A major backyard update – lessons learned from the big freeze and exactly what we planted this time

Our backyard is back! If you’ve been here for a while, you know ours lower backyard has been a years-long process – which I call out because for most of us it is the reality of designing an outdoor space. Very few of us have the budget (or foresight) to do one big “installation” that results in a fully finished farm or home. Plus, where would the fun be in that? Adam and I get so much joy from always having one creative outlet at home. We typically tackle one big project a year, and after 12 years of living here, our home is that much closer to our ultimate vision. Although I doubt we’ll ever really be done.

Additionally, this slower approach has given us time to dream, be creative and let the design evolve as our own personal styles have evolved over the years.

In fact, I am actually grateful did not do have the budget to fully finish the backyard when we first moved into our house. I probably would have done things very differently, and I’m glad that my now 38-year-old self makes some of the design decisions that my 25-year-old self wouldn’t have understood. So since it’s been a long time coming, let’s do a quick recap of how the lower backyard has come together since we really started working on it three years ago, and then I’ll share the latest photos so you can see, what new changes we have made this summer.

“Before”

For the first 10 years we lived in the house, our entire focus went to the top level of our backyard design—that’s the much smaller space that our living room opens up to and includes our pool, so naturally we put our budget into this space that was most visible and most used. We would look over the railing at the overgrown forest that lay 30 feet below the pool deck and imagine what it might look like with a small much work. We knew this space had tons of potential, but we also knew it was going to be a massive project and we wanted to wait until we were ready.

Phase 1: Levels and terraces

In 2019 we decided to start the project of terracing some of the backyard areas to make them flat enough to be usable. Our backyard is mostly sloped and I learned that there really isn’t much you can do on a hillside like that without building patio walls and bringing in enough dirt to fill them in. We dreamed of a backyard where our children could explore, where we could gather around one open fire and having campfire style dinners with friends, and really where we could really immerse ourselves in nature.

Phase 2: Firepit and Steps

The next year we leveled things out enough to bring in gravel and we added a massive fire pit and stone steps leading from the upper deck down to the two lower decks.

Phase 3: Plants!

We also made the very exciting decision to add a lot of plants, turning it into a lush garden with olive trees, rosemary, lots of agave and boxwood. It really felt like paradise, and even Architectural Digest ran a story in our backyard.

Phase 4: The Big Freeze (Farewell, Plants)

Then in 2021 the big freeze happened in Texas and like everyone else in Austin we lost almost all the plants we had added. It was heartbreaking to see that our new olive trees had to be cut back to the stump, large agaves froze completely and much of our ivy and jasmine vines we had grown for years did not make it. We let everything go dormant for a year, and then finally in the spring of 2022 we could see what was still alive and where we had to start from scratch.

Backyard design lesson we learned the hard way? Native plants are the ones that are going to survive the elements. The heartiest plants are the ones we used as the dominant varieties when it was time to replant, avoiding the more tropical varieties like palms, plumeria, bougainvillea and agave americana that just can’t take extreme cold.

Phase 5: Wooden deck and raised vegetable beds

This summer we began the next phase: a large wooden terrace and raised kitchen gardens– something I’ve dreamed of having here for years. When I first started planning the vegetable gardens, I envisioned a very simple project. Bring in some dirt, build the frame, and call it a day. However, it turned into a massive undertaking. The earth here was so un-level that we actually had to build two more levels of decking just to get it flat enough for Adam to add the raised beds.

over: Indian lounge chairs, 11′ market umbrella with teak base, ceramics let outdoor cushions in slate

Building the stone patios took a few months, so when that phase was finished it was time to replant the areas of the backyard that had died in the frost.

over: indio extendable dining table, indio eucalyptus dining room chairs, gray arrow lights, decker mango wood lanterns

Phase 6: Replant, this time with more native varieties

Adams’ planting strategy for 2022 included more negative space and grouped the new plants into “clumps” with a few complementary varieties. Not only did this add height differences that created a beautiful overall backyard design, it also gave us the most bang for our buck as it didn’t require spreading out plants in every area of ​​this expansive space.

After the freeze we cut back 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 came back as beautiful olive bushes that we pruned into domes and embraced as part of the natural design. The jasmine vines along the fence also came back and although it was sad to have to “start over” from scratch, we are amazed at how much they have already grown up the fence in a year.

over: Belgian linen fringed knotted table throw, handcrafted ceramic hurricane, bondi terra cotta vases, globe outdoor string light

In an effort to use more native varieties, here are the plants we focused on:

  • Japanese boxwood
  • Cherry laurel
  • Indian Hawthornes
  • Mexican Bush Sage
  • Little Ollies (they fought in the freezer, but they came back)
  • Rosemary
  • Whale’s Tongue Agave
  • White Guara

The end result was a more free-flowing, organic design using heartier plants that can withstand the elements (if cared for properly). It actually feels more in tune with our Mediterranean aesthetic and I love where we ended up.

Adam and his father built this deck from Ipe wood. I’m excited to have a large, even surface for yoga sessions, dinners with friends, and relaxing at sunset overlooking the vegetable gardens.

Adam and his dad also built our three tall vegetable gardens and I’m so excited for the next phase! It’s going to be my own project, and I’ll share a lot more about how they built the beds (and what I’m planting!) in a separate post next month.

over: Indian lounge chairs, 11′ market umbrella with teak base, ceramics let outdoor cushions in slate, decker mango wood lanterns, drum side table

Phase 7: Here’s what’s next

What’s next for the backyard? Well, we want to create multiple paths that lead to different areas of the room, and we want to create a trail through the woods behind the backyard for the kids to explore. I also want to plant wildflowers in a clearing out there and one day I’d like to put one pizza oven also close to the kitchen gardens. But that’s all for future projects! For now, we will be playing horseshoes, making s’mores, and enjoying the last days of summer in the backyard. And I definitely have my work cut out for me as I start planning my fall garden.

What questions do you have about our backyard designs? Drop them in the comments.

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