Your tiny urban escape deserves to be loved just as much that large country estate down the road. And here’s the good news: your backyard design dollar will have more impact when it’s spent on a small yard. We’ve put together these small garden landscaping ideas to help you dream big for your small space. For every photo, I tell you what I love about the design and what elements I’d advise against.
A small space can feel overwhelming if it’s got too much going on: too many colours, too much furniture, too many styles, too much texture. Make everything count. I picked this photo to show how a single colour can unify a small space. (I get that the photo has probably had a filter applied, but that makes my point for me—the photographer knew that a monochromatic palette would unify the composition, too!) This picture also shows how you can create “rooms” in a small garden by nestling a small sitting area among the beds.
I picked this photo because it can teach us some don’ts as well as dos. First, I’m always leery of waterfalls that seem to magically emerge from walls or fences. You should be able to imagine that the water has a beginning. So, where does this little creek come from? I would design this small garden with an architecturally interesting fountain instead of a naturalized-looking waterfall. (Find out more on why in my post on garden waterfalls.) I do like the use of glass for the table—it feels light in the small space. Traffic flow is an important consideration in a small garden, and this yard keeps the clutter to a minimum and puts seating and gardens around the periphery.
When you have a small garden, your landscaping ideas need to start with what’s important to you. Now, I’m not sure what’s inside that beautiful outbuilding—storage for bikes and equipment? A home office? A teen retreat? Regardless, I’m going to assume that it was a priority for the homeowners, because it’s taking up a lot of real estate in a small yard. The gravel patio is ingenious. It’s inexpensive and offers good drainage, but you might get sick of maintaining it if out-of-place stones and an uneven surface make your OCD alarms go off. The reclaimed pallet-style furniture and modern molded plastic chairs aren’t really my cup of tea, but I can appreciate that they’re super low maintenance and they “fit” together aesthetically.
The big advantage of designing a small space is the impact a single element can have. Here, the massive umbrella creates an intimate and protected feeling. It provides shade for the entire seating area during the day and the lighting helps create coziness at night, softly illuminating the lounge area while the gardens and rest of the deck are in shadow. The benches are a smart addition, particularly at the edge of the deck where they double as both seating and a rail. (I’m assuming that the deck is close enough to the ground to not require a railing to meet code.)
Small garden landscaping ideas need to be creative. Here, a natural grade in the yard has been excavated and a retaining wall constructed. What’s that you say? You don’t see a retaining wall? That’s where the creativity comes in. To fit an outdoor kitchen and dining space in this narrow yard, the stairs and grill station have been built into the wall. Although the wooden “floor” and wooden barbecue station are beautiful and harmonize well, I probably would’ve used a patio instead of a deck here, since this deck looks awfully close to the ground. (I explore this pet peeve of mine in a post on deck vs patio. Check it out if you’re debating which one to build.)
This small garden puts the focus on lounging and capitalizes on the intimacy of a small space by creating the feeling of an indoor room. The paver patio looks like a beautiful tiled floor, the furniture feels like it could be in a stylish living room and the plants and shrubs become like art, softening and adding interest to the edges and walls. (Now I’m a very practical guy, and though the photo is gorgeous, the thing I’m thinking about is where’s the deck box to store the 13 cushions and 10 pillows so they don’t get wet and become a hangout for the neighbourhood cats?)
Plantings were obviously the priority for the owners of this small garden. The pergola offers shade and protection from the elements as well as architectural interest. (We can’t see the house, but ideally the clean lines and dark colours found in the fencing, pergola and garden boxes would fit with the style and colours of the home.) To save space, the pergola is attached to the back fence. But here’s a nice design touch: the horizontal orientation of the fence boards at the back of the pergola set the pergola apart from the rest of the fence, giving the feeling that it’s a standalone structure in a larger yard.
A number of years ago, Ikea used its “think cubic” campaign to encourage customers to design using the vertical and horizontal spaces in a room. It’s an approach that works well in a small garden, where walls and fences can be used for planters, artwork and as a support for vines.
With a small yard it can feel like you have to sacrifice garden for outdoor living space. A sprawling cottage garden may be impossible, but strategically placed garden beds, ornamental trees and planters will bring greenery and flowers into your patio space. Small yards are perfect for garden sculptures like the whimsical upside down watering can in this photo. Take advantage of the intimacy of your small garden when coming up with ideas. I wrote a post on ways to use garden gnomes to create this kind of feel in your landscaping design. There’s gnome-way you should skip reading it!
A modern, geometrical garden style isn’t to everyone’s taste but the simplicity of the lines and the boldness of the elements create maximum impact with minimum clutter. The gravel and deck combination are low maintenance in the short term, but unless you’re using composite material, a deck on the ground won’t last long. (We offer more deck and patio design advice on another page, too.) The pond is a nice touch, but ponds require maintenance. I’d encourage the homeowner to build a pondless water feature so they don’t have to worry about algae and mosquitoes.
Space is at a premium in a small yard and any slope will take away from precious lounging, entertaining and cooking space. This garden has a retaining wall to allow for the sitting area. Without the wall, the yard would be an unusable slope. A few large items—in this case planters and a sculptural lantern—are used to make a big statement. The lattice-style fencing gives a feeling of lightness to the space, and is softened by plants at the rear of the yard.
We’re in Canada and although we aren’t likely spending much time in our yards in the winter we still need to think about how the design will look in the cold season. Planters, furniture, plants and the pergola all provide structure to the winter small garden and visual interest. Imagine brushing the snow off the seating and firing up a propane heater or outdoor fireplace and you’ve got a beautiful space to sip a hot chocolate or glass of red wine.
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