Don’t let your side yard be a bore

Story and Photos by Mark K. Stickley-Godinez

It’s a forgotten spot, a space we pass through without thought, or where we hide things like trashcans, woodpiles, or composters. And in most of them you truly want to just shut your eyes and run through it as quickly as possible. But why would you want to have any spot in your yard that is ugly or unbeautiful? Use every scrap of soil you have. Even those narrow side yards can be part of the wonderful adventure of your home landscape.

This walk meanders through a narrow side yard, but all along the way visitors are presented with lush plantings and featured pots.

There are so many good reasons to make these spaces part of your garden. Keep in mind – most people that visit your garden come through the side yard in order to reach the cookout. I want my guests to be welcomed with something incredible from the first steps out of their car. This is also an area where you can be incredibly creative. The smaller size means you can incorporate some really fun paving details without a lot of expense. And this is a great place to feature some really interesting plants, as they will be seen up close and personal. 

The side yard is often a microclimate too. So for you plant nerds out there, this spot is usually warmer and protected from cold winds. Meaning, you can put less hardy plants in these areas. And in my book, bragging rights are everything!  

There wasn’t a lot of room for plants in this garden. But the area was perfect to display the owner’s collection of hypertufa pots.

And, honestly, these areas are great spots for storage. After all, the heat pump has to sit somewhere. But don’t settle for ugly. Use that creative spark lurking in your innermost soul to put together some really cool screening and plantings. 

A long narrow space tends to lend itself as the spot for a walkway just because of its shape. But nothing makes a long narrow space look longer and narrower than a straight-as-an-arrow path. Instead, make the walkway meander or zigzag through the area. Then fill the undulations with interesting plantings or art to encourage visitors to slow down. 

Make an ENTRANCE, something that really says, “You have arrived!”

Another method to make the walk seem shorter is to make it narrower in the middle, much like an hourglass. You are walking through a more open area, and then you pass through a narrow archway or a thick planting of trees and shrubs, only to emerge back into a wider space, which, in a few more steps, leads to your backyard. 

You may need to store wood or hide the heat pump. But use something creative like these two doors repurposed into a trellis for an annual vine.

However you design the walk, don’t be timid. Make the walkway an adventure, stuffed full of wonderful things to slow your step make you dawdle a bit. This is the place to impress your visitors. So give it lots of wow factor!

If you have a wider area, an intimate little garden room with an entrance on each end and a wide spot in the middle can be the perfect solution. The entrances can be archways, gates, or posts. I’ve even seen an actual screen door that had to be opened to walk through. The wider spot in the middle can contain a small patio, a tiny lawn space, or a simple bench surrounded by interesting pots and planters. A caution about any garden seating, make sure if you sit in it, that there is something interesting to look at and not a blank wall of a house. The point again is to create a space where you stop and take notice rather than rush right through. 

This gravel walk was built because of the need to solve a drainage issue. But the owners used it to create a fabulous little wandering path with beautiful rock plants, alpines, and teaser glimpses into other garden spaces.

And the result of that intimate garden room? You will find this will become the spot where you linger when you need some garden therapy, a quiet evening glass of wine, or a snuggle with your partner. 

So you see this space really isn’t the “no man’s land” of the garden. It is an important area that prepares visitors for the wonders of what they are about to see and experience in the rest of your garden. So make it great.

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