Here in the suburbs of East Bay California where I live and design, the houses keep getting bigger while the lots get smaller and smaller. The photo at the top of this post reflects how it often feels around here - like life in a fishbowl. If you want to be successful in my neck of the woods, you need to master small space design, so I was excited to blog about this topic for the Garden Designers Roundtable. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would end up writing an article for the September issue of Fine Gardening magazine on solutions for narrow back yards, leaving me with the challenge of blogging on the same topic from a completely different point of view. Fortunately, there is more than one way to approach a “size-challenged” garden, so I’m calling my mini-design lesson today:
In Praise of the Straight Line
The go-to strategy for small, fenced back yards is often to counteract the boxy feel by introducing organic curves. While this classic solution is one I turn to frequently, there is also a case to be made for geometric shapes and hard edges, a style often (but not always) favored by clients looking for a contemporary vibe in their garden. If you are considering this style yourself, here are a few guidelines I’ve found helpful.
Use straight lines, just don’t put them in a straight line.
Small gardens need to maximize all available space, and an advantage to relying on rectangular shapes for the hardscape is that is that it is often a more efficient shape. Creating the kind of dramatic free-flowing curves that really make a statement in a garden can result in portions of hardscape that are too small to be practically used for anything. Instead of a patio that's one giant rectangle, by intercutting your hardscape with planting areas, you’ll create a series of garden rooms that can be used for different activities.
This project was for a grandmother who often babysits for her young grandchildren. She asked me to design a garden that would accommodate play space, while maximizing seating areas and planting beds. By sticking with rectangles and circles, I was able to create three distinct seating areas: one for lounging, one for chatting with a friend next to the fountain and one for dining. Seating is positioned so that grown-ups can easily keep an eye on the lawn when children are playing. Although the patio is continuous, the varying widths allow planting areas to be tucked in all around, which helps separate each garden “room” and means that no matter where you’re sitting, the garden is right at hand. I’m particularly fond of the circular dining area, surrounded on three sides by trees, shrubs and flowering perennials.
Straight Doesn't Have to Mean Parallel
One of the most admired landscape architects of the twentieth century is Thomas Church, known for, among many other things, designing gardens on the diagonal. Church’s style was my inspiration for this side yard I designed while still a student.
Even then I was a firm believer in maximizing spaces, so instead of treating the side yard as a pass through to the front, by angling the walkways and patio on the diagonal, room was created for a seating area with a fireplace and fountain.
The square patio shape results in a surprisingly spacious seating area, while the diagonal layout softens the rigidity of the space. One note of caution – in a secondary garden path that isn’t used on a regular basis, incorporating indirect paths like this is a signal to visitors to slow down and take their time enjoying the space. I don’t recommend this strategy for primary paths, because frankly, people just get annoyed if they’re forced to go too far out of their way, with the likely result of an unintended “shortcut” through your carefully planned flower beds.
One dramatic curve can keep a geometric space from feeling cold
This advice came from fellow designer Patricia St. John and it's always in the back of my mind when I'm tackling a project like this.spaces.
These clients had no interest in a lawn but did want to maximize garden and seating space, while leaving plenty of room for their three (large!) dogs. The more formal tile gives way to a decomposed granite patio partially hidden by raised beds. Abandoning the rigid geometry and ending this patio with a dramatic sweep keeps the overall design from feeling cold. On a practical note, the connecting hardscape creates a dog-friendly circuit.
So for those of you who can’t imagine being happy in a garden built around straight lines rather than curves, have I convinced you to give geometry a chance? For more ideas, drop by these other Garden Designers Roundtable blogs and see what my fellow designers have to say on the topic of small space design:
Carolyn Gail Choi, Sweet Home and Garden Chicago
Jenny Peterson, jpetersongardendesign, Austin, TX
Laura Livingood Schaub, Interleafings, San Jose, CA
Lesley Hagerty and Robert Webber, The Hagerty Webber Partnership Blog, Bristol, Avon, UK
Shirley Bovshow, Eden Makers, Los Angeles, CA
Susan Schlenger, Landscape Design Advice, Hampton, NJ
Tara Dillard, Atlanta, GA