Small-yard secrets

A tiny urban backyard finds creative uses for space and materials

Kobara garden shed
Photo: Marion Brenne

Open areas and intimate nooks: That was what landscape architect Tomi Kobara wanted from a makeover of her Oakland garden. Part of the challenge of the transformation was the backyard's tiny size ― barely more than 1,500 square feet.

As a wise first step, she created an overall plan including structure, flow, and focal points; from there, the garden evolved.

"Some areas I completed right away, others developed later," Kobara explains.

When she bought her property 6½ years ago, a shed that served as a studio sat in the far corner of the wedge-shaped backyard. In front of it lay a concrete patio surrounded by a large lawn.

Kobara wanted to further define the space but preserve play areas for her 8-year-old daughter, Izumi.

She began by creating a private sanctuary at the back of the property, off the existing studio. She also cut the lawn down to roughly half its original size, leaving just enough to accommodate family picnics and backyard play.

The swath of green sets off the surrounding richly textured beds filled with desert spoon, euphorbias, honey bush, salvias, sedum, yucca, and a variety of other colorful perennials.

Kobara then analyzed which areas still weren't working. "If you pay attention and are patient, you get a sense for what needs to happen next," she says.

The concrete pad formed a useful outdoor patio, but Kobara realized it needed more color and warmth, so she tore out the concrete and replaced it with recycled brick set in sand. Blue-green pots on the patio provide a cool counterpoint to a red trellis on the shed wall. A raised vegetable bed spans the outside edge of the brick patio.

Next: Happy surprises 


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