Intimate Spaces: Unlocking Creative Potential in Small Yard Landscaping

Make the most of the space you have

I went on your website and it looks like your company only does large projects on large properties.

We get these sorts of phone calls almost weekly. Probably it’s the same for other landscaping companies. You tend to put your big flashy projects on the website portfolio because they show off the full extent of your imagination and capabilities. But the truth is that more than half of our projects are in normal sized or “small” yards. In fact, some of those flashy portfolio projects that look “big” are actually in “normal” sized yards!

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Learn how smart design can maximize the yard space you have and make it feel spacious. Fill out the form to get your copy of the ebook!

Living in Washington DC or near suburbs such as McLean, Arlington, or Bethesda often means that space is tight and every inch of your lot may be accounted for. Whether you are living in a high-density older neighborhood, or in new construction, homes in many metro DC communities have limited square footage outdoors.

How do you maximize the beauty and seasonal usability of these spaces? Asking an experienced landscape architect to take a good hard look at the strengths and perceived limitations of the space around your house is the key to unlocking hidden potential in a smallish yard.

The good news is you do not need acres of space to create a beautiful, usable outdoor living environment. Acknowledging the limitations can actually free your imagination to develop creative solutions you would not otherwise have imagined. Limited space does not mean settling for less.



You Don’t Need a Huge Yard to Create a Beautiful Outdoor Environment

Sometimes people think that landscaping a small yard won’t be worth the investment because they see the spatial limitations as an impossible obstacle. They fear they won’t be able to do anything meaningful with a small or oddly shaped lot.

While there are obvious constraints and tradeoffs to be managed in landscape design for smaller spaces, let’s dispel the myth that you need a huge yard to have the outdoor space of your dreams.

First, what does “small” mean when it comes to creating outdoor spaces around your home? We define “small” as anything less than a third of an acre. This means anything less than 5,000 square feet of yard space after you count the footprint of the house and driveway.

In many ways, the landscape design process for small is no different than large. You will be looking at similar materials and probably a similar budget. Many if not all of your wish list items can be accommodated. However, considerations regarding proximity of neighbors, county restrictions, and the priority items on your wish list will be amplified on a small lot where you are looking for the most impact in a limited area.

With the right planning and the right designs implemented, you can maximize the yard space you have so it feels and functions like a much larger space.

How to Express Big Design Ambitions in Small Yards

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:

1. Perceived limitations spark creativity

Shallow backyards and narrow side yards make ideal settings for the creation of lush, layered beds and border plantings. Side yards especially, sometimes passed over as problematic, can be used to great advantage and contribute a sense of completeness to the overall landscape by linking them to the backyard with a garden path. A slightly more spacious side yard area might even be utilized as an “around the corner” play space for the kids.

A landscape is a work of art made from natural materials and living things that are in a state of constant change.

2. Space planning maximizes utility

Fitting all of the desired features on your wish list into a limited area calls for a precise site plan that organizes all the available space into zones. The various components of the landscape must be precisely sized for the space and thoughtfully positioned, so the environment doesn’t feel crowded or appear flat and one-dimensional.

3. High-quality details 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. So there is an opportunity to splurge on some items without breaking the budget. Emphasis can go to refining the details, building layers of visual richness with diverse plantings and hardscaping materials. When hardscaping in smaller spaces, for example, you can create intricate paving patterns where in a larger area you would want to avoid being too busy.

4. Selecting “right-sized” plants

In a smaller yard, every detail is an opportunity. There are cultivars of popular plants being developed for this “small spaces” market all the time. For instance, the “Tiny Tuff Stuff” Mountain Hydrangea has become a popular planting in smaller spaces.

5. Finessing Negative Space

Carefully planning the space between defined areas and getting the scale just right, makes the elements of the landscape design flow smoothly together in a unified composition. Your landscape needs to have “breathing” room, however minimal, between its various components. Otherwise, the space might feel crowded, like a room with too much furniture in it.

6. Softening the Edges with Layers and Curves

Something that exaggerates the feeling of confinement in a small area is hard right angles and visual dead ends. Cutting planting beds along the property borders with curving lines and layers going from low to high, softens those hard edges.

7. The expansive effect of changing elevations & verticality

Elevation changes help to define different use areas in the landscape. So you can step down to a sitting area with a fire pit, or go a few steps up to a dining area and grill station. Vertical layering that leads the eye upwards introduces a feeling of depth and openness because your gaze doesn’t stop at one level but continues through multiple levels.

A design challenge presented by smaller yards is how to include all of the features on your wishlist. How will it all fit and where will it go?

The Challenges of Landscaping in Smaller Yards

While amazing things can happen in smaller landscapes, there are some challenges to be aware of that are unique to planning for more intimate spaces.

1. Logistics of Working in Tight Spaces

One of the major differences between executing a landscape design in a small versus a larger yard is getting equipment in and out of the work site. In a larger yard, front end loaders and other earth moving equipment can maneuver with little trouble. In smaller spaces it might be impossible to get heavy equipment in and out. We recently completed a project where access was limited to a passageway that was less than 4 feet wide. In that instance, all the materials had to be wheelbarrowed in by hand. Increased time and more manual labor present one of the biggest logistical challenges when landscaping a smaller space.

2. Buildable Lot Area

This happens as often with older homes as with new construction. A typical scenario: A developer buys a lot with an old rancher on it, tears it down, and rebuilds the site with as much house as zoning will allow. We see this frequently in Arlington and Bethesda. An undesirable house in a desirable neighborhood gets replaced with a beautiful modern home. The problem is developers tend to max out all buildable space with the home and driveway. Typically, the builder sites the house so there is a generous front yard to show off the house. Whatever is left of the backyard, usually not much, can present quite a challenge to the landscaper.

3. Stormwater Management

People on smaller lots often say they have drainage problems. This comes up often with new construction homes where the lot gets flattened out and compacted during construction. Add a large house and other impermeable surfaces such as driveways and walkways shedding water, and you are going to have drainage issues.

The good news is that landscaping will improve the grading and drainage system. It is built into the process. So water from the downspouts and running off the driveway has someplace to go, aside from your neighbor’s basement.

4. The Long Wish List

Another challenge with a smaller yard is how to include all of the features you are hoping for in the new landscape design. How will this all fit and where will it go? This is where a skilled landscape architect shines. How to reimagine the space as separate but related function areas that accommodate some version of everything on your list. So the list of things you want in your outdoor space does not necessarily shrink. But the scale will most likely change so there is balance overall and flow in between the different components of your backyard environment. There are ways to tick most if not all the boxes on your wish list of desired features.

Creative Design Solutions for Landscaping in Small Yards

Small Yard Project #1: Foxhall neighborhood of Washington DC.

The clients asked for a backyard environment that included a spa, fire pit, covered structure, outdoor grill, and usable kid’s play space. A tall order given that the backyard was 15 or 18 ft deep at most and 60 feet wide. The long narrow configuration was less than ideal for laying out all these components and a great challenge to the landscape architect. Adding to that challenge was a basement access stairwell that intruded into this narrow space. The architect had to come up with some way to design around it or incorporate it into the design.

He cleverly found a way to “use” it in the design and at the same time make it disappear. How? The construction crew demolished the existing staircase down, cut through one of the walls, and rebuilt the staircase to run in a different direction. Then they built a two-level deck and spa over top of it.

That former stairwell is now a 10x 10 storage area underneath the deck. Still useful, still accessible by the new staircase, but hidden from view.

As you can see in the photo, you would never know that this huge problem once stood in the way of developing a cohesive backyard environment. And you see that the clients’ entire wishlist was incorporated into the design. Even the children’s place space was included by using part of the side lot grassy area.

These sorts of sticky issues are exactly why you want a high level design team to take on your small yard landscaping project. There can be many hurdles to overcome to get you to that pretty picture we see at project completion



Small Yard Project #2: Falls Church, Virginia

As with many yards in the inner city area of Falls Church and Arlington, this jobsite was very small and limited. The goal was to create an inviting driveway leading to a side yard garden with walls, fencing, and landscaping. The design included a beautiful entry gate as well.

In keeping with the modern styling of the home, the landscape architect used a contemporary style palette. Finish materials such as ipe fencing, stainless steel cabling, and rails, and linear patterning in the hardscaping. Another nice touch was the choice of an ultra modern steel gate with metal lattice to support climbing hydrangea.

Aside from the extremely tight work area during installation, there were no remarkable obstacles in this project. It is noteworthy that smaller yards tend to require more intricate details because nearly every inch of the space contributes to the visual design. The success of this side yard design is that it gives the impression of being more spacious than it actually is. And the contemporary detailing compliments the style of home.

In most projects, the opportunities far outnumber the challenges to fulfilling a client’s wish list. 



Maximizing Functionality in Smaller Landscapes

As demonstrated by the landscaping projects detailed above, there is opportunity that goes well beyond the challenges in your wish list.
Clients come to us loving their neighborhood and feeling good about the home they’ve purchased, or recently updated inside. Most of the time, the outdoor spaces are undeveloped or very basic. So they just want to do something that gives them a reason to be outside.
The first thing most people say is that they want to “maximize” the usefulness of the yard space they have. The wish list goes on to include:

> Privacy. A haven from the frenetic pace of the daily routine

> Gathering place. Spending time together together around a fire feature that may be wood or gas burning depending
on what local codes will allow

> A place to grill and dine together outdoors

> Planting beds and borders that are staged to provide privacy, visual interest, and color through the seasons

How Much Will a Small Scale Landscape Cost?

Because much of the process is similar and the wish list of what you want from yard space is similar whether your yard is large or small, pricing for small-scale landscapes can also be similar to larger projects. For instance, the outdoor kitchen will have most of the same equipment as in a larger space. What can be advantageous is that you can invest more in details because in most cases you are using less material in an area with less square footage.

Discuss your SMALL YARD landscape project with a registered landscape architect.

ebook offer: Unlocking Creative Potential in Small Yard Landscaping

Learn how smart design can maximize the yard space you have and make it feel spacious. Fill out the form to get your copy of the ebook!