Though the human brain is nothing short of amazing, the truth is that it can be tricked. By using gardening techniques that alter perception we can make small yards appear much larger than they are in reality. Small front yards and side yards can also benefit from these tips, too.
1. Lay Pavers and Decking in the Right Direction
Diagonal paths create the illusion of a space being larger than it really is. Instead of a shorter, straight walkway, allow it to cut the yard diagonally or wind around, if space permits. Alternatively, lay pavers in a diagonal pattern on the walkway or patio as this will elongate the space. The same goes for decking. For example, lay planks diagonally across a square deck (as seen above) versus horizontally or vertically. Incorporating stepping stones in addition to pavers and decking is also helpful.
If design permits, trick the eye by decreasing the width of the walkway as it progresses toward the back of the yard to make the end seem more distant than it really is.
2. Put Color in the Entry
Using bright colors near the entry to the yard will focus attention there and cause the rest of the space to recede. Warm colors such as red, orange, and yellow tend to excite the brain and should be used in spots you’d like people to focus on. On the flip side, cool colors such as pink, purple, blue blend into other greenery and don’t trigger the same emotional response. Place these colors near fences and borders toward the outer edges of the yard.
Some homeowners also plant warm colors near the house to draw attention to it in lieu of the yard. Red bricks yield the same effect. If relying on flowers to achieve this, make sure that something is always blooming in your preferred color.
3. Create Levels
Adding levels to the yard creates depth by interrupting an otherwise small space. And, when we say levels, this just means a slightly elevated or sunken patio or even perhaps a large, raised planter or container garden.
4. Incorporate Surroundings
This technique has been used in Japanese gardens for centuries. Should you have a scenic view beyond the borders of your yard, take advantage of it. Perhaps you live on a canyon in San Diego that is full of native plants that you can see from your yard. Incorporate similar plants into your landscape design to compliment what is happening in the canyon for a more cohesive look. Make the yard look as if it is bleeding into the canyon.
5. Use Tropical Plants with Big Leaves
Plant texture is another critical aspect to plan properly in a small yard. Big leaves (often referred to as coarse leaves by experts), typically found on tropical plants like philodendrons and alocasias (elephant ears) make a small space feel larger when placed toward the entry or preferred area of focus. Experts suggest that it’s because big leaves provide much more visual interest than smaller ones and that shadows between the larger leaves create an illusion of depth.
6. Frame a View with a Trellis, Pergola, or Arbor
A big structure lends a grand feel to a small yard while providing shade and support for greenery to grow above ground level. The latter is often a desirable feature for spaces that can’t handle a ton of greenery, to begin with. Since vines have different growing patterns, aesthetic, and maintenance qualities, make sure to plan the structure and plants in tandem in order to achieve the look you want. Another rule of thumb is to build arbors at the same size or larger than your doorways, as their main purpose is to direct the flow of traffic. An arbor that causes someone to duck while passing through, may actually make space feel even smaller than it is.
Arbors such as the one pictured above are frequently seen at the entry to small front yards as a decorative way to welcome guests into the home while tricking the eye.
7. Divide the Space
Another technique used in Japanese gardens includes dividing space to create an element of surprise. Some experts describe it as creating more than one room. For example, create an outdoor dining area but place lounging furniture in a separate space. Use planters, small walls, linear fountains, or simply alternate surfaces (pavers, decking, gravel, artificial turf) to define the outdoor rooms.
8. Use a Focal Point
Though this design integrates a combination of techniques, the flower sculpture on the yellow wall draws the eye to the back of the space immediately.
9. Plant Container Gardens Wisely
If using container gardens in the design, make sure they have trailing vines or succulents draped over the sides to pull the eye downward.
10. Place Fine Textured Plants Near Edges
Plants with small leaves are less visually demanding. They also reflect a lot of light which causes them to more or less blend into a background and seem distant. Place these plants near borders of the yard and use large-leafed plants toward the front or at a focal point, as mentioned above.
11. Match Fixtures and Overall Design
If your home has a modern look, carry this over into the landscape design. Try to blur the lines between outdoors and indoors. Good landscape lighting design can play a huge role in this after the sun goes down. Modern landscape design in front of an old cottage might look amazing, but if space is your goal this strategy may not work as the brain may see the house and yard as separate entities versus a cohesive unit.
12. Hang Mirrors
Though not a typical garden feature, homeowners do hang mirrors outside to reflect light and draw other decorative areas of the yard into space, as seen above. Find stainless steel, stone, treated wood, or copper mirror frames to help weather the elements without rusting.
13. Think Up
In addition to adding pergola, trellis, or arbor, tall trees and vertical walls add dimension to small spaces. A common tree for this purpose is the Leyland cypress which is often planted as privacy screens and grows at rates of 3-4′ per year. Though they are tall and skinny, they do require pruning and can be susceptible to disease.
Banana plants and giant birds of paradise are also commonly used in Southern California. Vertical gardens can also do the trick should you need to cover or add interest to a boring fence. Cover it with a row of tall bamboo. And, there’s no need to limit the growth to the top of the fence… go as tall as is permitted or practical.
14. Use Grass
Grass has a place in a small yard though it’s better to mix it with other materials rather than use it to cover an entire space. Instead of going to the effort and expense of mowing and irrigating a tiny lawn, opt for low-maintenance synthetic turf.