Sometimes a backyard is just a backyard - a patch of lawn, a place for the dog to do its business, and something to tackle with mowers in the summer and rakes in the fall.
But it doesn't have to be just that kind of space. A backyard can become an extension of your home - and an affordable one than that. Redoing your landscape is usually less expensive than building onto your home, and it coaxes you to get away from the computer screen and go outside.
"One thing to think about is this idea of gathering areas and getaway areas," says Julie Moir Messervy, author of Home Outside: Creating the Landscape You Love. "You start to portion where you want to entertain and have your family eat outside, and then you might add a getaway in the corner of the yard."
For a block of homes in Germantown, the focus was on the gathering area, which the owners created by taking down fences. Inspiration came from construction across the street.
"It was really unpleasant," says Katey McGrath, 29. She and husband Steven Haslam, 31, bought their house from McGrath's mother in 2007. Because their porch was covered in dirt from construction, they started hanging out in their small backyard - as did other couples on the block. The cluttered logistics of going from backyard to backyard led them to an idea: make the six backyards into one.
"We were out in my yard having hot dogs and beer, and my husband came outside with wire clippers," says Christa Chaffinch, 33.
So they, along with Tony and Gretchen Federici and Andre and Heather Harris, took down fences made of rotting wood and wrought iron, and cleared out the yard of an older neighbor, who didn't mind what they did as long as they kept the backyard tidy. They rediscovered an overgrown brick walkway, replaced porches, and added perennials that were a gift from a previous resident's daughters (Chaffinch found a wedding ring while digging out the backyard and tracked down the daughters to give it back to them).
While the Chaffinch garden is all flowers, the Federicis have added raised beds for an organic vegetable garden that will be shared by all the neighbors. Their joint efforts have created one big backyard - and a community.
In the summer, the neighbors hang out in the backyard three to four nights a week; in winter, they light fire pits to keep the outdoor life going. They've created their own e-mail listserv and Facebook group, and they shared Thanksgiving dinner.
"It's a village," says McGrath. "My village is very close to me."
They help out with babysitting duties, and the parents can still be social while listening to their sleeping children through baby monitors.
To make a good gathering place, Moir Messervy says, make sure the area is close to the kitchen - next to it if possible. "It's nice to relate the outside area to it because you'll be apt to use it more."
Rick Greene and Donna Macey made their space an extension of their home - literally. They added a covered outdoor patio to the back of their house so they could enjoy the outdoors, which was possible, but hot, before.
"We wanted a place where we could sit outside on our patio - it faces the west, and it's just brutal out there," says Macey, 53.
Greene purchased the North Wales home in 1996, and they added the extension last summer by hiring Brian J. Martin of Master's Craft Construction in Hatfield.
He created a protected outdoor space with brick and Trex decking (a man-made material that resists the elements); it looks like a brick room on the back of the house, but with chunks of wall missing. Using brick and Trex was key for Greene and Macey - it doesn't require repainting or repair, which was a requirement in the design for the retirees.
The patio has many things you'd find indoors, too - a gas fireplace, kitchen area, cabinets (made of a plastic material), and even ceiling fans and lighting in the roof. The space also serves as a transition into the home - the couple's three dogs can be cleaned off on the back patio before they come inside, so mud is kept out.
These combined elements have made it a year-round space. "It's nice to sit up there and cuddle up next to the fireplace and watch the snow come down," says Greene, 59. "It's kind of like camping - the best of both worlds."
Plus, it's helped cut down on energy costs of the main home. "It's a nice buffer for the house," says Macey. "It really takes the wind and the elements - the hot sun and the rain - off the back of the house."
Rene Torres, 57, of Collingswood, also has created an outdoor extension of his home, but without a roof. He did so by taking out something many people think is necessary for a backyard - the lawn. It was the first thing to go after Torres bought the Collingswood bungalow in 1999.
"I started with the garden because I figured it would take the longest to turn around," says Torres, design director for Group Melvin Design in Woodbury and a freelance garden designer who blogs about his backyard at onceuponagardenblog.blogspot.com.
Torres started by building up the backyard, which was prone to flooding (after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the entire yard was six inches underwater). He created a garden on two sides of a gravel pathway by digging a moat around the backyard property, which drained water. Then he marked out where he wanted plants and gravel, dumping soil from the moat onto areas designated for plants while adding leaves to the mix - even taking leaves that neighbors had raked to the curb so he could start composting them down to soil.
"It's free fertilizer," says Torres. He now uses the moat area to compost more leaves for future soil.
The 18-inch gravel pathway is aesthetic but practical, too. When it rains, water seeps down through the gravel and stays there, keeping the rest of the backyard from being flooded.
Torres used plants that were native to the area and thrived in his backyard's soil, which is marine clay. He had wanted to plant a cove of dogwood trees at the end of the backyard, which also features a koi pond (which started out as a goldfish pond until neighbors offered him a few koi), but the trees never took. Instead, a quick-growing willow tree shelters the pond and a Lutyens bench - and sucks more water out of the backyard.
"In the summer, it can be 90 degrees outside, but under here, it's cool and you forget the entire world," says Torres, who came to the area from California and is not a fan of humidity.
Even though the garden beds look like they take a lot of time and effort to keep up, Torres says they require minimal maintenance - some pruning and replanting. He doesn't need to use a mower or to keep the gravel pathway clear; wind and rain do that. He doesn't use pesticides, either: Since the plants are native and attract native bugs, birds take care of that.
"It's the best room in the house," Torres says as he sits on the Lutyens bench under the willow tree. "It's finally hit its stride. I could stay inside, but that would be criminal."
To start your own backyard makeover, take stock of what you have. "Evaluate what you do have in terms of plant materials," says J. Mark White, a contributor to HGTV's Curb Appeal. "A lot of times, the plants are overgrown and past their prime or just too big for the space."
Then think about what you want to achieve - a gathering space? A getaway space? Or both?
And don't be afraid to make mistakes.
"If you put the plant in the wrong place, you can move it next year," says Moir Messervy. "People get so terrified that you're going to make a mistake, but this is something that people can try themselves, and it goes a long way to have something really nice outside."