Jason Robie: Building a bigger back yard

My fondest memories of living in Rangeley, Maine, are of hanging out with mom in the back yard, playing in the garden while she worked on the veggies. My least fond memory was getting stung by a bee in that very same garden! We were fortunate to have a back yard big enough to produce some food and provide a little playground for my brother and I. But what if your back yard is limited by neighbors, fences or even your own stuff. Today, I want to explore a few options you have for making the most of your outdoor space. Since you can’t push back the fence without creating a neighborhood land battle, let’s look at what you can do with the space you DO have.

One of the more important concepts to keep in mind when laying out or “accessorizing” your back yard is scale. Although a picnic table or patio table and chairs would be great, they likely don’t make the most sense if they take up a big percentage of your yard area. The same concepts apply from staging or outfitting a living room or bedroom. You want to be sure you are considering the size of the item in question (couch, bed, coffee table, picnic table, etc.) as it relates to the overall size of the space into which it is going.

In one of the first homes I ever rented, I got a screaming deal on a king sized bed. Once I got it home, I had to remove the door from the bedroom closet, since the bed literally consumed the entire room, and there was no room to open the closet. Scale was not the first thing on my mind at that time, but man I loved that bed!

Another great option, and one that will help you from going too big with your purchase, is taking the design flow diagonally. Rather than simply building the walkway or “flow” of the yard directly perpendicular to the back of the home, take it off at an angle. This helps separate the yard into sections while creating the illusion of more space. I would also consider multiple diagonals while you are at it. Simply zigzag the walkway or path to a back corner of the lot to continue the illusion of space and create a more interesting flow.

You may immediately think that trees are out of the question with a small backyard, but you’d be mistaken. Of course a towering oak tree, unless it is already there, is not the best option for the space, but you do have alternatives. A local landscaping friend of mine suggested the crape myrtle for small spaces. It offers summer flowers, fall colors and an overall attractive look. Adding a tree or two to a small space continues that concept of scale from above. Plus you won’t feel left out when your friends with large trees are raking this fall. You’ll just be done in half the time.

While we’re talking about going vertical, consider the same when adding flowers and plants to your small yard. The obvious choice is planters and flowerbeds on the ground, but there are loads of options when it comes to climbing greenery and creative planters that work in a vertical space. These are not only great options for fences around the perimeter of the property, but make perfect dividers for sectioning off the yard’s internal sections. If you run with the diagonal idea above, you could incorporate a fence of flowers to help solidify that path. It softens the border and is certainly more attractive than chain-link.

“Dividing up a small back yard is a great way to create the illusion of space and allows the homeowner to get creative with the sections,” notes Badger Realty agent, Janet Nickerson. She continued, “If the yard is sectioned into some lawn, some patio, a small garden and a section of flowers, it feels more like a series of rooms and affords the owners far more options”. Janet is right. Like a carnival fun house, each new section of the yard is a new adventure for the senses. The homeowner and guests alike will appreciate the variety.

One of the biggest challenges for folks living in more metropolitan areas, even just busy downtown neighborhoods, is a lack of good soil and certainly the lack of space. The best way to work with that is by incorporating containers for your flowers and vegetables. The beauty of containers is you can bring in the best soil available and not have to worry about what is in your actual yard. Containers are also a great way to bring flowers and veggies into a section of your back yard to help with nearly all of the concepts from above. They can help create divisions, paths and sections of your yard to help define it and bring added life and creativity.

Much like having a short driveway in the winter, having a small back yard is mostly a blessing. You have less maintenance and with the ideas presented here (along with some of your own!) you have the ability to get creative with the space and give it lots of personality. I encourage you to spend some time in your yard today and start to come up with some awesome ideas for how you can best utilize the space. Maybe that inner landscaper of yours will come out and surprise you!