Sean Conway

Company: Stone Barn Design
Interesting Fact: With over 25 years in the garden industry, Sean Conway has become recognized as a nationally renowned garden designer, author, television host and design consultant. 


We were lucky enough to sit down with the garden designer, and talk about his book: “Sean Conway’s Cultivating Life” as well as discuss what simple things we can do now to spruce up our own outdoor living spaces. While not all of us have time to try all 125 backyard projects suggested in Conway’s book, we do ask Conway to get down to the basics. With a little time, money and a lot of elbow grease, Conway helps breakdown how we should be maximizing our outdoor spaces for ultimate enjoyment throughout the seasons.

Q- Your book “Sean Conway’s Cultivating Life” provides a map to the ideal outdoor space, the backyard in particular. What is it about the backyard that makes us so sentimental and makes us want to gather there?

A- I think one of  the reasons we like spending time in our backyards ( front yards for some, or side yards for others) hearkens back to when we were children. Those of us raised in homes with backyards remember gathering for family cook-outs, neighborhood get-togethers, or various celebrations like birthday parties and the like. Many people, myself included, spent hours playing outside in our backyards with friends or siblings. I think a big part of why we like gathering in our backyards as adults is because it reminds us of happy times from our childhood. Gathering outside also provides a chance to enjoy the outside without having to travel any farther than one’s own back door.

Q- There seem to be so many options to improving the backyard, where does one start?

A-  Don’t worry, you don’t  have to do ALL 125 projects in the book in order to improve your backyard! The book provides a sampling of projects that range from very easy to those requiring some carpentry skills or at the least help from a friend who is “handy.” Choose a project or two you find appealing. Quite often making one small improvement to your outdoor space leads to others…. a bit like eating potato chips!

Q- What are five things we can do right away?

Sean Conway Garden

Image courtesy of Sean Conway

A- The first thing to do to improve your outdoor space is to make the most of what you have. Start by cleaning up the space. Remove unwanted or seldom used items first. If you still have a swing-set and your kids are off to college, its time to get rid of the swing-set. That faded plastic umbrella base sitting on the deck that hasn’t had an umbrella in it for several years? That rusty old grill that ruins your appetite before you start cooking? Now is the time to give them the heave-ho. Trust me you won’t miss them and you’ll be surprised at how much better your space will look. Many of us get used to having unwanted items in our yards, and the unnecessary clutter becomes part of the scenery.

Next, make a list of things you would like to use your backyard for. Do you cook outdoors? Would you like to? Would you like a place to entertain? If so, how many people do you think you might have at one time? Do your kids need some place to play? Maybe you would like to attract birds to your yard. There are countless ways you can use your outdoor space, but making a list will help you organize your space and help you decide where to begin.

Access the light in your yard. If your yard is filled with large trees creating a lot of shade it might be the perfect place for a hammock, but not so perfect for a sunny spot to put up a clothes line. Having an idea of how you want to use the space will determine how much light you need. You might have to cut a few trees down, or you might find planting a tree or two is in order.

Sean Conway Border

Image courtesy of Sean Conway

Once you have an idea of how you would like to use your space start with one improvement that will help you achieve that goal. If you enjoy cooking perhaps planting an herb garden or adding a small outdoor kitchen. My advice is to complete one improvement before moving on to another. Quite often changing one space will influence how you use the yard as a whole.

Many people get overwhelmed when faced with improving an outdoor space. Don’t worry about having the perfect backyard by the weekend! Start small. Small changes add up over time and before you know it, your neighbors will be asking YOU for advice.

Q- What’s the best way to integrate our life inside the house with the natural beauty and fresh air we can get outside?

A- The backyard certainly has become an extension of the home. We spend more and more leisure time outdoors. When I was a kid outdoor spaces consisted of a basic patio sets for the adults and redwood picnic tables with benches for the kids. Today many backyards have accessories like gazebos for creating shade, outdoor lighting, wireless speakers for music, outdoor rugs that can be hosed off, and outdoor kitchens complete with refrigerators, ice makers and pizza ovens. However the reverse is also true. Many people have a desire to bring the outdoors in. Materials traditionally found outdoors or on three season porches such as wicker have moved indoors. Botanical motifs, animal prints and natural materials such as wood and stone are now commonplace in home decor. Houseplants once popular in the 1970s are becoming popular again because many people want a year round connection with the outdoors, not just a seasonal one.

Q- How do you feel about fences? They offer privacy and some level of security, but they can leave you boxed in. The idea of a backyard is to open yourself up to the environment, so do you think a fence defeats the purpose somewhat?

Sean Conway Hornbeam Hedge

Image courtesy of Sean Conway

A- I think the old saying ” Good fences make good neighbors” is true. However, a “fence” doesn’t have to be made from wood (or vinyl, as some are these days). If you have the space and depending on the amount of light why not consider a “natural fence?” Planting a hedge or a row a tightly branched evergreens can provide the same screening a fence can. In addition to providing a visual screen, hedges or natural screenings provide excellent sound absorption. They also create habitat for wildlife.

Q- OK, we have $200 bucks to spend on the backyard this weekend. What are our must-haves?

A- Beer, chips and dip; maybe something like guacamole… Just kidding. I would start by investing in a few good garden tools like a pointed shovel, an iron rake, a spring rake, and a wheelbarrow (if there is still some money left after buying the tools). Having the proper tools will allow you to do just about anything from cleaning up to building projects. After you have purchased a few basic tools, start by using them to clean up your space. After that, enjoy a beer and some chips. After that, you can move on to planting.

Q- We understand you’re a horticulturist. What sort of potted plants would be best used to accent outdoor living spaces?

Outdoor Dining

Image courtesy of Sean Conway

A- That all depends on the outdoor space. If your space has the benefit of full sun, and by full I mean at least six hours of direct sunlight each day, then there are a lot of options. Tropical potted plants work well for warmer regions of the country. Plants like hibiscus or bougainvillea provide color almost all year. For temperate regions, color all season long is best provided by annuals. There are far too many choices to list here. A trip to your local garden center will provide many options. If your space is shady you will have fewer choices for blooming plants, but more choices for unusual foliage. Many people opt for something like potted evergreens which provide a more traditional look year round.

Q- What are some of the regional trends you’re seeing that might surprise people who don’t live in that part of the world?

A- One of the biggest trends happening now is being driven by Mother Nature in the form of drought. Most of us are aware of the severe drought that California is facing. Lack of rain in the West has forced many people to rethink what the landscape should look like. In the past California landscapes have been planted with a variety of plants which require large amounts of water to thrive. Due to the drought and the increasing cost of water, more and more homeowners are planting native and drought tolerant plants into their landscapes. Water conservation has become a way of life in California and as a result, home and municipal landscapes are changing. Xeriscape, a term used to describe low water use landscaping is a trend that has been popular in Arizona for over a decade. Adapting the plant palette to local conditions is a trend that is rapidly changing our perception of California from “anything and everything will grow” to more of a Mediterranean look.

Q- What are some tips for choosing outdoor furniture?

Polywood Outdoor Furniture

Image courtesy of POLYWOOD

A- The best way to choose outdoor furniture is to start by matching the style of the furniture to the style of your home. The sleek modern lines of contemporary outdoor furniture would look out of place in a classic Victorian home, and conversely, painted white wicker furniture wouldn’t look right paired with the stark lines of a steel, glass and block mid-century modern home. After you decide on a look, consider color. Furniture in neutral colors such as tan, chocolate brown, slate or charcoal will blend into any background. Bold colors like red or blue furniture, while colorful, limit your background choices. The best way to add color to your outdoor furniture is with pops of accent color such as throw pillows or all season washable rugs. These small accents can easily be changed when you tire of the color or when you want to refresh the look of your furniture without breaking the bank.

Q- Name three people you’d love to have over for a backyard get together?

A- Donald Trump, Jon Stewart, and somebody with a camcorder.