Big Landscaping Ideas for Small Backyards

With right landscaping ideas, a small yard can have lots of style.

Not everyone is blessed with a big backyard. For those who live in places with tighter outdoor spaces, it’s just a matter of practicing smart design on a smaller scale. Whether you live in an apartment, condo, townhouse, loft, or a house that has more indoor than outdoor space, you can still carve out a yard with soil, trees, plants, patios, seating, and even water features. 

Once you start researching, you’ll find that garden styles and solutions are limitless—there’s a backyard for every petite plot of land. Among ideas to consider:

  • Container gardens: When you lack good soil or have an outdoor space that is mostly patio or decking, add pots, low bowls, repurposed wooden boxes or crates, and urns

  • Vertical space: The sky’s the limit when you grow your succulents, herbs, flowers, or even vegetables in a vertical container that is attached to a wall

  • Hanging garden: Plants can be suspended from beams, eaves, or wall hangers; it’s up to you what to plant and what works in your region

  • A no-fuss patio or deck: Allows you to get outside and has water-wise plants that don’t require lots of care and maintenance

  • A small kitchen and dining area: Love to grill? If space allows, you can add a basic grill, counter, outdoor refrigerator, and even grow a small herb garden to add flavor on the spot

  • A private garden: City dwellers often crave outdoor space. High walls and espaliered or climbing plants help to create a sense of seclusion

1. Tucson Small Yard Design

These small spaces in Tucson and other Arizona cities, infusing the colors of the sky, surrounding terrain, and nature into her landscape designs for patio homes and condominiums. Here are used different styles and materials: rejuvenating mid-century modern outdoor furniture, adding rustic materials, finding innovative uses for colorful tile, and incorporating sculptural forms and succulents.

Here is designed a stunning blue glass mosaic-tile pool as the yard’s centerpiece, with a ledge for in-pool lounge chairs when desert temperatures spike. Additional features include a poured-in-place etched concrete patio, rusted steel panels and walls, original adobe block walls, and a revitalized vintage Brown Jordan patio dining set.

2. Yard for a Historic Home

German Village in Columbus, Ohio, is a neighborhood of brick row houses built in the 1800s by German immigrants that has been undergoing preservation and revitalization since 1959. A small backyard in the district that had faded concrete pavers and an oversized iron table was transformed by Jacobs Grant Design into functional, enjoyable space for its new homeowners. Jacobs Grant divided the space into two areas: an outdoor living room and a dining area, surrounded by hornbeam and boxwood hedges to create intimacy and structure. Designed in collaboration with Pots Abilities, the spaces include brick and bluestone, materials used on the facade of the historic house.

3. Spanish Bungalow

For decades, lawns have been the go-to ground cover without anyone giving it much thought. That is, until the ongoing drought in California and other dry regions forced landscapers and homeowners to rethink water-guzzling grass and come up with alternatives. Dig Your Garden’s solution for the small yard of an older Spanish-style bungalow in San Anselmo, California, was to replace the grass with creeping thyme and other low-water ground covers and plants. A new Arizona flagstone pathway was added, along with a small patio that repeats the terra cotta tones found elsewhere on the home’s exterior. 

Other features, kept to a minimum, include an orange Fermob armchair, colorful pottery, and drought-tolerant plants like tibouchina, lion’s tail, lavenders, rosemary, yarrow, agastache, dwarf strawberry tree, and various succulents and ornamental grass.

4. Turning the Front yard into the Backyard

What do you do when your house has no backyard? You borrow space wherever you can find it. In this case, landscape designer Catherine Bosler looked to the 560-square-foot front yard for this Los Angeles area property. Inspired by the nearby coast, Bosler Earth Design added a wood deck painted in a distressed grey to create a living room with fire pit. An outdoor dining area and kitchen has decomposed granite (DG) underfoot and features a grill and prep counter. Bosler also incorporated a tall fountain to mask street noise and attract birds, added built-in benches of wood and stucco, privacy hedges, and a trellis with jasmine for its appealing fragrance. The challenge was to fit everything into such a small space without feeling contrived and overdone and to make the space very private.

5. Backyard with a Hot Tub and Barbecue

A falling-apart deck and a desire to get rid of their lawn prompted the owners of this San Francisco home to enlist Land Studio C. Measuring about 1,500 square feet, the backyard now features a hot tub with a custom bench and vertical planting (back corner), a fire table, built-in barbecue, Corten (weathering) steel accents, and string lights.

In this view of the yard, we see a pathway of concrete pavers set in pea gravel, land a lounging area with an umbrella and delineated hardscape. The hot tub’s screening wall, bench, and a side yard screen were made from the old redwood deck.

6. Asian-Inspired Backyard

Sacramento-based design firm Change of Seasons was inspired by the dividers of a Bento Box for its remodel of a backyard that features stone-lined sections or compartments to add interest and structure to an eco-friendly contemporary garden.

7. Neat and Vertical Backyard

Emma Lam and her design team at A Small Green Space specialize in small yards: the bulk of their clients are in Jersey County, New Jersey, and nearby New York City. This 16 by 11.5-foot urban backyard is shared by three condos, making it a challenge for the designers to access via three private flights of stairs that lead to the yard. Since there is no outdoor water supply, the plants chosen are drought tolerant. Among the upgrades to the neat, symmetrical design include:

  • Lightweight furniture
  • New fencing that includes vertical planters
  • A bluestone patio
  • An artificial lawn

8. Reimagined Brooklyn Brownstone

With the children outgrowing the kid-oriented yard, a Brooklyn couple, both professors, decided to renovate the garden of their Brooklyn brownstone. With the help of Outside Space NYC, the backyard was divided into three areas with different levels. In this area of the yard, a geometric pergola provides shade and creates a comfortable seating area on the deck. Raised stacked-stone beds are planted with a mix of low-maintenance shrubs, perennials, and ornamental grasses. The homeowner added a modern, lightweight outdoor sofa and coffee table for a mid-century feel.

9. Clean-Line Backyard Design

Symmetry, geometric design, and organization are often key to designing small backyards. Christy Webber Landscapes was inspired by this Chicago homeowner’s recent interior renovation–modern and using clean lines–to extend living space to the yard. The patio is paved with bluestone with blue-chip joints. A privacy fence is softened with Japanese maple trees, along with birch and spruce trees, while boxwood, rhododendron, arborvitae and pachysandra add year-round interest.

10. Corner Backyard in Virginia

Tucked into a corner of a backyard, a composite-decking bench was placed in front of a mature hydrangea bush to create an appealing nook. Designed by Peggy Krapf of Heart’s Ease Landscape and Garden Design in Toano, Virginia, the space features a bench that is set on a stone pad to create a level surface. Urns planted with annual color can be changed out seasonally.