Small space gardening

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Tips for Landscape Design in a Tiny Yard

If you have a tiny back yard with nothing in it, there’s no reason why you can’t create a beautiful, serene oasis. This post can point you in the right direction as far as creating a landscape design if you don’t know where to begin. Trust me, you can do this!

Here’s a peek through my garden gate. Come on in.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

It’s really not that difficult to create a landscape design, regardless of the size of your yard. In past homes that I’ve owned, and even some yards I’ve done for friends and family, I’ve created everything from a tiny flower bed design outside a friend’s front door, to a large, expansive landscape that took several seasons to complete.

Since my blog is geared towards tiny urban yards, I suppose I’d better stick to a post addressing landscape design for just such a garden.

If you’re not up to reading an entire post, and want to get right to the point, here’s the condensed version of how to create a design for your tiny yard.

1. Make a list of your desires/purposes for your yard in order of priority.
2. Call the utility companies (or JULIE) to locate any underground lines.
3. Research the types of plantings you want, to be sure they’ll grow in your conditions and planting zone.
4. Decide upon placement of your anchor bushes or trees.
5. Decide placement of your other “must have” items.
6. Plant temporary “filler” items until your main landscape fills in.
7. Enjoy!

Ok, so maybe it’s not quite as easy as all that, but I believe if you follow the ideas listed above, you can design your own landscape. Allow me to go into a bit more detail.

It’s a good idea in the early stages to write down your desires for your yard. If you have several, you need to prioritize since you’re dealing with a confined space, and may not be able to fit all your wants into the plan.

For example, in my tiny yard, my first priority is privacy. I’m betting if you have a tiny yard in the city, your property is smooshed up against your neighbor’s, and I would be willing to bet both you and your neighbor would like to have some privacy. You may have heard the expression that fences make great neighbors. I couldn’t agree more. If you can’t afford a fence or if fences aren’t allowed in your neighborhood, there are other options that I’ll introduce throughout this post.

I was fortunate enough to have a neighbor who agreed to split the cost of installing and sharing our privacy fence, which gave us both a great beginning. Unfortunately, since our yards slope, our six-foot fence appeared to shrink after installation since it’s placed at the lowest point in our yards. Our six-foot fence now appears to be a four-foot fence, and we still look directly into each other’s patio windows. What that means is I still have work to do as far as creating privacy. See how there’s an unobstructed view into my neighbor’s windows? Stay tuned.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

A close second for me as far as my wants for my yard is a space where I can grow as many vegetables as possible. Another desire for me is serenity—green space with lots of textures—very “Zen”. I don’t want lots of flashy flowers in this area. (I save color for my front and side yards.)

My favorite all-time bush is a lilac, so a dwarf is a must in my yard. I’ve never had a Japanese Maple so that’s another must. I need a boxwood—love those. And I brought a Clematis vine with me from my last house that needs a spot, and I must have a trellis for a Morning Glory vine. I would also love some ornamental grass since I’ve never grown that before. Next is a water feature. Another desire is different levels in my yard for interest. Another is attracting birds, butterflies, praying mantis, etc… Yet another is winter interest. Yada, yada, yada… Hopefully, you don’t have quite that long of a list. That’s a lot of stuff to put into a tiny yard, but I somehow managed!

I’ve often read that in a tiny yard, you should stick to two or three types of plants, and repeat them so the space is less chaotic, but I don’t believe that necessarily has to be the case. There are too many plants I’m wanting, to just choose between a couple different ones. Check out these photos. There are different plants packed into small areas, and I think they’re beautiful. Nothing chaotic about these!

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

If you don’t know much about plants, and don’t have obvious favorites like I do, never fear, my friend. Spend some time taking a stroll through a local nursery, and see what catches your eye. Or take pictures of plants you see when you’re out driving or walking in your neighborhood. Look at gardening magazines that are relevant to your planting zone. Take pictures to a nursery to find out the names of the plants you discovered. Then research any plants of interest to see if they’ll work in your growing conditions.

Another option would be to go to Google (my very good friend), search the type of growing conditions you have, and see what plants are best suited for your environment. For example, if your area is windy, wet, prone to drought, teeming with deer, sunny, shady, etc…, do a search for the appropriate types of plants, and see what shows up. You want to read as much as you can about plants that interest you, and go from there. Some plants are beautiful, but are invasive. Some are the right size for a tiny yard, but have thorns or drop messy seeds or berries that you might not want. It’s not a quick process to be sure, but you’re much better off taking the time to gather information rather than having to rip out plants that become a nuisance, die or grow too big for your space.

As far as resale value goes, great landscaping is only going to increase the value of your property. I don’t have a problem tearing out all of the sod in my back yard, and replacing it with plantings since my 14 foot by 34 foot grassy area isn’t suited for a swing set or any other type of yard activity. Once landscaping is established, replacing my sod with plantings and stepping-stones is easier to maintain than mowing. It’s also much more interesting to look at in our zone 5 winters. And after the first year of pampering, you just get to relax and watch nature do its thing. If you purchase plantings that are the correct size for their chosen areas, there’s also no trimming involved. Low maintenance is always a bonus. What home buyer wouldn’t be interested in all that!

You’ll need to call your utilities to find out where your cables are buried (JULIE is who we call here in Central Illinois). You need to do this before you start planning your placement of items because your buried lines may just put the kibosh on certain aspects of your design. For example, you wouldn’t want to get all pumped about digging a small water feature in that incredibly perfect spot only to find out your cable line runs through that area. Cable or water feature, let’s see…

After you locate your utilities, you’re ready to plan. You can use graph paper to attempt an overall plan (subject to change, of course) for your yard if you like. First you need to pick your most desired feature or most important item, and plant or install it where it needs to go. If this item is a tree or bush–we’ll call it your “anchor” plant. Sometimes I wait until I have my anchor plants in, and then use graph paper to plan out the rest.

I have three sets of anchor plants in my yard. Remember, privacy is my number one desire, so I’m starting there. I plant three upright Junipers so when I look out my sliding door, they are centered directly in my line of vision. I choose Junipers that will eventually grow to block the view into my neighbor’s sliding door, and I plant them so that they’ll be touching each other when they’re full grown. In a tiny yard it’s a good idea to choose plantings that are columnar in habit as opposed to big, spreading bushes that will take up precious yard space. Tall ornamental grasses are also a good choice for privacy in a small yard, and would have worked well in this spot. Here’s another picture of my Junipers from inside my house.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

I contemplate planting some type of small, ornamental tree to solve the privacy issue, but I want privacy year-round. Here in zone 5, you can kiss your privacy good-bye in the fall and winter if you go the deciduous route. Another issue of a tree in a tiny yard becomes encroachment on your neighbor’s yard as the tree grows. Also, a very small tree will not have a skirt that will be high enough for you to walk under, and may end up overpowering your yard if it’s an itsy-bitsy yard like mine. And in my case, I don’t want shade to be creeping into my veggie garden. (Veggies need at least 6 hours of full sun per day.) So I nix the ornamental tree idea.

If what you desire for your yard is a shady retreat with refuge from the sun, then a larger bush that can be trimmed up so it’s woody on the bottom might be a nice way to go if you don’t care about privacy in the winter months. It will form a shady canopy, and you may have a better selection in bushes for a small space than you would for a tree for a small space.

Tip–Generally speaking, in zone 5 you’ll want to plant deciduous trees and bushes (assuming you have room) on the south and/or west sides of your house so that the plantings will block the sun from your house in the summer. Then the leaves drop in the winter, allowing the sun to warm your house.

Yet Another Tip—Be sure to space your plants taking their full-grown size into consideration!!! I often see bushes and trees planted too close to houses, and too close together. I must admit I still struggle with this. Most of us gardeners as beginners have made that mistake thinking nothing will ever grow that big, and then 5 years down the road we’re kicking ourselves in the hind-end for planting too close. If you can’t stand how barren your new landscape looks with all that empty waiting-to-grow space, you can fill in with temporary plantings. More about filler plants later in this post.

You also want to be aware of low areas in your yard that may stay soggy for some length of time after it rains, so you can choose plantings that can handle wet areas. This means being very familiar with your yard before you begin your project. Many landscapers suggest living in a property for a year before landscaping so you can become familiar with your yard’s quirks. If you have a low area in your yard that holds water, you can bring in soil and create a raised berm to plant on for interest. A berm added to a low area would allow you to have a broader selection of plants to choose from—not just ones who like to swim.

So back to my other anchor bushes which are Sky Pencil Japanese Hollies that only get about a foot to a foot and a half wide and about 5 to 6 feet tall. Here’s a picture of those. Unfortunately, they’re slow growers. In the two years I’ve had them, in fact, I don’t think they’ve grown more than an inch. Maybe not such a great choice if you’re in a hurry, but I’ve got nothing but time. Still, be warned that if a tag on a plant says it’s a slow grower, it means it’s a slooooooooowwwwwwwww grower.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

My last set of anchor bushes is three Buckthorn bushes that get about two feet wide and maybe a foot or so taller than my fence. I love their soft, feathery look. (Unfortunately, the Japanese Beetles love their flavor.) The purpose of planting these bushes as well as the hollies is to give additional privacy where you can see through the slats of my privacy fence. Not a big issue, but one of my goals is also to have a wall of green so eventually you won’t be able to see my fence at all.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

If budget is an issue, you could stop here. Just get your anchor plants in the ground, and wait to add more items from your list next year. At least you would have a great start on your masterpiece! I always try to do everything at once if my budget allows so I only have to pamper my yard for the first year or so, and then I can relax and enjoy it all. Another budget stretcher is to buy small if you can stand it. I’m the Budget Queen, so I almost always buy small. Don’t be afraid to consider bare-root plants. They look absolutely ridiculous when you buy them, but they’re a lot easier to plant than trees and bushes that come balled and burlaped or in a big pot of dirt. (Just be careful when you mow!) You’ll be surprised at how quickly plants can grow and fill in.

Tip—If you plan to make plant purchases at a “non-nursery”, you need to know what you’re planting! I would advise if you find plants you would like to buy at a non-nursery, write down the names of what you see that are of interest to you, and then Google them to be certain they will grow in your planting zone. Just because they sell them in your area, doesn’t mean they’ll survive your climate. I found that out the hard way. Also, they may sell plants marked as perennials that are, in fact, perennials–in Brazil. I got burned on that one too.

Also, when looking at trees, I’ve noticed most of them in the box stores have their header branch missing or damaged. That would be the main trunk that grows straight upwards, and is the main branch that all others grow out of. A tree with its header missing or damaged will not grow properly, and will have a not-so-lovely shape. I say shame on those stores for selling them to unsuspecting customers. Buyer beware!

So once I get my anchor bushes planted, I decide on placement of stepping-stones, location of my other must-have bushes, water-feature size and so on. I find places on my graph paper for my Japanese Maple, dwarf lilac, Morning Glory trellis and my Clematis. I make up little “vignettes” of plants in my yard, generally with the tallest plants in the back, and the shorter plants in the foreground. Here are a couple of those areas.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

After creating a few different designs on my graph paper, I decide which one I like best, and install my stepping-stones and water feature so I can plant around them.

I left about a third of my yard open for my vegetable garden. I sink 4 x 4 posts and string wire fencing between them to grow my pole beans and pickling cucumbers on. It’s a nice space saver, and since I made these taller than my privacy fence, I have a little more privacy from other neighbors when my plants are up and growing. You can see the four 4 x 4 posts in the background. The whole back area that you see in the photo will be a complete wall of green once my plants are up and leafing out. This set up is a must for a tiny yard. (See photos in my previous post, “In the Beginning” to see end-of-the-year pictures where my fence “disappears”.)

If you’re not into planting veggies, you can plant annual or perennial vines up on fences, which is what I did after the planting season was over last year. I would much rather look at a beautiful vine than a fence. What you see growing up on the fences here is a Paniculata Clematis. Sounds like a disease of some sort, doesn’t it? This is the most hardy and fast-growing of any Clematis I’ve seen, and has beautiful white flowers that bloom in the fall when everything else is starting to die off. My friend, Cinny, also gave me some starts of raspberry plants that I planted to grow up the fence, but they’re too small to see in the photo.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

I’m a vine lover, and believe they have a purpose in every yard—especially tiny yards. They’re good for creating privacy because you can place a trellis wherever you need a view obstructed. Vines take up very little ground space, and make a beautiful backdrop for plants placed in front of them. Morning Glories (Heavenly Blue) have been a staple in my yard for years, and are quick to cover my home-made bamboo trellis. I leave my spent vines on my trellises for the winter. The birds love them, and they’re beautiful in the snow. Here’s a picture of my naked bamboo trellis.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

Here’s the same trellis fully clothed in a Heavenly Blue Morning Glory. This vine is an annual in zone 5, but grows rapidly, and will completely cover the trellis within a few weeks of my planting the seeds.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

The people who bought my old house, allowed me to take my rusty ladder that I had my Clematis growing on because it had sentimental value to me. To them it was a rusty ladder. To me it was a lovely gift from my son. As a teenager, my oldest son, Brandon (aka Mr. Wilderness) was always bringing home…well…things when he would go fishing or exploring. Some things living and breathing, some things not. (We once had a snake loose in our basement for months that escaped his clutches.)

One day he brought home a rusty, old ladder that he found in a creek for me to use in my garden, and I love it. I set it in concrete, so that meant when my home buyers were gracious enough to let me take it to my new house, I transported it–concrete and all. Dang, I wish I owned a truck. My point here is you can use found objects to use for trellises, and there’s no need to spend lots of money on them since they’ll likely be completely covered with plants at some point anyway. The bird houses look a little cluttered in this photo, but when the vine fills in around them, they look right at home. So here’s my precious rusty ladder trellis.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

Tip-Be sure to purchase the correct type of vine for the type of support you have. There are three types of vines. Some vines, such as Boston Ivy, have little suction-cup feet that allow them to stick to surfaces. You wouldn’t want to put this on a trellis because it needs a flat surface like a wall or fence to suction-cup onto. If you have a trellis, you need a vine like a Clematis or Morning Glory whose stem wraps itself around the spindles. The third type of vine has tendrils that are like little curly arms that grow off the main stem, and can grab onto a trellis. Cucumber and pumpkin vines have tendrils.

Caution–Many vines like Wisteria and Trumpet Vine grow to be very heavy, and develop large woody stems over time requiring heavy-duty supports. A small metal trellis would be eaten alive by these types of vines. Talk to your local nursery about what type of trellis you would like to use, and they can suggest a vine that would be appropriate for your situation.

So I’ve got my anchor bushes in, my water feature, stepping-stones and two trellises. I plant my lilac at the base of my rusty clematis ladder because although Clematis love and need full sun, they like their roots to be shaded. Perfect. I fill in with my other must haves as placed on my graph paper.

Tip—Plantings are more visually appealing if planted in odd numbers. Don’t ask me why, it’s just that way, and is true in interior design as well.

Now I just add what I refer to as “fillers” so my yard doesn’t look too sparse since I spaced my anchor bushes based on their full-grown size. I like to see green, not ground. My filler plants are planted with the idea that they will be dug up, and given away as my main bushes grow and take over the space. The filler plants consist of hostas, sedum, salvia, strawberry plants, fescue grass, iris, peony, lambs ear, scallions and fern. Annuals and garden veggies if you have enough sun would be good choices for fillers too. I even planted some daffodil bulbs as fillers that someone threw away (pot and all) in the empty lot across the street from me.

All of these plants, except the fescue, were given to me by friends or brought with me from my previous home so I don’t feel bad letting someone else adopt them when the time comes. I’ve already had to dig some of these up over the past two years and give them away as my “important” plants have grown, and crowded them out. That is the purpose of the filler plants after all.

Finally, my wish to draw birds and butterflies into my yard is accomplished by my mini bird bath that I picked up at a garage sale, and spray-painted brown. If you have too many of these yard “chachkies” in a small space, they’ll look like clutter, but I’ve only got two, and one of them is sort of tucked down in the plants. Believe it or not, birds actually do come and bathe in this tiny little bath that probably holds only about 6 oz. of water, and butterflies actually drink from it too.

I see a handful of praying mantis in my yard every year too, but don’t exactly know what I’ve got that they like. I sure love those little guys. You can never have too many praying people or insects around, I say. I also have my water feature to attract birds, but it’s not up and running yet. (It resembles pea soup at the moment since it’s only April, and has been sitting stagnant all winter.)

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

I also have bird feeders, and plant sunflowers that attract yellow finches and cardinals into my yard. But be careful where you plant sunflowers, and place feeders with sunflower seeds in them, because sunflower hulls are poisonous to some plants, and you may kill plants that are trying to grow under your feeders. Sunflowers work great for a privacy screen in small yards as well, but may need to be staked. I tie mine to my fence with twine when they get tall so they don’t blow over.

I have a few bird houses, but unfortunately no one has moved into them in the two summers I’ve had them out. At my last home, as soon as I would put out a bird house of any shape, size, color or height, I’d have a new tenant. According to Google, it might be that my birdhouses are in the hot sun as opposed to shade or that they’re too close to the bird feeders. Tenant or not, I still think they’re a nice addition to any yard, and vines can be planted to grow up a bird house pole which will also create some privacy if strategically placed.

I hope this post gives you some design ideas for your tiny yard. The key is to recognize and prioritize your goals, do some research and then go for it. Every year it amazes me how my yard comes to life all by itself. Once you get your plants in the first year, and give them some time and attention, it just gets easier from there. Before you know it, you can have a yard that you simply just watch grow and enjoy. Here’s a picture of how my yard looked last year at the end of the growing season.

Landscape Design for a Tiny Yard / MyUrbanGardenOasis

If you have an interest in home decorating, painting and sprucing up your home on a budget, please feel free to check my other blog at HomeStagingBloomingtonIl. You can find additional before and after pictures on my website at

This blog was written by Tracy Evans who is a Certified Home Stager, Certified Redesigner (Home Staging Resource at and a Journeyman Painter (Local 209) in the Bloomington/Normal, IL area. You can view her portfolios at for more before and after photos.

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