How to Create the Perfect Backyard Garden

Avid gardener and blogger Michael Gordon, who lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire, shares his secrets on how to create the perfect backyard garden.

By Ian Aldrich

Aug 08 2014

Oxeye Daisy finish

Oxeye Daisy

Photo Credit : illustration by John Burgoyne

Avid gardener and blogger Michael Gordon, who lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire, shares his secrets on how to create the perfect backyard garden.

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When Michael Gordon and his family moved into their home in southern New Hampshire 25 years ago, he faced a challenge: What to do with the property’s sloping backyard? Gordon, who works as an optometrist by day, poured his off-hours into his lot. He terraced the land, reshaped existing plants, and planted lots of new ones. He also added local touches (granite, white pine) to reflect the New Hampshire landscape. We caught up with Gordon in–where else?–his garden. (You may visit Michael Gordon’s garden and five others in the Monadnock Region during the area’s Garden Conservancy Open Day, August 23 this year.)

Sizing Things Up

Gordon emphasizes choosing plants and trees that fit not only the style of your garden, but its size. That adorable new Norway spruce you like? Remember, it may grow to 50 feet and “take over your yard, so there is no yard.” Gordon has gravitated toward stouter trees in his garden, such as a pair of Stewartias (“pretty bark and good fall foliage”), a Korean white pine, and an Acer griseum x ‘Gingerbread’ (paperbark maple), a small, deciduous tree with red foliage.


Think about what your garden will look like in winter. Stonework, evergreens, and trees with interesting bark and fruit come first. Then add the shrubs, perennials, annuals, and bulbs. “In New England especially, make sure what you’re looking at is pretty,” Gordon says, “because half the year you’re not actually going to be in the garden because of snow.”

Play with Color

Gordon likes seeing color year-round. That means evergreens in the winter and a variety of plants in other months. Shrubs, annuals, perennials, and biennials all have a home in his yard. “I have a variegated privet, which has a nice yellow all year long,” he says. “You might have tulips come up early in the year and asters later in the season.” Smoke bush, which has deep-red leaves, is another favorite.

Relate to the House

Your garden, no matter how small, should reflect the style of your home. “The garden should feel like the house because the house sets the tone for it,” Gordon says. “If you have a modest home, you don’t want a lot of fancy elements, like elaborate statues, in your garden.”

Get Dirty

For new gardeners, Gordon simply recommends you “begin experimenting, putting things in the ground and seeing what happens.” Then visit public gardens, such as Boston’s Arnold Arboretum. See what plants bloom at different times of the year, and examine the garden’s layout. “A successful garden begins with good design and good plants,” Gordon says. “Once you start visiting professional gardens, you’ll see it’s more organized than you thought.”

Sizing Things Up II

Don’t underestimate the size of your terrace or patio. Gordon’s solution: Before you build a thing, put out some chairs and a table. Imagine how the space will feel when you have guests over. Where does the grill go? “If you’re dealing with a really small space, you might consider just doing away with the lawn,” he says. “It’s just going to get stepped on and become muddy anyway.”

More of Gordon’s tips at: