A tiny urban backyard finds creative uses for space and materials
Small-Yard Secrets
Marion Brenne
A potting table sits outside the Kobara's garden shed.

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.

A tiny urban backyard finds creative uses for space and materials

“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.

Marion Brenne
Coral bells and lamb’s ears edge a path

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  

Sustainability is a theme in Kobara’s garden. Much of the material is recycled, which has led to some happy surprises. When a neighbor offered her an old playhouse, Kobara dismantled it and carried it wall by wall down the street to her backyard.

Marion Brenne
A recycled playhouse marks the entry to the side yard. Stepping-stones leading up to the pale blue bench were cut from the former driveway then set in Salmon Bay pebbles; a red-flowering currant supplies spring color.

The playhouse inspired her to create a secret garden near the side of the home, where she put down pieces of her former concrete driveway as steppingstones. “The more we reuse and recycle, the fewer resources we deplete, including fuel to transport the goods,” she explains.

Now complete, Kobara’s garden works perfectly for her family. “On the lawn, we have picnics, play catch, or set up the hose with a whirling sprinkler for Izumi and her friends,” Kobara says.

“When guests come over, I set up a table for meals on the brick patio.”

Judges for Sunset’s 2007 Dream Garden Awards found the backyard so appealing that they gave it an award for best use of a small space.

Next: Tips for designing a small space 

Tips for designing a small space

Locate living areas all over the lot ― in side yards and shaded corners, as well as sunny open spaces. Tomi Kobara’s garden, for instance, utilizes not only a deck off the house but also four other areas for outdoor living, shown on the plan: (A) side yard with playhouse; (B) lawn for lounging and games; (C) large patio; (D) private patio and workspace.

Create garden rooms Determine what kinds of living spaces you need and will really use. Then create garden rooms to suit the various functions. Separate the areas with foliage or low fences, or simply vary paving materials to indicate the different spaces.

Integrate the rooms Connect living spaces and create flow through the garden with paths and steppingstones.

Use found objects as art Even the most utilitarian items can give a garden personality. For instance, old San Francisco Water Department cistern covers ― which Kobara set in the ground among the recycled bricks ― become art underfoot on the patio.

Design: Tomi Kobara Landscape Architect, Oakland ( tomiskye@gmail.com).

Resources: Recycled brick from This and That architectural salvage yard in San Pablo, CA (510/232-1273). Potting table from Urban Ore, Berkeley (510/841-7283). Metal rack from Rockridge Rags, Oakland (510/655-2289).

More: Great garden sheds and cottages


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