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Landscaping a Small Yard: Five Steps to Success

By Lavender June 19, 2009

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A summer drive around Lake of the Isles will have you drooling over the beautiful, spacious gardens, lush with summer plant life and hours of dedication. When you lean out the window, visions of sparkling fountains, European sculptures, and oceans of perfectly planted petals tease you with outdoor splendor. Pulling up to your home-sweet-city-home, your average-sized lawn doesn’t appear to hold the potential for such an awe-inspiring landscape, but with the right mind-set, your once-inferior yard can become a cozy yet glorious outdoor extension of your home.

Michael Foley is a designer first, gardener second. With a degree in graphic design and a passion for planting, he decided to combine work with play, creating Alphabet Moss, a landscaping business dedicated to producing beautiful and luxurious outdoor spaces. He designs for a range of garden sizes, but his specialty lies in the small yard.

As Foley says, “I like creating more intimate environments. The smaller spaces can be more detail-oriented. There isn’t a huge sprawling space to manipulate into something.

Foley suggests envisioning your front or back yard as another room in your home. Take the time really to think through the ways you want to decorate your new addition, just as you would indoors, from floor to ceiling and everything in between. Use the smaller space to concentrate on personalized features that reflect the inside of your home. Be realistic: no gigantic rocks or large pond to overpower the space. By investing in plants and artwork that fit your room, the garden will remain elegant and relaxed.

Before You Begin Your Organic Remodeling Project…

Contemplate how much time you are willing to dedicate to the dirt, and plant accordingly. Less time? Find plants and flowers that can hold their own. Luckily for you, maintenance will be less time-consuming in your smaller patch of heaven than a football field-sized plot, not to mention more cost-friendly.

Step One: Dedicating the Space

Before picking out the room’s decor, one must decide what activities the space will host. Do you want a nice place to sip coffee in the morning? Relax with cocktails in the evening? A yard for the kids? Running room for the dog? Visualize, plan, and make the yard work for your lifestyle.

Remember the view: Plan and plant with views from the inside of the house in mind. What will you see while doing dishes? While eating a family dinner?

Step Two: Set the Mood

Like painting a room, choose colors for your garden that make your space feel larger. Blues, evergreens, and blue spruce can make your yard look more spacious.

Foley reminds, “There’s not just one green.”

Multiple shades of green in your garden will bring a sophisticated, soothing quality to your space. Fill pots with bright flowers for bursts of complementary colors.

Good lighting is always the key to a comfortable atmosphere and a beautiful space. Foley suggests allowing your garden to mature for a year before you place lights, allowing you best to identify the areas you’d like illuminated or kept dark.

As Foley explains, “It’s a living space, not an indoor room—not a chest of drawers here, and soap dish there. You need to give yourself time to see what grows, and what needs appropriate lighting.”

Step Three: Positioning the Goods

One of the best parts about a small garden is your proximity to it. You’re always close to the environment you’ve created. Overload your five senses, allowing yourself to indulge what grows around you. Include lots of scented plants, like aromatic thyme. Bring in sounds with a gurgling fountain, rustling papyrus, and soft-to-the-touch grasses. Invite songbirds with a feeder or birdbath, and the butterflies with nectar plants.

Build up, not out. Space is limited, and overcrowding is never a good idea. Try containers or ceramic pots that can be adapted to any season. The variety available today obviates the traditional ugly plastic pot. Invest in a few that won’t need to be moved. Instead, their contents can be rearranged with each season. Pansies in the spring, annuals in the summer, and winter displays will keep your yard bright year-round.

Step Four: Make Every Inch Count

Revel in the details from the walls to the fences and paved areas. Foley suggests minimal lawnscaping and more hardscaping for a more livable garden room. He also stresses the importance of screening.

In Foley’s words, “Ask yourself: Beyond my property, what do I like that I’m looking at?”

The neighbor’s garden? The skyline?

Use vines to construct a canopy, along with stone walls and hedges to block out the images you don’t like, while also creating a sense of enclosure.

Plant for permanence. Well-established trees and shrubs lend structure year-round. Evergreen foliage plants can be your primary source of color any season, rather than ephemeral flowers that come and go.

Step Five: Get Comfy

Invest in patio furniture you anticipate using: big chairs, a sturdy table, and an ottoman. Use your outdoor room to display artwork, and give yourself a sculptural piece to contemplate, while sipping that lemonade. Build a small rock garden, meditating while you work, or nurture a distilled Japanese garden in a planter by your chair. Breathe in the fresh oxygen…and enjoy.

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