City Plants, Chinese Pistache, Chinese Flame Tree, Backyard ideas, design ideas, backyard landscaping, urban backyard ideas, those someday goals

Searching for Urban Backyard Ideas

The pandemic inspired us to start searching for urban backyard ideas to help us transform the space that sits behind our four-plex apartment building in Los Angeles. We didn’t (and don’t) want to spend a lot of money, but we do want to create a space that could be nice in the evenings and (possibly) a good place to work during the days. It has been a slow process, but the backyard design is starting to come together.

Our Backyard Design Challenges

1. We don’t own the property, so we couldn’t put too many things in the back that would be permanent.
2. A small-ish budget is in play, so we would be doing most of the work ourselves.
3. There is a tall apartment/condo complex going up behind the property.
4. Most days are already too hot to allow for much outside work.
5. It’s already too hot to do a lot of planting.

Clear the Backyard: Step 1

Andy was looking for a project to fill his extra time during the pandemic, so he offered to take down the abandoned above-ground pool that used to fill the dirt space in the backyard. It took a lot of time and effort, but he eventually got it torn down, and he called someone who could take away many of the remaining pieces.

Remove the Sand: Step 2

Alas, when the pool was gone, our urban backyard oasis did not magically appear. In fact, the ground was wildly uneven, topped with sand, and the edges had mounds of lovely decorative stone. Andy did call in someone who could help with some sand removal (we kept some in case we wanted to put down pavers), dig up the stabilizing pavers, and cut some metal stabilizers that had been put into the cement for the pool’s stairs.

Andy’s herculean efforts gave us this relatively clean slate in the backyard.

Backyard ideas, design ideas, backyard landscaping, urban backyard ideas, those someday goals
Some of the pool equipment is still visible in this picture, but the sand removal was finished.

Brainstorm Backyard Ideas: Step 3

While Andy got to work using a rake and pickaxe to level the backyard (no easy task), we started seriously brainstorming backyard design ideas. We began by dividing the backyard into zones. The two of wanted comfortable lounging/working seating. Shade was mandatory. We wanted to plant a garden using containers and raised beds, but we were open to planting some things in the ground. A space for a grill would be nice. We were less sure about an actual table for eating, but we are staying flexible. We also knew that we wanted to create some sense of privacy because our backyard is open to many windows.

Yard leveling, Backyard ideas, design ideas, backyard landscaping, urban backyard ideas, those someday goals
Andy has the rake and is ready for action!


Living in an urban area means that there is little to zero shade in the backyard, so we knew we wanted to add some trees, but we needed an umbrella in the short term. Otherwise, there is no way we would work back there during the day without baking.


Comfortable seating is a must, but we didn’t want to spend a fortune on outdoor furniture. We got lucky here. A neighbor was selling their used rattan sectional for half (or better) what we would have spent.

The cushion covers were white, so Andy wanted to have them died a sage green color so that they wouldn’t show quite as much of the dirt. That was a little complicated because the place that did the dye job warned him that the seams would weaken and that the fabric wouldn’t take the dye evenly. And they were right. But it is close enough for outdoor furniture, and the color took better than we had hoped. The covers will probably need to be replaced down the road, but for now, thumbs up!


Andy and I stumbled on City Plants. It’s a nonprofit here in Los Angeles that distributes shade trees (and fruit trees, when available) to city residents for free. This is their mission: “City Plants envisions an LA in which people in every neighborhood have equal access to trees and their benefits – energy efficiency, clean air, better health, cooling shade, and a friendlier, more vibrant neighborhood.”

We applied with our zip code and received two trees: a Chinese Flame Tree and a Chinese Pistache. Both are ornamental trees, and we hope that we can keep them alive and thriving – although the organization warns you that not all trees love being transplanted.

As an aside, do you know the book The Overstory? There is a re-occurring joke in it. “When is the best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago.” Of course, there is some debate over whether the next best time to plant is 19 years and 355 days ago, but most of the characters agree that the next best time is “right now” (given the lack of a reliable time machine. 🙂 )

City Plants, Chinese Pistache, Chinese Flame Tree, Backyard ideas, design ideas, backyard landscaping, urban backyard ideas, those someday goals
Our Chinese Pistache and Chinese Flame Tree from City Plants. Very excited to get these in the ground.

Raised Garden Beds: Next Steps

Next up – raised garden beds! Our search for raised garden beds has led us down several paths. We love the idea of having a trellis or two, not just for the tomato plants but for grapevines and sugar snap peas. We are also still looking at different ideas for our urban backyard garden. While we have narrowed down some vegetables that we’d love to plant, the blazing hot weather here in September means that we will have to tread carefully.

That’s it for now. Check back to read more about our search for backyard ideas, landscaping tips, and updates on our urban garden.