She's traded extravagant floral designs for a calming and verdant oasis.
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Credit: Emily E Berger-Crawford

Fanciful flowerbeds? Not for Lisa Waud. The botanical artist, who last year won the American Horticultural Society's top award for floral design, gets her color fix through imaginative, sometimes surreal work projects—like adorning a blighted duplex with 40,000 blooms for an art installation or embellishing an old Cadillac with flowers for rapper Danny Brown's video set. So when she's home in her Detroit backyard, she welcomes a quieter, easygoing palette of billowy ornamental grasses and leafy perennials. "I really enjoy foliage and not a lot of color here," Waud says. "It's a place where I can turn down the volume."

urban backyard garden narrow path
Credit: Emily E Berger-Crawford

On her back porch, she sips morning coffee with her rescue dog, Friday, overlooking her lush yet compact landscape—a mere 25x50 feet. Clouds of seed heads float atop blue-green switchgrass. Bottle-brush plumes, still wet with dew, arch from emerald fountain grass. A dark green passion vine climbs a trellis on the freshly painted garage wall. And bees peruse the white foam of late-blooming sweet autumn clematis.

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lisa waud gardening portrait
Left: A dog run was a priority for Waud. Wood sides, painted handsome gray like the garage, help contain mulch when Friday hits a sprint chasing squirrels. | Credit: Emily E Berger-Crawford
Right: Credit: Emily E Berger-Crawford

In 2018, when Waud bought the property—her first home, a brick foursquare in the historic Piety Hill neighborhood—she knew right away how she'd transform the outdoor space. She already had plenty of practice prettying up 25 rented homes, all at the favor of her landlords. She started by removing everything but a central patch of lawn. "When I moved in, the yard was all grass—sad grass," Waud says. She left only a small space for a firepit, then built wide perennial beds around it. "I wanted to feel immersed in garden when sitting there."

giant kale plants urban garden
Waud confines most edibles to a designated area near the garage, but she planted this curly-leaf dinosaur kale in her perennial bed for texture.
| Credit: Emily E Berger-Crawford

Next she framed that sitting area with a steel canopy structure repurposed from her past life as an event floral designer, and artfully wove together low-maintenance plants, including many gifted from friends. She trained vining plants up her porch, and by the garage, carved out a dog run for Friday and a raised bed for vegetables. Many projects remain, but three years later, she truly appreciates the step-by-step transformation: "There is a joy in watching your garden develop."

lush urban garden
Waud repurposes remesh panels—sturdy wire grids used to reinforce concrete—as inexpensive, discrete trellises. They rust, but she doesn't mind the patina.
| Credit: Emily E Berger-Crawford

How to Create a Calm Oasis in a Small Backyard

Lisa Waud shares her approach to home landscaping.

Function

Start with a list of ways you plan to use your space—the must-haves. Waud's included a firepit for entertaining, a dog run, a path to the garage, perennial beds and an area for vegetables.

Sight Lines

Consider how people will view the yard—perhaps from seats in a lounge area, through a window overlooking the garden, or from an elevated deck or porch. Then choose tall or short plants that will be appreciated from those perspectives.

Palette

For a calming effect and easy (or, at least, easier) lushness, Waud prefers a predominantly green garden with plants in varied shapes, sizes and textures.

Experimentation

Even once you've established your garden, don't be afraid to try new things. (For example, Waud has been adding more native species for pollinators.) "It's OK to move around and even lose a few plants," she says. "You can try again next season."