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Backyard Remodel: Living Large in a Small Yard

Check out these seven strategies for turning a not-so-big yard into a series of beautiful, useful outdoor rooms.

Backyard pond and seating area Linda Oyama Bryan

Most evenings, when the weather is warm, George Kinsella arrives home from work and heads straight to his backyard pond to unwind. “I love the sound of the waterfall and feeding the fish,” he says, referring to the three giant koi that swim up to greet him. “It’s really relaxing.”

George and Susan Kinsella Linda Oyama Bryan

Kinsella waited seven years to revel in this little daily pleasure. It took five years for him and his wife, Susan, to remodel their 1940s Chicago-area home. Once the house was finally finished, they could concentrate on the landscape, which presented a few challenges.

A worn wood deck claimed half the backyard, a 3-foot incline tilted down from the back door to the end of the lot, and George had a long list of what he wanted in the tight 33-by-57-foot space: the pond, of course; a dining area with room for a grill; places for lounging and entertaining his family and friends; a putting green; and an outdoor spa. Out front, he wanted a spot to sit and watch his four teenage sons toss a ball around.

The Master Plan

Wooden benches with red pillows in backyard Linda Oyama Bryan

George, who owns a landscape firm, sat with his designers to sketch out a plan. Then his crew began to gradually transform the yard, the back one summer and the front the next, fitting in the work between client jobs.

Today, George marvels that he got everything he wanted on his small property, yet it doesn't feel cramped. "It's a cozy space," he says. "But people say 'Holy cow!' when they walk into the backyard. They are blown away by how much is going on." Here are some of the design strategies he and his team used to turn a once featureless space into a lush, varied landscape.

Design Strategies a Small Yard

1. Work back to front

Waterfall in backyard Linda Oyama Bryan

On a narrow lot like this one, with limited access points, it's important to decide what the backyard's most important elements will be and start there. This will keep major earthmoving equipment and foot traffic from trampling finished landscaping out front. For George, a good-size pond with a waterfall was priority number one. So the plan called for a dramatic two-tier waterfall to start in one corner of the yard and flow along a 15-foot curve that empties into a pond 15 feet long and 7 feet across at its widest points.

As soil was excavated for the pond, it was mounded up behind the basin to create the base for the waterfall; the pond liner was hidden with granite boulders and limestone outcropping, which were softened with pockets of plants. The water feature can be seen from every spot in the backyard and from inside the house.

2. Think in layers

Backyard dining area Linda Oyama Bryan

The other must-have on George and Susan's list was a patio for outdoor dining just steps from the kitchen—easy on this site, where the yard sloped down and away from the house. The resulting dining patio of tumbled concrete pavers steps down via three wide stone slabs of limestone outcropping to a similar paver patio with seating that hugs the water's edge.

Using different levels for the patios creates separate garden rooms; the step-down transition from one area to another helps make the small space feel more expansive. Additional features that George wanted were tucked in alongside the main elements: A putting green found a home between the pond and garage, a hot tub peeks out from under the branches of a tree adjacent to the upper patio, and a grill awaits steaks just outside the kitchen door.

3. Make features do double duty

Garage in backyard
Shown: Plants are nestled against wood and stone to lighten their look. Boston ivy climbs up the garage.
Linda Oyama Bryan

Designing elements that have more than one use adds value in a small yard. The driveway was set with attractive pavers that essentially transform the area in front of the coach-house-style garage into another patio. When hosting their large extended family and friends, the couple can use the space to set up a bar and tables. "This has helped us entertain as many as 100 people here," says George.

Plants in backyard Linda Oyama Bryan

Similarly, a low, curved, stone-veneer wall along the upper patio defines the eating area while its bluestone cap doubles as casual seating. Susan also uses the wall as a shelf for colorful containers all year long, changing the plantings to reflect the seasons.

Annual flowering plants that fill the pots in spring, summer, and fall are switched out for evergreen boughs and twigs in winter. The frost-proof fiberglass containers weather the elements without problem. When guests arrive, the planters can be moved to make space to set out trays of drinks or hors d'oeuvres at party time.

4. Add warmth with the right light

Fire pit in backyard Linda Oyama Bryan

George wanted a fire pit that he could see from all over the backyard, so rather than opt for a flat-faced fireplace, he took a cue from the basic campfire. In a corner just off the upper patio, he created a grade-level river-rock-over-gravel "pit" ringed with granite boulders and furnished with a firewood grate for logs. The simple setup gets used year-round; grilling marshmallows has become a traditional Christmas treat. During a daytime event in the summer, Susan might switch out the iron grate for a container of flowers.

Backyard lounge area Linda Oyama Bryan

Functional as well as beautiful, outdoor lighting gives a magical quality to the yard at night and extends the use of the space into the evening hours. Lights are hidden under the top edges of the stone wall and steps, and aimed onto pathways for safe strolling after dark. Spotlights angled upward accent the specimen trees and add drama. Lighted cups in the putting green even call out for a few practice shots.

5. Use paths to tie spaces together

Paths for strolling and exploring knit together the separate areas of the yard. Decomposed granite walkways curve around the patio and pond, providing a delightful crunch underfoot and a brick-red color that breaks up all the stone and concrete hardscape. Initially set in limestone with wide joints for groundcovers, the path got heavy traffic that never gave the plants a chance to become established and led to muddy footprints inside the house. So the limestone was removed and replaced with a 4-inch layer of decomposed granite over a 3-inch gravel base.

6. Reimagine the front lawn

Front Lawn Linda Oyama Bryan

The traditional swath of green out front provides a place for kids and dogs to play, sure, but strategic hardscape can make the area work even harder. The Kinsellas' front patio of cut bluestone extends a warm welcome and offers a vantage point for the parents to see their four baseball-loving teenage boys play catch. Teak seating to the side of the entry offers an area to relax and enjoy watching the kids. It's also a great place to wait for arriving guests, and, come fall, George and Susan love to sit here to greet costumed trick-or-treaters. The patio's natural bluestone is edged with the same tumbled pavers as in back to tie all the hardscape together.

7. Be strategic with plants

The landscape planting plan revolves around a variety of easy-care plants. Perennials planted in the main beds come back every year and quickly grow to fill empty space. Plants with varying leaf sizes add texture and interest. The wide leaves of green, blue, and variegated hostas contrast with Japanese forest grass's strappy chartreuse foliage. Flowering shrubs such as hydrangea and viburnum provide color during the growing season and then turn rich rosy and burnished hues in autumn.

Small ornamental tree in backyard Linda Oyama Bryan

Small ornamental trees, including redbud, serviceberry, Japanese maple, and river birch, add spring flowers and interesting bark and foliage—all while screening the views of neighboring houses. Groundcovers such as sedum and pachysandra fill in quickly and soften the look of so much stone.

Plants in pots in backyard Linda Oyama Bryan

Container gardens provide an easy-to-change, movable feast of color, offering a lot of versatility in a small space. In summer, lush foliage plants, including variegated croton petra, coleus, creeping jenny, chartreuse sweet potato vine, asparagus fern, and grassy-leaved sweet flag, brighten the patios without needing deadheading. Most last into the fall for a long, almost effortless season of continuous color.

The Plan

Illustration of backyard remodel plan Rodica Prato

While the lot measures 60 by 150 feet, the driveway and garage left a backyard area about 33 by 57 feet to work with. Though the terraced design is dominated by the two circular patios and the pond, spots for putting and chipping and an outdoor spa are discreetly tucked in. In front, the lawn was cut back to create a bluestone patio with lush borders and cozy seating. Refer to the plan key below to see the location of specific plants.