Transforming a side yard from Blah to Beautiful

Transforming a side yard

I originally wrote this post eight years ago, but am re-writing it in honor of my friend who created this magical side yard, and who unexpectedly passed away two weeks ago.

I often highlight this garden in various presentations, and it’s always a HUGE hit with the audience.  

In fact, this garden receives bigger reactions from the crowd than many other gardens I feature, even those designed by well-known professionals.

I think it’s the soul of this garden that touches so many people, the love and attention to detail throughout – especially in the side yard.   

So with that, let me re-introduce you to one of my favorite gardeners, Lisa Mitchell.  

Lisa is one of those gardeners who instinctively knows how to create something breathtaking.  Yes, she moves plants around at least a dozen times until she gets them ‘just right,’ but in the end, her garden is filled with breathtaking beauty as a result of her skilled use of color, texture, and form.

Lisa has transformed one of the dreariest side yards I’ve ever seen into one of the most stunning. 

To fully appreciate her talent, you first need a little background.   

So I asked her to describe the ‘before’ garden and home in her own words:

My husband actually ran out and laughed at me when I told him ‘this is the house we should buy…I have a vision!’ 

In hindsight, I don’t know what I was thinking. The inside of the house was a nightmare, and the outside was even worse. The man we purchased it from was a recently retired salvage/junkyard owner who kept most of his wares at his house. It was the kind of spooky place that parents wouldn’t let their kids visit on Halloween or any other time!

The yard was literally covered front to back by old building materials, washing machine tubs and automotive parts. Three giant dumpsters and lots of back-breaking work later we were left with an almost empty yard still mostly covered in concrete.  

This is where the dreaming began.

It took a number of years for us to be able to afford landscaping, and when we finally started pulling up all the concrete I found (much to my delight) that what was under there was a gardener’s dream…the most amazing, beautiful and fertile soil that had been composted for 30 plus years! 

It turned out that my years of hard work and patience (not my virtue-ha!) were very well rewarded.”

For a variety of reasons, side yards are notoriously difficult places in which to create a garden.  

They’re often too narrow to plant trees or large shrubs to provide privacy, or they’re cursed with uneven lighting (thanks to two-story homes or neighbor’s giant trees growing too close to the fence.)  

And because of this, an out of sight, out of mind attitude is taken, and it slowly turns into worst section of the garden. 

 

Transforming a side yard

Lisa’s side yard is an example of a remarkable before and after.  

No one ever believes that this is the same garden, but it is! 

And amazingly enough, the footprint of the space didn’t increase one single inch, even though it looks so much wider.

In fact, if anything, the space is actually smaller since they remodeled the neighboring kitchen with a bump-out bay window.  

If you’re interested in transforming your side yard, here are a few things to consider:

 

Transforming a side yard

Curving Pathways

When creating a pathway in a narrow side yard, the tendency is to use small steps placed in a straight line.  Don’t do this!

The already claustrophobic feeling of this cramped space will only be intensified by a straight and narrow pathway (I call this the bowling alley effect.)

Instead, make the pathway as wide as you can while leaving some room for plantings.  

And, if possible, include a gentle curve which helps to give the illusion of a wider space.

You can see in the above photo that Lisa’s path was widened all the way to the side of the house, eliminating the skinny slice of a garden bed next to the house. 

It’s important to remember that it’s okay to only have a single garden bed on one side of the path if it means the walkway can be wider.

Transforming a side yard

Vertical Spaces

To create a lush and layered garden in the tightest of spaces, take advantage of every vertical space, such as fences, walls, and chimneys.

And don’t repeat the same vine over and over, the entire length of the space, but instead plant a variety of vines, focusing on staggered bloom times.  

One of my favorite combinations of vines to use is a pink jasmine (left) next to a star jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides.

The pink jasmine blooms first, with blooms lasting four weeks or so, and just as it begins to fade, the star jasmine kicks into gear with another show of blooms for several weeks.   

And the fragrance?  Absolutely heavenly!

Transforming a side yard

Once Lisa’s jasmines are finished blooming, the akebia quinata (left) begins to bloom, with delicate and sweetly scented, plum-colored flowers.

Gardening in small spaces can have its advantages, one of which is that it’s easier to appreciate all aspects of a plant. 

Fragrance, for instance, is often lost in a larger garden, but in small spaces, the scent lingers much longer and creates an intoxicating effect.

Create Echoes

Small spaces are also an ideal place in which to create subtle color echoes, using different parts of a plant to repeat colors throughout the garden. These subtle echoes might be lost in larger landscapes, but are nothing short of spectacular when viewed up close.

Notice how the jet black stems of the ‘Oregon Pride’ hydrangea echo the nearby foliage of the weigela ‘Wine and Roses’ and the Japanese maples?

 

Transforming a side yard

It’s not just scent and color echoes that are appreciated more in small spaces – the textural qualities of a plant are, as well.

In this side yard, texture comes from the wispy blades of the Hakone grass, the smooth and polished foliage of the pittosporum, and the thick and crinkly leaves of the hydrangea. 

These plants are placed within a touchable range, encouraging a tactile experience while strolling down the path.

Bright foliage

Skinny side yards are often quite shady, with uneven lighting, especially with two-story homes.

To help bring in the missing sunshine choose plenty of plants with bright and cheery foliage in shades of gold, chartreuse, or silver.

In Lisa’s side yard, she uses daphne  ‘Mariani,’ Hakone grass, liriope ‘Silvery Sunproof,’ and variegated pittosporum.

These plants not only add contrasting colors amid all the green, but they help brighten the space.

Transforming a side yard

Burgundy foliage

However, it’s important to remember that just because an area is shady, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use dark-colored foliage.

In fact, burgundy or maroon foliage is welcome in any garden, as it helps break up the sea of green effect, adding much-needed contrast in a garden bed.

But did you know darker colors can actually make a small space seem larger than it is?

It does, thanks to the illusion of shadows.

When the eye sees shadows, it interprets that as depth, therefore tricking the brain into thinking the space is deeper as it is.

Transforming a side yard

Favorites in smaller sizes

And just because your space is small doesn’t mean you can’t include some of your favorite shrubs that you think might grow too large.  With all the dwarf varieties on the market, chances are high there’s a smaller version of your favorite that is perfect for your tiny space.  

Examples in Lisa’s garden include oakleaf hydrangea ‘Ruby Slippers’, abutilon ‘Dwarf Red’, and the Japanese maple ‘Shaina.’

Transforming a side yard

Create an enticing view

To encourage visitors along a garden path, place something intriguing at the very end.

This gives them something to seek out, and will pique their interest especially if the view is slightly out of line of sight.

In Lisa’s garden, she’s placed a vine-covered arbor (more vertical spaces!) at the end of the narrow pathway.

This not only adds vertical height in a tight space (and one more thing on which to grow a vine!) but encourages the viewer along. 

The burgundy foliage of the maple, placed just outside the arbor, creates mystery as to what lies beyond.  It signals keep exploring, there’s more!

Which is exactly what I’m going to do.   

Passing through the arbor, I’d like to share with you a few more photos (below) of her back garden. 

The small patch of lawn is surrounded by deep and curving garden beds, with Lisa’s magical more is better planting style. 

Each garden bed is a joy to view, overflowing with evergreens, perennials, and annuals.  

Transforming a side yard
Transforming a side yard

 

 

I’ll end today’s garden tour, exiting through Lisa’s front gate, dripping with heavenly scented vines. 

Thank you, Lisa, for creating such beauty for so many people to enjoy. 

May you find peace and happiness in the most beautiful garden of all.  It’s an honor to have called you my friend.

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44 Comments

  • I absolutely LOVE every blog you put out. A garden is always a tribute to the loving hands tending it.
    I am currently replacing the juniper that has filled the retangular strip of land between my driveway and the neighbor’s property. Have you considered writing a blog conquering this area that is a frequently in need of landscaping? Or if you already have, could you refer me to it? I particularly would like suggestions for 3 smallish trees to include in the plan,

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  • Thanks to your inspiration I turned a very narrow side yard into a mini garden that I now enjoy .

    I love your blog and books.

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    • I’m so happy to hear that, Bobbi! Thanks so much for for the compliments, too, makes me smile this morning. 🙂

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  • Dearest Rebecca, So sorry to read about your friend passing. Even though I never met her, it is obvious she was very talented in garden design and also a very loving soul to her garden and plants. It is a truly magical space and I hope her family can enjoy her presence in their garden together. Thank you so much for sharing the inspirational photos of this special garden. Best always to you,
    Sabrina Tanner

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    • Thank you, Sabrina. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and could appreciate her talent.

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  • Rebecca, What a lovely tribute to Lisa’s memory – showcasing her truly amazing landscaping ability and the transformation of her home. I knew she was a gardener but had no idea of her abilities. She was always such a tireless, energetic volunteer at school with 4(?) kids – when did she have the time?! Can you share with me how she fell ill? I know lots of Springer friends will be so sad to hear this news.

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    • Hi Toni, yes it’s a heartbreaking thing to be sure. Everyone at the service commented on what a bundle of energy she was, always accomplishing so much while being there for her friends (not to mention gardening!) She will certainly be missed.?

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  • When your name pops up on my computer, I immediately read it to see the wealth of information you provide. You were blessed to have had such a beautiful talented friend that left you with a lifetime of memories..

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    • Thank you, Judy, what a nice thing to say. 🙂 I definitely feel blessed to have had Lisa in my life, and to have such a beautiful garden I could share with everyone.

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  • What a beautiful side yard! I’m so sorry about your friend Lisa. She was much too young!

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  • Thank you, Rebecca, for this loving and beautiful tribute to Lisa. Her pathway is truly magical and has to leave anyone who walks the path wondering what unexpected treasures will be at the other end. Anyone who has a challenging side yard will be gifted to. see this extraordinary use of space and read your thoughtful explanations of the hows and whys to bring a bit of magic to their own odd spaces. I am so sorry for your loss of a dear friend. Memories of her and your friendship will continue to make you smile, Hugs…

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    • You would’ve LOVED her garden (and spirit!) Sheila – you two could’ve been soul sisters. I hope you’re doing well, and am sending you big hugs! xoxo

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  • Thank you Rebecca for all your post, to say the least, I throughly enjoy every bit of information your put out. I am a frustrated gardener, everything dies in my garden. I hope I could one day afford hiring you to transform my garden.
    I’m sorry for the loss of your friend, but her memory will live on in her stunning garden. I thank you immensely for all your photos, names of various plants and suggestions. Always look forward to your post. Stay well .

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    • I’m so glad you’re enjoying my blog, Arlene, and please know that I have plenty of failures in my garden (we all do!) so don’t give up. It’s all part of the process, to find out what works and doesn’t work – a learning curve to say the least. Whenever a plant would just up and die, my friend (who I dedicated this post to) would cheerfully say ‘That’s okay – it’s just another planting opportunity!’ 🙂

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  • I am so sorry for the loss of your friend – it’s never hard but those unexpected and too young deaths really strike a blow into our heart. It’s a beautiful transformation and I’m glad she experienced the joy and pride of taking what was and creating a beautiful, peaceful but vibrant space. Creation is a wonderful very fulfilling experience and Lisa excelled at it.

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    • Beautifully said, Barbara, thank you. She was an amazing gardener with a huge heart.

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  • Your posts always leave me feeling uplifted and in good company of kindred spirits- this one especially! Lisa’s spirit is with all of us now.
    RIP beautiful soul.
    N

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    • Thank you, Nevenka, I appreciate your compliments and good wishes for Lisa. 🙂

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  • That’s an inspiring space. I love the path and the tight weaving of vertical plants. It’s definitely an enticement to explore — so different from the “before” picture!

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    • Thanks, Pam! Yes, it’s a huuuge transformation in every sense of the word. It’s such a peaceful, loving garden. I wish we had more time to visit as I would’ve loved to take you down to see it! Ah well…next time, right?

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  • What a beautiful transformation indeed! What a little sparkler of a woman with a dream. I love the colors textures and feel of her garden and your photos. It looks very warm and inviting!

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    • Yes, Candy, she IS a little sparkler of a woman. You would looove it. Sometime when you visit (that’s a hint…) I’ll walk you down the street so you can see it in person. I know you two would hit it off!

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  • This couldn’t be more timely as we have taken out struggling camellias and an overgrown something-or-other tree in the side yard. I was planning something simple, but…inspiration may strike! Love these pictures, love Lisa’s garden. Can’t wait for my copy of the book to arrive!

    Jo

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    • I remember your side yard, Jo, and can’t wait to see what you come up with. You have so much more sun,too, I have no doubt it’ll look fantastic!

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  • Rebecca, What an inspiring side yard! It’s on my to-do list this fall to do some more work on my own side yard. Thanks!

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    • Thanks, Anne – glad you liked the article! I wish I could show everyone in person – it’s such a magical space and photographs can only capture so much.

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  • I guess I’m late to the party – congrats on the new book! I can’t wait to read it! I love her side yard! Great design tips as well! I have a narrow entry space between the house and garage; while I’ve enjoyed planting in the shade, I hadn’t thought to try vines. Hmmm, time for a trip to the nursery! 🙂

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    • Better late than never, right Gina? I hope you have fun with your side yard, too! Once you dive into it, it can be pretty darn fun thinking of ways to spruce up such a small space.

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  • Can you imagine taking a salvage yard and turning it into a beautiful garden that is right out of a movie set. I love visiting Lisa’s house and love the entire garden, front and back. It’s just like the Shire in Lord of the Rings. Small, hidden walkways with spectacular and unique foliage everywhere, it’s as charming and cozy as it can get. I feel like I’m somewhere magical and do expect to run into hobbits or gnomes as you walk around. I was impressed, upon my first visit with her daughters’ room and the honeysuckle coming through the windows. Fragrant and beautiful. Lisa deserves an award and prize for the most magical, green environment in Los Altos. It’s a lot of work and labor of love. Lisa is all about love and you’ll love this garden.
    Hugs,
    Kat

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    • Very, very true Kat. There’s not many who have the talent to transform a salvage yard like Lisa has! We often call it ‘The Shire’ as well – I’m thinking she needs to build a round front door at some point to complete the image! 🙂

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    • I couldn’t agree more. What incredible insight, design vision and great determination. A yard to truly enjoy and relax with the satisfaction of knowing you created this wonderland.

      My husband a I bought a 2 acre fully landscaped property but sadly overgrown with lots of empty spots where grand camellias and other southern standards once stood. It’s a great challenge and not all my efforts have been successful. It can be extremely frustrating. I hope I can maintain your enthusiasm until my work is finished.

      Congratulations and best wishes!!

      Susan Porcher

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  • I have watched Lisa’s garden grow since its inception, and it is indeed a most magical transformation, not just in the many ingenious plantings, shadings of form and color and delightful surprises of blooms and texture throughout each season, but because of the love that went into creating it. To enter Lisa’s garden, you are embraced not just by its physical beauty and serenity, but by the energy of the immense joy and love that her entire family exudes. Lisa is a healer, in so many ways, for so many people, and her garden is just a small part of the wonder that is the Mitchell family. Can you believe she did all this while raising four kids? Or that she is only 4′ 10″ tall? She’s an amazing dynamo with a heart of gold!

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  • Rebecca you are my inspiration and my dear friend. I am so honored to be part of your blog. Not only are you an amazing designer, gardner, writer and friend but you’ve also been a great shoulder to cry on in a few times of garden crisis. Remember when the gardner cut off all the branches that hid the neighbors roofline? You told me the only thing that could calm me down…it’s a planting opportunity…lol!!!

    .

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    • Yes, Lisa, we’ve both had many ‘planting opportunity’ melt-downs over the years, haven’t we? From neighbors who mercilessly hack our plants and trees to oak root fungus, to mystery deaths. It’s all part of gardening, right? YOU are an inspiration, Lisa, creating something so magical from a literal pile of rubble. You and your garden never ceases to amaze me.

      Reply

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