San Francisco-based landscape designer and author Daniel Nolan's backyards are quite literally perfection. His signature look is for lushly planted, low maintenance spaces that are ideal for entertaining. Filled with tropical plants and rich green foliage and modern shapes and minimal hardscaping they tick all the style boxes we're looking for in urban alfresco areas right now.
But what's most striking about his landscaping is that all of his backyard schemes always feel totally enclosed, completely secluded, and like you're in the middle of nowhere. A desire for privacy is built in to the fabric of the outdoors he creates.
'In urban areas, you're all living in a fish bowl,' Daniel says. 'And I'm nosy, I can't help but want to look at what my neighbors are doing! But at the same time, I don't want them to see me walking around in my bathrobe, I like a lot of privacy.'
And that's easy to achieve if you follow his advice on what to include in your backyard, and what is very important to avoid.
Based in San Francisco, landscape designer Daniel Nolan heads up his own studio, creating gardens that are full of lush planting and sociable spaces. He worked at Flora Grubb Gardens for a decade, and his work since launching Daniel Nolan Design in 2018 has been featured in Vogue, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor and the New York Times. His first book, Dry Gardens: High Style for Low Water Gardens (opens in new tab) is published by Rizzoli.
What to avoid when adding privacy to your backyard
Surprisingly, Daniel rails against many peoples' go-to when looking to add privacy to their backyard - a hedge. 'The worst thing about a hedge is that it acts like a curtain,' he says. 'It blocks out the light completely.'
Daniel's backyards always provide total privacy but they are infused with a sense of golden sunlight, his urban spaces feeling like tropical gardens, dappled in a way that always evokes summer. And the key, it seems, is to think more laterally than just planting in a tall hedge.
What to include when adding privacy to a backyard
Instead of a hedge, Daniel has other tricks that up the privacy levels of your backyard but don't block out the light. The absolute goal of modern, urban alfresco design.
'I look for plants that are evergreen, so by their nature don't lose their leaves and give you months of exposure,' he says. 'Palm trees are perfect - I'll jam six into a backyard the size of a postage stamp. They send up a wonderful trunk height and then their fronds give you a privacy screen that diffuses the light while blocking the sight lines.' As one of the best privacy trees for small backyards, people can't see in, but sunlight can still shimmer its way past the canopies.
Daniel's advice for what to plant with palm trees
With palm trees being so slender and tall they are not only one of the best trees for privacy but also there is plenty of room underneath them for more plants. And Daniel likes to fill his gardens, going big and lush to create a sense of total enclosure.
'What’s really lovely about palm trees is that they don't create as much shade as you might think,' he says. 'As I mentioned, they diffuse the light and actually allow plenty of it through. Plants in the garden center that are marked as needing full sun will generally do well under a palm. My favorite pairings create a lot of green coverage - I'll add in Japanese yew trees, Dicksonia Antarctica tree fern and - if I want some ground cover too I'll include some Leopard plant.'
The result is the sense of being in secret garden which - happily - won't need much work to maintain, meaning that you can get on with relaxation and entertaining. As Daniel says: 'I view the landscape as a painting, and something to enjoy.' Preferably in private.
The plants to buy now to get Daniel's look
Grows up to 15 feet
Likes the dappled shade of a palm
Creates ground cover
Dry Gardens by Daniel Nolan (Rizzoli) (opens in new tab)
A beautiful coffee table book, this is bursting with more inspiration and insight for lush backyards that are drought tolerant. A wonderful way to create low maintenance spaces that save on water, too.
The editor of Livingetc, Pip Rich (formerly Pip McCormac) is a lifestyle journalist of almost 20 years experience working for some of the UK's biggest titles. As well as holding staff positions at Sunday Times Style, Red and Grazia he has written for the Guardian, The Telegraph, The Times and ES Magazine. The host of Livingetc's podcast Home Truths, Pip has also published three books - his most recent, A New Leaf, was released in December 2021 and is about the homes of architects who have filled their spaces with houseplants. He has recently moved out of London - and a home that ELLE Decoration called one of the ten best small spaces in the world - to start a new renovation project in Somerset.
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