Most of us inherit our gardens from other people and it is often difficult to find the energy to change much. It is all too easy to slip into a fairly comfortable co-existence with someone else's garden – it is never quite what you would have liked, but, oh, it's all right really and it would be far too much trouble to change anything.

It is worth sitting down with a bit of paper and writing a list of the things you would ideally like the backyard garden design ideasgarden to have. Then make a rough plan of the garden as it is and another plan – a blank sheet of paper to begin with, on which you put the garden as you would ideally like it. Compare the two and work out which things can be easily changed and which should be left as they are. It is probably better not to try to change everything at one go. You are likely to be left with a garden half-destroyed and half-completed. See where you can easily compromise with what is already there. Don't change things that don't need to be!

Start by thinking about trees, simply because if you want to have trees, the sooner they are in the ground, the better. Even in the smallest garden, there is room for a little apple tree – it is now possible to buy bush fruit trees. Full standard fruit trees should only be planted where you have plenty of space and they are not going to cause any nuisance to neighbours. Half-standard trees are ideal for a reasonably sized garden. Try to visualise the effect that the trees will have when they grow to maturity – you do not want them shading the entire garden or blocking the sunlight from a window.

Next make sure there is a sitting area close to the house, where you can go outside to sit with your morning coffee as a break from your computer or the laundry. If necessary, extend an existing one. If you prefer your laundry to be wind-dried, see if you are happy with the existing arrangement. Would a whirly-gig in a sunny corner be a better solution?

With these practical arrangements dealt with, move into the garden area. A sandpit for young children is a wonderful thing to have and easy to install in even the most formal garden design. You need to dig out a shallow pit in a sunny spot away, if possible, from overhanging trees. You can buy a sandpit mould if you wish, or just fill the pit with sand. You can buy silver sand or just bring back a bucket or two every time you go to the beach!

It is unwise to have a garden pond if you have very young children, but using a flexible pond liner to make a shallow boggy area in a shaded corner can be an enchanted spot filled with marsh plants. A couple of inches is quite deep enough for newts and frogs to lay spawn and for the spawn to hatch and grow. This will provide the whole family with hours of interest.

A patch of green lawn is very restful. It needs to be mown regularly but it is better not to have it mown too close. What you are aiming at is a springy turf. A very close-mown lawn will expose the ground underneath to too much sunlight and it will grow hard and baked. This is turn will lead the grass to become yellow and dry. If there is a lot of foot traffic across the lawn to another part of the garden, consider putting paving slabs down as stepping stones to form a path. If they are sunk into the ground, it is perfectly possible to mow across them.

There is a growing awareness of the pleasures of growing at least a little of your own food. Where space is limited, have borders around the lawn area for both flowers and vegetables. If you concentrate on summer salad vegetables, they will grow quite happily in amongst the flowers and even add to the visual delight of the bed. Red lettuce and tomatoes are lovely plants in their own right and can grace any flower bed. Parsley and coriander can be grown as edging plants. Fennel and rosemary are excellent architectural plants in a bed.