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How to create a soothing backyard oasis

We asked these pros how to create a soothing backyard oasis: Chris Holthouser, project manager at Outdoor Craftsmen; Bill Melvin, owner of Ecoscape Environmental Design; and Stacy Parcell, enhancement manager for CoCal Landscape. Here’s what they said about creating a place of peace in your own backyard.

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Location, location, location

You want to find an area that isn’t exposed to a lot of wind or sun, Holthouser says. Also try to move the setting away from noisy roads or boisterous neighbors. If that’s not possible, planting shrubs and trees may help screen the noise.

Go for fragrance

A heavenly scent goes a long way toward soothing the spirit, the landscape pros say. Holthouser suggests magnolias in the spring, lemon thyme, lavender and roses. Melvin points to drought-tolerant plants like agastache to add a delicate aroma.

Sweet delights

“I’m a big fan of shrubs, which don’t require a lot of care,” Melvin says. “Edible shrubs are my favorite, because they attract wildlife and have such sweet-tart fruits.” Wild plums and currants are two of his favorites.

Make it accessible

For older clients, Holthouser says, raised vegetable beds are a proven winner. “Getting out there and working in the soil brings about its own kind of relaxation,” he says, adding it’s important to ensure these gardens are wheelchair-accessible and feature smooth surfaces free of things that can cause a gardener to stumble.

Let it flow

Holthouser and Melvin agree that water features, even small ones, do wonders by blocking noise and emitting melodic sounds. “People overlook sound when they think of water features, but it’s healing, especially if you put a water feature in a area where the sound can be carried by the breeze,” Melvin says. “If you place it right, you can even hear the sound of a trickle of water inside.”

Keep it soft

Avoid plants with hard edges and thorns. “Think about soft, airy plants like grasses,” Parcell says. If you love roses, she says, set them back in the garden.

Let it wander

Meandering pathways broken up by small spaces for con­templation are key to a peaceful garden, Parcell says. Seating areas in strategic locations can be those stopping points. Even a simple bench or a flat boulder tucked into a shady spot can be a perfect place to pause, Melvin says. “People don’t realize how much value they get from their gardens,” he adds. “Even if it’s five minutes in the morning with a cup of coffee, or 15 minutes of relaxation in nature after a long day’s work.”

The color connection

Try to come up with a color presentation that will look great through all seasons, Holthouser says. “That means having an evergreen structure, along with the colorful plants that will come into play in the summer.” Fall foliage and berries and grasses add interest in fall and winter. But having too much going on in terms of color can lead to a messy look, Holthouser says. “I try to do large swaths of a similar plant. Nature tends to be consistent in the way it presents itself.” In fact, repetitiveness is soothing, Parcell says. “We’ll repeat a plant pattern, and then add something to break it up, like a statue or a bench. Repetitiveness creates a calming feeling.”

Make it useful

Melvin notes that a true peaceful oasis might as well include plants that are good for the body as well as the spirit. Medicinal plants like chamomile are fragrant and can be harvested for tea to help those with insomnia. Echinacea, native to this region, is an immune-system booster. Yarrow, with its low water needs and long blooming periods, can be used as an expectorant. And many cough remedies are made with elderberries, which have lovely white flowers.

The birds and the bees

Nothing is as soothing as watching colorful birds and butterflies flit around the garden. Serviceberries are one of Holthouser’s favorites because birds flock to it. If you want to attract hummingbirds, consider agastache. Hyssop and monarda (also called bee balm) attract bees, and coneflowers are natural butterfly catchers, Melvin says.

—M.M.