Here is a client's backyard. She is lucky enough to have the opportunity to do a major re-do of the garden design, thanks to having had weeping tile installed next to the house this past summer. She's also extremely lucky to have some mature trees and shrubs already in the back corners of her yard. The trees provide structure, create privacy, and help disguise the sharp angles of the back fence corners. Now she just needs a good layout to tie everything together.
Above (l -> r, top -> bottom), you can see the burgandy-leaved Schubert chokecherry in the back left corner, a few shrubs across the back, and a crabapple tree in the back right. There's also a small patio behind the house, and a large lilac shrub on one side, but the yard is completely bare closer to the house due to the construction.
So the first step is to decide on a garden layout, keeping the mature trees and a large lilac (shown below.) Here are some simple sketches of a few design possibilities:
Above: This design features two circles of lawn, with garden filling the surrounding areas. To keep lawn maintenance to a minimum, the smaller circle could be mulched with shredded bark. I really like the idea of having a small, secluded getaway in that back right corner of the yard, under the shelter of the existing crabapple tree. I could totally picture two adirondack chairs tucked in there. An arch at the intersection of the two circles would provide a nice focal point and really separate the two areas (and could easily be added at a later date as time and budget allow.) A couple of shrubs on either side would make that smaller circle feel like a different "room." Personally, this is my favourite design as the circles provide such a strong shape to the garden.
Above: The second design is similar to the circle design, but with a looser, more amorphous shape that doesn't look so "designed." I would still put mulch, an arch, and some chairs in the smaller "room".
Above: Many people tend to put straight garden beds around the perimeter of their yard, with a rectangular lawn in the middle. This is not my preference but if the beds are at least three feet deep then you at least have the opportunity to provide some depth to the garden. Having the stepping stones and a focal point will make things more interesting. The pathway could be incorporated into the lawn or garden (currently shown in the lawn) depending on one's garden/lawn maintenance ratio preferences. The semi-circular area at the back of this garden design could be mulched, and would provide a nice space for a focal point such as a bird bath, large urn or bench.
Above: The oval lawn is my second-favourite choice. Similar to the circles, it provides a strong, shape that defines the garden well. I always tell people that the border between your lawn and garden is the "line" that your eye sees, so it is the key thing that defines the garden. Here the long axis of the oval is on a diagonal to make the yard seem bigger, and again a bench or some chairs could be placed under the tree to make an inviting spot that beckons you into the yard.
This client is a gardener who likes to "play" in her garden by moving things around and trying things out. She doesn't want a detailed planting plan, so she just needs to pick a design first, then we will add a few key shrubs and ornamental grasses to the design to provide some year-long structure.
Which design would you pick?