Optimize Your Small Outdoor Space

Plan accordingly and your small outdoor space will yield enjoyable, natural living.


Design by Jane Ellison

From: Jane Ellison

Photo by: Stuart Lirette

Stuart Lirette

Design by Jane Ellison

By: Barbara Ballinger

If you’re among the millions of homeowners downsizing to a smaller house or condominium, your exterior space will likely shrink, too.

In most cases, having fewer square feet simply requires prioritizing your favorite outdoor choices, so you don’t crowd a site.

Decide what to include by focusing on elements that will provide the greatest pleasure and use, as well as fit your climate, property's orientation, topography and budget.

Start With a Plan

Balance the layout. Proportion how much hardscape you need for dining or sitting, versus softscape, which contributes to color and softness but requires more maintenance, says landscape architect Stephen H. Wlodarczyk of Botanical Decorators.

Choose color wisely. Limit your palette in a small space to a few choices, and remember that white offers advantages for contrast. A white, silver or gray “moonlight” palette is easier to spot at dusk and night than green and other dark colors, says landscape designer Jean Marsh, owner of Jean Marsh Design.

Layer lighting. Light your outdoor spaces as you do indoor rooms for aesthetic and functional needs. Outdoor lighting offers other advantages: You enjoy your yard from the indoors, at night, and deter burglars. Numerous LED options are energy efficient and conceal unattractive wiring and are barely visible themselves.

Add storage. Include a place to stash outdoor cushions, bikes, tools and hoses.

10 Petite Outdoor Retreats

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Levels of Interest

Staci Hill and Barbara Stock transformed a nonfunctioning lawn into a small intimate seating area with varying levels, slabs of Pennsylvania bluestone for the patio and a copper fire pit. Design by Stock & Hill; photography by Staci Hill

On the Side

Though a side yard measures only 9 feet wide, John Algozzini of K&D Landscape made it function for sitting, cooking, and warming with a portable grill and portable fire pit. Photography by Molly Algozzini

Petite and Portable Fire Pit

Landscape designer James Drzewiecki of Ginkgo Leaf Studio likes fire pits for the warmth they introduce even in small spaces and how they can extend a garden's use. Photography by James Drzewiecki

Rooftop Retreat

Small urban spaces demand using every inch, which Morgan Washburn of Botanical Decorators did with a table atop a rooftop deck paved in ipe and planted with ornamental grasses. Photography by Morgan Washburn

Photo By: Wlodarczyk

Courtyard Hideaway

Amber Freda created a Mediterranean oasis in the heart of New York City with terracotta tiled paved courtyard and pots, columns, tables with mosaic tile tops, and a stone fountain with koi fish. Photography by Giardino

Balance Hard With Soft

The corrugated metal wall of a small Soho garden was softened by Amber Freda with pots overflowing with coleus, sweet potato vines, and yellow groove bamboo. Lights illuminate; drip irrigation keeps materials watered. Photography by Amber Freda

Retrofit Water Features

To give a front yard the sound and sight of water, Howard Roberts retrofitted a 30"-high ceramic urn as a fountain with bluestones forming a path. Photography by Howard Roberts, Liquid Landscapes

Designated Dining Area

Even a modest size urban garden can serve multiple functions with good planning; Stephen Wlodarczyk also left a small lawn panel for a soothing effect. Photography by Botanical Decorators

City Views

What city patios lack in space they often make up for in breathtaking views. A 3’ balcony is comfortable for walking, but it should be 4’ wide to furnish, says designer Ruben Gutierrez, partner at Errez Design. Select a few plants and privacy screens to block unattractive views or nosy neighbors. Image courtesy Viceroy Hotels and Resorts

Small-Scale Zen

A petit Wabi basin with bamboo spout spills water onto a polished granite basin and river rocks to connote a Far Eastern theme. And the best part is there's almost no maintenance, explains James Drzewiecki of Ginkgo Leaf Studio. Photography by Jay Westhauser

Make the Most of Your Small-Space Garden

A few planters or pots can produce a bountiful harvest. "Many home gardeners make the mistake of growing too much, then giving it away," says landscape designer Michael Glassman.

When garden space is limited, follow these tips:

  • Because of close proximity, complement your home with a garden that reflects a similar style, materials, palette and scale.
  • Landscape all parts of your property — front, back and sides. Even a garage roof can work if there’s good access, says architect Sarah Susanka, author of the Not So Big House series.
  • If you desire different features, separate them in zones to make each look important and bigger.
  • Make even short walks aesthetically appealing, fragrant, and functional. Widen them to 30” or preferably 36” so two can stroll side by side. Design your layout in a straight line or a graceful curve according to the garden design. Pick materials that make walking secure, and satisfy all senses, including using creeping thyme for scent, pea gravel for pleasant crunching, berry bushes for taste and flowers for color.
  • Site your garden to make the yard look bigger by angling a layout rather than constructing it in a rectilinear shape. Far corners recede, says Drzewiecki. Cool colors, such as blues and grays, and good illumination also fool the eye.
  • Scale everything to smaller dimensions, except for one or two large elements. Narrow trees that don’t grow too tall or wide and consume a site will add pleasant punctuation marks, says Wolodarczyk.
  • When in doubt, leave it out. Too many small gardens become overcrowded. “So many homeowners can’t resist wanting one of everything,” says Glassman.
  • Plant in rows with big broadleaf evergreens or viburnum at the rear of a lawn panel or near the house; flowering hydrangeas and larger perennials like astilbe and liguria in the middle; and pops of color such as ‘Picasso’ petunias, Creeping Charlie and periwinkle in front.

Spruce Up Your Outdoor Amenities

Get creative and make each amenity look its best, even when small.

Balconies. A 3’ balcony is comfortable for walking, but it should be 4’ wide to furnish, says designer Ruben Gutierrez, partner at Errez Design. Select a few tall plants such as tropical palms, hydrangeas and viburnum shrubs for privacy and to screen unattractive views.

Porches. If you start from scratch or remodel, build your porch at least 8’ wide and 10’ long to arrange furnishings, so you can pull back chairs comfortably and circulate freely.

Rooftop gardens. Research how much weight a roof deck can support before you purchase furnishings, plants, soil and pots. Lightweight choices are easier to transport up an elevator or with a crane. Weigh everything down in case of wind gusts; have sufficient water and electrical outlets for irrigation, lighting and outdoor cooking; and plan for drainage.

Outdoor kitchens. Go with appliances you'll use most rather than duplicate your indoor kitchen when space is tight, such as a gas or charcoal grill or newer hybrid model; granite or poured concrete counter that does well in inclement weather; a side burner; and lots of storage. If you want a sink, check with your local ordinance permits, since you must tie hot water into your sewer line.

Fireplaces and fire pits. There are many ways to include favorite options, even with less space. A fire pit can provide the same warmth and glow as a larger, more expensive fireplace, suggests landscape architect Stephen H. Wlodarczyk with Botanical Decorators.

A fireplace will be more of an architectural focal point, but demands more space and typically costs $15,000 to $20,000. A fire pit or fire bowl can be portable, connected to a natural gas line or burn wood logs, and cost as little as $200.

Water features. Even small yards can include moving water and trickling sounds. Consider a large urn, pondless waterfall or spa. Recycle water to conserve it. Add fish and colorful LED lights for a resort effect.

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