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Breaking up a Boxy Backyard

Excerpted from The Less is More Garden® Copyright 2018 by Susan Morrison. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

by Susan Morrison

Most small to average-sized gardens are rectangular. The most common backyards I see, both in recent suburban developments and older neighborhoods dominated by ranch houses and bungalows, are shallow and long. The trick to countering the uninspiring rectangle that defines many of our yards is to start with a layout plan that de-emphasizes the boxiness of the space.

Although there are many ways a garden can be laid out, for a typical suburban backyard, it’s better to stick with one of two general categories: organic gardens whose lines are built around curves and meandering spaces, or a backyard laid out along the more structured lines of rectangles, squares, and circles.

Setting up a series of garden rooms is an attractive, efficient way to organize a space and a good option whether you lean toward an organic space or a more linear one. If your backyard is only average sized, you might think transforming it into a series of separate spaces will make it feel smaller, but in fact, the opposite is true. A layout based on one large patio surrounded by lawn and garden lacks interest, which stops the eye (and the feet) from moving through and exploring the space. The result is a backyard that feels cramped and inadequate. In contrast, a garden separated into different areas, even subtly, creates a sense of multiple destinations and an overall impression of a larger space.

A permeable “wall” of bamboo separates one part of the garden from another without blocking it off. Photo: Susan Morrison

While it’s seldom practical in a small backyard to completely separate one area from another, a series of connected nooks partially separated by mini plant groupings or garden structures brings a touch of mystery and discovery, and results in a garden that feels intimate. This means letting go of traditional notions of planting one long border around the perimeter of the yard and instead interspersing plants and seating areas throughout the space.

Organic Designs

Gardens based on organic shapes, relying on curves to define the edges of borders, beds, and walkways, are very popular for small city and suburban yards. Plantings and other garden features are generally laid out in an asymmetrical fashion, with plants and other ornaments grouped in odd numbers such as threes, fives, or sevens. This style has broad appeal; the curves offset the hard lines of an already-rectangular space, while also mimicking what we see in nature. After all, shrubs and trees don’t plant themselves in rows, and rivers and streams don’t flow in a straight line.

Curving designs often result in acute angles that are difficult to plant. In this case, a ground cover such as pachysandra is an ideal solution. Photo: Susan Morrison

The patio or deck is usually the most prominent element in a residential yard, and therefore a logical place to begin designing an organic layout. A gracefully curved patio creates a strong center around which a garden can revolve. While surrounding a patio with curved planting beds is a good strategy for softly transitioning from hardscaped areas of the yard to planted areas, it also helps suggest room divisions rather than starkly delineating them. Furniture placed near see-through or low plants implies separation, but doesn’t create multiple distinct patios the way a clipped hedge or garden wall would.

The curved shapes of the patio tile and raised beds in this garden counteract the squareness of the surrounding walls. Photo: Susan Morrison

Keep in mind that choosing an organic design style doesn’t necessarily mean that everything in the garden must be curved. A curved deck surrounded by a curving lawn and curved planting beds can be too much of a good thing — consider balancing curves with some straight lines. Avoid “curve competition” by extending the straight lines of the house farther into the garden with a rectangular deck, allowing the surrounding curves of lawns, planting beds, and pathways to take center stage.

When multiple curves converge, they can unintentionally create undesirable acute angles, that is, narrow, pointed places where intersecting hardscape or lawn borders create awkward, arrow-shaped planting areas. Spaces like this are a challenge as they are difficult to plant in, and typical garden bed fillers like mulch and stone tend not to stay put. Of course, sometimes including a spot like this is unavoidable. In those instances, ground covers are an ideal solution. Those with small leaves that are easily trimmed, such as creeping thyme (Thymus spp.) and blue star creeper (Laurentia fluviatilis), tuck neatly into spaces like this without obscuring the lines of the garden.

If you opt to make curves the centerpiece of your design, be bold! Curves should be strong and clearly defined so they look intentional. Steer clear of meandering, wavy lines — these make it look like you created the yard without a real plan in mind.

Template 1: Transform a Narrow Backyard

Designing the patio with a gracefully curving shape helps de-emphasize the boxy feeling of this long and narrow back yard. Not only does this soften hard edges, but the double curve subtly distinguishes one side from the other, further interrupting the impression of one long, continuous space. Illustration: Susan Morrison

When we moved to Northern California in the mid-nineties, my husband and I settled on a brand-new house because we loved its interiors. Unfortunately, what came with it was a small, 1000-square-foot backyard filled with plain dirt and an unattractive wooden retaining wall. Over the ensuing years, we gradually transformed it into an intimate jewel box garden that’s become our favorite place to relax, eat, and entertain. Defying the common wisdom that small spaces need to be manicured and minimalist to be successful, we proceeded to stuff the beds with lushly blooming plants and to blanket the patio with containers. We even transformed the fences, adding wooded panels painted in a range of colors for additional layers of interest.

A kidney-shaped patio that anchors the gardens is key to breaking up the long, dreary fence line. The patio also acts as negative space that reins in surrounding greenery. Photo: Susan Morrison

Color can be repeated throughout a garden for dramatic effect in simple ways such as seat cushions – not just with plants. Photo: Susan Morrison

Incorporating a side yard helps extend this garden’s footprint A space like this doesn’t need to be practical – consider relegating features like compost bins and extra storage to one side of the house and including the other side in your design. By positioning a seating area in the corner, two viewing corridors are created: one toward the main patio and a second one facing the lushly planted side yard.

About the Author

California landscape designer Susan Morrison is a nationally recognized authority on small-space garden design. She writes articles on the topic, presents her talks on the subject to garden enthusiasts all over the country, and has shared small-garden strategies on the ground-breaking PBS series Growing a Greener World. Susan’s designs have been featured in publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, Cottages and Bungalows, and Fine Gardening, where she also contributes articles on design and plant selection.


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