Six ideas to spice up backyard (© Ralph Anderson, Southern Living)Click to enlarge picture

Before: A decidedly drab backyard. (c) Ralph Anderson, Southern Living

When Emeril Lagasse has a dish that tastes bland, he simply adds a few spices or a little hot sauce, and “bam!” he kicks it up a notch. When chef Mike Wilson looked at his neglected landscape, he wasn’t sure where to start. He knows his way around the kitchen, but he needed help in his Birmingham, Ala., backyard. Southern Living decided to give Wilson and his wife, Jennifer, a little assistance.

His mother, Suzanne Wilson, had designed an attractive shed for the couple. Once built, the outdoor structure looked great and helped with storage, but its surroundings were lackluster. The new landscape needed to embrace the shed and fulfill many of the Wilsons’ needs. Now they have a place to entertain, dine, relax, garden and grill. Take a look at the six ideas that spruced up the small space.

1. A little addition
Before, the deck around the shed ran short, which made it hard to comfortably maneuver in and out of the storage area. Adding a couple of feet of decking to the platform solved this problem. The extra decking makes a big difference. Now Wilson has more room to walk and additional space for grilling; hidden storage is a bonus.

2. Fencing and function
A panel of fencing with a built-in bar screens the grill and smoker. The bar is a great place to have a drink, or it can be used for outdoor dining. With the stools removed, it functions as a buffet for serving food hot off the grill. Setting a few potted plants along the bar softens the wooden structure and adds interest.

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3. Open up
Wilson tore out the screen surrounding the small porch and had a carpenter add a large cedar column and finish out the small outdoor room. Adding a wraparound step makes it easy to walk down onto the patio. Now the space feels bigger and creates a better flow into the backyard. The covered area is a shady spot to sit and avoid the hot sun, or it can be a relaxing place to seek refuge during a summer rain. A large ceiling fan cools the space and keeps away bugs. New furniture and paint transform the porch, making it clean and comfortable.

4. Food and flowers
The Wilsons wanted an area to plant a few vegetables, herbs and flowers, so a small raised bed was created along the privacy fence. The elevated bed keeps the two family dogs out of the garden and makes it easier to work. The sides of the bed are made of three 6-foot by 18-inch cut stones. The end stone is 8 feet long and 18 inches wide. To secure the stones, Southern Living used 4-by-6 treated posts. The stones are a couple of inches thick and make a nice, clean, sturdy wall. For the back of the raised bed, we used tin to hold the soil and protect the fence. Planting summer herbs and vegetables in the garden supplies the family with flavorful produce.

5. Making pavers
David Hicks of Southern Living’s landscape team made the concrete pavers. (See his tips for custom pavers below.) First the site was leveled with a few inches of crushed stone. The loose gravel was packed with a tamping machine, making the surface firm. Next, the pavers were set in a basket-weave pattern and red crushed gravel was swept between the gaps. The red gravel was allowed to settle for a few weeks and then was topped off, making the gravel in the gaps flush with the tops of the pavers.

6. Plant-filled containers
For the finishing touch, Southern Living added a little garden garnish to the patio: Large, medium and small planters placed around the backyard add color, foliage and texture. Some of the large containers have shrubs, while some of the smaller containers are filled with blooming annuals such as “Serena Purple” angelonia and “Nirvana Cascade White” vinca. Now the Wilsons don’t have to worry about what they need to do to their backyard. Instead they just look for more ways to enjoy their new, multipurpose landscape.

Making pavers: David Hicks’ tips for custom pavers
When Southern Living found out that they were going to be doing a project that included a patio area constructed of concrete pavers, they soon decided on a pattern that would require that the pavers be twice as long as they were wide. They were unable to find anything at garden centers that met their needs, so they made their own. One bonus to doing this was that it was possible to make the pavers a size that required the fewest cuts. This is how they did it.

Step 1
First, calculate the paver dimensions that will work most efficiently for the area you will be covering. Take into consideration any pattern you might be considering and what size pavers will work best for your space (more whole pieces mean fewer cuts). For this project, this turned out to be 12 ¾ by 25 ½ by 1 ¾ inches.

Step 2
Next, build a form for pouring your pavers. Southern Living decided to use a 4-by-8-foot sheet of oriented strand board for the base of the form because of its textured surface, which would be transferred to the pavers. For the outer edge and dividers, which form the individual cells and determine the depth, they used 2-by-2-by-8-foot pine (actually 1 ¾ by 1 ¾). Cut these to the proper length to achieve the dimensions you desire. Attach these to the OSB base using decking screws or something similar. The interior pieces will need to be notched at the points where they intersect. This is easily done with a circular or table saw set to half the depth of the piece you are cutting. For the purposes of this project, this was 7/8 inch.

Step 3
After securing all of the cut pieces to the base of the form, apply two coats of linseed oil to all surfaces that will come into contact with the concrete. This will help you later when trying to release the cured concrete from the form.

Step 4
Because Southern Living was going to need more than 100 pavers, they decided to make their own concrete mix instead of using premixed bags. This allowed them to make large pavers for about $1 each. The mix was three parts sand to one part portland cement, which conveniently worked out to be one 90-pound bag of portland cement to six 5-gallon buckets of sand. Southern Living had access to a portable concrete mixer, which is highly recommended if you’re making more than just a few pavers. Using the mixer, they were able to combine the full amount of cement, sand and water in one batch. This was just enough to fill the form, which produced nine pavers.

Step 5
After mixing the concrete, pour it into the form, trying to fill the individual cells as evenly as possible. Using a hand trowel or board, smooth out the surface of each paver. Try to avoid overlapping the concrete mix from one paver to another. If you don’t fill the form all the way to the top, this won’t be a problem. The pavers will be easier to remove if done this way. There will also be fewer chips and cracks.

Step 6
After you allow them to cure for at least 24 hours, the pavers can be removed from the form (they may take longer to dry, depending on temperature). Remove the screws that secure the form to the base, and then remove the individual boards separating the pavers. A rubber mallet can help with this task. Then remove the pavers from the base of the form. After that, apply a concrete sealer.

By Charlie Thigpen, Styling by Lisa Powell Bailey, Southern Living