Functional Side Yard Design

Well-built paths ensure easy access to the larger areas of the landscape.Side yards are generally not landscaping’s showstoppers. Often relegated to an afterthought once the front curb appeal has been achieved and the back yard is made family friendly, side yards still play an important part in the landscape – mainly a functional one.

Although you occasionally come across an older house with ample space on either side - oh, how we landscape designers love to create enchanting, unexpected little garden retreats when given a decent side yard! - the typical suburban property has only 5-10 feet between houses. Even with such little space, we often expect our side yards to fulfill lots of responsibilities: be a path to the back yard and side door, hide the garbage and recycling bins (but still be easy to get to), be accessible for utilities but not so they’re visible, tidily store the hose while keeping it by the spigot, allow ample room for the lawnmower, prevent water from collecting, and of course, be low-maintenance. Good gracious, what a list!

Crushed stone helps with drainage while uniform steppers keep feet clean.

How landscape designers approach side yards

Given all the ways we need our side yard landscaping to function, it’s easy to be overwhelmed and not know where to start – that’s where a landscape designer’s input is helpful. We look at how you and your family use an outdoor space and what your desires are for the living area, and then work to make it fit with the rest of your design. We also consider natural water flow (including potential piles of snow or ice patches in the winter). Then, by using the same or complementary materials, we give a cohesive feel to connect the different areas of your landscape, giving special attention to the functionality of the side yard.

Repeating materials used in front makes this side path pleasing and functional.

Plant selection can be a challenge

With such narrow parameters, choosing plants that won’t quickly seem overgrown is key when putting together side of house landscaping ideas. Our clients don’t want to be slaves to their yards, constantly pruning to keep plants within their bounds, so as designers we choose cultivars (cultivated varieties) of plants that have more diminutive features than their original (or straight species) counterparts. This often means choosing dwarf varieties of shrubs and slenderer, or columnar, varieties of trees. We still have to be careful with our side yard landscaping, though; the popular Dwarf Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus ‘Compactus’) reaches 9-11 feet tall and wide! To screen utilities or garbage cans, we might use a narrow Arborvitae or Viburnum. To give a little punch of color under a window, one of the smaller Hydrangeas like ‘Little Quick Fire’ works well. At only 3-5 feet tall and 2-3 feet wide, it responds well to pruning in spring so it’s easily kept small – perfect qualifications for a side yard planting.

Crushed bluestone transitions visitors from the front driveway to the lush garden in back.

Since side yards are typically narrow corridors between two tall houses, they’re often shadier than the rest of the property. Increased shade can often mean the ground stays wet, so we may have to divert water from downspouts to drain in a sunnier area where the water will more readily evaporate. Conversely, some side yards are bone dry and feel even hotter thanks to the blowing of large air conditioning units. In that situation, we might choose some tough ornamental grasses like Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’) or Feather Reed Grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) for the side yard landscaping design that will thrive in spite of the tough growing conditions.

Stepping stones help form the character of your space.

Function is critical…but character counts

Just because side yards have so many utilitarian duties doesn’t mean they can’t be aesthetically pleasing. What we choose for path materials is determined by the desired function, but we’re also paying attention to the client’s personal style and the style of their home while designing the side yard landscaping. Square stepping stones laid in straight lines are a better match to a clean, contemporary style than irregularly-shaped stones laid as a meandering path. Crushed stone evokes a much different feeling than solid brick pavers, helpful when creating a transition from a busy driveway and front yard to the restful, private retreat of the back garden. And yet a walk of brick pavers is perfect for a house with kids busy riding tricycles and scooters on every smooth surface they can find or for families that need to accommodate walkers or wheelchairs.

In a tight spot, this elegant yet sturdy wood lattice panel and Clematis duo screen.

Every side yard has its challenges

With so many obstacles to overcome, there’s little wonder why side yards are such an afterthought! The average homeowner doesn’t have the experience or bag of tricks that a landscape designer has to solve the varied issues that arise in a side yard, so considering this area when planning for a showier project like the front entry or back patio is a smart move. Tackling two spaces at the same time can reduce overall costs considerably while increasing the usability of your property.

Grade changes in tight spaces can be made functional with low retaining walls.

Know when to hire a professional!

Do your side yards lack desperately needed function or has neglect rendered them unsightly? The experienced landscape designers at Bruss can help you solve those problem areas so you can feel good about your home every time you pull in the driveway. To arrange a consultation with one of our landscape designers and learn more about our side of house landscaping ideas, visit us here.:


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