small stone patio

Turning a Tiny Backyard into an Outdoor Room

Mary Kirk Menefee, Merrifield Landscape Designer

Outdoor rooms are everywhere. On television, in magazines and on social media, they captivate audiences and elicit dreams of intimate gatherings, meditative solitude or perhaps the ultimate creative work space. Rooms are by definition limited by barriers or boundaries, enclosed and only so large. They are a perfect fit for smaller, more urban properties.

So why do I hear so many homeowners describe their smallish outdoor space in disparaging terms? “It’s just a townhouse backyard.” “I have nothing but a postage stamp.” “It’s small—there’s not much we can do with it.” Sometimes, I hear a hint of shame or a vague tone of apology, as though their little spot of earth isn’t worth good design. To that, I say STOP. Stop right now and begin to look at things a different way.

I also can say, I understand. So many of us who grew up in the suburbs or more rural locales have chosen a more urban setting in which to raise our own families. Our expectations of what a “yard” should be can be stuck in that suburban mold. You know the one: an ample deck or patio leading out to an expansive lawn, just right for a game of touch football, several well-placed shade trees, and maybe a play set or vegetable garden far enough away not to feel obtrusive. Your very own slice of nature. Letting go of that expectation can feel disappointing, but it can also feel like opportunity!

When my husband and I chose our row house in the Rosemont neighborhood of Alexandria, we knew we were choosing against the big yard. With lots of green space in a nearby park where our little boy can play, we don’t miss it. Instead we are designing a space that fits who we are – simply flagstone with areas for cooking, eating and lounging, a kitchen garden, a sandbox and a few ornamental plants. A place that is an extension of our home. A place where we can live.

How to create a beautiful small outdoor space

If the vision of a purposeful space in sync with your lifestyle has your wheels turning, you may need to stop thinking in terms of a disappointing miniature suburban yard and start thinking in terms of an outdoor room. First, consider what defines a room indoors. Indoor rooms generally:

  • Have a distinct purpose and have what they need to fulfill that purpose.
  • Use the whole space, wall to wall and floor to ceiling
  • Have a logical connection to adjacent rooms
  • Contain furnishings that make them useful and comfortable
  • Include details that make them special

When we bring those concepts outside, it’s easy to see that the outdoor portion of your property need not be nature in miniature nor a useless and ignored place devoid of personality. It can be a true extension of your home, treated with the same sense of purpose, design and detail.

To get there, follow these seven tips:

Embrace the space

Let go of trying to make a cozy space feel expansive or preserve a lackluster view—it’s okay if you can’t see the edges of your property so long as you feel good in the space.

Focus

The fewer uses for a space, the easier it will be to create a unified and pleasing design.

Straighten up

Take a cue from indoors—straight lines and angles often (but not always) help to maximize usable space.

Streamline

Built-in seating, planters, storage, etc., can eliminate the need for bulky furniture and allow one piece to serve multiple purposes.

Think vertical

Pay attention to walls and ceilings, both of which are fair game for furnishings, art and plantings.

Details, details

Because, every inch of a small space will be noticed, attention to detail will make it special.

Make peace with maintenance

Plants—the one quintessentially outdoor furnishing—will grow and change. You can use dwarf cultivars to make the job easier, but a lush look will require some artful pruning and extra care for container plants.