Our tiny backyard has a ragged patch of lawn that is bordered by a narrow brick mow strip. It’s supposed to form a nice crisp line between lawn and planting bed, and occasionally it does — when I’ve done the weeding. I appreciate the way such a simple device can makes the backyard feel almost like an outdoor room. But here are a few somewhat more inventive ways to shape outdoor space(I’d rather dream than weed anyway).

I’m a fan of devices that have multiple functions, so the idea that a stair railing could also be a planter is appealing, as shown by this elegant modern installation by Surface Design.

The planter borders the upper terrace, which creates a nice green visual

connection to the lower strip of grass. The stair and the railing/planter divide the backyard into two distinct rooms: one for outdoor dining; the other for greenery (photos courtesy Surface Design).

Here’s a way to combine terrace, planter, and steps in one form,

as shown in a garden by Arterra(with architect Thomas Hunter; photo courtesy Arterra). The plants become a sort of green railing. Garden stairs have been combined with overflowing water since Moorish times, not to mention the Italian Renaissance, but what about with something a little warmer? Landscape artist Topher Delaney's“In the Line of Fire” garden does just that,

with ribbons of flame at the base of a central step in this unusual garden. (Photo courtesy Apartment Therapy.)

Like my little mowing strip, the line is the simplest design device of all, but it can also be the most visually compelling,

demonstrated here byarchitect Jonathan Feldmanin the ingenious way he ties part of his Caterpillar House to the surrounding landscape with three strips sliced into the concrete patio. They set up an almost rhythmic progression between structure and site while expanding the lateral view into a field of lupine.The house has won multiple design awardsfrom several publications.(photo by Joe Fletcher).

Do you have great ideas for border design? We'd love to know about them.

Dan Gregoryis the editor of houseplans.com. His blog, Time to Build, appears on occasional Fridays.