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.

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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.

If you think you may be subject to the tyranny of graph paper, neutralize its effect by starting the composition of the plan outdoors. Take your back-yard scrapbook to the back yard, along with a few dozen 12-inch wooden stakes, a half-dozen 2-inch-by-2-inch-by-6-foot wooden stakes (available at any lumberyard), a spool of heavy cotton string (500 feet should do), a couple of long garden hoses, two handfuls of clothespins and a few old bed sheets. An odd list of equipment, to be sure, but it works.

Put your equipment aside for a moment and take a good look at your scrapbook. What have you got? You may have some ideas for fences, a play area for the kids, a deck or patio, perhaps a gazebo or arbor, a really great treehouse, an outside eating and cooking area, a lawn laid out with games in mind, or even a fountain, swimming pool or spa. Your challenge is to arrange the elements you want in the space available.

To successfully meet this challenge, you should intimately know every corner of your back yard. You may think you know it, but you'd be surprised at how many people are locked into only one viewing position, usually about six feet away from the back door.

The Back-Yard Walkabout

Get acquainted with your yard by walking its perimeter, and I do mean the perimeter--no farther than an arm's length from the lot line, please. While you walk, keep looking back at your house.

Is there a spot, somewhere toward the rear or to the side of the yard where the view of your house is particularly pleasant? Would this be the best place for a small patio?

And is that the perfect, almost horizontal limb on which to hang a swing? How about the area behind the shrubbery and under the tree, in the far corner of your lot, did you feel a sense of security and diminished scale that reminds you of places you liked to play in as a child?

Perhaps this is the spot for a little "secret garden" for the kids in your house. All that's necessary is a layer of fine bark, perhaps a couple of sawed-off logs to use as table and chairs, and a playful adult to lead the way.

Your back-yard "walkabout" may result in some new ideas about where some of the elements you want should go. This is the easiest (not to mention least expensive) time to change your mind--repeatedly, if desired. And even though they may not be in your immediate future, it's important to take into consideration all the elements of your "dream" back yard. This is the only way to make sure there's room for everything.

The next step is to mock the various elements into position, using the stakes, string and sheets. Any rectilinear feature, such as a deck, patio, swimming pool or sandbox, can be outlined using the stakes and string.

Simply pound the stakes a few inches into the ground and tie the string around the stakes to show the outline. Curved areas, such as lawns and planting beds are easily outlined using a long garden hose. Adjust the curves in the hose until the shape is pleasing from all angles.

To the person with little or no involvement in your design process, this mocked-up back yard will appear a motley mess. Where someone else sees only a sheet hanging from a line, you see a brick and latticework fence. That garden hose, lying in a curve on the dirt, isn't just lying there, it's marking the boundaries of a lush green lawn.

The best part of this exercise is the three-dimensional quality it gives your emerging plan, something almost impossible to achieve with only pencil and paper, which happens to be the next step.

Committing the Plan to Paper

Leave the stakes, strings, sheets and hoses in place for a couple of days or weeks if necessary. See how the arrangement looks at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. Once you're comfortable with the layout, get out the tape measure, pencils and paper.

Make a rough drawing of the shape of your lot and house. (Please note the term rough. Even those who feel that they simply can't draw anything should go ahead and "rough in" a drawing; it has to make sense to only one person--you--at this point.) Use this rough plan to note the actual measurements.

Start by measuring the outside perimeter of your lot. Next, measure in from the lot lines to the outside walls of your house to establish its position on the lot. After this, start measuring the outlines of your deck, patio, play area, pool and sandbox. To correctly position everything on the plan, you'll need to measure in from the lot line, just as you did with your house.

And now is the time to indicate the location of the water spigots, electrical outlets and whatever else you think should be taken into consideration.

Once you have the measurements on the rough plan, transfer them to the graph paper. If a single sheet of graph paper is too confining, tape several sheets together to make a bigger drawing.

By the time you have the finished plan on paper, you should be confident that it reflects reality, rather than an abstract, two-dimensional drawing pulled together at the kitchen table. This, combined with your back-yard scrapbook, will hold you in good stead as you go about making your plan come to life.

At a time when so many are trying to simplify their lives, one more thing to take care of may be the last thing we think we need. Oddly, though, a back yard is that rare place that gives back far more than it requires.

Excerpted from "In Your Own Backyard " by A. Cort Sinnes. Published by Andrews & McMeel. Copyright 1992 A. Cort Sinnes.

Making It Real

Now's the time for you to face another kind of back-yard reality--the fiscal kind.

Most back-yard construction (with the exception of pools, spas, fountains and sophisticated electrical work) is well within the ability of a person with average mechanical ability. If you enjoy these kinds of projects, by all means have at it. You'll save considerable labor charges and experience a great deal of pride once the project is completed.

You have many choices for outside help. They are presented here in traditional order of "professionalism" (that is, from the least to most amount of training and licensing required to use the title): Nursery or garden center design/construction service, landscape designer, landscape contractor, landscape architect.

On the straight construction side, there are carpenters, building designers, construction contractors and architects.

Some people claim that you're always better off using only the top professionals in the field. This is certainly true with large and complex projects. But if your project is of small or moderate size, it's possible to get excellent results from general handy people, retirees with extra time on their hands, and all manner of artists and craftspeople who are looking to augment their income.

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