written by: Brad Mee            photos by: Adam Finke

Welcoming us into his blissful backyard, landscape designer Rob McFarland offers advice for creating a city garden that’s as compelling as it is calming.

In the heart of Salt Lake City’s Gilmer Park area, landscape designer Rob McFarland and Jerry Stanger, owners of Ward & Child—The Garden Store, enjoy an oasis of lush gardens behind their charming 1930s house. A stroll through this backyard retreat reveals McFarland’s talent for transforming urban yards into personalized plots of paradise, something he does for many city-dwelling clients in Salt Lake and beyond. From the start, he encourages his clients to dream big but to be realistic. “The great thing about a garden is that you can have anything you want, but you can’t have everything,” he says. Practicing what he preaches, McFarland and Stanger prioritized their desire for a verdant escape from the fast-paced city and created exactly that. For those with similar aspirations, McFarland offers the following tips.


Many people expect too much of a backyard space, listing everything from water features and gazebos to fire pits and even bocce ball courts among their must-haves, McFarland says. “You need to decide what is most important and limit yourself, otherwise you dilute the overall design,” he explains. Because he and Stanger wanted a tranquil, easy-care garden that flows fluidly within the confines of their modestly sized backyard, they omitted an out-of-character vegetable garden from their plans. They also nixed a large dining spot for parties, choosing instead to create an open lawn area where a farmhouse table could be placed when needed. “Think how you want to use a garden everyday and not just for special events,” McFarland advises. “This will help you prioritize what’s most important.”

A blue ceramic pot is strategically positioned in the garden to draw the eye deep into the landscape.


Consider how you decorate a beautiful interior space and employ the same principles of design outdoors, McFarland suggests. Color, texture, form and line all play a part in creating a captivating backyard. So does common sense. “People might choose a sofa and two chairs for a living room, yet they put a mishmash of 12 unmatched chairs on a patio and wonder why it doesn’t work,” he says. And when it comes to scale, think big. “Everything gets dwarfed outside, so err on the size of too large.” Plants are the exception. “People let their plants get too big. Proper pruning is the single most important aspect of garden maintenance.” 

As seen from the porch, the garage is cloaked in a wall of dogwood, clematis and climbing roses.


“A simpler, consistent color palette is more restful to look at, especially in a smaller garden,” McFarland says. Rather than choosing a rainbow of high-maintenance, brightly colored bloomers for his garden, he opted for lush foliage featuring verdant hues, varied textures and assorted leaf size to create interest. “Crazy color combinations work well in a container, but not in an entire garden.” McFarland and Stanger also chose related shades of green for the home’s exterior. “We wanted the house to recede and look like part of the landscape,” McFarland explains.

A fountain bubbles in a hidden pond enveloped in water lilies, ivy, euonymus and perennial geraniums.


“People under-edit their backyards,” says McFarland, describing how many homeowners mistakenly buy one of 10 different plants rather than 10 of one plant for their gardens, resulting in a messy look. For those who want a broad variety of plants in their yard, he suggests choosing and grouping plants that harmonize so the eye sees them as a unified collection rather than a smattering of individuals. And when it comes to garden accessories and ornaments, the designer suggests choosing them wisely and positioning them so they can’t be seen all at one time. “Consolidate smaller pieces into a group just as you would with collectibles inside the home,” he says.


“Think of layering from top to bottom as much as from front to back,” says McFarland. Starting low, he planted interesting ground covers, mosses and short grasses throughout his small yard to create interest and, where needed, draw the eye down and away from less desirable elements, including a tall power pole. When it comes to successful front-to-back layering, it’s important to incorporate variations of color and texture, McFarland adds. In his yard, he designed narrow breaks in these vertical layers to draw the eye into gardens and avoid solid walls of foliage.


“I love a garden that offers a sense of discovery where everything isn’t visible at a glance,” McFarland says. For his backyard, he designed lawns, paths and planted beds that pull visitors from side to side rather than directly back into the property. “This takes advantage of the yard’s width and requires more time to move visually and physically through the property, making it look and feel larger,” he explains. Japanese maples, tranquil water features and a blue pot nestled among shrubs are some of the designer’s carefully positioned elements that help transport the eye and guests through gardens they never want to leave.

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