Making the Most of Your Small Outdoor Space

By Sarah Christian, ASLA, Landscape Architect
September 2004 Front Porch newspaper www.stapletondenver.com

A good small yard design has qualities of unity, simplicity, variety, balance and scale that combine to give the illusion of more space. Careful planning is essential in a small yard because every detail is seen closely. Small gardens can be incredibly intimate; quality materials are more affordable in smaller quantities; and maintenance time is minimized. Think of your yard as an extension of your home, an outdoor room, if you will, that can be decorated much like the interior.

A small space can be made to appear more spacious through the use of the following design principles and visual techniques:

  • Unity produces a single, harmonious effect. Unity can be achieved by choosing a style and repeating elements — including materials, plants and colors — that are consistent with the architecture and materials of your home. You should design your entire space at once, even if you phase the work.
  • To achieve simplicity, limit your hardscape palette (any non-plant material) to two materials and eliminate all unnecessary details, but don’t make it so simple that it is monotonous. Smaller paving materials like brick or cobbles will make the space feel more spacious than large flagstones.
  • Containers add seasonal variety, as do plants with multi-seasonal interest.
  • Achieve balance by distributing the visual weight equally around a focal point. There should be something interesting to look at from all viewpoints.
  • Finally, scale is achieved when plants, structures, and materials are in proper proportion to the house. The smaller the space, the greater should be the proportion of hardscape to planting areas. Scale down planting beds and instead use containers and raised beds that can double as seating. Use some dwarf or small plants to make the rest of the garden look more spacious by comparison but don’t make everything small or the house will dominate. Make sure you consider the mature size of plants. Colorado Blue Spruce, for example, can grow to 60’ tall and 30’ wide.

Adapted from Landscaping for Small Spaces: Making the Most of a Limited Area (Menlo Park, CA: Sunset Books, 1998).