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Where Life Happens : A back yard can be a space for self-expression if you'll just kick back, ignore any ideas you might have about bad taste and create a place that suits you.

July 03, 1994|A. CORT SINNES | Special To The Times

Whether you use the back yard as a place to play, eat a meal or take a nap, build a fort or tend a garden, this secluded outdoor space naturally leads to homespun diversions. Humble as they may be, these simple pleasures, a little peace and the time to enjoy them richly add to the sum of our private lives.

As much as any room inside the house, and certainly more than your front yard, a back yard can be a space for self-expression, any way you care to express it. Remember, it's your back yard.

Don't be misled into thinking that the treehouse your kids want so badly is going to somehow ruin the English-cottage-garden look you desire. Back yards are forgiving places.

They are places where life happens, not a set piece or a backdrop for an advertisement in a magazine. You'll have a lot more fun if you relax a little and leave any strict notion of bad taste on the back porch.

The desire to fix up your back yard may become so strong that you firmly resolve to do something about it, immediately. Unfortunately, you halt on the next step, because you're not sure what it should be.

The fact is, you've already started fixing up your back yard by simply looking at it. The best back yards develop from many hours of this seemingly passive activity, just sitting and imagining how one idea or another might look.

Virtually everyone remembers an outdoor place that deeply satisfied them as a child. It may have been an elderly neighbor's flower garden, with dahlias as big as your head, three-foot-tall marigolds and trailing nasturtiums that nearly covered the paths.

Or it may have been farther afield, such as that shady, cool grove of trees at summer camp where cookouts were held. Perhaps it was your uncle's vegetable garden, where you had your first taste of a warm, sun-ripened tomato right off the vine. Or that fort you made from scrap lumber, which seemed like the neatest place in the world because it was yours and you helped build it.

Any back yard holds the potential to satisfy you in the same way as any of those early outdoor experiences. The first step, however, is to identify, as clearly as you can, what it was that appealed to you.

There's no need to write down these thoughts and feelings, but it is important to bear them in mind throughout each stage of the following process. Trust your instincts and be willing to modify your plan, even if the only reason you can give for doing so is because "it just doesn't feel right."

In the pragmatic world of committing plans to paper, the list of instructions rarely includes "follow your heart." When it comes to back yards, perhaps it should be added, right up there near the top.

Bear in mind Thomas Wolfe's caveat, namely, that "you can't go home again." Of course, he was right: You can't. The point of digging in the past is not to duplicate some childhood memory, but to identify the way those places made you feel.

It's no accident that the most satisfying back yards are born from a childlike imagination and devil-may-care vitality. Just beneath the surface of many adults who have created great back yards is a kid who couldn't wait to get out there and play in the dirt.

The Paper Stage

At this stage in the back yard planning process we move from the past to the present. Here are the supplies to assemble:

A binder, about 200 sheets of binder paper, scissors, several sharp pencils, with good erasers, tape, ruler and a few sheets of standard graph paper. With the above materials, and an armful of home and garden magazines, the object is to create your personal back yard scrapbook. This may sound rather sophomoric, but it's the best thing you can do to ensure that your back yard turns out the way you want it.

The scrapbook will be invaluable on trips to the nursery, hardware store or lumberyard, and it will help to avoid disappointments when dealing with contractors, carpenters, bricklayers, concrete masons and landscapers.

So do everyone a favor: Assemble a back-yard scrapbook before the first shovelful of earth is turned.

Pick a quiet time to go through the magazines, and look at them slowly. Carefully search the corners of each photograph to see if anything catches your eye. It might be something as simple as the handle on a gate, a piece of outdoor furniture, the shape of a deck or the color of a fence. No detail is insignificant.

Depending on the sense of urgency, the scrapbook can be assembled over a long weekend, over a few months or slowly over a period of years.

From Two to Three Dimensions

Once you've collected everyone's ideas, it's time to make use of that graph paper--as long as you heed a couple of important warnings.

The most creative people can be rendered robotic when faced with a sheet of graph paper. Just because there are little blue squares all over the page in a perfect grid pattern doesn't mean you aren't allowed to draw a curve or draw a line in between two of the printed lines.

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