How To Succeed With Challenging Small Backyard Landscape Design

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Summary: Small backyard landscape design takes planning to make the plan and ideas come to life. Landscaping a small space does have its challenges, but can be handled easier with understanding the potential issues before the first plant goes into the ground.

Question: We recently downsized and our small garden design looks like it may be a challenge. Can you give any landscaping design tips or ideas to help us start the process and reduce any potential issues? Kathi, Norfolk, Virginia

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Answer: Small yard landscape designs do not mean there are no options, you just may not have as many with the limited space, but there are many ideas and options. Since I do not know how small of an area you can landscape all I can do is provide some ideas and design guidelines.

Landscape Ideas In Small Yards Succeed When You Plan

Planning is always important in life and landscaping an outdoor space.

In a small area, enclosed by other dwellings like a townhouse you need to first look at and consider the arrangement of essential areas – such as a place to sit outdoors and relax, kick back or just unwind all with reasonable privacy.

If space permits, a place for the children to play, and space for container gardens, flower beds, garden beds, a fountain or water feature and just planting things.

The way of getting from one part of the garden to another must also be worked out, and, if there is a garage, the walk from the drive to the front door is of very great importance.

Small yard landscape designs are not just about the backyard but also the front yard landscape.

The planning of landscaping a small backyard involves thinking about the kind and type of area or garden you want, and the practical problems you will have to address.

Some people like to review the situation in detail before they allow themselves to think of a design. Others take a quick look and are fired with a design plan.

When the idea is an exciting one, it may provide a spark that is lacking when the approach is more methodical, and actually make it easier to contend with factors that cannot be ignored.

It is amazing what a different complexion an obstacle will assume if it is viewed not just as an obstacle but as a challenging element in a design.

Considerations Affecting A Small Garden Plan include:

  • The architecture of the house
  • The nature of adjacent structures
  • The amount of sunlight and where it falls longest for the benefit of sun-loving plants
  • The position of an existing tree or trees
  • Whether the soil is deep and easily worked, or shallow and stony. A well-drained soil is always the best bet for every plant.
  • Probable cause of garden drainage problems
  • Air quality (important in the city)
  • Prevailing winds
  • The family pet and/or neighboring pets

Sometimes all the factors that will affect the garden are not apparent at first glance in a new home. It is therefore wise to take a little time to learn what they are.

Plants are not furniture, to be moved about at will; digging them up not only takes time but usually sets them back.

In locations where growing conditions are difficult, to move them from a place where they are happy or are making a slow but sure adjustment, may be fatal.

The hit-or-miss gardener is therefore constantly faced with the alternatives of irritation from a plant that is out of balance or the exertion and hazards of moving it.

From the design point of view, it is better to lose it, but there are surely enough unavoidable demands on one’s time and energy without creating occasions for double and triple effort.

A garden large or small with a good foundation requires a minimum of maintenance and can sustain periods of real neglect. If replacements have to be made, the project is a simple one of substituting plants of comparable size and type.

Plan gardening does not mean that everything has to be done at once; it does mean that what is done fits into an overall scheme that has been previously determined in the design.

After the plan has been made, and walls (try gabion), paths, and steps either finished or staked out, the first things to be planted are the big ones, such as trees and major shrubs, then the lawn, if there is to be one.

Not only does an unseeded lawn area create dust, but the lawn is such a permanent and conspicuous feature that the sooner it is started the better.

The trees and large shrubs establish the skeleton of the planting, and from there one moves toward the detailed effects. Many people want to work in reverse.

The first key to success in any landscape project large or small begins with a plan!

Let’s now look at…

How To Make The Most Of Small Backyard Landscaping Design: Ideas For Small Yards


Summary: Backyard landscaping small yards can be a challenge when the dimensions of the backyard are long and narrow or wide with not much depth. But, there are still plenty of ideas to go around to make your small yard landscape a winner. Here are some tips for keeping things in balance.

Question: We want to landscape our small backyard garden area – actually it is a small yard in width but has a long narrow strip (it is an older home). We could use some ideas on ways we can make the garden space look larger but remain quaint. Any tips or ideas on keeping this small landscape area produce the most impact in not getting out of balance? Trent, East Orange, NJ

Answer: The rules for backyard landscaping small yards and garden design are the same as the rules for any art form:

  • A main focus of interest around which the design is built
  • Secondary focal points or accents,
  • Integration (unity)
  • Rhythm
  • Balance
  • Harmony

Those who study the arrangement of flowers are sensitive to these principles; obedience to them is implicit in a good garden.

In reality, a garden (backyard, front yard, large or small yard) is never finished, and it usually takes several years for plants to:

  • Grow and mature
  • Rocks to looked “seasoned”
  • Vines to cover a trellis

… and to bring the landscape to a point where every small part is a balanced and pleasing element of the whole garden.

The broad picture, the general landscape scheme, and landscape style, however, should be apparent from the beginning, and this is why a plan on paper, done on a computer or expressed in a three-dimensional model, is so important.

There are people who can look at a piece of land and visualize proportions so accurately that they can see the completed picture without translating their ideas into any other medium, but they are rare.

I have known some and how they view the landscape garden is amazing!

For nearly everyone distances on the ground are deceptive. For them, the only way to test an idea is to express it on a drafting board.

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General Garden Design Principles And Suggestions

The following general principles and suggestions should be kept in mind when making a plan from your garden:

  • A long narrow strip of land can be made to seem shorter by breaking it into smaller areas or by introducing different levels.
  • A small property can be made to look larger by running a diagonal axis from one corner to another.
  • The garden should be planned with the thought in mind of how it will look as you approach the house from the street and how it will look from inside the house.
  • The width of pathways should be in scale with the property, but no major path should be less than three feet wide. The front path if possible should not be less than four feet wide.
  • Owners of small yards sometimes feel that they must introduce curves in the manner of those they have seen on a large estate. This is likely to result in a tortuous path that is not beautiful to look at or comfortable to walk upon. If there is a curve, it should be a very simple one.
  • Potted plants, walls, soil structures and features (especially water feature for water-loving plants) should be in scale; that is, they should bear a pleasing relationship to each other, to the house, and to the dimensions of the area.
  • There are times when deliberate distortion is practiced to get a desired effect; but the distortion should be a planned one and not an unfortunate mistake. There is an important difference.
  • Tall thin planting will emphasize the narrowness of a long narrow property. Similarly, a square piece of land will look more square if the planting is all low and rounded.
  • Uniformity of height produces monotony in any garden. Trees bring the sky into the garden.

In a small rectangular area, a formal arrangement of garden paths and planting is often the easiest and most satisfactory.

A formal plan need not be stiff; if you want to play down the formal aspect, planting can be asymmetrical and plants with a loose, informal growth can be chosen.

And if you do not have an inbuilt resistance to symmetry, a tiny formal garden of low-growing plants enclosed by walls of shrubbery can be charming.

Formal geometric gardens are often identified in the popular mind with the beds of begonia and common coleus plant found in public parks, in the middle of a vast expanse of lawn.

The same kind of design in an intimate setting in a city garden can have a totally different effect.

In a very small space, an informal garden often looks merely untidy. It is also an invitation to over-planting, the bane of small properties.

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