Add beauty, function, and abundant warmth to your front yard with 3 smart solutions

Diagonals make the most of narrow figures―even twig-thin supermodels look curvier in bias-cut garments. The same holds true for skinny gardens.

Before the renovation, the 37½-foot-wide property in Los Osos, California, offered owners Rick and Sue Sparks little beyond parking space.

A driveway dominated the front yard, and hidden behind the fence was a garden so tiny that landscape architect Jeffrey Gordon Smith called it a “glorified doormat.”

Working with landscape designer and contractor Kevin O’Donnell, Smith removed the fence, borrowed space from the driveway, and laid out the newly opened garden on a 45° angle. The extra room allowed for a patio with a concrete firepit as a focal point. “Lighting it before guests arrive creates such a warm, inviting mood,” Sue says. 

Adjacent planting beds soften the grid of concrete squares that makes up the patio. Lemon thyme, sea pink, and sedum warm the area below a majestic Italian stone pine.

Berkeley sedge, ‘Carman’s Japanese’ rush, and pheasant’s tail grass (Stipa arundinacea)―along with a fragment of a basalt column―add interest near the front door.

Though the owners have more garden space than they did before, they have fewer chores. “It’s now a garden to be in, not work in,” Rick says. “There’s not an ounce of adrenaline in it.”


Because the front yard was too small for a separate garden, the new outdoor living area had to blend in with the rest of the entry landscaping. Yet the space needed privacy too.

Solution 1: Glamorize the firepit A rustic design that evokes a campfire is fun in some settings, but this landscape called for something bolder. The custom, L-shaped concrete firepit is clean and sculptural, especially with a layer of bright gold glass to disguise its function.

Aside from hiding the gas burners, the glass mulch (made from recycled Chardonnay bottles) adds a touch of theater. When the burners are lit, the glass glows “like a fire jewel,” O’Donnell says. 

Solution 2: Soften the hardscape with plants Instead of using a solid expanse of paving, the designers created a grid of square concrete pavers, then planted between them. Elfin thyme makes up most of the green “mortar,” but Smith tucked in a few surprises as well, such as blue-eyed grass, lemon thyme, and sea pink (Armeria maritima) as “purposeful accidents” to make the grid seem less controlled. Though it looks soft, the space supports additional chairs and tables when needed for larger parties. Mexican weeping bamboo (Otatea acuminata aztecorum) wraps around the seating area like a screen, increasing the sense of enclosure.

Solution 3: Steal from the driveway Turf Cells, a form of porous paving that houses and reinforces turf grass so that you can drive on it, allowed the home-owners to keep the functionality of their driveway yet visually connect it with the garden. And because the concrete portion of the driveway is angled at the corner, it appears to be an extension of the patio’s grid of squares.

Design: Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture, Baywood Park, CA (805/528-2118); Kevin O’Donnell, Sequoia Pacific Landscape, Los Osos, CA (805/534-1156).


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