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A Guide to Designing for Small Backyards: No Space? No Problem!

By Kiera Newman


An outdoor room should be just that: a functional space that feels enclosed, but not confining. Now more than ever before, investing in your landscape to increase its usefulness and appeal makes good sense, both economically and spiritually. After all, a properly designed backyard can provide a precious source of relaxation.

Unfortunately, in many urban Canadian communities, space is at a premium. However, even when you have a limited amount of property to work with, it is still possible to create a retreat worthy of your leisure time.

Small spaces actually have many advantages over large ones: they can be cozy and intimate, easier to maintain and less expensive to build. Limited areas often provide the setting for a more dramatic design compared to larger spaces, because elements are seen up close. This can give added emphasis to your choice of materials and plants and showcase your personal style. With a solid design and good craftsmanship, a small outdoor room can be elegant and functional.

A perfect example of this principle in action can be found in a backyard renovation in Ancaster, Ont. The homeowners were frustrated by their small, slanting property, which left their yard in full view of staring neighbours. To meet their needs, a bi-level deck was created, screened from prying eyes and accessorized with an amazing water feature, which serves as the focal point. By following some of the same landscaping basics, your backyard oasis, no matter how small, can be just as impressive.

Layout essentials for a small yard

When designing your small yard, start by establishing the layout of key features, such as sitting areas, pathways, access points, water features, fire pits and hot tubs. When limited by real estate, it is important to prioritize your use of the space and choose features accordingly. Do you want a hot tub and an outdoor kitchen, or a sitting area and a water feature? You need to be selective and realistic about what you can include. You must also take your needs and personality into consideration. The idea of a waterfall pond may sound appealing, but if your lifestyle focuses more on gathering with friends than watching koi at play, consider building an outdoor room for socializing instead.

In this case, the client wanted two sitting areas and a water feature focal point. Raising and sinking areas can define rooms, even small ones, so that more can fit into your plan. Because of the slope in this yard, varying the room heights was a good option for saving space and reducing building costs. Terracing the property was an option, but an expensive one, which didn’t solve the privacy issue. Instead, the designer proposed a multilevel deck, which would include a long raised planting bed to separate the levels, and gardens leading up to the deck for added greenery.

As you start your planning, focus on blending the indoors with the outdoors. Consider sight lines from inside the house to see where you should place certain features in order to appreciate them even when you’re not outside. This can make a small space seem larger and create a feeling of continuity. In this project, the designer lined up the prominent water feature with the house’s back windows and doors. Finally, remember to address access points to the house, backyard features and other areas of the yard in your layout, for full usability.

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