dubs "Northwest Craftsman" and likens to a rustic, lodge-style design rather than traditional Craftsman architecture.

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  • 03 of 29

    The Plan

    plan view
    Plan view, illustrations, and suggested plants and materials/products for the Finch project. Paradise Restored

    The Finches contacted Dennis, head of the Portland landscape design firm Paradise Restored to basically create a new, more livable outdoor space.

    Among their requests: a covered area, an outdoor kitchen, a place to put a family-size hot tub, a pergola, a fire pit, along with privacy from their neighbors. They wanted it all to come together and be integrated.

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    Before: Basic Fencing

    yard with lawn
    The house came with basic fencing and a lawn. Paradise Restored

     "We start the design from inside the house and consider what people will see as they look out of their windows and doors," says Dennis. "We capture those sightlines from inside and try to use them to pull people outside. It's what we call 'eye candy.' Give them some eye candy to go outdoors."

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  • 05 of 29

    Building the Patio

    patio construction
    Paradise Restored

    During construction in February 2017, the weather was typical for that time of year in Portland, meaning days of nonstop rain.

    "After we set up all the forms for the patio and cover we had a long waiting game while we looked for a clear day during which the concrete could be poured," explains Dennis. The patio area is large: 1,200 square feet of concrete.

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  • 06 of 29

    Pushing Mud

    redesigning yard
    Paradise Restored

    A section of the existing cedar fence was removed to allow easy access for large equipment, supplies, and materials. Endless rain created mud that was a challenge for the designers and workers.

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  • 07 of 29

    Focal Point

    oregon backyard design
    A painting of a wine bottle serves as inspiration for the evening meal. Paradise Restored

    For the Finch project, the eye candy or focal point is the outdoor kitchen and bar, which is right outside the back door.

    Working with the designers, Mark and Wendy Finch elected to go with a lean-to structure which was attached to the back of the house. In the back of the grill and outdoor kitchen is an impressive wall of stonework.

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  • 08 of 29

    Outdoor Kitchen

    built in grill

    The fully equipped kitchen includes the grill, an unusual hood, sink, drawers, doors, granite countertops and a bar—forming an L-shape unit with the kitchen.

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  • 09 of 29

    All the Details

    backyard kitchen with grill
    Brick and stone were used in the kitchen design. Paradise Restored

    The Finch kitchen includes a storage nook for firewood to make pizzas or to use for the nearby fire pit. 

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  • 10 of 29

    Granite Bar

    outdoor kitchen
    A granite bar creates a wall for the kitchen. Paradise Restored

    Friends or family who sit at the bar can cheer on the chef in the outdoor kitchen, enjoy drinks and appetizers, or help with prep.

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  • 11 of 29

    The Kitchen and Bar

    outdoor kitchen
    The kitchen and bar were intended to lure people outdoors. Paradise Restored

    When planning an outdoor kitchen, it's smart to choose a grill first—that way you'll know its size and can plan the counters to accommodate it.

    The standard size for a counter is 36 inches high and about 30 inches deep.

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  • 12 of 29

    Many Dining Options

    outdoor kitchen and living room
    Outdoor seating is within a few feet from the kitchen. Paradise Restored

    Instead of a large, formal outdoor dining table, the Finch project offers many places for family and guests to sit and eat.

    Since dining outside is supposed to be casual anyway, some may choose to sit at the small table, while others might stay at the bar, kick back in the outdoor living room, or wander to nearby lounge chairs or the fire pit area.

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  • 13 of 29

    Covered Structure

    covered patio
    A ceiling fan helps cool off or warm up, depending on the direction it's used. Paradise Restored

    Dennis considers the tongue-and-groove patio roof to be the other sightline or focal point of the project.

    "It grabs people," he says. "It's like an extension of the interior and the wood finish is beautiful."  The structure covers the outdoor kitchen, bar, seating area, and most of the patio.

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  • 14 of 29

    Corner Bar

    outdoor bar

    The edge of the countertop/bar shows a view of nearby lounge chairs, new fencing, and arborvitae.

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  • 15 of 29

    Hot Tub Corner

    hot tub ideas
    Steps make entering and exiting the spa safer. Paradise Restored

    The Finch family bought a hot tub—it was Paradise Restored's challenge to incorporate it into the patio design and add privacy.

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  • 16 of 29

    Hot Tub and Pergola

    hot tub pergola
    A pergola provides some privacy for bathers. Paradise Restored

    On that same patio slab is the family hot tub, with a pergola that adds architectural interest and also acts as a privacy fence.

    Since the houses are close together, it's a challenge for homeowners to block the view into their yard from their neighbors' second-story windows. Interestingly, one of the stipulations of the HOA is that homeowners' views can't be blocked. This mostly pertains to types of plants, such as those that grow too tall or wide.

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  • 17 of 29

    View From the Seating Area

    patio with hot tub
    Mats and towels make bathing more convenient. Paradise Restored

    The height of the hot tub is just below the window, which makes for a cleaner design and does not block the view from inside. String lights on the pergola add a sense of fun in the evening hours.

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  • 18 of 29


    pergola for hot tub

    The wood pergola blends well with the tongue-and-groove structure on the patio; nothing looks "added on", as is sometimes the case with older homes.

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  • 19 of 29

    No Peeking!

    fence for hot tub equipment
    Slats are tighter where privacy is needed most. Paradise Restored

    The horizontal wood-slat pergola and fence are pleasing to look at from any vantage point. Even a piece of equipment gets an elegant custom house.

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  • 20 of 29

    Sophisticated Side Yard

    side yard ideas
    Paradise Restored

    A few feet from the pergola and small wood shelter is a redesigned side yard. Paradise Restored added horizontal fencing at the entrance and exit points of the side yard for continuity and an upgrade.

    This particular side yard is very narrow, which would discourage anyone who tends to store lumber, old patio furniture, and clutter in these spaces.

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  • 21 of 29

    Lounge Area

    umbrella and lounge chairs
    Paradise Restored

    To the left of the bar is a circular paved area for backyard lounging, complete with a red umbrella. This offers a view of the fire pit for those who like the look of fire but don't want to gather 'round the circle (or are fine where they are).

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  • 22 of 29

    View From the Lawn

    backyard lounge chairs

    While a lawn existed to begin with, it and the tiny concrete slab patio were dug up to design the Finch family's new yard with its many zones.

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  • 23 of 29

    The Fire Pit Zone

    fire pit
    Paradise Restored

    Accessible via basalt pavers on the lawn, a custom-designed fire pit is simple, round, and perfect for huddling together on chilly evenings or for roasting marshmallows.

    In addition to the wood Adirondack chairs, a wall allows more friends to gather near the fire. The wall is also used for a raised planting bed. Plants added to the new landscape include star jasmine, rhododendron, hostas, ornamental grasses, and sarcococca.

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  • 24 of 29

    Pit Stop

    fire pit circle
    Paradise Restored

     Materials used in the fire pit area include hearthstone, flagstone, and cultured stone.

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  • 25 of 29

    Corner of Yard

    backyard paving
    Paradise Restored

    To the left of the fire pit is the cedar fencing that came with the two-year-old house. Some of the arborvitaes have already started to grow past the fence height.

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  • 26 of 29


    path on lawn
    Paradise Restored

    Looking from the fire pit region, pavers lead to the lounge chairs, kitchen, and the rest of the patio. 

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  • 27 of 29

    Horizontal Fence

    fence and lawn
    Paradise Restored

    To upgrade existing cedar fencing, Dennis added panels or sections of horizontal-slat cedar fencing which is stronger and more attractive.

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  • 28 of 29

    Low Wall

    wood fence
    Paradise Restored

    A low wall along the perimeter of the yard helps reinforce landscaping and also provides additional seating for parties. 

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  • 29 of 29

    A Final Look

    backyard picture

    From dull to spectacular, the multi-zone yard is cohesive and well designed.

    "We tried to make everything work as far as being easy to move among spaces seamlessly," says Dennis. "And I think we did it."