Designing small yards is a big feat. Regardless of a project’s size, it’s essential to have a sharp, unequivocal idea of your desired outcome before setting down the first stone. To get that, I do three things. First, I define what functional aspects the yard must have (circulation paths, privacy/storage needs, etc.). Second, I analyze the site’s sun and soil conditions. Third, I establish the stylistic preferences of the property owners. Outlining these parameters helps me build a framework of possibilities and limitations to play within.
Small spaces differ from larger ones, though, in their lack of forgiveness. Mistakes can be drowned out in the abundance of a huge garden, but in a pocket-size garden, hiccups are hard to hide. With limited space, I question every design element. Can this stone wall retain a slope and double as a bench? Can I utilize the neighbors’ hedge? And, I always force myself to step back and check in with my original statement of intentions, to ensure I’m not off the trajectory. The following four spaces are all tiny in square footage, but huge in functionality and beauty.
Small Space 1: The perfect blend of ornamental and edible
The renovation of this space was triggered by the sinking of an old concrete patio. Awash in sunshine, the backyard was already home to a handful of remarkable apple espaliers. While most of the fruit trees were trained against the perimeter fence and on the garage, the best one soldiered alone in the middle of the yard—an element that was not going to budge. My design started with establishing a layout that worked around, and with, this tree.
First, a new, structurally sound patio was circumscribed by building four large raised planters, whose height, size, and orientation, keep the eye moving within—and never past—the confines of the yard. A fifth planter was installed along the back of the house along with some new, short stone steps. The old wooden steps were excessive, running the length of the house and overpowering the space without being useful. By shortening them, I was able to clearly indicate where traffic should go by taking all other options away. Protected from most direct rainfall by the roofline, this fifth planter turned into an ideal microclimate for killer disease-free tomatoes.
The taller patio planters were topped with a broad stone cap matching the material used for the steps and bed edging—the cap being perfect for informal seating. The lower planters are raw concrete, sans any cosmetic addition other than cascading perennials and annuals. This mix of edibles and ornamentals can’t be beat for year-round fun. As with the espaliers, a vigorous grapevine (Vitis cv., USDA Hardiness Zones 4–9) and a gargantuan peach-colored trailing rose (Rosa cv., Zones 5–9) add lots of vertical bang without eating up too much shoulder space. With help from the vines, the ubiquitous suburban paneled fence mostly disappears.
The success of this space lies in the thoughtful selection and placement of the hardscape, which is functional and helpful in structuring the space, while leaving plenty of room for softscaping to play.
What: Renovated backyard
Size: 2,750 square feet
Conditions: Full sun; well-drained soil
Challenges: Sinking patio; traffic-flow issues; existing mature apple trees
2. Large apple tree
3. Stone steps
4. Tomato planter
5. Ornamental, stone-edged beds
6. Tall planters with caps for seating
7. Large rose
Small Space 2: Kid-friendly, with style
If I had to draw an analogy with the interior of a house, this backyard would be the family room. These homeowners had a remarkably detailed wish list, from a veggie patch to a sandbox to a play lawn. Straight lines and right angles were the best way to impose order and increase the clarity of what surely would be a busy space. Adding to the design difficulty was the site’s slightly sloped grade. This was corrected by building a low concrete wall, cast across the yard, like a traversal spine. This pony wall also helped define a raised planting area up top and, below, an elongated sandbox ending in a short flight of steps.
By using basic geometry and simple materials, the space as a whole became less busy. The materials (in particular raw concrete, regular brick-sized pavers, gray-stained cedar fencing) left ample room for the visual noise that any family-friendly backyard will have: brightly colored toys, chalk drawings, random potted veggies, toppled chairs, and other yard improvisations. This is a case of subtle hardware, loud software.
No backyard design could be complete without the plants, though. One focal point, a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, Zones 5–9), casts some protective shade on a miniature playhouse at the back corner of the space. Below the tree, I planted a handful of highly textured, shade-loving perennials (which intrigue the kids). In fact, most of the plants are geared toward the two children of this household. Of these, by far their favorite and most jealously protected, is a weeping mulberry (Morus alba* ‘Pendula’, Zones 4–8), rooted right in the sandbox. This small tree is the perfect hideaway for them—and probably the only spot in the yard that can’t be surveyed fully from the kitchen window.
*See invasive alert below.
What: Family-centered backyard
Size: 900 square feet
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil
Challenges: Long wish list with limited budget and space; kid-friendly layout and plantings
|1. Pony wall
2. Vegetable bed
4. Mulberry hide-and-seek tree
7. Play yard
8. Chalk-painting patio
Small Space 3: Four-season interest, in a drought-tolerant package
Many think that naturalistic plantings can’t possibly be implemented in a postage stamp yard—least of all a front one—and are better suited for rolling gardens and park settings. This space contradicts that preconceived idea. With a judicious plant selection densely arranged around a few anchor points, this garden manages to look good year-round with little to no maintenance. Pedestrians will switch sidewalks just to get a better glimpse.
To start, the front lawn at this home had been devastated by chafer beetles, so I had a mostly blank canvas to work with. All that remained was a mature lilac (Syringa cv., Zones 3–9); a straggly, yet charming, old rose bush (Rosa cv., Zones 5–9); and a concrete walkway. First, I planted four stout boxwoods (Buxus sempervirens, Zones 5–8) at the corners of the walkway. They serve as monolithic, evergreen anchor points.
Next, I installed a layered planting chosen for its year-round good looks. The structural grasses went in first—in this case, Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima, Zones 6–10) and some switchgrasses (Panicum virgatum cvs., Zones 5–9), that maintain their form and last for most of the year. The bolder, longer-lasting perennials like ‘May Night’ salvia (Salvia ‘Mainacht’, Zones 5–9) were then added. Finally, open gaps were filled in irregularly with the looser, shorter-lived perennials and annuals like love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena, annual). In fall, I added some hardy bulbs close to the areas left open by summer perennials. The bulbs have time to bloom and go dormant by the time the neighboring plants expand fully.
The neatly trimmed boxwoods offer the minimal sign of order and control required to set this garden apart from a piece of fallow land. Visually heavy, these shrubs counterbalance the light and fleeting qualities of the surrounding matrix planting. Because all of the plant choices are drought tolerant and low care, this garden virtually takes care of itself.
What: A curbside front yard
Size: 585 square feet
Conditions: Full sun; loamy, well-drained soil
Challenges: High traffic area; low-maintenance and low-water needs
5. Structural grasses
Small Space 4: Room for everything
Secluded on one side by a rose-covered trellis and by mature hedges elsewhere, this cozy front yard offers a degree of privacy usually attributed to backyards. Again, the paucity of space didn’t keep us from packing in an ambitious program. A curved walkway leads from driveway to main entrance and then down a few steps to a small patio floating over a manmade pond. A low, dry-stack wall (built in an arc to echo the outline of the walkway) helps retain a slight grade change. Low evergreen boxwood hedges also help define the layout of the space. If all art and furniture were to be removed from a house, the floors and walls would keep its interior legible: A similar story could be told of this garden in regard to its hedges and hardscape.
A few small trees create some pockets of shade, at the base of which are planted several tufts of Appalachian sedge (Carex appalachica, Zones 4–8) along with various winter-blooming hellebores (Helleborus cvs., Zones 4–9). In small gardens, every potential planting nook must be filled. The other beds are filled with an array of high-performing perennials like lavender (Lavandula spp. and cvs., Zones 5–10) and shrubs that look good in spring, summer, and fall.
This garden is all about wise geometry—a thoughtful, even if so simple, layout of space. For instance, the patio isn’t huge but provides ample space to accommodate a table for entertaining. It is perfectly balanced by garden beds large enough to let the plants shine. When considering a space, it’s not so much about dimensions as it is about the balance within the space. In other words, know your site and know your plants. Then set your goals, stick to a clear strategy, and pack it in.
What: A private oasis, just off a busy street
Size: 1,500 square feet
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil
Challenges: Overall layout needed reorganization; new space needed, multiple seating areas, a pond, and big planting beds
|1. Curved walkway
2. Low, curved wall
3. Floating patio
5. Planting beds
6. Seating area
7. Small trees
Tips: Stop buying into these small-space myths
Not everything you’ve heard when it comes to small spaces is true. Sometimes, going against the norms leads to a better design.
1. Forget about any sizable plants
Forget about LOTS of sizable plants, yes, but do indulge in the right plants, big and small. It is quantity, not quality, that needs to be scaled down in small spaces. On the contrary, a collection of dwarf conifers or an array of individual perennials will make your space look busy and disarticulated.
2. Use only a limited color palette
Color comes last. Think of sprinkles on an iced cake, which add allure without ruining the flavor. The key to small-space success is found in clever spatial arrangement. Just don’t try to pack every color of the rainbow into 1 square foot.
3. No matter what, the space will always feel cramped
Again, it is quantity, not quality, that needs to be scaled down in small spaces. You just need to know when the space is saturated. A trick to fit in more without ruining the look: Keep the layout and material palette simple.
4. Stick to one focal point
To maximize the potential of any space, create a series of smaller focal points that will take the eye on a continuous journey and back. A single focal point may make for a grander gesture, but it also greatly shortens the experience.
Dave Demers is the owner and principal designer of CYAN Horticulture, a design-build landscape firm in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Photos, except where noted: Danielle Sherry; Joshua McCullough.
Illustrations: Elara Tanguy
*Invasive alert: Morus alba
This plant is considered invasive in GA, IA, IL, IN, KY, MD, NJ, VA, and WV.
Please visit invasiveplantatlas.org for more information.
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