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The Backyard Battle of the Sexes

When couples get together to plan backyards, sparks often fly when they find that their wish lists are worlds apart.

By Scott Cohen

As an outdoor designer, I frequently work with couples who run into snags when they’re trying to create a backyard they can both be happy with and enjoy. Sometimes the sparks really fly. That’s because men and women often discover that their wish lists are worlds apart.

For men, the emphasis is often on fun, action and entertainment. Bigger is usually better, especially when it comes to their barbecues. For women, cozy, relaxing and intimate are often the ground rules for just about everything from water features to outdoor fireplaces. While a man might want a screaming sound system, a huge barbecue and a gushing waterfall, the woman of the house might prefer a cozy fireplace, soft night lighting and fragrant plantings. Of course, sometimes there’s a reversal and the woman wants a party yard and the man wants a tranquil retreat. In either case, there are those sparks to manage.

Diverse pictures of the ideal backyard can sometimes bring out the worst in us, just as they do in interior design. But with a little understanding, knowledge of available options and some good old-fashioned give-and-take, you and your partner can plan a backyard that brings you together instead of one that drives you apart. Here’s how to avoid a fight scene over your backyard:

  • Have a pre-meeting
    It’s always best for clients to get together to set priorities before meeting with a designer. This way you can make sure you’re both on the same page ahead of time and avoid some awkward moments. (There’s a joke in our business that we charge one price for backyard design and another higher price for marriage counseling.) Show each other examples of what you do and don’t like, and try to develop a vision together.

  • Be there
    It’s very important that both parties meet with the designer at the planning stage. There’s usually a big difference in the priority and interpretation men and women have for every element in the landscape. It's critical for the designer to hear both interpretations and understand how each element fits into the list of priorities.

  • A mix and match of materials, such as this decorative spout on stacked stone, can add a feminine touch to the masculine.

  • Getting to know you
    A good designer will include creative elements that captivate both of you. Make sure to choose a designer who asks a lot of questions and takes the time to get to know each of you. That way he or she can incorporate artistic touches that reflect the personality and imagination you share as a couple and the hobbies and loves that brought you together in the first place. Remember that your goal is an environment where you can both feel great about the space you’ve created together. The result is a landscape that will keep harmony in your relationship as well as in your garden.

  • Be open-minded
    Your designer may bring you up-to-date on new landscaping options that can solve some of your disagreements. With many landscaping elements, it’s no longer a matter of either/or. If one person wants a gushing waterfall and the other a relaxing trickle, a secondary pump can be added. That way they can have it both ways: calm and relaxing or wild Niagara. Other elements can accommodate both tastes as well. An outdoor fire can provide a warm, relaxing ambiance in an elegant outdoor living room, but it can also blaze into glory when the guys come around. A spa can gurgle or gush. If one of you wants outdoor sound but the other doesn’t want to see speakers, remember that speakers can be integrated into decorative faux rocks that blend in to naturalistic surroundings. There are all sorts of beautiful and functional compromises.

    Masters of Design award-winner Scott Cohen is president and supervising designer for The Green Scene, a premier outdoor design and construction firm based in the Los Angeles area ( His work has been regularly featured on HGTV. To see more of his designs, visit Designers' Portfolio.

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