You want a low maintenance backyard that is functional and environmentally efficient, inspirational, improves your health and helps you throw insane social gatherings of any nature. So where do you start? Whether you are starting from scratch and renewing an existing space, follow these simple guidelines, get stuck in, and be rewarded. Landscapes take time to mature and a small amount of planning will reap long term benefits. Plan your development in stages if cost is an issue and avoid the common pitfall of poor design which will cost you money, health or enjoyment as time goes on.

  1. It’s about you – Before starting the design process ask yourself these important questions. What do you want your home to feel like? Relaxing, welcoming, inspiring, nurturing, efficient? How much time do you want to put into designing, building and maintenance? Who are you building this for (i.e. do you have a family or are you likely to be moving on in the short to medium term)? What are your values? How do you want your home to provide for you? What are the short and long term costs associated with maintaining your home? What’s your budget, and what would be the ultimate result you could imagine? Be inspired.
  2. Climate – Wherever you live you will be constrained to some degree by your climate. It’s not much good trying to grow Polar bears here in south eastern Australia unless you’re up for a challenge. Specific details like average monthly and annual rainfall, maximum and minimum temperatures and directions of damaging/unpleasant hot and cold winds area extremely useful (check http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/data/). This helps inform you of the plant species appropriate for your region and their strategic placement. Shade trees that block hot and cold extremes can be extremely effective at reducing the amount of energy required to regulate temperature both inside and outside your home. Local native species of plants are great but there are many other useful plant species from other similar climates and regions which can be extremely useful in your home. I often prefer local or edible species as they are either site adapted or have multiple uses (such as providing food).
  3. Aspect – Be aware of the direction your buildings face. It is basic design 101 these days to orientate buildings northward so that they capture natural sunlight (http://www.yourhome.gov.au/passive-design) but how often do you see this done? Unfortunately, what is common sense is seldom common practice. Regardless of which way your building faces there will be places which receive large amounts of sunlight and those nearly permanently in shade. Be aware of each and how these places change during the seasons and situate your living areas, shady spots, vegie patches, deciduous and evergreen trees and winter sun traps accordingly so you can enjoy your outdoors all year around.
  4. Soil – Look after it! More than dirt, it is the stuff that supports life on earth. You may not know it but under your feet there are gazillions of tiny creatures, bacteria and fungi doing their thing. Capable of breaking down toxins, improving plant performance and the water storage capacity of soil, these guys are the unsung heroes of our backyards. Create healthy soils and you instantly increase your plants health and vigour, the amount of water your property can capture and the diversity of life on your property. Healthy plants can outcompete many annoying “weed” species (which are often actually early soil building plants) reducing your need for toxic pesticides which are largely indiscriminate and can significantly impact you and the environment. Improve your soil with good quality compost and mulch.
  5. Water – In Adelaide we only get 500mm of rain per year on average. Our climate is warm temperate with hot, dry summers and wet, cool winters. Most of our rainfall falls over the winter months. If you live in the Adelaide hills your rainfall may be up to 1200mm per year so it pays to know about the region you live in. Our mains water supply system is exceptionally energy intensive which is why we pay the highest water rates for a capital city in the country. It makes sense to use the water that we get for free, delivered to our doorstep (it’s called rain) as best as we can. Water tanks should be large, supplying first indoor use (depending on plumbing layout) and then outdoors as indoor water use is year round. Secure your water resources and you lock in your water rates for the long term. Capture excess rainwater using raingardens, swales or kerbside gardens but not too close to your foundations and be aware of your soils drainage capabilities. This will all reduce your need to use mains supplied water.
  6. Access – Once you have a list of all the things you want in your own little slice of heaven consider the economics of movement. Things which require your frequent attention place closer to your main routes/paths. Things which require less attention place more towards the areas seldom visited. For example, say you have a 600m2 Places you visit several times day are the driveway and entrance to the front door. Why not place your vegie patch here so you don’t have to go out of your way to maintain or harvest? Maybe a better spot for it is within line of sight of your kitchen if it overlooks the backyard? If so, place it close to the entrance so looking after it is not a chore (i.e. it’s not hidden down the back of the property where your less inclined to visit on a rainy day).
  7. Storage – Having to always go out a buy something for your next project can be a bit of a pain, not to mention expensive. You need a space to stash your gear, the useful stuff that is, not your crap! Consider a space for loose materials like timber, garden stakes, irrigation, bricks etc. for any garden projects that pop-up. Place this area behind a shed and perhaps design a stacking method so it doesn’t become a junk pile. Pick some useful things up for free during kerbside collections or visit swap and trade sites like Freecycle or Gumtree, save some money and recycle something too good to throw out. This way and your next garden project may cost you next to nicks!

Next up – breaking down the top 7 tips into actionable methods starting at No.1 “It’s about you”