Backyards take on new identities beyond playscapes and grills

Think of your outdoor space as a wellness area to decompress from daily life.
More homeowners are creating wellness areas in their backyards, said Yardzen CEO Allison Messner. This yard features a sauna, a narrow plunge pool and a hot tub, all in a relatively compact space. Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Mlakar for Yardzen

Credit: Nicole Mlakar

Credit: Nicole Mlakar

More homeowners are creating wellness areas in their backyards, said Yardzen CEO Allison Messner. This yard features a sauna, a narrow plunge pool and a hot tub, all in a relatively compact space. Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Mlakar for Yardzen

In the olden days, you plopped a deck onto the back of your home and called it a day. Outdoor space: one and done.

But in 2023, people are going beyond the bare minimum and creating outdoor areas that address both body and mind.

The outdoor design landscape has been imprinted by a pandemic-forged trend that turned backyards into places of refuge and led people to use that space not just for socializing, recreation and fun but also for decompressing, contemplation and self care.

Allison Messner, co-founder and CEO of California-based landscape design firm Yardzen, has noticed a rise in wellness-centric outdoor spaces. The addition of saunas and small plunge pools, including cold ones, are on the rise as homeowners look to integrate wellness features into their backyards.

The outdoor sauna built of cedar was designed by Yardzen.
Photo: Courtesy of Green Advisors for Yardzen

Credit: Courtesy of Green Advisors for Yardzen

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Credit: Courtesy of Green Advisors for Yardzen

“Gone are the days where yards were just for hosting and entertaining and play. There’s definitely a newfound focus on self care outside,” said Messner.

“Some of our favorite designs include wellness zones that incorporate multiple relaxation and detoxification elements like a sauna, a day bed, a seat or hot tub, a cold plunge pool and an outdoor shower, all in one space,” she added.

Landscaping can play a role, too, in creating a sanctuary in your yard, said Luly Bestard-Melarti, co-owner of Decatur’s Terracotta Design Build. Bestard-Melarti has seen a rise in requests for living walls and living fences, which incorporate plants, both for privacy and to “achieve some kind of serenity in your backyard.”

Ili Hidalgo-Nilsson, co-owner of Terracotta Design Build, said that the pandemic spurred a number of behaviors that have persisted: eating outdoors, growing edible gardens, wanting to breathe clean, healthy air and merging indoors and out.

“The outdoors is the new living room. It’s the new pantry. It’s the new wellness respite from stuffy interiors and being caged up inside a home or an office,” Nilsson said.

If you don’t have a big budget or a huge backyard, Nilsson recommends low-cost but game-changing details like adding an outdoor mirror to your garden to reflect light and create a sense of expanded space. Bigger-budget improvements might be floor-to-ceiling glass doors that let you experience nature’s benefits even when you are inside.

Not surprisingly, the link between the outdoors and wellness is long established in cultures around the world. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen coined the term “friluftsliv” to describe the joy and contentment that comes from being outdoors. And the Japanese concept of forest bathing, which encourages spending time in fresh air and in the woods, is an idea backed up by science. Studies have shown that spending time outdoors and surrounded by nature can ease anxiety, fight depression and lower blood pressure, among other positive effects.

So whether you have a few acres or just a balcony, here is how you can add wellness elements to your own outdoor area.

Rather than plopping plastic playscapes into backyards, parents are taking a cue from Scandinavia and using more natural materials.
Photo: Courtesy of Yardzen / Thomas J. Story

Credit: Thomas J. Story

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Credit: Thomas J. Story

A water element

One benefit of a small plunge pool, which is designed for relaxing instead of swimming, is that it takes up much less space than a traditional pool. Some people are adding cold-water plunge pools as they seek to reduce stress and even inflammation. But if you don’t have the space for even a plunge pool, small fountains can bring the relaxing sound of water to almost any space. Some homeowners are even installing outdoor bathtubs for a long, relaxing soak.

Plant choices

Whether you are nurturing a kitchen garden for healthier eating habits or growing plants like rosemary, lavender, gardenia, roses or tea olive for their intoxicating scent, outdoor plants can bring the benefits of stress reduction and mood enhancement.

Sound baths

Outdoor speakers that carry favorite relaxing tunes are one way to enhance your outdoors. There is also meditative therapy in “bathing” yourself in sound waves whether it is the sound of feet crunching on gravel, the trickle of water in a fountain, the gentle trill of bamboo wind chimes or just the sound of wind moving through ornamental grasses. But there are other ways to experience the relaxing benefits of sound for stress relief and meditation. For instance, planting pollinator-friendly plants can bring the soothing sound of bees and birds to your garden.

A relaxation zone

Creating wellness outdoors doesn’t have to cost a fortune. Yoga platforms are one way to create a wellness space. But a simple hammock or chaise tucked into a peaceful, foliage-centric glade can provide a private escape founded on self care.

“I think the lowest cost and potentially highest impact area that people could focus on in their yard to get some of these benefits is just a relaxation zone,” Messner said. “Beautiful plants, a comfortable seating area … just creating a zone that helps you relax is where I would recommend people start.”

Kid spaces

A Scandinavian approach to design has been huge in indoor decor, but it’s also taking hold outside. The emotional and physical benefits of friluftsliv and the Danish concept of forest schools that encourage outdoor play are catching on in America.

“A lot of our designs include play structures and tree houses or playscapes that blend in with the natural topography and complement existing elements in the yard,” Messner said.

Felicia Feaster is a longtime lifestyle and design editor who spent 11 years covering gardening, interior design, trends and wellness for Felicia is a contributor to and has been interviewed as a design expert by The New York Times, Forbes and the Associated Press.