Ideas for Small Yards

Brian Barth
urban small garden

Rather than limiting the possibilities of a garden, small outdoor spaces provide a heightened opportunity for creative design. By carefully considering how each square foot of space fits together, you might even get more out of a small patio or yard than if you had an acre of land to play with.

Define the Space First

Clutter and chaos are the enemy of small space design, so before doing anything else think about the primary functions you want and need from your landscape and begin to brainstorm how different areas can be delineated. For the sake of simplicity, list your top three goals and then sketch out different variations of how they can be accommodated.

backyard kitchen patio
  • Do you need a lawn or a privacy screen?
  • Do you want a deck or patio with an outdoor kitchen for relaxing or for gatherings?
  • Are beds of colorful seasonal flowers or space for vegetables important?
  • Is there any other feature you can't live without?

As you design, consider how the negative space of one area provides space for another. For example, if you have a small crescent-shaped lawn, the concave part of the crescent could be filled with a circular patio.

Keep it Proportional

A small space should utilize small landscape features.

  • Small, smooth pebbles, rather than coarse gravel
  • A quiet little fountain in the corner, rather than formal three-tiered model plunked in the middle of the yard
  • Small pavers, rather than large stepping stones
  • A pergola or canopy for shade, rather than a massive shade tree
  • Small intricate finely polished details on decks, patios and other hardscape features, rather than bulky, unembellished ones

This principle also applies to the relative proportion of different landscape features to each other - in other words, keep things balanced.

Keep it Clean

aquatic garden at dusk

The goal here is to create crisp transitions between the different thematic or functional parts of the landscape. You don't want to blur the edges between a flower bed and a lawn or a patio and a vegetable garden, for example. Each should have clearly defined space, ideally delineated by a clean border or edging of some sort.

It's good to have a lot going on a small space - it makes it feel bigger - as long as all the little parts are proportional to each other and pieced together with a clear design. Otherwise, the results will feel jumbled and claustrophobic.

How to Accomplish Clean Looks

  • A groundcover of small polished pebbles, especially black ones, is an easy way to form clean borders and transitional spaces.
  • Beds with plants that vary drastically through the seasons, like annual flowers and vegetables, should be used sparingly and set off with something less busy, such as a lawn or crushed granite, around them.
  • Use color and variety in the foreground with more mundane greenery in the background to make the back edge of the space recede into the distance.

Architectural Plants to Use

Prioritize the use of compact architectural plants, especially diminutive varieties like the following:

  • Dwarf boxwoods and conifers
  • Plants with tiny leaves, like baby's tears and sweet woodruff
  • Mosses and moss look-alikes
  • Smaller species of palms and bamboo
  • Dwarf ornamental trees, like Japanese maples and saucer magnolias
  • Ornamental grasses and other small foliage plants for accents

Keep it Simple

The balancing act of small space design is to create interest an diversity without overwhelming the space. This may seem like a tall order, but there are a few simple tricks of the trade.

  • Use containers - they provide the flexibility to change your mind, but more importantly they create a distinct focal point where the container serves as the border for the tiny garden inside of it; they also create a vertical accent that is useful in the foreground of the design to break up the space.
  • Focal points that are meant to be gathered around, such as a fire pit or water feature, are also effective in the foreground.
  • Focal points that are meant to be viewed should be placed in the farthest corner of the space to create a sense of depth - a statuary, a bird bath, or a bird feeder, for example.
  • Some focal points belong at the edges and can make the space feel as though it extends beyond the confines of fence, wall or hedge - an arbor at the entryway, for example, or wall-mounted planters and artistic features. A mirror on an outdoor wall is a classic way to make the space feel more expansive.
  • Highlight the longest diagonal line across the space with a path or a border between two thematic areas; placing a focal point near the end of two long converging lines in the landscape is another classic tool to create a sense of perspective.
    backyard perogla
  • Think vertically, as well, with trellises and pergolas; this also refers to the concept of stacking functions - building storage space into the underside of a deck, while mounting an outdoor sound system, patio heaters, lighting and planters on a pergola structure above the deck, for example.

Small Is Beautiful

When it comes to landscape design, less is usually more, making a small yard an asset rather than a limitation. The process of building your dream landscape only gets more creative and exciting the less space that you have to work with.

Ideas for Small Yards