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8 Lessons on Stretching a Small Yard

Read on to learn a landscape designer's strategies for maximizing the beauty and utility of a modest-size lot.

Small backyard patio area Mark Lohman

Mike Eagleton is often asked to conjure miracles from small, cheek-to-jowl city lots. The Denver landscape designer’s own yard, around a 1929 brick cottage south of downtown, is a prime example of his professional sleight of hand. Within its 50 by 120 feet, he has incorporated sunny, street-side perennial beds, a private entry court in the rear, an elevated outdoor dining room, a secluded lounging terrace, a carpet of lawn, woodland views, a potting shed, and several destination strolls that lead to musical, spilling fountains.

Front and back entrances, the latter marked by a wisteria arbor off the alley behind his property, make a garden walk of coming home. Almost year-round, despite his Zone 6 climate, with its frigid winters and baking summers, he’s got something in bloom—in pots and borders and on top of arbors. Shade trees blot out neighbors’ homes, and it’s easy to forget, when he and his wife and their teenage kids kick back outside, that they’re in a metropolis of 600,000 people.

Organized Spaces

Organized spaces in small yard Mark Lohman

It wasn’t so easy in 1989, when the couple bought the house, which sat wide open to its busy street with little more garden than a backyard deck and a patch of grass. Happily, there were a few mature trees, and Eagleton knew he could make his cramped lot feel larger with a well-conceived plan for hangout spots as well as play space for the kids.

"Whether you like things formal or informal," he says, "the mind wants organization. And when you create outdoor spaces that have a purpose, you use them." Gradually, the garden took the shape it has today, with gates and arbors marking passageways, sheltering trees and shrubs, and welcoming fountains. His landscaping lessons are sure to inspire any aspiring gardener with big hopes for a small space.

Lesson 1: Create a Front-Yard Garden

Front yard garden Mark Lohman

Design a gracious garden setting out front to show off your house's best features and provide privacy. Eagleton matched the crisp lines of his vintage house with soft, English-style perennials that bloom against formal hedges. The hedges—dwarf burning bush, Euonymus alatus 'Compactus'—are much friendlier and less costly than masonry walls and, since they extend on both sides of the central steps, make the lot appear wider.

The low flagstone retaining wall he installed to edge his beds matches the home's warm brick facade, while the arched metal gate, once the frame of an old church window, echoes the arched front door. Tree-form rose of Sharon and limelight hydrangea, layered in between the clipped hedges, screen the front-entry court and create the illusion of greater depth from street to house.

Lesson 2: Go Big with Hardscape

Hardscaping path in yard Mark Lohman

Don't try to maximize space by undersizing steps and walkways; paths should be at least 4 feet across, says Eagleton. Skimpy paved areas look out of scale with your house—even modest homes present a large structure to work against—and they will shrink further once plants grow in around them.

Eagleton widened the existing steps and landings in his entry court and replaced the original dark brown concrete with colored, patterned concrete that mimics the flagstone of his retaining wall and ties the garden more fully to the house.

Lesson 3: Blur Your Lot's Boundaries

Dining area on deck in yard Mark Lohman

Borrow from your neighbors by forgoing unnecessary side fences that call attention to your lot's limits. Thanks to his unfenced front yard, Eagleton's lavish perennials merge with a flood of junipers next door, hinting that both belong to one landscape. The same trick works with trees, he says, so make sure the ones you plant don't block those visible on other properties. As you look out beyond your own branches, especially if they resemble others nearby, they'll all seem part of the same expansive picture.

Shown: A bristlecone pine and a blue spruce screen the cedar dining deck. Containers filled with summer annuals—marigolds, petunias, impatiens, and vining mandevilla—soften the corner near the potting shed, bringing colorful blossoms close enough for guests to enjoy.

Lesson 4: Carve Out Outdoor Rooms

Small backyard patio area Mark Lohman

Break up large outdoor spaces into smaller areas. Your garden feels bigger if you can't see all its "rooms" at once, an effect Eagleton achieved through slight grade changes, walled enclosures, and plant screens. The original backyard was mostly lawn with maple, hawthorn, and spruce trees along the edges, and a cramped wood deck.

Over time, he replaced the deck with a raised one 8 feet larger and framed it with landscape-tie planters 2 feet higher than the garden below. These planters surround the dining spot with close-up blooms and selectively block larger garden views with dwarf Alberta spruces. He left a piece of lawn for his children, but at one end, between it and the kitchen door, he designed an outdoor lounge area, screened with another planter—this one 18 inches high and 12 feet long—filled with tree-form serviceberry shrubs and billowing coleus and impatiens.

Shown: A lounge area is tucked between the elevated dining deck—screened with conical dwarf Alberta spruces—and a planter in which serviceberry trees mix with coleus and pink and white impatiens.

Lesson 5: Reclaim Side Yards

Garden in side yard Mark Lohman

The space on either side of your house is often seen merely as a utilitarian passage from front yard to backyard. It's hardly used and rarely occupied except as a dog run or a staging place for trash cans and bags of potting soil. To Eagleton, it's an opportunity—for a private, meditative landscape that helps you relax as you move from the noisy world to a peaceful garden.

"People like to put paths down the middle of their yards, but there's a comfort to a protected path beside the house, planted with things you can stop and look at but also presenting a long, dramatic glimpse of what's ahead." One further tip: If your lot backs onto an alley, as many in Denver's older districts do, make your part of it pretty. Since this could be your usual garden entry once you've parked in the garage, train a vine up the outer walls, add an ornamental gate, and tuck a fountain—a note of welcome—just inside.

Shown: Across the lawn, a granite sphere, tucked between ferns and hostas, brings the subtlest murmur of water to the lounge area just outside the kitchen.

Accent containers and running water in yard Mark Lohman

Lesson 6: Accent with Containers

Around doors, lounging spots, and entrances, big containers full of blooming annuals bring life and softness to paved places and let you study plants up close. They add color and draw attention to where you want it. Eagleton's pots of impatiens, fuchsias, petunias, and begonias gather around his outdoor lounge, dining deck, and potting shed, as well as near doors and gates. "Be selective," he warns. "Containers require maintenance." Group pots for effect, and choose a main color, along with secondary, harmonizing hues. "With too many colors," he explains, "nothing dominates; there's no statement."

Shown: Ground-covering Geranium biokovo thrives in the shady side garden. To add interest along the stroll from backyard to street, a large pot is filled with annual phygelius, impatiens, and begonias.

Lesson 7: Incorporate Running Water

Use several fountains throughout the garden, especially at entry points and seating spots, to distinguish different areas with contrasting water spills and sculptural elements. Eagleton's four range from a smooth granite sphere to a Japanese trough, with sounds that murmur soothingly or splash to mask urban noise.

Shown: Amid lilies and moneywort is a Japanese-style garden with a concrete trough fountain that adds trickling sounds to be heard on the dining deck.

Lesson 8: Plant for All Seasons

Plants in yard Mark Lohman

Though this won't literally enlarge your garden, it will expand your experience of it. Just as fountains contribute the dimension of sound, the colors of maple leaves, tulip bulbs, and roses heighten our awareness of nature and the greater world we and our landscapes belong to.

Eagleton's garden puts on a show throughout the year, from spring crocuses and forsythias to summer hydrangeas, daylilies, and phlox and on through early-fall Japanese anemones and blooming witch hazel in late November. Even in the dead of winter, the garden maintains its strong evergreen structure—mainly yews, boxwoods, and spruces—while the potting shed gives him a jump on starting new perennials in winter for the promise of spring ahead.

Shown: A group of pots holding clipped boxwood and Calathea triostar mark the arrival zone.

Additional Ideas for Small Yards

Add a Touch of Grace

Double gates and an arched wisteria arbor mark the entry off the back alley. The garden arch, one of Eagleton's unifying motifs throughout the landscape, lends a graceful counterpoint to the otherwise linear design.

A Place to Plant

Garden shed for planting Mark Lohman

When Mike Eagleton decided to build his potting shed, his wish list was long: "I wanted a place to store tools, overwinter tender plants, store outdoor cushions and umbrellas during the winter, and, of course, a place to pot up plants." The outside needed to complement his vintage cottage, and heat and electricity would make it useful dawn to well past dusk, in any season.

Garden tools and planting supplies Mark Lohman

Lots of Storage

The shed has a redwood floor and pine plank walls, with user-friendly features that include peg racks for garden tools, easy-to-clean galvanized-metal counters, and a stainless-steel trough sink with a gooseneck faucet for filling watering cans and washing up after work.

Multi-Use Garden House

Open shelves beneath awning windows keep herbs happy when the weather turns chilly, and a handy tip-out bin keeps potting soil at the ready. In the summer, the little garden house offers an extra benefit: Conveniently located off the dining deck, it also serves as a backup kitchen for entertaining.

The Plan

Plan for enhancing small yard Rodica Prato

Front Yard: Eagleton divided his long, narrow city lot into different zones to use and enjoy. From the arched metal front gate to the gated arbor that opens off the rear alley, his design mixes openness and enclosure to invite exploration and screen unwanted views.

Backyard: A playing lawn, a lounging terrace, and a dining deck draw the family outside in mild weather, while the home's French doors and large windows keep the garden visible from inside.