How to Redesign and Rebuild an Ailing Backyard to Make Room for an Outdoor Kitchen

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Is there a way to find enough space to fit an outdoor kitchen when your yard space is limited? That was the question Chad and Denise Tillbrook were initially trying to answer when they thought about changing up their backyard landscape.

There was no room to spare in this shallow Bethesda backyard. Much of the space was taken up with hardscaping and plantings the homeowners described as “raggedy.” It was a yard that had gone well past its expiration date. 

After taking a walk around the property, their landscape architect, Howard Cohen of Surrounds, recommended a complete do-over. There is certainly some relief when one accepts the idea of starting over from scratch, but there are many decisions to make. Where does one start? Here is how one family did it.

Starting With a Clean Slate

“Initially, all we’d thought about was the outdoor kitchen. We hadn’t really conceptualized it,” Denise remembers. “And we didn’t think of combining the entire back and side yards in the design, that’s for sure.” That was the landscape architect’s idea.

We hadn’t thought of combining the back and side yards into one design.

The challenges of designing this small yard landscape were many. First and foremost was a Norwegian Maple 60 feet high and standing right in the middle of the yard. The roots branched out in every direction, preventing grass and other plant life from taking hold. And there were the imposing concrete pads, at least 20 x 20 each, that the Tillbrooks never quite found a good use for. 

It was not an easy decision to take the tree down. But their architect cautioned them that the roots would eventually push through and break anything that they tried to build out in the yard.  “It was home to birds and other wildlife, so we really wrestled with whether or not it should stay,” says Denise. But for the purpose of reclaiming the yard into usable space for both the local wildlife and for the Tillbrooks, it was a sacrifice that had to be made.

“The entire backyard was completely torn out down to the dirt itself, redesigned and rebuilt,  from the property boundary on one side to the other,” Chad says. “We started with a clean slate.”

BEFORE landscape renovation of back and side yards

Unlocking Creative Potential in Small Yard Landscaping

With planning and the right design concept, you can maximize the yard space you have so it feels and functions like a much larger space.

Much More than an Outdoor Kitchen

With the domineering maple tree, underperforming shrubs, and mysterious concrete pads taken out of the equation, there suddenly seemed to be a lot more space to fill. How do you wrangle all that blank space into an organic, cohesive landscape design?

When planning an outdoor kitchen, the initial objective is always to determine the right location. Once that was decided, the possibilities seemed endless.

Their landscape architect encouraged the Tillbrooks to see the outdoors from all angles from inside the house. The placement and composition of individual landscape elements in the whole picture are important to take into account. “We love how they used different hardscapes and other materials to transition from one space to another,” says Denise, “and how colors are repeated in different ways as you move through the landscape.”

side yard with raised beds and vertical planters for herbs
The side yard path to the back yard features raised cutting beds and stacked growing boxes for herbs.
Side yard pebble pathway allows rain water to percolate directly through into the ground.
backyard stepping stone path to fire ring
Broad stepping stones lead to a gathering area bordered by a low stone wall.

Here are some of the core features the Tillbrooks landed on:

  • Three raised beds for vegetables line the fence and walkway to the back. These provide beautiful vegetation while cleverly concealing the AC units, basement windows, and drain basins. 
  • More planting beds full of perennials of different colors and textures along the fence on both sides. 
  • A privacy fence near the side entrance and flagstone walkway from the garage to the fence gate. 
  • A 20 x 12 area for artificial turf. “We wanted to avoid dealing with damage from the dogs,” Chad says. “It’s an extra place to lounge around, a sunny location where real grass wouldn’t thrive. 
  • A large seating area with a fire table bordered by a half circle wall about 2-3 ft high backed by tall perennials. “For the fire table, a large boulder was cut and hollowed out. It looks amazing,” Denise says.
  • The outdoor kitchen area is a third of a circle in shape. One side has a wood-fired oven with a gas starter and storage. There is also a ceramic egg smoker, a must-have for Chad. The kitchen sink is carved of stone similar to the fire table, with a refrigerator and elevated island attached to it. The countertops are blue granite.
back yard design with fire ring seating area and outdoor kitchen patio

Enjoying a Brand New Landscape

Did completely starting over make a difference? “There is no comparison,” Chad and Denise say.

Before the renovation, the Tillbrooks didn’t use the yard. They ate outdoors once or twice in the two years they had lived there before they decided to modernize the landscape with a complete renovation. “Now, we eat outside and relax outdoors every chance we get,” Chad says.

Chad’s mom lives in an apartment attached to the property and now uses the space regularly as well. “It’s lovely and pleasant and private in the middle of a busy area where houses are pretty close together,” Denise says. “I tried a garden before, but it was no fun being out there. Now I’ll come out with my cup of coffee to look things over along the raised beds. It feels like a pleasure rather than a chore.”

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