Small gardens have a lot more potential than you may realize. Whether dealing with a long narrow space behind a vintage home, a cramped backyard that lacks privacy, or a shabby garden at the rear of a brownstone the possibilities are endless. So don’t write off your 40-foot by 20-foot outdoor area just yet—with the right design, it could be an incredible garden.


Designer Karen Chapman states,”Neither beauty nor serve has to be restricted by the size of your outdoor space, but it’s very important to prioritize your wish list so as to make each square inch count.” She offers the following advice, suggestions, and hints:

Would you love to entertain friends & family?

Entertaining outdoors always sounds a lot more relaxed, both to its hosts and the guests, but just how a lot of people do you want to accommodate? Two for a romantic lunch? Eight for a sit-down dinner? Twelve or more for an informal BBQ?

Versatile elements that could satisfy more than 1 function are key in maximizing the potential of small spaces.

  • Folding bistro tables and chairs can easily be kept when not being used and are lightweight enough to create set up a cinch.
  • Extending patio tables offer flexibility if you have to accommodate varying amount of guests.
  • Insert a padded cushion into a hardy low table to function as an occasional ottoman or stool.
  • Capped keeping walls and elevated beds could pull double duty if they are at seats height (approx. 17″) and softened with cushions or a folded blanket.
  • Use bench chairs in a rectangular patio table instead of individual seats – you will be able to seat more people–ideal for families with small children.
  • Rather than a traditional wood-burning fire pit which can look unattractive when not being used and occupy a lot of space, consider a gas fire table. These function as a beautiful focal point when not being used and are best for doubling up as a coffee table due to its solid rim.

What do you wish to grow?

Are you expecting to develop cut flowers, your favorite herbs, or a couple of vegetables? When space is limited, it’s especially important to ascertain which of them are worth growing yourself, and that are better to buy seasonally from your local farmer’s market. Concentrate on developing flowers and make that are often pricey, difficult to find, have a brief shelf life, or you use regularly.

Is in-ground planting distance limited?

Container gardens provide a simple solution for limited in-ground growth; however, consideration should be given to their shape and size.

  • Wide, round containers will take up a large footprint onto a deck or patio. Search for rectangular. Oval or elliptical shapes that can sit closer to a wall or rail.
  • Avoid cluttering the ground with multiple smallish pots–one big, tall container will have much greater effect and be simpler to water.
  • Adding saucers with wheels under your containers allows you to move them around to create room dividers on a long deck, a secluded reading nook in a exposed patio or just to follow the routine of sunlight during the growing season.


Having considered the performance of your area, here are a couple of designer tips that will help you really maximize its potential and produce the illusion of a much larger backyard.

  1. Search for compact plants. Pick plants that will not conquer the earth plane, but do not be afraid to include medium-sized or columnar trees to accomplish the right scale.
  2. Think outside the box. What about vertical gardens? Railing planters? Hanging baskets for strawberries? (See an illustration of a living wall/vertical succulent garden below.)
  3. Build a solid foliage frame. Use intriguing plants with colorful leaves prior to layering in flowering plants.
  4. Make each square inch count. Concentrate on high-value trees, shrubs, and perennials that offer several seasons of attention with attractive leaves, seasonal flowers, unique textures, colorful bark or fantastic fall color.
  5. Create privacy. You might not have room for big evergreen trees and shrubs to create privacy. However, would a row of a few of the many columnar varieties that provide height–minus the width–operate? If only seasonal screening is needed, perhaps narrow, columnar, deciduous trees or trees would be appropriate? Or maybe growing well-behaved climbers (e.g. jasmine or yearly vines) on a vertical trellis are the optimal solution.
  6. Do you actually need a lawn? Does your yard visually split up your space unnecessarily? Does it make more sense to extend the terrace?
  7. Choose outdoor furniture with caution. Forgo added deep armchairs with wide armrests in favor of profiles that are centric.
  8. Add a water feature. Water features are always a great addition to a garden. While a pond and waterfall may not be sensible, a simple recirculating wall fountain or bubbling tabletop pot may be the answer.
  9. Create a Feeling of order. Clean lines provide an orderly texture to the garden. A clear rectilinear design can define spaces while flowing organic curves can be used to soften awkward angles.
  10. Use the diagonal axis. An average suburban backyard is often broad but shallow. Looking directly across the back garden, therefore, highlights the shortest dimension. Shift the perspective by turning the terrace, planting beds, and sightlines 45-degrees to line up with all the diagonal axis, creating the illusion of a much bigger space. (See an illustration of the design plan below.)
  11. Maintain the color palette easily. A few colors in varying colors, together with green, will probably be less visually cluttered than a jelly-bean-like explosion.
  12. Borrow opinions from outside your own boundaries. Frame a remote tree, mountain, or exceptional architectural detail to provide the illusion of greater depth.
  13. Add outdoor lighting. Create drama and mystery, while extending the usage of this garden into the evening hours.

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