Creating a Backyard Oasis

Backyard Oasis
Photograph by Pete Olsen Photography ( and provided by Garden Search & Rescue

Many of us dream of having an inviting outdoor space, one with all the common comforts, but are often unsure where to start. Hiring designers and landscapers is one sure way to go; however, sometimes an easier solution or faster result is sought, even if it’s only until what's better desired is known. We have all spent much more time getting to know our spaces this year, and there’s nothing like a long Wisconsin winter to dream up ways of making it better.

No matter where you’re starting in the dreaming phase, it’s wise to stay “pie in the sky” style while brainstorming to reduce oversights. Ideally, this part of the planning would involve the majority of the members who share the space thinking of pets, neighbors, and guests. This process should leave room for a few ever-evolving areas as well, i.e. more seating later as your family grows, a larger vegetable garden once you’ve mastered last year’s plan, or a play zone for the dog you always wanted. Thinking thoroughly who would use this space, the reasons, and at what time of the day this is most likely to occur will help assure you’ve addressed the little things. Creating the space on paper as you imagine what you need or want while writing a list of things to do, find, or purchase will no doubt give you some direction.

There are so many things that contribute to a finished space’s feel, but they often work best when some lead time is in the midst of them all coming together. Larger priority items would include patios or paths, lighting, furniture, and the “attraction” of the space. Paths should be between three and four feet wide to allow a comfortable feel navigating them. Lighting should be as adequate as needed and as simple as possible. Solar lanterns or hanging lights can be quick and easy, but hardwired lights can last a few decades reliably and turn on via a switch. Candles or tiki torches can provide ambiance and help to combat those pesky biting insects. Furniture would greatly depend on the attraction: the reason to be in the space. A fire pit is more generously served with Adirondack chairs and outdoor throws, while a dining area would love upright, cushioned chairs and a table. Outdoor destinations can provide a space with definition, four-season interest, and somewhere for our eyes to land from the window—a much more relaxing tonic than most think. This could be a bench, a bistro table and chairs, a hammock, a fire ring, a rug with ample conversation seating, the grill where dinner is made many nights of the week, or a compilation of any destination. These key elements are often the foundation to the backyard.

Smaller items can often make or break the space with almost equal intensity. Say you have a wonderful dinner and setting, but then the mosquitoes are in full frenzy. Or how the tiniest bit of privacy can keep your quaint family dinner from being distracted by all the neighborhood evening games. Adding things for safety and privacy, such as gates, fences, or partial fences as screens, can really change the way a space is portrayed from inside-to-outside vantages. Outdoor area rugs placed over mulch or lawn can keep down dirt and bugs while inviting a living-room feel. Toss in a few accent pillows and a throw, and it looks just like inside. Circulating or standing utility fans are an effective way to reduce mosquito activity. Add a few tiki torches with citronella, and you may be super surprised how fewer winged guests there are. An umbrella or small gazebo bring much desired coolness and shade to any area, offering respite on a hot summer day. Small touches are often the ambiance you craved from the inside brought out; they sing of a space lived in.

Other components to really set your space apart or make it uniquely yours could include a small electric waterfall to break the sounds of city traffic, or colorful stationary planters to provide a substance of sorts and height among the plantscape. Planted or potted herbs can ground the vegetable garden closer to the living area without complicating it; combine with flowers, and you hardly notice the greens. Bird feeders, bird baths, houses, insect habitats, butterfly feeding stations, hanging things, and garden art all lend the feel of a space that is thought of and enjoyed while boosting a diverse habitat. Four-season art, such as trellises, structures, and large stone features, strikes the landscape all year long. And let’s absolutely bring in the fun! A place for gathering, enjoying a fire, playing yard games, growing together, or just relaxing is the best way to nail your outdoor space. Make it really work for you and to all who land there. Shopping off season for any seasonal items is almost always a ticket to affording more backyard dreams.

In the land of transparency and the time of COVID-19, we welcome you to our oasis, Ashen Haven. There is as much intent here as there is an ongoing re-creation of our small space. A cedar fence that matches the gate has been on order since June, but as many of you may have experienced, this is one of the humors of our pandemic. We’ve grown in this space for 15 years with some original items and many updates. Our yard is an absolute extension of our lifestyles from April to November. We invite you to virtually wonder at our butterflies and hummingbirds, lay in our hammock, lounge in the yard, and relax.

What dreams live in your backyard?

Karina Mae is the designer and team leader at Garden Search & Rescue.

Photographs taken by Pete Olsen Photography ( and provided by Garden Search & Rescue.

Garden Search & Rescue
Madison, WI