Sunday, February 1, 2009

How to create space in a small yard

Small spaces are comfortable

One of the fun and challenging aspects of gardening in a small space is to make the space more interesting and larger feeling than it really is. Conventionally, people view "small" in a negative way, and this leads to problems when designing garden spaces, interior design, or construction. Small can be good. 

Space needs to be appropriately scaled to feel comfortable. If spaces are comfortable, you will use them. The same tenent holds true in archetecture, interior design or landscaping. People need rooms or spaces to be on a human scale,and with a sense of enclosure (like how a small window seat or breakfast nook is inviting), and a sense of protection. In designing garden rooms or spaces in your yard, think of the sizes of comfortable rooms in your house. Ideally, the rooms should be suited for a particular need, but as in a small house, the reality is they will probably be relied on for multiple tasks, but this is a good thing, because it will ultimately increase their utility.

Don't give it all away

One of the most common mistakes is to reveal the whole garden at once- to give it all away. There is the misconception that if you can see the whole expanse of your yard it will seem bigger. In fact, it has the opposite effect. If you can stand anywhere in the yard and see the whole thing, there is no reason to go anywhere, no reason to explore. You mind establishes the boundaries, and understands the scale and extents. Whereas, if you use some thought, and divide the space, and obscure the views, it creates intrigue- your mind can only guess what is behind a row a trees or shrubs, and you get the feeling of needing to explore. By dividing spaces, you can make spaces seem much larger than they are.

Try to create views in the yard- both glimpses into other rooms or ones that accentuate vastness of the yard. Diagonal views are the only way to see all the rooms in the yard at once- these are the longest views and thus make the yard seem much larger.  In our yard we have a series of rooms, and few are truly visible from the next.

We can handle a surprising number of people in the yard at once, and we host a lot of parties and barbecues. It is really interesting to see people interact with the landscape and move through the yard. The most common thing people want to know is what is behind the screen in the yard (a clothesline).

By hiding it from view, people need to know what is behind it, and a couple of small informal paths lead to (in this case) the boring answer- our laundry. with this example, if the screen were not there, people would ignore that part of the yard.

Lead your eye through the yard

Once you have divided the spaces, you will need a way to access them. Create a way to connect the spaces, so you and your eye can move through them. Use a combination of paths and focal points. A focal point can be a lot a different things, ranging from a snag, to a bench, or a birdbath. Paths do not need to be the same material or width. Use narrow paths and less formal or irregular materials to slow down how someone moves through,or experiences, the space. The more interest you add to the yard, the more we are intrigued by it and the more we want to experience it.


  1. Hello David;
    Just found your blog and am wondering how deep the snow is there now? For some reason a number of Vermonters are leaving to live in Montana. I haven't figured it out yet but some are big hunters, some say they want peace. Met anyone who made the move yet?

    George Africa
    The Vermont Gardener
    Vermont Gardens

  2. I've enjoyed looking through the photos of your garden, using mainly native plants. You've done a great job creating the cozy spaces in your garden in only 6 years. The wildlife obviously finds it cozy too.

  3. I've just discovered your blog--left you a message over at Blotanical, too. Thank you for making the paragraph breaks more visible; the earlier posts were much harder to read! (There's probably an analogy re: your garden rooms here, but I'm not sure what it is.) The garden is beautiful--if I ever achieve anything similar in our Bozeman yard, I will be most happy.

  4. Enjoyed your garden rooms! I have lots of family in the Missoula area, and my Mom is an alum, so I will alert them all to your blog.

  5. Seeing your photos makes me so miss Msla. I graduated UM in 2001 (before I figured out I loved gardening). You've done beautiful things with your yard. Thanks for all the great advice.