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In 2016, photographer Winnie Au and her husband exchanged vows in their Brooklyn backyard. With 60 guests filling the outdoor space, you couldn’t see the cracks in the concrete patio, and no one was paying attention to the spiderweb of old telephone cables near the neighbor’s fence. But as years went by and the couple welcomed their daughter into the fold, they made another commitment to each other: to fix up the backyard. 

Courtesy of Lou Arencibia

They turned to landscape architect Lou Arencibia, whose team immediately tore out the old concrete pad, tediously carrying each scrap to the dumpster on the street. This alone was a huge relief for Au. “Just having our child, I wanted her to have a place where she could play where it didn’t feel dirty,” she shares. Still, the space had more issues that needed to be addressed: There was little sense of privacy and the planting areas around the perimeter had gotten out of control. Ahead, Au and Arencibia reflect on the transformation and share how they made it an oasis for her young family of three.

Break It Down Into “Rooms” 

The yard, before.

Wanting to create a functional but still intimate-feeling space, Arencibia focused on segmenting the yard into a series of small “rooms.” This included a cozy seating corner, an herb-slash-veggie garden, a dining zone, and a tool storage area.

The plantings were selected to accentuate each of the zones (and hide the couple’s large black compost bin), as were the hardscaping materials. Arencibia designated sustainably sourced Black Locust wood to the lounge area and bluestone to the main dining space. Crushed gravel and evergreen shrubs like rhododendron springtime define the yard’s borders. 

Pick Plants That Thrive in All Kinds of Weather

The stars are the three multistem Amelanchier Grandiflora Autumn Brilliance trees, which boast foliage during three out of four seasons. “I didn’t want it to look barren and sad all winter,” says Au. 

In sunny areas of the garden, they incorporated low-maintenance flowering perennials and ornamental grasses such as fountain grass, Mexican feather grass, echinacea, and silver Russian sage. In shady spots, they went with autumn fern, anemone, and heuchera tapestry. Arencibia was also able to save an existing magnolia tree that Au had picked out with her parents at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden plant sale years ago. “It has always flourished and bloomed beautiful pink flowers every year,” she says. 

Ensure an Edible Garden for Everyone 

The yard, before.

The raised herb and veggie garden—now typically filled with tomatoes, basil, thyme, lavender, and peppers—was a must-have for Au. Arencibia made sure the custom-built box was constructed with a deep ledge so anyone who wants to sit and help her tend to the produce (like her toddler!) can do so comfortably. 

Of course, Au and her family aren’t the only ones grabbing a snack out here. Sometimes their dog, Clementine, feels inclined to take a bite of a plant, so for that reason they avoided species that could potentially be toxic to dogs, specifically yew, lilies, crocus, and daffodils. 

Make the Party Invite Only

Before the new wood fence could go up, the yard had to be sealed from other types of neighbors, mainly rats and feral cats. An exterminator recommended running hardware cloth (or steel mesh) underneath the ground around the perimeter to prevent unwanted visitors from digging a personal entrance into the yard. 

Grab the Popcorn

It’s no accident that they didn’t continue the wood fence around the very back of the yard. Au and her family use the brick surface for outdoor movie nights. All they have to add is their portable projector and—voilà!—they’re watching Point Break (the original one with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze) under the stars. “I feel like we’ll be watching something and all the neighbors start watching it, too,” says Au, laughing. 

Go With the (Furniture) Flow

The yard, before.

Au’s rule with outdoor furniture is to keep things lightweight. “As a photographer, I’m always thinking about things being able to move around easily,” she says. One wish-list item she gave up on buying? Terrazzo side tables. They’re just too heavy. Instead, her teak and metal pieces can be easily moved out of the way when her daughter wants to run around and swim in their inflatable pool in the warmer months.

Set the Mood at the First Step

The staircase, before.

With the space coming together nicely, there was one small thing still irking Au: the sliver of concrete at the top of the steps. “I felt like it was a remnant of the old backyard,” she says. “I wanted to find a way to make it beautiful.” Arencibia’s team scooped up some tile from Fireclay, but the scale of the squares looked too big for the teeny patio. So they cut each one down by hand to make a little checkered layout. “On a beautiful day, we like to put floor cushions out on the newly tiled patio and do some seated yoga with my daughter, and we watch the birds together,” says Au.