As you might expect, designing a patio is very different from designing a garden. After all, the purpose of a patio is more utilitarian: It's a large, durable area for rest, recreation and cooking. Thus, a patio gets a good deal of foot traffic. So when it comes to designing a patio for your yard, hardscape necessarily dominates softscape.
Just as you should examine your hardscaping necessities, such as fences and retaining walls, before you plan your overall yard design, so should you analyze the habits and needs your lifestyle demands before breaking ground to put in a patio. For instance, if you have a large family or entertain large groups of people often, you're going to need to designate a good deal of space for the patio. If you plan to put in a large barbecue, consider how much accompanying countertop you usually demand as well as the size of the eating table.
As we alluded to above, potted plants add softscape -- and therefore, life and warmth -- to what might otherwise be a sterile, cold patio. If you think you'll want to include some softscape in your patio design, designate space for plants or consider hanging them from a rafter. One option would be to set aside a corner of the patio for a garden plot. Another trick to enlivening a patio is to use brightly colored floor material. This is especially helpful if you choose to position your patio in the shade. Floors of bright stone or a white floor of concrete will reflect the maximum amount of sunlight off the surface [source: Stevens].
Speaking of sunlight, that's something you'll want to plan for as well. Take a day to inspect the orientation of the sun in relation to your yard. You may want to orient seating to face toward the sun during the morning or perhaps toward it in the evenings. It depends on your preferences and what time of day you're most likely to use the patio.
Planning for the forces of nature also includes planning for the rain that will inevitably drench your patio. If you're not careful, you can expect to get a pond rather than a patio. If you're putting in the patio yourself, don't make the mistake of setting it perfectly level. Instead, you should incorporate a slope -- albeit a slight slope. In fact, if you live in a rainy climate, experts recommend installing a drainage system [source: HGTV]. To implement a drainage system, you'll have to dig trenches in the yard for underground pipes. These should open to natural water collection areas in the patio and yard, with drains covered by protective grates.
If you're ready to move from hard to soft, follow one of the several the links on the next page to gardening articles.