Garden details

Ideas that make efficient use of small spaces

Sharon Cohoon

A lot on the lot

Front yard

Tall house, short setback ― it's an all-too-common problem in modern tract housing, and the Hogans faced it too. The usual solution in this situation is to put in diminutive plants ― like those used in rock gardens ― with the hope that they will make the tiny space seem larger. But this treatment actually has the opposite effect, says Clark. "To compensate for the lack of foreground, what you really need is a few tall plants." At the Hogans', a pair of field-grown, multitrunked olive trees serve this function. In the remaining space, several layers of plants were worked in, as shown on the intro page.

Another way to give a narrow front yard more presence is to make the walk to the door seem like a stroll along a garden path. This can be done by using paving stones with dwarf thyme between them, for instance, or, if steps lead to the front door, tucking thyme or dwarf succulents into the risers. An arbor with a vine on it also makes a front yard feel more like a garden.

Side yard

Five feet ― the usual width of a side yard in many of today's tract homes ― doesn't allow much room to create a garden. To keep the eye focused on the foreground instead of the home next door, Clark brought in another olive tree; from the center courtyard, its beautiful trunk is the tree's most visible feature (right). But from the Hogans' second story, its canopy obscures the neighboring home. Star jasmine trained in a diamond pattern against the wall, yellow clivia, and dwarf abutilon in hanging baskets add interest lower down.


Since the backyard is usually the primary area devoted to outdoor living, it contains, by necessity, a good deal of hardscape, particularly paving. For instance, the covered area next to the house contains antique straw pavers imported from France. The pavers, mortared together for stability, create a transition zone between inside and outside. The paving in the rest of the garden, however, consists of flagstone slabs set farther apart and interplanted with verdant ribbons of thyme and dwarf succulents, such as sedum. The groundcovers soften an otherwise large expanse of hardscape, yet there is plenty of paving to make strolling easy.

Planting pockets can be used for a similar effect. Clark added flower beds between the flagstone paving and the covered dining area, softening the hardscape and making a room divider. Around the outer edge of the backyard, Clark created a seat wall/planter with outside pockets ― rather like kangaroo pouches ― where trailing plants can be tucked in, giving the walls a leafy skirt.

Together these separate details create the impression of a larger, greener space. Or as Robyn puts it, "Our yard may be small, but it feels very much like a garden."

Maximum space

Connect the dots. Add greenery throughout the garden, even to the nonlandscaped areas. You can soften a garage, for instance, by training a vine over the roof, putting potted plants on either side of the door, or tucking plants into the driveway itself (the Hogans' driveway is cobblestones interplanted with zoysia grass). You can also let a creeping fig or other dense vine cover a block wall between you and your neighbors, or add planting sconces to walls and gates.

Use small textures. While tall plants are desirable, avoid using a lot of plants with large leaves.

Select trees carefully. Height is good, but width isn't. Ideally, use urn-shaped trees. Prune branches selectively to allow in light for understory plants.

Make plants do double-duty. Jasmine perfumes the air in the inner courtyard. A rosemary hedge is also a source of fresh herbs for the kitchen.

DESIGN: Theresa Clark Landscape Architect, Capistrano Beach, CA (949/248-5404)