Garden design: Solutions for improving side yards

How one gardener turned a small horticultural wasteland into a delightful part of the yard.

Courtesy of Betty Earl
As viewed from the back of the yard, the narrow side yard -- full of interesting leaf shapes, sizes and textures -- is simple and clean, yet inviting.

Here in the Midwest, the annual plethora of the many various garden walks staged by garden clubs, homeowners associations, charity groups, and master gardeners is in full swing.

Whether you want to drive, walk, or bike, garden tours are pure eye candy for gardeners seeking new ideas, looking for a time to visit with fellow gardeners, or simply wishing for a bit of fun and inspiration.

Side yards generally overlooked

As I traipse through one beautiful yard after the next, I find the long narrow “side yards” with their tall fences or dense-growing evergreen screens between homes as some of the most underutilized areas in the landscape.

Side yards are those tricky areas between a house and its property line. Most of us use these areas merely as passageways between the front and back yards, a place for the air-conditioning unit or the storage of trash and recycling containers.Generally, grass doesn’t grow well there, and the scraggly bits that do are a nuisance to cut.

So some homeowners simply put their blinders on and resignedly tolerate the area. And that’s a real shame, since every square foot of outdoor property is horticulturally valuable.

Small, narrow side yards can be perplexing to gardeners who don’t know which plants and trees work in a constricted space. The good news is that not only can you find appropriate plants for these small garden areas, you can also design a narrow yard to look and feel much larger that it actually is.

With the addition of structures such as arbors and gates and wisely chosen plants that complement, but won't overtake the already limited space, that little corridor can become more than just a trampled path between the front and back yards; it can become a garden.

Gorgeous side yard

At the second to last house on a recent walk, I discovered a treasure. A beautifully landscaped front and back yard, linked perfectly with an attractive side yard garden!

Here was a beautifully landscaped space that proved to be a slow informative journey from front to back, not a quick, boring pass-through.

The homeowner decided to make the best of a bad situation and looked for an alternative to grass, opting for a mixture of crushed gravel and stone, which is easy on the eye, a breeze to keep up, and contrasts nicely with the plants without competing for attention.

A winding path, rather than a straight one, makes this narrow space feel less like a bowling alley and more like a secret garden. And since the area slopes toward the back, flat top boulders act as gradual stepping stones.

Adding height and textures

What the owner lacked in square footage, she enhanced by going vertical. A fence lining the walkway gives vines a place to climb and a romantic trellis at the front adds height, drawing the eye upward.

Too many colors would make this small space look rather messy, so she wisely kept the side yard primarily in green tones, concentrating on interesting leaf shapes and textures, which is simple and clean, yet quite lovely.

Finally, she layered this small space with a few well chosen, upright trees, bulbs, and ground covers that play up the bit of contrasting foliage.

All in all, this was perhaps the most delightful part of the garden walk.


Betty Earl, the Intrepid Gardener, blogs regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of 'In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest.' She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy. To read more by Betty here at Diggin' It, click here.

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