Just because you don’t have acres of land to work with, it doesn’t mean you can’t have an elegant outdoor living space. To prove the point, gardening and landscaping enthusiast and writer Sally Freeman is here to help you envision a new era for your smaller yard; an era of elegance and unique comfort and beauty …
Homeowners often feel frustrated by the perceived limitations of a small outdoor space. Unable to design large, multivariate landscaping schemes or plant a huge garden, some may resign themselves to doing nothing with a little yard, leaving it a non-descript patch of turf or overgrown weed jungle. But there’s much you can do with such a space—and your modifications needn’t break the bank, either.
1: Plant trees or shrubs
This is the obvious one, but it’s obvious for a reason: Vegetation can literally build a landscape, and can define the atmosphere of a yard like no other feature. Feeling boxed in by neighbors? Create a pleasant hideaway with a screen of trees or large shrubs.
Add a striking-looking tree—a weeping spruce, a gnarled pine, a shrub maple of transfixing foliage displays—to overlook your sidewalk or your flowerbed (if the groundcover is shade-tolerant, that is). If possible, use vegetation native to your area: In addition to promoting such species in the face of ornamental exotics, you’ll also be encouraging a whole host of associated native creatures—butterflies, birds, and others—to use your space.
2: Add bird feeders and/or a birdbath
No matter where you live, you likely enjoy a surprisingly diverse lineup of bird species throughout the year—from residents sticking it out 12 months of the year to exotic migrants passing through between seasonal ranges far apart. Consider transforming your yard with avian visitors in mind: A feeder and a birdbath make your space that much more appealing.
It can be a wonderful thing to have two or three different kinds of birds fluttering and chirping just outside your window. Just remember to stock the feeder with appropriate foods—your local extension agency or wildlife organization can help in this regard—and to regularly clean both feeders and birdbaths.
3: Add an anchoring landmark or two
Consider how your backyard space can be framed to excite the eye: You don’t need to do a lot of planting or bring in a lot of elements to bring the place alive. Like a natural, large-scale landscape, one of two defining features, such as a large boulder or a log, can anchor your yard. A weathered-looking picnic table—one chosen to blend nicely with surrounding shrubbery—also serves well, as does a well-situated tree (see the first tip).
4: Install a fire pit or outdoor fireplace
If you have enough room, and your local municipal regulations permit outdoor fires, a fire pit or fireplace can instantly transform a dull yard into an attractive, sociable space you’ll love to spend time in. Gathering around a fire, staring into the flames, swapping stories and jokes—these are archetypal experiences rooted deep in our human heritage, and you needn’t only evoke them on the camping trip.
You can even experiment with cooking over the backyard fire: Engage in some wood-fired grilling of skewered meats or vegetables, or give a flame-rendered pizza or flatbread a try.
5: Plant a small vegetable garden
Especially to the novice gardener, the misconception that you need a large space to grow your own food can be a prohibitive one. But you can tend a surprising diversity of vegetables in a very limited area, and there are many resources to help even the blackest thumb learn a few basics to better the chances of a good harvest. You can even simply begin with a few potted plants: Herbs of invaluable service in the kitchen are often easy to grow just outside the back stoop, or on the windowsill.
If you’re feeling more ambitious, and you wish to make a more substantial change to the look of your yard, consider planting a full garden. With a little refreshing grunt work, you can transition hard-packed, weed-spattered dirt into rich growing beds; an inexpensive soil test can suggest which amendments to add in order to boost its fertility. Raised beds are popular among urban gardeners in small spaces, and you don’t have to spend tons of money on a fancy installation: Get a plan from your extension agency or a garden store and build a simple one yourself.
6: Add a fountain
The visual and auditory appeal of a fountain is substantial: The glint of sunlight and the pleasant murmur of trickling water make for intoxicating, calming surroundings, and in a particularly small space can make for a defining anchor point. It’s easy enough to spend a fortune on backyard waterworks, but you don’t have to. Self-contained fountains that don’t need complicated piping or excavation are the cheapest and easiest-to-maintain option.
7: Put in a rock wall
An anchoring boulder puts an arresting rock element into your yard, but if you have the space and the will, consider expanding the effect with a rock wall. Such structures can be truly beautiful, and also serve as a bridge of sorts between the developed human infrastructure of your home and the natural environment encompassing it.
As with a fountain, a rock wall can be extremely expensive depending on its dimensions, the type of rock used, and whom you contract with to build it. But you can construct your own, too, particularly if it’s a small, low-level wall fronting a garden or forming a short border, and there are cheap sources of rocks, like old quarries open to public collection.
A little variety
These are only a few of the basic approaches you can take to transforming your small outdoor space: There are many other possibilities. Just remember, a little variety and a little wildness go a long way to energizing a yard; a homogenous, highly manicured look often kills its spirit.
Sally is a freelance gardening expert, writing here on behalf of Newpro containers.