Give Them an Inch and They’ll Make a Yard

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When Curtis and Lisa Fleming first stood in the backyard of their Tustin Ranch home a year ago, they scratched their heads and wondered what to do with the 15-by-20-foot postage stamp-sized backyard. They soon discovered that there’s a lot you can do with a small space.

They decided to make their faux rock hot tub the focus of their backyard. Around the hot tub are a variety of plants, such as giant bird of paradise and palm trees, which are designed to give the yard a tropical feel and provide privacy.

“Even though the houses are very close, when you’re in the backyard, you feel like you’re somewhere else,” Lisa said. “It’s our private retreat.”


Making the most of limited space is a challenge common to many Southern Californians, and it’s getting more common, said landscape architect Erik Katzmaier, who is with Katzmaier Newell Kehr, a Corona del Mar landscape architecture firm.

“With the premium on land, we’re seeing home spaces getting tighter and tighter,” he said. “Many of the newer developments going up have very small yards, and I don’t see the trend changing.”

Small spaces may be tight, but they have their benefits, said Gary Jones, owner of Hortus, a Pasadena nursery. “Small gardens are the ones that provide that sense of refuge that so many people are looking for,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to make a small space seem intimate and intriguing. Large spaces tend to have a more impersonal air.”

Not only are small spaces charming, they are a lot easier to maintain, Katzmaier said.

“Small yards are great for people who want to garden, but don’t want maintaining the yard to consume their life. Even if you go out and fuss with every plant, you still have time left over,” he said. “I have clients with small yards who can close the gate and vacation for weeks at a time without having to worry.”

And, if you add fragrant plants to a small space, “you’re greeted with wonderful scents when you walk out the door,” Katzmaier said.

To maximize space in a small garden, change the way you think about backyards: Decide your use for the space, consider available light and use a variety of small-space tricks, such as containers and vertical planting.


Think beyond the traditional front, back and side yard, Katzmaier said. “Consider the house as the central point within the garden, and you’ll be a lot more successful at landscaping a small yard,” he said. “You’re actually planting around the house.”

It’s also important to decide specifically how you want to use the space.

“Do you want a place to reflect and read in, or will it be a spot for entertaining?” Jones said. “Would you prefer a small kitchen garden? Decide your purpose before getting started.”

Other suggestions include:

* Choose a focal point. Small gardens pull together easily around a strong focal point, said Brita Lemmon, owner of Brita’s Old Town Gardens in Seal Beach. Such a focal point could be a hot tub, statue, fountain, stunning plant, beautiful gate, arbor or even ornate furniture.

“The key is to have something to build the garden around, which will give it structure,” she said.

* Consider available light. “Tight yards tend to be surrounded by buildings, and the light may be different from one side to the other,” Lemmon said. “It’s also possible that the light will change considerably from season to season.”

* Think carefully about ground cover. Most landscape experts suggest forgoing turf in a small garden--it tends to need a lot of water, and it isn’t worth mowing such a small strip.


Better choices include brick, stone, gravel, decomposed granite, crushed leaves, mulch and a variety of ground covers.

* Use containers. Not only do pots let you fit a lot of plants into a small space by containing their roots, they can sit on hardscape and enable you to give the garden the height a small space needs.

While plants in the ground don’t have a lot of impact, and can look flat and boring, plants at eye level in containers really add pizazz to a small garden, Lemmon said. Planting in containers also often prevents you from over-watering, which is common in small spaces. And potted plants can look really good when grouped.

Think different when choosing containers, said Lemmon, who likes to plant in terra-cotta sewer pipes that she buys at a building supply yard and has cut into 3- to 4-foot pieces. These terra-cotta containers maximize space and look stunning with vining plants cascading from them.

* Think small-scale when choosing plants. There are many dwarf and small plants available that would get lost in a large garden. Miniature roses, many salvias, coral bells, bergenia, erodium and lamb’s ear are good choices.

In general, look for plants with small leaves, especially when choosing shrubs. Small leaves look better in a small space. And when pruning is necessary, it won’t be so obvious that you cut the shrubs back if the leaves are small.


* Choose trees with caution. Not only can the wrong tree take over a small garden and eventually provide too much shade, if the roots are invasive, they can damage paving and nearby buildings and the tree may eventually need to be removed. Choose a small tree or a tree-like shrub that is good for tight spaces.

A good option is plants that have been trained to grow like trees, such as rose, azalea, potato vine (Solanum jasminoides) and leptospermum standards.

* Think dramatic. Although you do want to generally think small, at times it gives a bigger impact if you can include one or two oversized things in the garden, such as a large pot, Jones said.

Other dramatic additions include wishing balls, statues, and mirrors, the latter of which can do double-duty by making a small space look bigger.

* Go vertical. Because you can’t really spread out sideways in a small yard, the only place to go is up. Vertical gardening can be achieved in a number of ways, including arbors, trellises, greening of walls with ivy, espaliers and hanging baskets.

Greening of walls is an especially good idea because it blurs the property lines, so that you don’t feel boxed in.


It’s important that the vertical plants you choose can be tightly pruned and still provide screening. They should also not overpower the space, which eliminates wisteria and bougainvillea as choices. There are many vines that do well in tight spots such as potato vine (Solanum jasminoides), star jasmine, bower vine, Clytostoma callistegioides, Distictis riversii, clematis and climbing iceberg roses.

* Consider color and texture. Because many small yards tend to have some shade, a riot of colorful flowers is not always possible, or preferable.

“To create a sense of peacefulness in the garden, you want a lot of greens because other colors don’t tend to be restful,” Jones said. Add interest by focusing on varying leaf shapes, sizes and textures and look for plants with variegated foliage.

* Fit in a water feature. The sound of running water is soothing and enchanting and perfect for a small space. Small wall fountains are often just as effective and take up much less space than a free-standing fountain.


What’s a Gardener to Do?

With the right techniques, a small yard can be transformed into an intimate paradise without feeling cramped. How to create an illusion of more space by using visual cues that lead the eye beyond the yard’s boundaries: