Make the most of a small yard

You don’t need to live in the desert Southwest very long before coming across an all-too-common housing drawback: a small backyard. Unless you’re lucky enough to have that larger cul-de-sac lot, chances are your yard is probably only a fraction of what you might see on the East Coast or in the Midwest.

Real estate booms don’t help matters. As home prices climb, so do land costs, and that usually means those buying a new home might have to deal with some pretty small yard spaces.

These yards don’t need to be a detriment, however, and some who don’t like to do yard work actually prefer a smaller yard. Here, local landscape experts passed along some insights for how to get the most out of those tight backyard spaces.

Focus on essentials

With a small yard, many homeowners like to create an entertainment and gathering space, but be careful with trying to do too much, says Mike Lawrence, a designer with Land View Landscape Services in Henderson.

“I think homeowners bite off more than they can chew sometimes. … In a small space, the focus is really on the essentials,” he said.

With small yards, he adds, it’s important to emphasize what you want to see and diminish things that are not visually appealing, like nearby telephone poles or a neighbor’s rooftop that can be seen over the block wall.

You can accomplish this by drawing people’s attention to what’s at eye level. Lawrence likes to use stone art on walls, wall water features, even some low-voltage lighting on the ground or along walls, and will sometimes integrate music into the space, too, extending the indoor living room outdoors.

“Tall yard walls can also be softened with plant material, and it can help you create little nooks of privacy,” he said. “People are also starting to use more decorative art pieces. You’re seeing metal, quartz and steel planters. You’re also seeing a lot of raised plants (and) gabion walls, which are like a mesh back-filled with rocks and materials. … That can contribute to an arid feel.”

Jonathan Spears, president of Las Vegas-based Sage Design Studios Inc., encourages clients to develop a wish list for their space and then he helps them break the ideas down to something more realistic and functional.

“Sometimes I have more fun designing smaller spaces because of how thoughtful you have to be,” he said. “You don’t want a shrub that grows to become 5 feet wide. So, you have to rely on more vines, trellises and more vertical planting. Those elements give a backdrop but don’t take up precious floor space.”

Spears also encourages clients to try to have backyard features that accomplish two or three jobs. A wall water feature also can double as a reservoir and open to an informal seating area to give a tiered effect.

Spears also recommends using smaller pavers instead of large tile. It helps the space look larger, and cooler colors such as blues, purples and whites have a receding effect, giving the feeling of a larger space, too. As is the case with interiors, bright colors are good in small doses, or “pops” of color outdoors as well.

Lawrence enjoys integrating different colored pots into designs, too, and uses them at different elevations.

“It’s a good opportunity to let you define the space and personalize it,” he added.

Trees, shrubs

Lawrence enjoys blending foliage on the ground and trees that provide an adequate and taller canopy to give shade while not disrupting anything at eye level. For small spaces, he advises staying away from pines (excessive needles) and mesquites. These trees will simply grow too large for a small yard space.

A magnolia tree, he has found, works well in smaller yards. It stays green throughout the year, even with only light sun. He also likes Japanese blueberry trees too. They grow quickly, stay green and have a higher canopy.

Spears advises against multitrunk trees, although some growers have taken some like the oak, ash and the palo verde and made them into single trunk trees. The drawback, he adds, is that these altered trees might be a little weaker during wind storms.

However, in smaller spaces, the trees could get adequate shelter from the wind, he adds. He also advises root barriers to keep foundations, pavers and concrete safe for spreading tree roots.

For plants, Spears likes the red tip photinia, which, with a little grooming can be kept to only about 18 inches from a wall and will grow up 5 to 8 feet. Boxwoods also tend to lay flatter, he said.

Spears is also a proponent of home gardens. He says small garden beds, with herbs and vegetables grown in pots, can create a functional and attractive space where these additions become talking pieces.

Furniture, grills

Furniture in a small backyard living space can make for an attractive environment where people convene. But a couple factors come into play.

First, Lawrence says, maintaining the furniture can be difficult if there is excessive sun exposure. He advises using furniture covers or shading in any way possible without overwhelming the space.

He also likes to use brands known for their longevity and ability to withstand the harsh desert sun. For its ruggedness, he often suggests Mr. and Mrs. Patio brand patio furniture to customers. He also likes using iron-framed designs that can withstand the elements as well.

Make sure you don’t overwhelm with large pieces, Spears adds. Large lounge chairs can take up too much space. Opt for stools instead.

Spears recommends using tools such as Houzz and other websites for ideas and to create thumbnail sketches of your space. He also suggests making cardboard cutouts to see how much floor space a particular piece of furniture requires.

Lay the cut-outs on the ground in the yard before you buy. Then, you will have a far better understanding of just how much space the furniture needs.

Outdoor kitchens, he added, can also devour large areas with unnecessary counter space. He often advises using a well-positioned grill that can be easily pushed into a corner after use.

Spears encourages homeowners to stay open-minded when dealing with a small yard space. With some online research and a few professional opinions, you might create a space that can do far more than what you originally had planned.

“There are definitely a lot of different tricks and hacks out there to help you use a space and have multiple different functions in it,” he said.

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