Jeffrey Erb of Jeffrey Erb Landscape Design, whose firm has handled terraces, patios, and backyards of all shapes and sizes throughout the city.
A thin, bare-dirt brownstone lot, about 20 by 30 feet, needs an overhaul. The owners are longing for green space but pressed for time, with a low-five-figures budget. They want a place to entertain and retreat. Erb’s plan and advice:
For low upkeep, “my general rule of thumb is: fewer flowers,” he says. If you have kids and pets, a sandbox and easy-care artificial turf, which is surprisingly soft nowadays, will do nicely. Avoid those rubbery playground tiles: They deteriorate fast.
Spring for high-quality outdoor furniture since it’ll get lots of wear and tear. If the living room feeds into a backyard, place your dining spot there, or vice versa. (Having a dining room flow into another dining room is redundant.) As you decorate, combine textures—straw with metal, for instance—for a lush look.
Pavers or loose flagstones can lead from the deck to another spot in a back corner for a table or chair (whatever’s not in the area close to the door), making the space more complex.
For plantings, resist the snoozy setup that has flora along the perimeter and grass up the middle. Work them in and around two zones instead. Vary foliage heights for visual interest; if you mix annuals and perennials, you’ll have multiseason color. You don’t have to have tall plants by the fence; Erb is a fan of vines, especially autumn clematis, which has “delicate, lacy flowers.” And layer—a trellis atop a fence, say—to create depth.
Section the yard into zones for lounging and dining, plus a garden. A paved area or a deck just outside the back door is an easy transition, and you won’t track dirt into the apartment. If your lot is sunny, wood and grass (real or fake) are cooler than stone. If you have drainage issues, a surface sitting right on top of the soil can exacerbate problems, so go with a raised deck. Ipe and cedar are cost-effective woods.