How to Create a Hotel-like Landscape in Your Backyard

As a child, landscape architect Alexis Woods split her time between San Francisco and the family winery, where she developed a lifelong love of the outdoors. Indeed, she still manages about 100 acres of grapes at Dry Creek Valley – a pleasant contrast to the many residential and commercial landscapes she has designed throughout the region.

Woods’ workload has picked up significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people sheltering-in-place placed new value on their outdoor areas. “Many people are looking for ways to get outside and be close to plants and green spaces,” Woods says. “Being in a natural environment can be a very enriching experience that touches the deeper elements of the soul and gives a sense of peace.”

With travel at an all-time low and many hotels shuttered or limiting access to visitors, Woods offered the following tips for creating a posh hotel-like landscape in your own home.

Create Exterior Rooms

“Breaking up large exterior areas creates a sense of coziness and intimacy that facilitates conversation,” Woods says, noting that posts, trees, pots or furniture can be used to create a sense of privacy and separation in large outdoor patios.

In a Healdsburg garden at a private residence, for example, Woods bracketed one end of the covered poolside room with a clean-lined fireplace and the other end with a well-appointed kitchen. Lush foliage surrounds the entire perimeter.

“It creates these pockets where you can gather different groups of people, but you’re all still in the same place,” Woods says.

Throw Some Shade

“There’s a time and a place for sunbathing, but when temperatures soar in the middle of the day, it’s important to have a shaded place in which to retreat,” Woods says. In addition to covered porches, she recommends incorporating pergolas, trellises or umbrellas. Not to mention shade cloth, which can be used atop a shade structure to filter more light and also catches leaves and other debris.

Invest in Lighting

“There are many benefits to a wall-illuminated outdoor area,” Woods says. For one, even the most fantastic garden disappears at night. Lighting it makes it visible from inside the house. “It draws your eye out,” Woods says. “Even if you can’t be out there, it helps to extend the interior visually through the landscape.”

But don’t get carried away. Woods eschews flood lights in favor of sconces, recessed cans and illuminated coves. In one project, she tucked lighting into the crossbars of the trellis and the posts that support it. And putting everything on different switches makes it possible to easily create different moods.

Turn Up the Heat

No matter how hot summer days are in northern California, there’s inevitably a chill in the air once the sun sets. Thankfully there are easy fixes. In this project, Woods incorporated a sunken hot tub near the swimming pool and a handsome fireplace that also serves as a focal point for the living room. As a result, the space is just as comfortable when the thermometer dips as it on a hot summer day. “Humans love fire pits and fireplaces,” she says. “If you’re hanging out with people on a chilly night, it’s nice to gather around the fire.”

A sunken hot tub is the perfect antidote for chilly evenings. Photo by Alexis Woods.

Add Whimsy

According to Woods, it’s important to lighten the mood. A swing from Dedon adds a fun furnishing to the fireplace seating area. “People just love them,” Woods says. “They add an unexpected moment of delight and suggest play in a way that allows us to open up a little bit more.” She also incorporated outdoor sculptures by Karen Wilberding Diefenbach and Anthony Caro.

Animal sculptures by Karen Wilberding Diefenbach. Photo by Alexis Woods.

Incorporate a Water Feature

Anyone who has ever sat near a bubbling brook knows the impact that water has on mental health and wellbeing. Indeed, Woods’ designs often incorporate fountains, which are available in a wide variety of styles. She says that something as subtle as a bubbler in a vessel filled with water will create much the same effect. “The sound of water is very calming and has a lot of positive effects on the psyche,” she says. “In historic traditions, water is a healing element.”

Keep It Simple

Resist the urge to throw everything you might like into your garden, says Woods, who limits herself to a simple material and plant palette that includes boxwood, olive shrubs, lavender and hydrangea quick fires. “Edit and constantly remind yourself not to put in too much,” she says, recommending that people select a few types of plants and reuse them over and over again “so your eye doesn’t jump all over the place,” she says. “A more restrained palette leads to a sense of calm.”

Picnic tables with party lights and hammock. Photo by Alexis Woods.

Make It Accessible For All Ages

“This is a family compound, so there will be kids and older people there,” Woods says. To make sure it’s safe for people of all ages, the landscape architect added a ledge to the outer edge of the swimming pool, so that young kids or older folks have a place to sit on the side. And while lawns can be water guzzlers, she included little grassy areas for the children to play ball or hang out on the grass. “It’s not going to get really hot like stone or artificial turf,” she says.

Outdoor swing by Dedon. Photo by Alexis Woods.

Buy Durable Furnishings

“Anything made out of wood needs to be oiled, stained or power washed frequently, or it will deteriorate over time,” Woods says, noting that she selected dining tables by Dedon that are made of a concrete-like composite material. “It holds up over time. You don’t want your outdoor spaces to need a lot of maintenance.”

Stay Connected

Although there’s a lot to be said for unplugging in the great outdoors, in this day and age, it’s important to make sure you have a strong Wifi signal that extends outside, Woods says. “If you have to be on Zoom meetings all day, go sit in your garden and do it,” she says.

“It’s no fun to be stuck inside.”

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Tate GunnersonTate Gunnerson is a Chicago-based freelance journalist with an equal appreciation for natural beauty and good design. He is a passionate supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the National Kidney Foundation.