How to Design a Backyard That Feels Like a Private Paradise

San Diego-based architect and designer Bill Bocken shares his expert tips for creating a beautiful retreat right in your backyard.

While you could invest in a vacation to the beach or the mountains, there's something to be said for creating paradise right where you live. With space available in your own backyard, why not design the retreat you've always dreamed of, that you can enjoy year-round?

Southwestern-Inspired Courtyard and Home

Southwestern-Inspired Courtyard and Home

The Spanish-inspired home consists of several structures including the main house, barn, guest quarters and office clustered around a walled outdoor courtyard. Terracotta roof tiles are paired with stucco exterior walls to create classic southwestern style.

Photo by: Shelley Metcalf

Shelley Metcalf

San Diego-based architect and interior designer Bill Bocken is the master of creating outdoor spaces that feel like private getaways. Where each of his warm and organic-inspired homes end, a beautiful backyard begins, thoughtfully designed to respect and reflect the natural landscape. Here are his tips for creating your own stunning escape.

Consider the Whole Lot

For Bill, a house is more than its interior; it's the lot itself, the experience of moving between the indoors and the out. Thus, the designer suggests first thinking of your yard as an extension of your home and arranging it as you would another room. This approach ensures that the space feels cohesive with the rest of the landscape.

Spanish-Inspired Vineyard Home

Spanish-Inspired Vineyard Home

The simple and informal Spanish architecture of the home complements the beautiful setting, while an eighty-year-old Italian stone pine provides a majestic canopy. The home consists of several structures including the main house, barn, guest quarters and office clustered around a walled outdoor courtyard. The vineyard produces the owners own award-winning Syrah varietal.

Photo by: Shelley Metcalf

Shelley Metcalf

"It's really about the bigger picture," he explains. "I'm not a landscaping architect, but before I build a home, I'll draw a floor plan showing where everything goes, a hedge here or a tree there. All of it comes together to create the house."

Build to the Edge

Though most people build homes in the middle of their lots, Bill suggests building towards the edge instead. You'll enjoy the same space within your house, but you'll also have more land to work with in the back. 

A Villa Courtyard Terrace is Decorated With Subtle Pool Furnishings

A Villa Courtyard Terrace is Decorated With Subtle Pool Furnishings

The garden courtyard terrace of this Point Lorna, California, villa home is decorated with subtle pool furniture in neutral tones that complement the property's minimalist design and allow the natural surroundings of the lush garden, with its verdant floral and topiary features, to color to the space. Wicker chairs and chaise longues feature plush striped cushions which highlight the earth tones of the building's facade while blue umbrellas reflect the daytime sky and swimming pool below.

Photo by: Shelley Metcalf

Shelley Metcalf

"Some of the neighbors thought we were crazy for building so close to the street," he recalls of one project. "But doing this actually creates the illusion of a bigger backyard. It really maximizes the space available."

Preserve When Possible

Rather than remove pre-existing trees and plants to make way for your retreat, incorporate them into the design. They'll protect your yard from the harsh sun and provide shelter for local wildlife.

A Reflective Outdoor Swimming Provides This La Jolla Garden With Added Depth

A Reflective Outdoor Swimming Provides This La Jolla Garden With Added Depth

A reflective swimming pool is bordered by a multicolored stone wall in the garden of this La Jolla, California, home. At its foot, a matching stone fireplace is situated to warm guests as they lounge on oversized wicker sofas. A trellis canopied with classically styled shrubs is a natural barrier offering additional privacy.

Photo by: Shelley Metcalf

Shelley Metcalf

"They also give the house an instant sense of history and permanence that you just can’t buy anywhere," Bill says.

Plant Natural Boundaries

A Stacked Stone Pillar Entryway to a La Jolla Garden

A Stacked Stone Pillar Entryway to a La Jolla Garden

Oversized odd-shaped stones make for an eye-catching garden pathway on the grounds of this La Jolla, California, home. The path leads through the stonework archway of a trellis canopied and consumed by an overgrowth of wildflowers and topiary features. The multicolored stonework columns complement the textured walls of the home.

Photo by: Shelley Metcalf

Shelley Metcalf

To further the idea of a private getaway, Bill suggests planting hedges, shrubs and trees along the edges of your yard, like walls. Not only will these natural boundaries absorb intrusive noise and prevent neighbors from peering in, but they'll also add gorgeous greenery to the setting.

Be Open to Opportunity

A Split Level Garden Courtyard Overlooks a Swimming Pool

A Split Level Garden Courtyard Overlooks a Swimming Pool

The garden courtyard of this Point Lorna, California, villa home takes on greater depth spilling out over two levels. A footbridge designed to traverse a sunken swimming pool leads to stairs which continue the journey into lush topiary features.

Photo by: Shelley Metcalf

Shelley Metcalf

"It's a process that evolves sometimes, and it's important to be open to that," Bill explains. "You have to be willing to take suggestions and see challenges as new opportunities."

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Simple, Sophisticated Exterior

With sweeping verandas, wooden columns and a saline swimming pool, this two-story villa in Point Loma, Calif. becomes an idyllic retreat. The exterior is kept simple and neutral to highlight the lush landscape, while solar panels on the roof ensure that the home is eco-friendly.

Earth-Toned Living Room

Stepping inside, visitors will find a soothing, neutral-toned living room where plush wicker chairs allow for unwinding. Green accents pair with wooden features to bring elements of the outdoors inside, as well as breathe color into the white setting. 

Indoor Dining Room

Downstairs, a round glass-topped dining table and wicker-backed chairs wait at the ready for guests. A round chandelier accentuates the high ceilings, while a hand-carved wooden column adds texture and detail to the clean space. 

Marble Kitchen With Eat-In Counter

Powered by the solar-paneled roof, two pendant lights brighten this contemporary kitchen and help balance the large eat-in counter. Where the marble top adds movement and energy to the space, three wicker chairs ground the setting.

Symmetrical-Style Kitchen

A more detailed look at this vast kitchen island reveals storage below for wine and other party essentials. As the chef prepares dinner, guests can enjoy a front-row seat behind the counter. Identical container plants, branches and light fixtures tie the space together.

Outdoor Dining Room

With sunny skies to enjoy year-round, an outdoor dining area is ideal for entertaining in California. Here, a rustic table complements the nearby greenery, thus creating an easy flow between the indoors and out, while a modern fireplace warms the setting. 

Poolside Views

Just a few feet from the dining area, the saline pool glitters like crystal in the backyard. This allows some guests to converse over dinner while others swim at length; in turn, the home feels like an oasis where time moves at a leisurely pace. 

Open Air Living Room

For a truly immersive indoor-outdoor experience, broad French doors connect the pool to the living room. As natural light washes over the white walls, the transitional setting seems larger and airy, with plush furniture providing comfortable seating. 

Modern Fireplace

On either side of the fireplace, upholstered armchairs and ottomans evoke symmetry and balance. Purple throw pillows complement the hydrangeas on the coffee table and infuse the neutral room with warmth and color. 

Courtyard Cabana

At the edge of the saline pool, a modern cabana with weatherproof furniture provides shelter and shade from the afternoon sun. Carved pillars not only define the entryway, but also create a ripple-like reflection on the water.

Photo By: Shelley Metcalf

Secluded Seating Area

Flanking the cabana on either side, various lemon trees create a natural wall and so establish peace and privacy for the residents. Two wicker sofas allow for reading and lounging no matter what the weather. 

Split-Level Garden

Just beyond the sitting area, a split-level garden adds natural color and sound to the landscape. Three fountains in the middle of the wall have a calming effect on the setting while also keeping the plants hydrated. 

Photo By: Shelley Metcalf Photographer

Wooden Footbridge

To ensure maximum enjoyment of the backyard, a wooden footbridge crosses the private pond and into the garden. Fountains and trimmed hedges line the way, guiding visitors along their journey.

Photo By: Shelley Metcalf

Split-Level Garden Features Pergola

An eagle-eye view of this split-level garden reveals rolling green plants dotted with vibrant purple flowers. Sidewalks lead between the different sections toward the dark gray pergola, which provides a subtle contrast to the lush landscape. 

Innovative, Eye-Catching Pool

At night, this modern cabana transforms into a treat for the eyes, with the fire's glow dancing on the water. Because the residents keep the pool covered during the day, they both conserve water and keep it warm late into the evening. 

Photo By: Shelley Metcalf

Interior Illumination

Interior lighting from the villa and cabana casts a warm glow across the backyard, accentuating the home's serene nature. With the house on one side and the garden on the other, residents can relax in total privacy from their neighbors. 

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