How to make the most out of any small size yard, garden or patio

You don’t have to be a professional landscape architect to create an inviting courtyard or patio space. Just follow a few basic design principles and you too will get that designer look.

Gardens and landscape areas or any outdoor space for that matter can be approached as a challenge to create defined spaces. These spaces may be either the given size of what you have or a desire to create several spaces depending on your needs and the suitability of the area you are working with.

There are many design idea books and magazines that feature “small space gardens”, “balcony garden”, “container gardens”, “courtyard gardens” or even creating “garden rooms”. The key here is that they are all designing for a distinct area that has some sort of size limitation.

Small Space Gardens

While you typically cannot physically increase the size of a small garden, you can create the illusion of a larger space with some clever ideas and design principles.  For example, keep the design simple and uncluttered by keeping the purpose of the space limited and do not have multiple things going on such as a sitting area, a fountain, a group of pots, a lawn area and a bbq area.

Make sure the plant material is in scale with the size of the space and does not mature to a size that would reduce the useable area. Consider placing fountains against walls rather than free standing. Keep the ground expansive and don’t subdivide the space by building raised planter or low walls.

Consider the use of a mirror perhaps strategically located at the end of a corridor to create the illusion that the space is deeper and continues. Be careful to not place it so it will confuse birds that may fly into the mirror. Also think about if it does crack, that you would be able to easily replace it, so don’t fasten a frame around it that you cannot remove.


Gardens that are surrounded by a building or walls that essentially screen out the outer areas are enclosing, intimate and private. This type of garden is actually one of the most historical in ancient times where the “walled garden” was considered a style of garden where roses and other cultivated plants were grown to separate them from passersby.

A courtyard is essentially an outdoor room. Its use and purpose define the scale in terms of its intimacy. Architecturally, a courtyard fully enclosed within the building walls and open the the air above can add a dramatic impact to the flow and views from within the building.

A courtyard is typically in the front or side of a house and is integrally connected to the building via doors and windows. The entrance to the courtyard is often through a gate that may or may not have a arched structure above it. All courtyards must be designed with a seating area. The inclusion of a fountain can provide the sound of water as well as a focal point and make the space more inviting.

Outdoor Rooms

The concept of the outdoor room stems from extending the interior space outdoors. It is typically not much different than the typical back patio adjacent to the rear access doors. But what makes it a distinct room is the sense of enclosure. Creating an outdoor room not connected to the home, you must design it in such a way that you create a floor, walls and a canopy or ceiling so that the architecture of the space is structured to convey the sense of an indoor room but without the climate controlled environment of the indoors.

Outdoor rooms can be done simply by building a gazebo, or an outdoor kitchen with seating area and overhead canopy. You can also create an outdoor room that is sometimes called by another name, such as a garden retreat or secret garden.

The Strolling Garden

Perhaps one of the most dramatic and interactive garden to design is a garden that is basically a series of loosely interconnected spaces linked together with some kind of path. Such a style was utilized in many of the traditional gardens built in historic Japan.

If the property is large enough, consider creating distinct spaces so that you can enjoy the garden from several perspectives and vantage points. Having several small seating areas or even a bench, located at strategic spots can make full use of the limited area. Garden features can be “hidden” so that one only realizes them after meandering along the pathways. Revealing everything a garden has to offer from a single vantage point is perhaps not the most creative way to make use of the space you have to work with.

Are you getting the most spatial value from your yard?

Do you feel a sense of spaciousness regardless of how small or large it is?

Do you have a front yard but never “use” it? Could you create a courtyard?

Depending on what you have to work with, creating spaces in an otherwise uninspiring yard can be achieved if you put your mind to it and get creative.


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