You might not realize that you have unused side-yard space for a fire pit, conversation area, and more.

Side Yard Dining
Sam Wadieh; Jose Prats and Dominique Madden of Acme Real Estate/Courtesy of Yardzen Landscaping

As a garden editor, I’m always looking for ways to improve a yardSo, recently, when a friend of mine turned her side yard into an outdoor living room, I took notice. Then I was on a walk in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, and I saw another clever side-yard redesign. Instead of using their side yard for trashcans, a homeowner built the loveliest—and most practical—raised bedsOf course! I realized, wanting to metaphorically smack myself in the head. With proper planning, a side yard can become a new addition to your garden, and an attractive one at that.  

Gravel and Bamboo Side Yard

Courtesy of Empire Pavers

Turns out I’m not the only one who’s noticed the trend: Yardzen, the online garden design company, has seen a recent uptick in requests for side-yard designs. The trend can be partially traced to the housing market; with home loan interest rates the way they are now, people would rather improve their existing home than buy a new one.  

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“There’s also a bigger desire for multiple outdoor rooms or zones in a yard,” says Kevin Lenhart, Yardzen’s Design Director. “It makes sense that people are turning to these underutilized areas for additional gathering spaces, dining areas, or edible gardens, in particular.” 

So what do you need to re-envision your side yard? First, consider what you have to work with. Many side yards are about five feet wide, which can be limiting in terms of design. (But not impossible! More about this below.) Others can be six, eight, or even ten feet across, in which case your choices are almost limitless. Even better, if you have space on both sides of your house, you can use one for trashcans and other for utilitarian things like storage, and the other for a redesign.  

The absolute minimum amount of space for a dining or fire pit area, according to Yardzen, is six feet by six feet. One friend of mine had eight feet to work with, so she upped her side yard game by adding an inviting gate that leads to a fully furnished outdoor living room. The convenient thing about this design in particular was that it was far enough from her child’s room that adults could spend a little more time conversing without having to worry about the noise—yet they were still close enough to hear their daughter should she wake up. 

Elephant Shovel Arco Hose Valet

Thomas J. Story

Vegetable gardens like the one I saw can be a little bit trickier. “Being sandwiched between tall fences and walls, side yards often have limited light,” Lenhart says. “But as they get wider, they often get brighter, especially if they’re exposed to southern or western light. When there’s enough light, side yards can become a great spot for vegetable or herb planters.” 

Meanwhile, he says that if you place your new side yard as close as it can get to your back garden, it will feel like a natural addition. “In this situation, you can establish sight lines around the corner to foster a sense of connection between a side-yard space and other parts of the backyard design,” he said.  

On the other hand, it can be smart to embrace the sense of separation between a side yard and backyard by envisioning the space as something that requires privacy or stillness. A spa, outdoor shower, and meditation area are all good candidates.   

Side Yard Seating Area

Courtesy of The DIY Playbook

But what if you only have five feet to work with? Not a problem, says Scot Eckley, a landscape designer in Washington. “In Seattle, many side yards are only five feet wide,” Eckley says. “So we utilized both sides of our house and the fences to hang things—either for function or for a pretty view.” In his space he was able to squeeze a small grill on the east side of the house and a clothes-drying rack and a potting area on the west.  

In another small side yard, Eckley created a child’s adventure zone with gravel, tree stumps, and wooden walkways. Meanwhile, he urges his clients not to forget that they will get a lot of enjoyment out of merely landscaping the area. “I pay attention to the views out of the window into side yards, and often place focal points or key plants to be seen from inside the house,” Eckley says.  

The point is, you can utilize your side-yard space in almost every situation. In the past year, Yardzen has designed everything from side decks with built-in plunge pools to pergola-covered dining areas. “Another popular request is a small patio or seating area for a bedroom that has outdoor access on the side of the house,” Lenhart says. “While the actual design can be a bit tricky, if done right, side yards often give you a dose of privacy and intimacy in the backyard. A side yard can turn a standard fire pit area into a cozy conversation nook, or an average patio table into a magical alfresco dining destination.”

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