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12 Creative Small Backyard Landscape Ideas

A small yard doesn't have to mean a boring yard. Check out these twelve creative small backyard landscape ideas that you're sure to love.
Photo of a creative and beautiful backyard with trees, plants, and lights

According to Today’s Homeowner, the average backyard in Illinois is only 13,308 square feet or about 0.3 acres. Compare that to the national average yard size of 23,301 square feet or over half an acre.

As a Chicago landscaper, odds are that you have to work within some pretty small spaces. Making the most of them can be a challenge, especially when clients’ demands are considerable.

Today, we want to help you out with these small backyard landscape ideas. Learn something new or get inspired with these 12 creative suggestions for your next residential landscaping job.

1. Try a Vertical Garden

A small backyard may dash your client’s dream of planting a garden, but it doesn’t have to. When you can’t design a sprawling, horizontal garden, the alternative is to grow up instead of out.

Creating a vertical garden can be as simple as filling window boxes with colorful flowers. Or you can design a more complex setup with climbing ivies, built-in shelves, and arch or arbor trellises.

Another idea borrowed from recent landscaping trends is to create a green wall. These living walls consist of soil, stone, live plants, and, often, gravity-defying irrigation systems for convenient watering.

2. Choose Light-Colored Materials

Lighter colors reflect heat and light. That’s why small-space interior decorators turn to brighter shades when designing cramped rooms. Take a page out of their book by incorporating light and airy tones into your client’s small yard.

Prioritize light-colored materials with satin-like finishes. Glossy surfaces will best reflect sunlight during the day and ambient lighting at night, offering the impression that your client’s yard is more spacious than it is.

Don’t feel like shades of white are your only option here, though. Pastels and other pale hues can still open up a cramped outdoor space while also bringing in personality for more colorful clients.

3. Go for Edible Landscaping

Small spaces call for multi-purpose ideas, and the backyard is no different. Make your clients’ yards double pantries with edible plants so they can enjoy a bounty of fresh produce year-round.

The best edible starter gardens feature hardy herbs like mint, rosemary, chives, parsley, and fennel. Lemon balm, basil, sage, thyme, chervil, marjoram, and caraway also grow well in our climate.

Unless your clients are comfortable replanting each spring, consider using containers for the herbs. Clients can bring their edible gardens inside during the winter chill and continue enjoying their homegrown fresh herbs.

4. Designate Separate Backyard Zones

Some clients may overestimate how much space they have and expect you to fit a green area for the kids, a grilling and dining area for the adults, and a lush garden all in one tiny backyard.

You can make the impossible possible with backyard zones. Zones break up the yard into distinct ‘rooms,’ each with its own unique purpose. This strategy can maximize the amount of livable space for your clients.

One way to zone off a small yard is to utilize distinct paving or landscaping materials. Plant a section of grass for a play area and lay gravel for the outdoor dining room. Plant a small garden in between with a stepping stone path to connect all three zones. 

5. Rely on Hanging Planters

If your clients don’t like the look of a vertical garden, propose a hanging garden instead. This idea will still maximize the yard’s square footage, though you will have to spare some overhead space.

A small yard with a large tree can be especially well-suited for this idea since you can hang planters from tree branches. Other places to hang planters include the roof or patio cover.

Hanging plants can also create privacy in a fenceless backyard. All you need is a structure to hang the plants on. Vary the lengths of the planters to conceal your client’s backyard for a sense of seclusion.

6. Lay Diagonal Paver Patterns

Another way to make a space look larger than its actual size is to lay square paving stones diagonally. This is another trick all good interior designers know, and it can work just as well for outdoor areas.

Laying tiles diagonally draws the eye toward the yard’s edges- its corners, length, and width. The eye is tricked into thinking the space is bigger. Not to mention that diagonal pavers look incredibly elegant.

Take notes from European landscape design trends with checkerboard paving. Interlay pavers with real grass or artificial turf for a unique outdoor space that looks spacious and surprisingly upscale.

7. Use Layered Landscaping Strategies

Designing a lush backyard garden is tricky when you’re short on space. Layered landscaping techniques can make a curated garden look full and beautiful without overwhelming the smaller area with a chaotic mess.

Start with the tallest plants first before working your way to the ground covering. The goal is to give the eye dynamic height levels and textures to look at instead of noticing the garden’s small size.

Get inspired by nature when shopping for landscaping supplies. Trees and shrubs will be sparser, making room for ample flowers, grasses, groundcovers, annuals, and herbs.

Layered landscapes also work well with privacy shrubs. Clients who don’t have existing fences on their properties will enjoy the peace and quiet. Meanwhile, these shrubs serve as the perfect backdrop for perimeter planters and beds.

8. Create a Focal Point

Your clients may not have an incredible view from their small backyard, but you can give the illusion of one with a designated focal point. The focal point could be a layered garden, an outdoor fireplace, or anything else your clients want to highlight.

Other ideas for an attention-worthy focal point include a sculpture or water feature. An old tree or particularly beautiful flowering shrub surrounded by a gravel path is another perfect centerpiece for a small backyard.

When determining where the focal point should go, consider the inside of the home as well. Are there any large windows or glass doors overlooking the yard? Use them to frame the focal point to make it feel like an extension of the home’s interior.

9. Design Water-Conscious Gardens

Taking care of a lush backyard garden is not just time-consuming; it’s expensive, too. Homeowners can wind up spending thousands of dollars a year to keep their yards hydrated.

Support the environment and your clients’ wallets with water-conscious landscaping. Nix natural grass for artificial turf or a bed of mulch and prioritize a few dramatic plants over a lush, layered garden.

For clients who want the best of both worlds, pack the backyard with native Illinois plants and maintenance-free rock landscaping. This style of landscaping is particularly well-suited to minimalistic design preferences.

10. Layer Lighting Strategically

If your clients want a dramatic backyard filled with deeper-colored plants and dark materials, you may worry the space will wind up looking cramped. Strategically placed lighting can reverse this effect.

Use layered lighting throughout to avoid dark corners and draw the eye up, even when night falls. Place accent lighting near focal points and other interesting design elements for contrast. And consider wall sconces for the appearance of depth and dimension.

Good lighting is just as important for light-colored yards, too, especially if they’re small. At night, the lighting scheme will reflect off brighter hues and shiny surfaces for a magical experience, whether your clients are inside or out.

11. Pick Large-Leaved Plants

It may seem counterintuitive, but choosing large-leaved plants is a smart way to make a yard or garden look larger. Why? These plants conceal what’s on the other side, giving the illusion that there’s more space just around the corner.

Some large-leaved plants to consider include water-loving butterbur, tropical-looking hostas, and colorful Siberian bugloss. Mayapple, big lead ligularia, rodgersia, and sacred lotus are other viable options.

As an added bonus, large-leaved plants are often suitable for shady, small yards and low-light areas like corners. In fact, the leaves grow larger to create more surface area for sunlight absorption, making them thrive in low lighting.

12. Provide Room for Functional Entertaining

Helping clients with their backyard decor may not be part of your job. Still, you are the expert, so don’t be surprised if your clients ask for your help anyway, especially after your A+ job with their landscaping.

Creating a more spacious area for entertaining, relaxing, or both hinges on the right furniture. To free up extra space or, at least, create the illusion of a roomier backyard, advise your clients to consider pieces like:

  • Built-in benches
  • Swing seats
  • Small-scale bistro sets

Clients can also incorporate transportable and multifunctional pieces like bar carts, privacy screens, and rolling indoor-outdoor chairs. These items can be stored indoors when not in use and transferred outside for entertaining.

Make These Small Backyard Landscaping Ideas a Reality

Beautiful landscaping is challenging when you’re working with a small backyard. We hope these ideas have given you inspiration for overcoming this hurdle and delivering results that will wow your clients.

Are you searching for materials to turn these small backyard landscaping ideas into a reality? Fox Landscape Supply is Northwester Illinois’ top source for hardscaping materials.

Stop by our Plainfield location or shop online for the products you need to build a small backyard paradise from the ground up.

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