Landscaping Design for Small Yards
Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay
Landscape Design

Landscaping Design for Small Yards

With the median lot size in Boston measuring less than 5, 000 square feet, most city dwellers are happy to have any backyard, let alone a nice one. And when the city’s public parks are your literal playground, even families with kids sometimes allow their backyards to languish. After all, why spend all that time, money, and energy landscaping when Frederick Law Olmsted’s meticulously manicured Emerald Necklace awaits?

But your little patch of urban green space can be much more than a scrubby, overgrown buffer between you and your neighbor. We asked landscape, design, and garden professionals how to spruce up a postage-stamp parcel, whether you want to sip cocktails on a low-maintenance party patio, get your hands dirty working the earth, or replicate the suburban American dream.

The challenge of a small backyard, however, is that it forces you to prioritize your goals rather ruthlessly. “When a yard is that small, it’s like a little puzzle. You want to fit things in and make it work and not feel cramped, ” Lipson-Rubin said.

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“The biggest guideline is to keep designs simple, ” said Jon Barmby, owner of Barmby Landscape & Design in Paoli, Pa., and an authorized Belgard paver contractor. “If you get too ornate in your plans, you’ll make the yard look busy and even smaller than it really is.”

Patios, plants, and pergolas

Let’s start off with the basic building blocks of a simple outdoor entertaining area, beginning with the patio itself. Instead of the concrete slab of your childhood, “Many urban homeowners are moving toward permeable pavers, which reduce storm water runoff, ” Barmby said.


When space is at a premium, Jon Barmby, owner of Barmby Landscape & Design in Paoli, Pa., and an authorized Belgard paver contractor, suggests incorporating seating into the hardscape construction.

When space is at a premium, Barmby suggests incorporating seating into the hardscape construction — a stone retaining wall or raised planter that can also serve as a bench, for example — so you don’t need as much patio furniture. “It’s also important to think about storage, ” he said. “We’ll often build a nook in the yard’s corner where you can store firewood, seat cushions, or gardening tools.”

When it comes to plantings, Lipson-Rubin stresses the need for layers and ground cover, which cuts down on weeding, and favors low-maintenance, native perennials. “To make things more sustainable, in any landscape really, the more native the plants are the better, ” Lipson-Rubin said. “The idea is to keep things sustainable and not choose plants that grow too big in a certain area, so you don’t have to prune constantly.” She avoids the popular spring bloomer forsythia, for example. “You blink your eye and it’s over, and then it looks lousy, ” she said. “For that yellow I’m going to plant witch hazel, which is native.”

Lipson-Rubin recently finished a project in Medford with a backyard typical of urban metro Boston. “It’s a very small yard, but we were able to put in a deck as well as a patio with a dining area under a pergola that will shield them from the close neighbors in back — especially once the vines grow.” Pergolas — arched, rectangular structures with a lattice-framed top that evoke a Tuscan vineyard — are a popular, if pricey, way to add privacy and much-needed shade to a sitting area, she said.

“When you live in a concrete paradise, it gets bright and hot, ” Barmby said. “Shade is an important element to incorporate into your design, whether with a simple umbrella, a pergola, or even a single shade tree to help keep the space cool and comfortable.”

Another patio favorite is a chiminea or a built-in stone fire pit, which makes for a natural gathering spot and can extend your outdoor enjoyment into the colder seasons. Local regulations vary, however, and using a fire pit is technically illegal in many dense Massachusetts communities, including Somerville, Arlington, Cambridge, and Quincy. In Boston, only gas-fueled outdoor fire pits are permitted.

Backyard bounty

For sustainability-minded foodies who enjoy getting their hands a little dirty, a backyard garden can be incredibly productive, even on a small city lot. “Typically, we say that two four-by-eight-foot beds are enough to fully replace a person’s produce needs for the year, ” said Jeff Gilbert, head of marketing at Green City Growers, an urban farming company based in Somerville.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Green City Growers of Somerville installed three raised gardens in the backyard of Daniela Winston’s Newton home.