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Landscaping Ideas for Side Yards

Design Tips for These Neglected, Small Spaces


Picture: side yard with arbor. A garden arbor breaks up a narrow side yard.

What side yard wouldn't be enhanced by this rose-covered arbor?

David Beaulieu

Side yards that are long and narrow present a design challenge. Are you, yourself struggling with this challenge? Do you need some landscaping ideas to tackle it? If so, begin by asking yourself two questions about your side yard:

  1. How often do you use the area as an important route for getting from point A to point B on your property?
  2. Is the area wide enough to contain a planting bed as well as a walkway or pathway?

Deciding on a Walkway or Pathway for Your Side Yard

Do you often find yourself cutting through the side yard in question (i.e., the left side yard or the right side yard) on a practical mission? For example, if you had to push a garden cart filled with compost from the backyard to the front yard, would you tend to cut through this particular area? If so, it behooves you to build a no-nonsense walkway through the area, a surface you won't be tripping on.

A flagstone walkway, for instance, will provide a nice, even surface. Other materials that yield a smooth surface include:

A wide, attractive walkway running up and down a narrow side yard can also serve a function similar to that of a patio.

But if, by contrast, you do not cut through the area very often, you have some less formal (also cheaper and easier) options at your disposal. For example, you could lay down garden stepping stones to create an informal path that wends its way through the side yard. Curved pathways are more attractive than straight ones (a straight path will reinforce how tunnel-like the side yard is, which is precisely what you wish to avoid) and are a good choice where aesthetic concerns are paramount. Plant a ground cover such as creeping thyme between the stepping stones, to add visual interest.

Alternatively, you may choose not to have a well-defined path, at all. You can suppress weed plants in the area by laying down weed fabric, covered by mulch.

Ring the Call Before You Dig phone number before plunging that shovel into the ground! They'll make sure you're not going to be severing any cables, etc.

Planting in Your Side Yard

If you have sufficient room in your side yard, you will most likely wish to install plants there, to spice up the space. Using container gardens or raised beds obviates having to dig into the soil, but let's assume that you will be installing your plants in the ground.

The first thing to do is to determine whether the side yard is mainly sunny or mainly shady. Then, when you're researching your possible plant choices, be careful to note whether they are sun-loving plants or shade-tolerant plants. The preferences of the plant, rather than your own preferences, must take precedence at the end of the day.

If you're planning on covering the ground with a weed fabric and mulch (as mentioned above), a low-maintenance planting option is to "pocket plant" with shrubs. For each shrub, make an incision in the weed fabric just big enough to insert the root ball.

Features to Consider for Side Yards

Consider building a small water fountain for your side yard. The look and sound of water has a unique ability to enliven a space.

A long, narrow side yard can have an oppressive feel to it. What can you do? Break up the expanse with an object upon which the eye can rest, for relief. One possible object to use for this purpose is a garden arbor. While such a structure can serve an aesthetic purpose even in a large side yard, an arbor will be especially helpful in improving the design in a small side yard. Enhance the arbor's beauty by training vines upon it.

Side-Yard Choices: A Summary

Essentially, you have 3 design choices for relatively narrow side yards:

  1. You can opt for a walkway or pathway, without planting beds (except perhaps for annual plants or small perennial flowers), if the space is really tight
  2. If there's sufficient room, you can have both, with the path or walkway (ideally) bordered by plants on each side
  3. Or you needn't have a well-defined path or walkway at all

In case #3 above, just make sure that, if you grow plants in the space, you leave yourself enough room to move freely amongst them.

Need inspiration before undertaking a landscaping project? Browse my landscape design photos for ideas.

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