before & after: two backyard renovations

People are definitely getting outside and making the most of summer, and as a result, we have two awesome backyard renovations to share today. Landscape designer Nick McCullough recently completed this garden for a client, and it is quite an impressive transformation. I love the multiple levels and the dark, dramatic plants, not to mention the dreamy outdoor seating surrounding the cozy stone fireplace. Great work, Nick! — Kate

Have a Before & After you’d like to share? Shoot me an email with your images right here! (Low res, under 500k per image, please.)

See more of both Nick and Jess’ backyard renovations after the jump!

Time: 4 months

Cost: $25k

Basic Steps: The client wanted to modernize his Georgian home’s backyard (1500 sq ft) and add some much-needed privacy. I started with a design of modern rectangular/diagonal lines to elongate the space and achieve an outdoor-room feel. I added a modern pleached hedge of Frans Fontaine European Hornbean (Carpinus betulus “Frans Fontiane”) and selected classic materials like bluestone and split-face limestone to achieve a modern look but blend with the brick of the home. My advice is to use inspirational images to start — if there is a stone or plant you like in the image, your local garden center or stone provider can identify it and let you know if it will work in your area. Get a master plan and then decide what to do first and what to add to over time. Remember, plants are living things and will only look better in the following years as they mature. — Nick

It’s so fun to see the projects that come in when the weather warms up and people head outdoors! While this second backyard renovation from Jess in Portland is a smaller production than Nick’s big-budget redesign above, it boasts many enviable elements. I’m particularly drawn to the vegetable gardens that border the dining area and the mix of bright green and sage-gray tones in both the plants and the furniture. Wonderful work, Jess!

Time: 2 years

Cost: $1000

Basic Steps: The first summer, we rented a sod cutter and spent the rest of the summer leveling the middle area with a flat shovel and building up the surrounding plant beds. We installed a French drain to take care of a downspout that was in the way and covered the neighbors’ fence with inexpensive reed fencing. Once we decided the middle area looked level enough (it’s actually subtly graded away from the house), we spread the gravel. For the rock borders, we bought extremely inexpensive tumbled rocks called rustic basalt. They were a fraction of the cost of most wall rocks, but they still have a lot of angles and a bit of color. Devising a little wall from them was like working on a big puzzle. After that we were on the hunt for plants and bushes.

Our advice: Get started! You will be thanking yourself in a couple years when you have the joy of seeing your plants start to mature and fill in. They say to buy all your plants and bushes at once and plant them at the same time so you will space them well. We didn’t do that, but that certainly makes sense to us now, as we have had to move some plants around and lost a couple in the process.

Regarding gravel: We chose gravel because we could not afford pavers or find enough bricks for such a large space. Don’t get pea gravel, which rolls around under your feet. One-quarter crushed gravel is angular and flinty and sort of locks together, so it tamps down nicely. After a couple heavy rains, it felt much more solid and settled. If you get a lot of fall leaves, gravel might not be the best bet for you. We just get pine needles from the neighbors tree — the pine needles mix with the gravel and make it feel a bit like a national park :) — Jess


  1. Ched says:

    Death to all things grass?

  2. Matt says:

    Does anyone know who makes those gray lounge chairs facing the fireplace? Those are AWESOME. Beautiful space!

  3. Wow! I like seeing what can be done with two very different budgets. Both backyards have been completely transformed into beautiful spaces. I love the added privacy of the first space and the cozy seating area of the second. Well done!

  4. angie grover says:

    totally awesome advice as far as the specifics of plants and gravel material are concerned. that helps a bunch as i am brainstorming a backyard make-over but have a massive oak in the center of it all! beautiful job on the makeover!

  5. alex wijnen says:

    Both are major transformations, love it! I’m working towards a pea gravel backyard myself but have a few other priorities to tackle first :) this is great inspiration, though, to keep me going!

  6. Yonghui says:

    They’re great before and after’s, but I’m pretty sad that all the grass is gone.. :(

  7. Jola says:

    I would not mourn the loss of my lawn to stone or gravel or planting beds. Maintaining a lawn takes time and money: mowing, watering, edging, de-thatching, raking leaves, aerating, fertilizing, weed control, reseeding. Lawns do not handle people or animal traffic well; they suffer in shade. As a suburban home-owner I’ve been frustrated by all of the above.

  8. Ann says:

    I’m pretty happy all the green concrete (aka “grass”) is gone, but sad that it was all replaced by actual concrete. I prefer grass or clover or brick/thyme pathways, some grass “rooms”, some romantic plantings. This looks a litte too Garden Centre Showroom for me.

  9. kati says:

    i have so much grass that i have been looking to do some hardscaping on our side yard! the second set of photos is just perfect – i love it! especially the inclusion of their garden, which we seem to move every year! thanks!!!

  10. lauren says:

    Woah. This is super inspirational!

  11. Raquel says:

    Grass is overrated, it sucks up way too much water (fast becoming a limited and expensive resource) and general maintenance effort. These spaces are beautiful, water efficient, and not just concreted over so rainwater has nowhere to go. Very smart, socially and environmentally friendly solutions.

  12. jen says:

    love the vintage clothesline posts in the second makeover. i could just tell it was portland, btw – same plants and those fences we all seem to have to deal with hiding!

    how did you deal with raising beds up against the nieghbors fence? did you just pile the dirt up? and where (for fellow pdx’ers) did you procure those basalt rocks?

  13. Adam says:

    Would love to see more garden before & afters…

  14. Christina says:

    I also noticed the reductions in grass, but I responded favorably for the most part. I do think it’s nice to have some areas of grass, but I really like the alternatives shown here. There’s still plenty of green, after all. It’s just not underfoot. If you have a dog or a baby that wants to tottle around in the soft grass, it’d be nice to have some. But otherwise… I could take it or leave it.

  15. Ace says:

    Super bummed that everyone got rid of their grass! I like that they added organization and structure to their yards but a little more play area would be nice!

  16. sydney says:

    yeah, I’m usually anti-grass, but I kinda missed it in the first one. it sort of softened the look.

    Please continue to show more Before&After yard spaces.

  17. Lauren says:

    Whoa! What an awesome transformation!

    Looks great.

  18. Kay says:

    This is great. I would LOVE to see more outdoor spaces on this site!

  19. Jess says:

    Thank you everyone!

    For Jen- the neighbors lawn was a bit higher than ours to begin with, and between removing the sod and leveling the middle area we kept digging down. So the beds are raised a bit (I was careful not to go above our neighbors little brick edgers) but the middle area is a lot lower as well. We found the rustic basalt at Clackamas Landscape Supply down in Oregon City, they have a big bin of it and you can pick your pieces by hand. Super friendly folk!

    For those mourning the grass- never fear, we still have a side lawn and front lawn that are mostly grass! Our goal is to reduce that with plant beds as well, but keep a lovely grassy area in the middle that can be easily mowed with a push mower. I do hope the feel of our backyard will soften with time, as ground cover plants cascade over the rocks, and the bushes grow and fill in… For now, I love that we can have a table and chairs back there- that old grass was so lumpy and hilly, when we tried to set them back there it looked like they were at sea :)

  20. Caroline says:

    Beautiful! and amazing before and after. The use of all the different types of stone works so well here.

  21. Zarich says:

    These are lovely garden renovations and look good, but I am always sad to see grass replaced by paving. A garden shouldn’t necessarily be an extension of the kitchen/dining room, but a garden! Getting grass between your toes is an important part of recuperating from a hard day at the office or an evening outside under the stars and not in front of the television. As for the comment about sucking up water which is a much needed resource, grass is a plant, and plants give us oxygen! Also a much needed resource!!!

  22. What a shame to get rid of so much grass. Although it requires more upkeep than gravel/ decking/ stone it’s important to remember that it not only acts as drainage for rain, it is necessary for insects/ wildlife. Where do all the worms go?! Otherwise, good jobs!

  23. Tami says:

    Great projects! Can we have more, more, more outdoor makeovers?

    I’m really surprised at these comments mourning the loss of lawn. Turfgrass is pretty much a green desert. It doesn’t support much in the way of native insect or wildlife. The layered, varied plantings replacing it probably provide far better habitat for critters. The runoff from the grass is nearly as fast as hard surfaces, particularly since in these cases it’s planted on top of packed city fill soil. In Portland, too, which has a typical western seasonal dry/wet climate, you’re forced to irrigate it with expensive treated tapwater to keep it green through droughty summers. Totally unsustainable. Furthermore, I’ll bet that gravel holds a lot more water than the lawn. And if you construct your hardscape using permeable pavers/construction methods, it definitely infiltrates water well. Finally, those big areas of lawn obviously didn’t get much use by these families. Now those backyards are terrific, inviting places which are probably used on a daily basis . . . isn’t that the real point of having a backyard?

    Just a note of advice on the gravel: I found that it makes a perfect seed-sprouting medium. So make sure to keep unwanted seedlings raked out when they’re babies or they can take over.

  24. Taryn says:

    To those who are criticizing the grass removal – at the end of the day, isn’t it personal preference? Like Tami said, they have plenty of plants to provide greenery, oxygen and a home for bugs, and grass is simply not sustainable for all the water it needs. I have a clover lawn right now, which hardly needs watering and the occasional mow, and will most likely never have grass. My husband and I lead very busy lives, and we also have a dog, so combine weekly mowing, frequent watering, and the dog urine grass burns, and grass doesn’t make sense for us. Again, it’s personal preference. It’s not important to me to be able to walk barefoot in my yard or roll around on the ground, but to enjoy a low maintenance oasis. I love these makeovers; more please!

  25. Phyllis says:

    It’s very encouraging to read all the comments in support of doing away with turfgrass lawns. If you research the history of lawns you will learn that the proliferation of the turfgrass lawn is a fairly recent development, which boomed with suburban development following WW2. It is hopefully an esthetic that we are outgrowing and it’s great to see new ideas and materials becoming popular. These examples are truly useful and beautiful outdoor living spaces rather than green voids. Well done!

  26. TEQUILA B says:


  27. Lisa says:

    Add me to the folks who are happy to see yard renovations where lawn grass areas are reduced. These were both lovely transformations! Lawn grass is one of the more water-intensive ground covers out there. I agree that adding some thyme or ice plant covers would have been nice, but overall, I feel that both transformations kept a proper amount of green plants in their design. Honestly, we have a sea of lawn grass in our yard and I have been trying to research ways to reduce it, as it the upkeep is ridiculously expensive and wastes precious water.

  28. Kristina says:

    Wow ! I don’t feel so bad about not having put turfgrass in our yard now. I love all sorts of landscaping though, which is the real reason I haven’t done anything. I love these transformations

  29. alyse sandborn says:

    the chairs look like they are from Room and Board – called MB1 price $450

  30. jill says:

    Yes! I agree with everyone else about more yard makeovers. As for the grass controversy, it’s a personal choice, and people should just leave others to decide for themselves. Not a moral dilema.

  31. Pip says:

    Very nice before and afters. I have to agree on the grass issue as well. It seems unfortunate to see it go, but they have created alternate green space by adding bushes, plants, a garden etc. So just swapping one form of vegetation for another. It looks like they kept the existing trees/bushes, which I think would be the real impact if removed.
    It appears to be a way more functional space, that now has more efficient maintenance.

  32. Natalie Kimmel says:

    Grass is such a water sucker and in some locations down-right unenvironmental, so I’m thrilled to see they got rid of it. The surrounding plants are lovely and probably take a fraction of the water. Beautiful posts!

  33. Vanessa says:

    Grass is not a water sucker if you don’t water it and dosn’t require any chemicals if you don’t use them. In Portland we have three dry months (though, not this year apparently) and we just let the lawns go dormant. They green right up again in September. When a lawn is already in place it is much more environmentally sound to leave it there than driving somewhere to buy gravel, driving it home, renting a sod remover, taking the sod to the dump, ect. To me a lawn is easy, simple, pretty – kids and dogs love it and so do I.

    That said: I love both those yard makeovers, I wish I was that talented.

  34. Great job on the blog, it looks great. I am going to bookmark it and will make sure to check back weekly!

  35. Bruce Denney says:

    Replacing a natural environment with a load of concrete and making a tonne of Co2 in the process.

    Well done

  36. Alison Marie says:

    I don’t know that the trade-off of saving water by replacing grass with stone will pay off- the stone absorbs and then reflects much more heat back to the house, which can lead to increased cooling costs indoors, more energy used, and in general adding to the urban heat sink which makes living out of cities so much more pleasant. There *are* living options for lawn that take less water and chemicals than traditional lawns.


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