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Make Your Small Urban Backyard an Oasis

Small urban backyards do have design challenges. But your green space in the city is an oasis to be nurtured and cherished. With an eye to aesthetics and careful selection of textures, colors, and lines, you’ll be able to create a small backyard with a big appeal. Remember to consider all seasons as you plan, since you’ll want to maximize your ability to use the space year-round. Here are some hints and design ideas to help you get started.

urban backyard

Plan your Patio

Deciding whether you want to have your sitting space take up some or nearly all of your outdoor space is the first step. A large prioritized patio space can still bring in green elements with a border of medium and tall plants, such as to-scale pines, ornamental grasses, bamboo, or palms, depending on the climate. A smaller patio can include box gardens to frame the space, benches that double as storage, or mixed materials such as brick, stone, and wood for benches and borders.

As long as the source is reliable, wood decking is a sustainable choice. Today’s pressure treated woods allow for much longer deck life than even as recently as ten years ago. You have a bit more flexibility when using wood over stone, due to easier hauling, lifting, stacking, and storage. Your choice of a patio or deck — or both – may be determined by the slope of your small urban backyard as much as any other rationale.

Create Interesting and Separate Sections

Instead of having the patio be the prominent focal point, you might consider a design sequence of different sections.  The variation will create visual interest and make the space seem much bigger than it actually is. Begin with small squares of manicured lawn, planters of varying heights, or even a pondless water feature. Tiers of sitting, verdant, and feasting spaces invite a variety of uses and can create undulating patterns. Maybe you’d like to have different sections for different purposes:  one space for meditation and relaxation, another for eating al fresco, a third for growing tomatoes in cages that reach for the sky, and a final section where the blender and tiki hut will be the center of evening attention.

And don’t forget to focus on the smallest sections, either. A brick with a succulent springing upward to the sun. A wall of smiling faces peeking around a corner. Shells stacked and sparkling from last year’s vacation.  Clusters of tiny plants growing between cracks in the sidewalk. Regardless of each section’s function, carefully place two or three steps between sections to suggest movement and improve flow.

Paths that Point to Interesting Spaces

It’s not enough to have different sections in your small urban backyard.  You should also delineate between those spaces with paths that point your eye and guests to each distinct area. Vary the pathway materials using wood chips, gravel, pond stones, or flat stepping stones. Gravel can frame tile. Mulch can balance the hard texture of brick.  Even a wooden planked walkway can become reminiscent of wetland trail crossings.

And your paths don’t have to be symmetrical, either. Regardless of your choice of pathway materials, you can infuse angles and lines that shoot in contrary directions. A lack of symmetry may also create the illusion of more space. Together, paths, their materials, and a consistent balance are essential elements of a small urban backyard design.

Plants and More Plants

Plants will make the details you select for your small urban backyard stand out. Celebrate any existing fully grown trees by creating mini-gardens at their bases. Gain vertical height with ornamental grasses, cacti, palms, arborvitae, and bamboo. There’s a whole body of literature on growing vertical gardens. If you know how to espalier plants up a fence, you can create upward-reaching patterns and lines. Medium height can be achieved through bringing in miniature Japanese red maples, trees that you Bonsai yourself, holly, and shrubs. Low plants bring in contrasting color to offset slates, stones, and wood. Bedding greens, crawling vines, hens ‘n chicks, horsetails in slight wet areas, and perennial herbs accomplish the goal of low height and visual interest.

Structural Features

Here’s where your small urban backyard takes on a unique personality through craftsmanship.  Wrought iron gates, a miniature summer kitchen built against the home’s exterior wall, sculptures created from metal or cement, or a small fountain capture the eye and pique curiosity.  A fire pit can be mesmerizing. A tire swing and jungle gym may be necessary if you have little ones. Are you desperate for the beach? What about a lap pool then?

Pots and planters. Statues and ornaments. Artificial outdoor plants. Hanging baskets and accessories. What kinds of umbrellas will you include to veer away from the conventional? Even more typical structural features enhance and decorate your small urban backyard. But be creative! When else will you get such an excuse to mill through flea markets and yard sales, looking for that perfect outdoor accent?

Color Captures Particular Moods

Say you’re a fan of the color red. How can you create a small urban backyard space that captures reds without competing with the greens of the natural world? Start with clean and modern horizontal lines on borders, dividers, and Adirondacks, all stained redwood. Then get a bit campy with a set of red retro plastic dining chairs framed with flashy red rose bushes. Add additional but subtle touches of red with geraniums planted in earthen clay pots, dotted here and there, in different sizes and shapes.

A prominently blue landscape might include a miniature Koi pond with blue bottom, gray slate sidewalks, full and bushy blue hydrangeas, and a hand painted blue flamingo. An elegant all-white space might include white wicker furniture, a marble lazy Susan for tapas, large rectangles of white tile as footpaths, and bleached beach detritus. Or, if you really want to go all green, choose green-hued dining accouterments, hanging ferns, a small dedicated lawn section, and clinging mosses. If a particular color palette is your preference, study how nature brings your color to life, then augment it with color-complementing accessories.

Don’t Forget the Fence

The fence is, unarguably, the most important feature of all. Fencing frames the entire space, creates privacy amidst multiple dwellings, and defines the style of your small urban backyard. Most cities have fencing requirements that ensure your neighbors will have at least the same aesthetic vantage point as you do. So, choose your materials and design wisely to be consistent with the local traditions and karma but also your own design vision. Of course, you can retain existing stones walls — whether erected by a stonemason from a previous era and assembled from local indigenous rocks. For example, a stucco retaining wall that you inherited when you bought the place might be repurposed with statuary, pond stones, and intriguing lighting.

A small urban backyard can sooth the stress of the city.  Take some time, scratch out some ideas, and consider multiple possibilities.  What’s most important is that you create a space that allows the organic, essential part of you to emerge.  Mother Nature insists.

Photo credit: Landscape Design Advisor via Foter.com / CC BY-ND