Whether because of the housing boom earlier this decade, the tendency of empty nesters and young professionals to move to urban townhomes, or the trend of building larger homes without increasing lot size, backyards in many parts of the country are shrinking. At the same time, demands property owners are placing on these outdoor spaces are growing. A small backyard often has to accommodate a pool or water feature, outdoor kitchen, dining space, a play area for children or pets, and surrounding plantings.
It also has to serve as an intimate, personalized refuge from the din of the city or workplace, says Lewis Coleman, landscape architect for Teas Landscape Services in Houston, Texas, where property owners are tearing down pre-1970s homes and replacing them with larger ones. “When people don’t have much space to work with, the personal connection to the space becomes so much more important,” he says. For example, a couple from the hill country of Texas recently asked his firm to recreate that landscape in their 80-foot-by-12-foot backyard. Coleman responded by creating a limestone pathway and a fountain that mimics the natural waterfalls and streams of the hill country.
Small spaces are increasingly significant even in ample backyards. Dave Tibbetts, owner of New England Land Design in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, says he didn’t start his company as a small-space landscaping firm, but because 90 percent of his clients have or want these spaces, his business has evolved to focus on them. Usually the small spaces he designs are details within a larger area and are tailored to the homeowner’s activities – a hammock next to the woods for reading, for instance, or a sheltered place to unwind with a martini after a hectic day.
Focus on fountains
Fountains are one of the most popular features for small backyard spaces. Ronnie Bibliowicz, another landscape architect for Teas Landscape, says she used to suggest fountains as an option, but clients are now asking for them first. Fountains are a natural for small backyards because they create a visual focal point and because the sight and sound of flowing water help people relax, says Bibliowicz, who designs a lot of landscapes around townhomes.
“When properties are tight, the sound of trickling water is soothing and has the ability to drown out neighbor sounds you don’t want to hear,” says Susan Friedman, owner of Susan Friedman Landscape Architect in San Ramon, California, where the average lot she works with is a quarter acre or less and the average home is 2,500 to 3,000 square feet. Fountains also can drown out utility-related noise such as air conditioners, traffic and construction which you often have to contend with in a small backyard, Coleman says.
Depending on how your clients plan to use the space, fountain size can range from large – Bibliowicz once designed a fountain that took up almost an entire townhome courtyard – to as small as the size of a desktop phone. Pondless waterfalls, bird baths and wall-mounted fountains can fill the need for a water feature. Tibbetts recently designed a garden around a client’s solar-powered bird bath. When the sun is out, water bubbles from a fountain. “It’s awesome,” Tibbetts says. “You could use the same system for a Zen garden or desktop bubbler.”
Small custom fountains are also easy to make. John Black, owner of Verdance Fine Garden Design in Palo Alto, California, suggests using fountain kits and drilling into vertical columns of basalt rock to create a naturalistic look or utilizing plant containers, corrugated metal or stainless steel troughs found at metal salvage yards for a classic or modern spin.
Outdoor kitchen islands are a big trend for small backyards. They usually include some type of overhead canopy and a stainless steel cooking unit, Coleman says. The islands Friedman designs typically consist of a gas grill, refrigerator, cantilevered bar and stools to go with it. She locates the island away from the house, so smoke doesn’t get inside, and positions it so the person cooking faces guests, who can gather around it.
Since a small space can look cluttered or busy if you use a lot of different materials and colors, Friedman recommends blending the kitchen island with the rest of the landscape by cladding it in a material similar to the house and coordinating the countertop and backsplash with the paving material.
Terry Baker, principal of Baker Land Design in Suwanee, Georgia, says lot sizes are trending downward and homeowners are increasingly willing to accept smaller yards. “Most of the jobs we take on tend to be tight, intimate spaces,” he says. “People are spending a lot of money in these areas; the budgets are rising.”
Baker has witnessed an explosion in options available for outdoor kitchens – and homeowners are clamoring for them. Even in compact areas, it’s possible to fit an icemaker, wine cooler, grill and sink. A flat-screen TV, sound system and fireplace often round out the room. “You can really create self-sufficient outdoor spaces where people could stay for hours and not have to go inside,” Baker says.
Delight your clients with these ideas:
Go vertical. A small space quickly draws the eye to its perimeter, says John Black of Verdance Fine Garden Design. Interrupt that line of sight with vertical elements including tall, narrow plants, raised planting beds or freestanding trellises.
Add seat walls. They increase usable space around small patios, says Susan Friedman of Susan Friedman Landscape Architect.
Frame the view. The view of the garden from inside the home should “evoke a desire to go be in that place,” says Lewis Coleman of Teas Landscape Services. Pretend you’re creating paintings with windows and doorways as frames.
Create a screen. In tight developments, fences usually don’t block enough of neighbors’ houses. Fred Swisher, owner of Structural Landscapes in Bend, Oregon, advises using columnar varieties of trees to provide additional privacy.
Sketch it out. Homeowners sometimes have a hard time visualizing what will fit in a small area, and want more than the space will accommodate. “Getting it on paper at an accurate graphic scale is the only way you can convey that to the client,” says Terry Baker of Baker Land Design.
Manipulate color. On the ground, dark colors make a space feel more intimate while light colors make it look larger, says Dave Tibbetts of New England Land Design. Bright colors advance and dark colors recede, adds John Black. Create depth and dimension by layering appropriate hues.
Overcome challenges inherent in small-space design by resisting:
Petite-scale landscaping. Instead, make a statement with a chunky pergola, boulders large enough to sit on, or a dramatic container that takes command of the space, says John Black of Verdance Fine Garden Design.
Designing hardscapes without furniture dimensions. Allow a minimum of 3 feet walk-around space surrounding dining sets, for example. “If there’s not ample room for circulation, it makes a small space seem smaller,” says Susan Friedman of Susan Friedman Landscape Architect.
Sloppy details. Everything gets noticed in a small space. For example, paving bricks or stones that aren’t cut correctly or are crooked will be obvious, says Dave Tibbetts of New England Land Design.