Small Backyard Landscaping: 10 Tips for Making the Most of Small Outdoor Living Spaces

There are plenty of folks who have small backyards and are not quite sure how to best use the little space they have. Folks living in the suburbs of San Diego or in just about any city in Southern California know that it is pretty common to not have as much space as you would like for designing your dream backyard.

Many of us are always going to wish we had more space than we do, but small backyards are not necessarily a bad thing. Having less space to maintain means having more time to enjoy that space with your family and friends. Plus, having less space to landscape means you can choose higher-end features and still stay within your budget.

A small yard gives you the opportunity to create an intimate atmosphere for entertaining guests and to maximize your space with cozy outdoor living areas and creative, space-saving solutions. They can have as much color, texture, and visual appeal as their larger counterparts, can be just as functional, and can meet your needs just as well. Sure, you might not be able to fit a regulation-size soccer field or a nine-hole golf course in your backyard, but you probably can fit a portable soccer net or a putting green.

The keys to making a small backyard work for you are to make a priority list of features you and your family want and to have a plan before you break ground.

To help get you started, here are 10 small backyard ideas that will help you design a yard that is an inviting, functional outdoor living space for you, your family, and your guests to enjoy.

10 Tips for Small Space Landscaping Design

Small Backyard Landscaping

1. Small space landscaping design is key.

It might be okay to take a more cavalier approach to landscaping when you are dealing with larger spaces. When you have multiple areas with which to work and plenty of room for numerous features, you might be able to get away with a landscaping mishap here and there or adding to your landscape design whenever you get inspired or fall in love with a new feature.

This is not the case with a small backyard.

If you do not plan carefully, you are going to run out of room quickly. You also cannot afford to lose much-needed space with something like a poorly placed tree and must take into consideration that your guests might be taking in your entire yard as they step outside and onto your patio. Having little space to work with means there is no room for error. It also means that you need a cohesive, comprehensive design to create the overall look and feel you want.

It is usually best to hire a professional landscape design consultant to help ensure a satisfactory end result but, if that is not in the budget or you are just hoping to take this on as a do-it-yourself project, the most important thing is to have a plan before you break ground. Draw it all out and make sure it includes your must-have features, will be functional, and will be visually appealing.

Small Backyard Landscape

2. Small space landscaping requires prioritizing.

In order to make your plan, you need to know what to include in that plan. Since you likely will not be able to include every feature you and your family members would like to have, you are going to need to prioritize.

To help accomplish this, first make a list of every feature you and your family would love to have in your dream backyard.

Once you have that list, make a second list of the absolute must-haves that are necessary for your yard to function in the ways your family needs it to. For example, if you have dogs, a pet restroom area is a must-have feature. If you grill every weekend, a barbecue grill and patio dining table are a must. If your kids play sports, some sort of practice setup might be a must.

Once you have these two lists, it is time to put them together to make the list of features that will actually be in your backyard. This list should start with your must-haves at the top, and then your dream features listed in order of priority. You probably will not be able to fit in everything on this list, so make sure your priority items are near the top.

While making your final list of features to include in your small space landscaping design, get creative to see where you can save space by compromising a bit or by selecting dual-purpose features.

For example, you might not be able to fit the swimming pool of your dreams, but could you fit a smaller pool or a hot tub? If not, could you at least fit another water feature, such as a small pond or a fountain that you can put your feet in while hanging out with your friends?

You might not have space for an expansive patio kitchen, but you can probably fit a built-in barbecue grill or an efficient kitchen with just the basic features. Or, if you have both a barbecue grill and a fire pit on your list but only have room for one or the other, consider installing a fire pit with a grill that is designed for both gathering around and cooking.

If your dream is to step outside and onto your own golf green, but you do not have room for even a miniature golf course, you can probably still find a spot for a small putting green where you can at least work on your short game.

Small Backyard Landscaping Ideas Tips

3. Small backyards still need a focal point.

It might be tempting to just cram in all of the features you can without paying much attention to creating a focal point, but every yard – small or large – needs a focal point to bring the overall landscape design together and to create visual interest.

Decide what your focal point will be at the beginning of the design phase. This will allow you to place it first and design the rest of your landscaping around it to create a cohesive look.

You have lots of options when it comes to choosing a focal point. It might be something that already exists, like a great view or a heritage tree, or it might be something that you plan to add, such as a salvaged piece of garden art, a sculpture, a fountain, or even your outdoor dining room or sitting area.

4. Use height and layers for small space landscaping.

Tall plants and other features with height can be used to enhance privacy, create separation between different parts of your yard, or define spaces. If you have a small yard, chances are you have nearby neighbors. This might mean that incorporating height in your design around the borders of your yard or the edge of your outdoor living area can help create more privacy for you and your guests.

When using height to define spaces or increase privacy, keep in mind that tall landscaping features can make your yard look smaller, so place them with care.

If you are hoping to grow some food plants or would like to add more greenery to your yard without a large footprint, you can also take advantage of vertical space by installing vertical gardens. A vertical garden is a great way to grow herbs, lettuces, and other foods, to add texture and color to your outdoor living area, or to increase privacy while beautifying your yard.

You should also incorporate layers into your landscape design. Landscaping in layers creates depth and can make your yard look and feel larger than it is.

Landscaping in layers is a pretty simple concept and is easy to do. For example, if you have flowerbeds around the edge of your yard, plant the tallest plants in the back by your fence, somewhat shorter plants in front of those, and then the shortest plants at the front of the beds. If you have an island bed in the middle of your yard, plant the tallest plants in the center of the flowerbed, and then work your way down to planting the shortest plants near the edges of the flowerbed.

Small Backyard Landscaping Tips Ideas

5. Choose low-maintenance hardscapes and groundcovers instead of natural grass.

There was a time when a lush, healthy natural grass lawn was considered a status symbol and could be found in just about every backyard and front yard in suburbia, but those days – fortunately – have passed.

While the idea of expansive lawns acting as a display of the homeowner’s success has not completely gone by the wayside, more and more homeowners have come to see natural grass lawns as a landscaping feature that requires too much time and money to maintain, wastes water, and takes up valuable space that could be better used as functional areas for outdoor living and entertaining.

This is particularly true when designing small space landscaping where every foot of space needs to be considered and maximized. Plus, it is difficult to justify the cost of a lawnmower, edger, and other lawn maintenance tools – and having to find a place to store them – when you only have enough room for a tiny lawn.

Instead, that space and that part of your budget could be better spent on hardscapes and low-maintenance groundcovers that require little or no special equipment to maintain.

This does not mean that you cannot have a lawn. If you have dogs that need a restroom area or kids who need a place to play, artificial grass will serve these purposes well and provides a visually appealing grassy area that looks and feels like natural grass. However, unlike natural grass, it will be lush and green all of the time, will not get brown spots from your dogs having limited choices of spots to urinate, and can be installed under trees or in shady areas to maximize the space you have.

Synthetic turf is easy to clean, requires minimal maintenance and upkeep, provides a stable and level surface on which kids and pets can play, and is more versatile than natural grass, which is always important when working with small spaces.

Hardscape walkways and patios will also serve you better than a natural grass lawn, since a paving stone patio or gravel walkways are easier to maintain, add texture to your design, and provide usable spaces that can be used as seating areas or to guide guests to outdoor living areas.

One of the things that is great about small space landscaping is that you have less square footage to cover, which helps you save on materials and labor. For example, when you are installing a small patio, you may be able to splurge for higher-end finishes that would be outside of your budget if you had to cover a large area. This might mean you could finally have that paving stone patio that you have always wanted and that will actually increase your home’s value instead of a concrete slab.

Small Backyard Landscaping Ideas

6. Consider a container garden to maximize or define spaces.

Container gardens are an ideal addition to smaller spaces. They are the perfect solution for someone who wants to grow vegetables or herbs but does not have room for a garden. They are also great for creating groupings of containers at the corners of your patio or to define a space. Containers can increase privacy and help create more intimate seating areas or can be used to separate different parts of your yard that serve different functions. They are also an easy, space-saving way to add color and texture to a small space landscaping design.

7. Add color and texture to your design.

It may initially seem challenging to create inviting outdoor living spaces in a small backyard, but adding color and texture can help with this. Adding color and texture will enhance your yard’s visual appeal and can even make it look and feel larger than it is.

The above-mentioned containers are an easy way to add color and texture, but they are not the only way. Festive textiles, colorful flowers, and brightly painted chairs create an inviting space where your guests are far more likely to forget that the fence is just a few feet away.

Similarly, adding different textures creates a more inviting, welcoming space, as well as adding depth to your backyard. To achieve this, you might consider including a mix of gravel, wood chips, artificial grass, and foliage in various textures and sizes to enhance the overall look of your yard and to make outdoor living areas more inviting.

Small Backyard Landscape Ideas

8. Fire pits are a great addition to small space landscaping design.

Fire features are a mainstay in landscape design and create a warm, welcoming atmosphere where you can gather with family and friends. The heat and light allow you to use your outdoor living spaces longer into the night and in colder months, which means you can get a better return on your investment by being able to use your outdoor living areas more.

If you are working with a small backyard, you may not have room for a built-in patio fireplace, but you will have room for some type of fire feature. If your space and budget allow, install a built-in fire pit. If not, opt for a portable fire pit or chimenea that will provide warmth and light in a smaller footprint.

You can pick up a portable fire pit for less than $100, so this option is going to fit most budgets. Plus, with a portable fire pit, you have the added benefit of being able to store it in a shed or garage when not in use. So, if you are not planning on entertaining or roasting marshmallows with your kids that day, that space can be used for other purposes.

9. Choose portable and dual-purpose features and furnishings.

While we are on the topic of portability, one way to maximize space in a small backyard is to opt for portable features that can be stowed out of sight when not in use. Another way to maximize space is to purchase furnishings and features that serve more than one purpose.

Portable fire pits and portable barbecue grills are great for small spaces. You can bring them out when it is time to grill or entertain, and then put them away when you want to use the space for other activities.

Stacking chairs and floor cushions are other options that can be brought out when you are having guests over, and then stored when you are not entertaining. Another example is a backyard movie theater setup with a movie screen that rolls up between showings and a rolling cart for your projector and DVD player or laptop.

The first thing to keep in mind when purchasing patio furniture is to make sure it is not too big. Large furniture pieces will crowd your patio and make your outdoor living areas look even smaller. Opt for smaller pieces that fit the space. The second thing to keep in mind is looking for furniture that can serve more than one purpose. For example, look for chairs that have built-in storage or a deck box that can also serve as a bench or coffee table.

The same goes for features. If you have limited space, a dual-purpose feature like a fire pit that doubles as a grill might be a good choice.

When selecting furnishings, do not forget to take advantage of your vertical space. For example, instead of a patio bar, perhaps you could mount a murphy bar on the wall so you can fold it up when not in use.

Small Backyard Landscape Tips

10. Avoid clutter in your small outdoor space.

Clutter takes away from the visual appeal of yards of any size. It makes your outdoor living areas less appealing and less inviting, which means you and your guests are less likely to want to spend time there. When every square foot counts, clearing the clutter is even more important.

Keep a basket by the back door for dog toys, put a children’s toy box on your patio to keep outdoor toys out of sight, and make sure your gardening tools find their way back to your storage shed or garage.

If you happen to have a side yard, this might be a good spot to squeeze in a storage shed or put up a fence to hide your garbage cans and other unsightly necessities that can make your yard look cluttered.