Transforming a side yard from Blah to Beautiful

In honor of my new book, Refresh Your Garden Design, I’ll be spending the next few months writing about the many different aspects of color, texture and form.

Whether its gardeners I’ve met who have embraced these design principles to the fullest, simple solutions you can use to transform your own garden, or perhaps  specific plants that serve double (or even triple!) duty in the landscape – my goal will be to inspire while showing how the smallest changes can have a lasting impact.

I’m pleased to introduce you to one of my favorite gardeners, and very good friend, Lisa Mitchell. Lisa is one of those gardeners who instinctively knows how to create something magical.  Yes, she moves plants around at least a dozen times until she gets them ‘just right’ (don’t we all?) 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 beautiful.  Upon seeing their new home for the first time, her description sums it up best:

” 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 hind site, 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/junk yard owner who kept most of his wares at his house.I  t 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. I grew up surrounded with plants as my mother was an avid gardener. I had always imagined what I would plant when I had my own garden.  I would walk my neighborhood and ask people about plants I loved. I wrote it all down in my journal not knowing if I could grow them “someday” but just that I loved them. 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) 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 from nearby homes, or they’re cursed with uneven lighting (thanks to two-story homes), or they end up as dumping grounds for our garbage cans, composters, A/C units and every day ‘stuff’ we just can part with.

Lisa’s side yard is an example of a remarkable ‘before and after’.  And amazingly enough, the footprint of the space didn’t change one inch, even though it looks so much bigger.  In fact, the space is actually smaller since she’s installed a bump-out bay window.  Here are a few examples that make this transformation so stunning.

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

The claustrophobic atmosphere of this cramped space will only be further emphasized by a straight and narrow pathway.

Instead, make the pathway as wide as you can while leaving some room for plantings.  And if possible, include a gentle curve helping to further break up the bowling-alley effect.

Pink Jasmine

Akebia quinata

Vines, vines and more vines! To create a lush and layered garden in the tightest of spaces it’s important to take advantage of every vertical space, such as fences, walls and chimneys.

Consider planting a variety of vines, remembering to use those with staggered bloom times.  For example, the Pink Jasmine on Lisa’s fence is the first to bloom in the early spring, immediately followed by a spectacular show from the neighboring Star Jasmine.  This combination results in 6-8 weeks of delightful fragrance.

And once the jasmines are finished blooming, the akebia quinata begins its show with delicate and sweetly-scented plum colored ‘lanterns’. Whereas a scented vine’s delicious fragrance might be lost when placed in the back of a garden, in small spaces the experience is intoxicating.

Plants with bright and cheery foliage, such as  daphne odora ‘Mariani’, Hakone grass, liriope muscari ‘Silvery Sunproof’ and variegated pittosporum act as the missing sunshine in this dark and shady side yard.

However, it’s important to remember that just because an area is shady it doesn’t mean that you should shy away from using foliage with darker colors.

Dark foliage is welcome in any garden as it helps to break up the sea of green effect, as well as creating the illusion of ‘shadows’ and therefore depth – even in the smallest of spaces.

And just because your space is small doesn’t mean you can’t include some of your favorite shrubs, despite their imposing size.

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’.

Another tip?  Placing a vine-covered arbor at the end of a narrow pathway not only adds additional vertical interest, but entices the viewer along.  The pop of color from the burgundy maple placed outside of the arbor further helps to signal ‘keep exploring, there’s more!

Gardening in small spaces can have its advantages, one of which is that all aspects of a plant can now be appreciated.

This is an ideal place in which to create subtle color echoes, using different parts of a plant to repeat colors throughout the garden. Notice how the jet black stems of the hydrangea are highlighted by the nearby foliage of the weigela ‘Wine and Roses’ and the Japanese maples?

In a larger landscape, these subtle echoes might be lost, but when viewed up close they’re nothing short of spectacular.

It’s not just color echoes that are highlighted in a small space – a plant’s textural qualities are, as well.

For example, the fine and wispy blades of the Hakone grass, the smooth and polished foliage of the pittosporum, and the thick and crinkly leaves of the hydrangea are all placed within a ‘touchable range’, encouraging a tactile experience while strolling down the path.

Lisa’s skillful combination of color, texture, scent and form results in this lush and layered year-round tapestry in a shady, narrow side yard.  Amazing, isn’t she?

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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!

    • 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?

  • 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!

    • 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!

  • 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!


    • 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!

  • 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!

    • 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.

  • 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! 🙂

    • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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! 🙂

    • 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

  • 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!

  • 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!!!


    • 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.


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