Can a Small Property Support a Big Design Vision?
Surrounds Landscaping is known for its design projects on multi-acre sized Northern Virginia suburban properties. But can a landscaping company known for large scale projects work with small spaces, on “normal” size lots? “Yes. Absolutely”, says landscape architect Howard Cohen, “that’s 50% of what we do.”
Cohen says that designing for small yards is easier and more challenging. Easier because the spatial limitations spark creativity. Challenging because everything in the landscape is experienced up close and personal. The design and workmanship must be perfect because there is no softening effect of distance to disguise even the slightest imperfection.
Small Yard Landscapes = Design Opportunities
Contrary to what you might think, a skilled landscape architect can pack as much variety and visual impact into the landscaping design of a small to moderate sized lot as on a three-acre estate. That’s because the same design principles apply regardless of the size of the area being landscaped. In fact, smaller yards provide an opportunity for highly refined design work because:
- Proximity drives detail
Attention to detail is imperative in small spaces. Most of what you see is often just steps away. Shallow backyards and narrow side yards make ideal settings for creating lush and powerful outdoor experiences. These areas, sometimes passed over as problematic, can be used to great advantage and contribute a sense of completeness to the overall landscape.
- Space planning maximizes utility
Fitting all of the desired features into a limited area calls for a precise site plan. There is no room to spare. The size of landscape features must be precisely placed and proportioned (scaled), so the area doesn’t feel crowded or appear one dimensional.
- High-quality materials enrich the experience
The advantage of designing for small spaces is that the quantity of material needed is less than in a larger landscaping project. Emphasis can go into quality, building layers of visual richness using the highest quality and diversity of plants and hardscaping materials available.
When designing for a smaller yard, Cohen pays especially close attention to the distribution of negative space in the overall landscape. Carefully planning the spacing between defined areas and getting the scale just right, makes the elements of the landscape design flow smoothly together in a unified composition.
Creatively following the design guidelines above can transform side yards into intriguing walkways. The lack of depth in a shallow backyard can also be turned to advantage as shown in the master landscaping design plan above and photo below.
A Small Space Landscaping Design in Arlington
The Robertson residence in Arlington is a good example of how an ambitious landscape design plan can be scaled to fit perfectly in a modest (approximately 8,000 square foot) a residential lot. The Robertsons said that the projects they viewed on the Surrounds website worried them somewhat because they seemed enormous by their standards. As it turned out, the design we developed was scaled just right for their yard.
We had high expectations and high standards for the project, and they met and blew past them every single time. Peter Robertson, Arlington VA
Asked if clients ever request more features than can be reasonably installed in a small yard, Cohen says he will usually find a way to accommodate their request—unless it conflicts with a zoning regulation. He might scale down the size of a feature to reduce the mass, for example. In this landscaping design project, he converted the idea for a fireplace with a chimney into a more site-appropriate fire pit. And it turned out beautifully.
Interestingly, one of the drivers for this project had been a long and losing battle with drainage issues. The Robertsons had had enough with pools of standing water throughout the yard following any significant rainstorm. A few times the window wells filled up, and water seeped into the house. No matter how beautiful the design, it would not count as a successful project for them if it couldn’t fix that drainage issue once and for all.
We never had that yard we could enjoy. So, we wanted to ensure that the drainage would be done correctly.
This is the hidden benefit of your landscaping design investment: a thoughtful, meticulous site plan can completely resolve drainage problems that interfere with the enjoyment of your yard. We probably don’t talk about this benefit as much as we should because it’s plain and practical, not inspiring and artistic. Nevertheless, it is essential that the designer understand the hydrology of a site and make corrections where necessary to establish an outdoor environment where garden plants can thrive.
Someplace Beautiful and Peaceful
I am completely in awe of the masons that worked on this project and what they did for us. It is just now finished but looks like it has been here forever.
The clients didn’t have a detailed vision at the outset but knew they wanted a landscaping design that would result in something “peaceful and beautiful”. The husband had always wanted an outdoor fireplace and requested that it be the focal point of the yard along with a patio for outdoor dining and relaxing—and a large lawn area for their dogs. Regarding a specific look or style, they decided they would leave that up to their landscape architect.
It was very much a surprise to me—the plan they came back with. It is a wonderful integrated whole, and each element is really beautiful.
The sloping backyard, once a showcase for weeds and wet spots, is now graced by two terraces that step down from the back door to a large paver patio anchored at one side by a welcoming fire pit. The stepped terraces are flanked by boulders and low stone walls that define planting beds containing ornamental grasses, ground covers, and Japanese maple.
To see the way these guys moved boulders around… I told my wife they are artists with a bobcat. They could take a 2500 lb rock, move it just a couple of inches, and lay it back down so that it looks like God planned it that way or something. It’s just incredible.
Design Flexibility in a Small Yard
At one point in the design process, the landscape architect asked the homeowners if they would be willing to spend a bit more on the fireplace so that he could extend the chimney. He explained that, for the size of the lot and the location of the fireplace, it needed that extra few feet of height or it wouldn’t look right from a distance. They didn’t feel they could do that, so he suggested a fire pit as an alternative and showed them some photos of a few he’d recently completed. They were sold. Now they say the fire pit turned out better than their original idea of a fireplace—and kept their budget in line.
A couple of nights ago we lit the first fire in the fire pit. One of my daughters sat out there with her friends making s’mores. And I thought, my gosh, I wish I’d done this thirty years ago. I wish I had twelve or fifteen more years of these kinds of memories and these experiences for these girls.
Designing for small spaces makes us consider every opportunity to maximize aesthetic details and usability. We exploit every asset on the site to make your outdoor living spaces as useful, diverse, and attractive as you can imagine.
If you’ve been thinking about investing in a landscape design project, our eBook: Expert Guide to Planning the Landscape Design of Your Dreams, is full of valuable information to help you get started.