23 small yard design solutions
Is your yard or garden small on space? Get big ideas for making the most out of your outdoor sanctuary
Baylor Chapman loves living and working in San Francisco’s Mission District. But at the end of the day, she wants a retreat from the surrounding busy-ness, so she transformed her deck into a plant-filled outdoor room. “My garden softens some of the urbanness of my neighborhood—it’s a little natural oasis off the street.” And the outfitted patio almost doubles the living space of Baylor’s 800-square-foot loft, so she’s got even more room to cook, dine, and entertain. The overall look is artistically eclectic and highly personal, as she acquired and then personalized much of her furniture and pots, which primarily came from salvage yards, flea markets, friends, and even neighborhood streets.
After gophers destroyed their backyard, Evelyn Huang and Jack Mangan of Pleasant Hill, California, set out to redo the scruffy plot. Topping their wish list: areas for dining, relaxing, and growing edibles, and all using easy-care, low-water plants. Landscape architect Joseph Huettl (huettldesign.com) gave them that and more, turning the small yard into the ultimate outdoor living space. Now the two spend much of their time here. And for some mysterious reason, says Evelyn, “The gophers haven’t come back!”
It’s hard enough to plan a garden on your own, let alone plan one on a budget. But leave it to a Hollywood production supervisor to pull it together. Di Zock (dizockgardens.com) designed her backyard for the house that she rents in Venice, California. At a cost of less than $2,800, she created three outdoor rooms: a living area, a shed office, and a dining space. Her tools: paint, slipcovers, and patience. Creating a garden on a budget may take longer than a week or two; you have to shop close-out sales and haunt thrift stores. “But relying on imagination more than dollars has its benefits,” Di says. The result is more original and more personal. And career changing—Di left the film biz for garden design.
You don’t have to face the ocean to create a coastal vibe. Bob and Cary Woll’s backyard in Los Osos, California, is proof: Even though the deck doesn’t share the bay and dune views that the front of the house has, the firepit in the corner, reminiscent of beach campfires, echoes the seaside boardwalk ambience, as does the billowy landscaping that evokes grass-covered sand dunes. But the deck isn’t just about a romantic mood—function was built into every inch. The small space, designed by Jeffrey Gordon Smith (jgsdesigns.com), is as inviting for two as it is for a crowd; the Wolls have entertained as many as two dozen guests, comfortably, on the deck.
Conor Fitzpatrick, who grew up eating fresh from the garden in his native Ireland, didn’t let city life dissuade him from turning his Los Angeles backyard into his own private farmers’ market. Among other things, he grows tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and figs. “There’s no better fruits and vegetables than from your own garden,” Conor says. He’s so passionate about getting people to grow their own organic food that he created MinifarmBox (minifarmbox.com), a line of easy-to-assemble raised-bed kits.
By turning a sloped plot into a modern play den, a designer created usable family space where none existed before. In this Greenbrae, California, front yard, Ive Haugeland (shadesofgreenla.com) placed concrete planters along the sidewalk, and filled them with ‘Firebird’ phormiums to create friendly screening without totally blocking off the yard. The raised patio is edged with concrete to help level the area and create a flat lawn and distinct spots for the family to dine, entertain, and play.
Walking into the 1920s West Hollywood bungalow owned by Heather Taylor and Alex de Cordoba, who co-own an art gallery (taylordecordoba.com), you’re entering a space filled not with Jazz Age glamour or Craftsman charm, but with the spirit of an era not universally loved by those who lived through it: the 1970s. Maybe it helps that the 30-something couple view those years with the affectionate nostalgia of early childhood. In the spirit of Earth Day, celebrated for the first time in 1970, old materials find new use in the backyard. The deck was constructed from bits and pieces left behind by the house’s previous owners, and the farmhouse table and the bench were made from salvaged scaffolding—demonstrating how what’s old can look just as fresh today.
Packed with low-care plants, this Malibu, California, garden designed by Heather Lenkin (lenkindesign.com) practically takes care of itself—making it the perfect spot to relax and unwind. The deck is made of sustainable ipe wood that has weathered to a soft gray. Wide bowls filled with succulents sit on low pedestals that are the perfect height for viewing from lounge chairs. Drought-tolerant plants with bold textures and dramatic colors need only yearly trimming and occasional watering—which leaves plenty of time to kick back in comfort and bask in the sun.
This tiny San Francisco backyard designed by Vera Gates (arterrallp.com) appears larger than its 1,000 square feet. Alternating bands of stone paving and pebbles give the ground rhythm and movement, while polished steel balls reflect light and clouds, creating the illusion of space. It’s low maintenance but high style—a garden to live in but not take care of.
Originally, this house was less than welcoming. Huge pines hid the Del Mar, California, front door, and getting from the driveway to the entry was a pain—after parking, you had to return to the sidewalk, skirt a sea of juniper, and climb a steep staircase. Landscape designer Kendra Berger (revivelandscapedesign.com) removed the pines and replaced the junipers with a garden of carex, geranium, and bright Scotch moss; a row of low-growing purple phormium and a single showy cordyline punctuate the palette of lime and dark greens. And now, broad stairs lead hospitably from the driveway straight to the front door.
A do-it-yourself project that begins with weekend after weekend of schlepping dirt from shovel to wheelbarrow to truck bed to yard, and includes heavy rains, sump pumps, and a rotary tiller, is often a tale of marital strife. But for Lisa Wong Jackson and Nick Jackson, of Berkeley, California, who tackled both their front and backyard, it was a labor of love. “It rained. It stormed. We were crying,” says Lisa who, with her husband, began the yearlong garden project. “But [now] we have this personal connection to the landscape and our home.”
As the garden grew, so did their family: Lisa and Nick had a son, Lucas. “It’s fun to sit in our garden and look at stuff we planted together,” says Nick. “That’s something I want Lucas to be into too—seeing where his food comes from.”
it’s hard to imagine sleeping indoors when you’ve got a bed in a spot like this. At Celia Tejada’s country retreat in Northern California’s Lake County, which she co-owns with her brother, Ibo, and his wife, Nina, she has tried to recapture the rural lifestyle of their tiny home village in Spain near Basque Country. An especially dreamy feature is this opulent iron-framed bed and chair. Shaded by apple trees, they’re kept outside year-round and covered when not in use.
The right wall makes all the difference. Before, with just bleak concrete blocks behind it, the pool in Mary and Paul Schweikher’s Phoenix backyard felt hemmed in. Now, backed by the enveloping curves of a stone-filled wire-mesh wall designed by Christy Ten Eyck (teneyckla.com), this part of the yard feels cozy. Yellow and gray shade sails overhead provide much-needed respite from sun, and Richard Serra–esque steel planters balance the heft and drama of the river-rock wall. A generous sprinkling of plants adds softness.
A garden should help you relax and reboot. That’s its proper purpose, according to the Japanese aesthetic called shibui. “We all need a peaceful place away from the craziness, and there’s no better spot for that than in nature,” says designer André Price Jackson (jackpricedesign.com), who embraces this philosophy—with a very West Coast spin—in his own Venice, California, garden. The plantings are spare, paving is natural. The artwork is easy and inventive. But you don’t need to create a garden that looks Japanese to achieve shibui’s effect. Just make its underlying design ideas your own.
Previously covered with lawn and lacking privacy, this West Hollywood front yard is now a livable space with creative screening. Landscape architect Katherine Spitz (katherinespitzassociates.com) added thick panels of cranberry-hued glass and a lodgepole pine “fence,” both anchored in concrete, along with a photinia hedge to create a sense of seclusion. Orange epidendrums add color below the red new photinia leaves, while silvery dymondia, feathery Mexican weeping bamboo, and mounded pittosporum offer blocks of leafy texture.
In the wine country of San Luis Obispo, CA, where the hills surrounding the rolling vineyards are golden much of the year, homeowners Jim and Jamie deYong wanted a garden that mimics those sunny hues. They enlisted the help of designer Ryan Fortini (fortinihome.com), who planted a half-dozen species of ornamental grasses in neat rows near the perimeter of the garden, tying it to neighboring vineyards. In the front and back courtyards, carex and other short grasses continue the theme, while fiery foliage and flowering plants such as Kniphofia add to the mood. It’s a simple formula that can produce striking results in any garden, even with no vineyard nearby.
Covered with decomposed granite and sloping awkwardly toward the rear of the property, this San Francisco backyard was no place for a party. Owners Susan and Warren Byrne love to entertain, though, so landscape architect Jude Hellewell and landscape designer Laura White (outerspacela.com) replaced the gravel with two levels of colored concrete. The Byrnes use the upper terrace mostly for dining and hanging out; three steps down, a built-in bench invites guests to lounge around the firepit. A gappy ipe fence gives a sense of spaciousness while preserving privacy. Low-care plants, such as autumn moor grass, Mexican weeping bamboo, and yucca, soften the angular design.
When Ketzel Levine bought her North Portland bungalow, it had all the elements she hoped for—almost. “What I really wanted was a backyard, and the house didn’t have one,” Ketzel says. So the journalist—you may know her from National Public Radio, where she was called the Doyenne of Dirt—reinvented the front yard for relaxing, entertaining, and expressing her vivid personality. After enclosing the yard with a mostly see-through fence, Ketzel created a playful garden packed with colorful artwork and textural plants, a perfect escape from the busy street just steps away. “When I walk through the gate, I feel cosseted by beauty,” she says.
With no privacy, no personality, and—the biggest drawback of all—no place to sit, this Venice, California, side yard had little to recommend it. Luckily for homeowners Amy Swift Crosby and Josh Crosby, a truckload of salvaged redwood came to the rescue. Designer Steve Siegrist (stevesiegristdesign.com) used some of the boards as the backs and bottoms of cushion-topped, built-in seating; others he placed to add height to the existing cement-block wall, and still others were turned into a sturdy dining table. What’s more, the aged redwood brought with it the character the yard had been missing. With space to dine, gather, and play, the area is now the family’s favorite hangout in the garden.
Recycled materials and colorful, graphic plants add whimsical punch to Bob Buchbinder and Lynn Pearson’s San Francisco backyard. In the center, landscape designers James Pettigrew and Sean Stout (organicmechanics.us) created a one-of-a-kind patio that’s 16 feet in diameter and made of granite remnants—mostly dumpster finds—mixed with sewer caps and bricks. In its center is a wood-burning firepit fashioned from an old metal wok that sits on a steel base that Bob made. From the patio, gently curving paths lead to a secluded bench, a restored shed-turned-backyard-getaway, and a dining area covered with a living roof of passion vines. Throughout, the lush plants need little care or water but look good year-round.
Most people looking for wild animals go on a hike or hit up a zoo. Not Lisa Albert, who wanted to bring them directly to her Portland-area garden, so she transformed her landscape, and learned that drawing them in was simply a matter of being a good host. Lisa rebuilt her garden to include a stacked rock wall (critters like to hide in the crevices), a pond, and lots of plants that provide nectar, seed, and fruit. She’s since hosted three dozen kinds of birds, butterflies, bees, lacewings, and frogs.
Bold, sculptural forms combined with a range of textures and colors can make a garden that’s based on foliage just as interesting and inventive as one that’s filled with flowers. Here, in garden designer Ivette Soler’s Los Angeles front yard, she includes not just showy growers like giant rosettes of echeveria, toothed aloe, and swordlike phormium, she also includes edibles—plants that are often confined to backyards. Ivette tucks veggies and herbs including ‘Red Rubin’ basil, wispy fennel, coarse-leaved artichokes, and ‘Tricolor’ sage into her beds. She uses them just like any other landscape plants—for their textures, colors, and shapes—proving that small kitchen gardens can be both pretty and productive.