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Think vertically when designing side yards

One of my favorite chapters in my first book Garden Up!,  tackles a common problem many gardeners face: what to do with those narrow side yards?

These spaces are often neglected, turning into dumping grounds for junky items collected over the years.  While it’s true we all need a place to store that broken BBQ that we can’t quite throw away yet, composters and garbage cans, it doesn’t mean we can’t have a garden too!

My own side yard is featured in the book and is a prime example of how to garden up when you have little to no planting space.  Today I thought I’d elaborate a bit and show you a few more details.GreenBar

To give you a little background, my side yard is about 7′ wide and runs the length of the house and is parallel to all of the bedrooms.  Every window in every bedroom faces this (formerly) unattractive and wasted space.

As is the case with most side yards, I keep a variety of things here:  the A/C unit, the composter, sick plants that I can’t quite compost yet, tomato cages, wood and stone for future projects, etc.

It would be all too tempting to just throw in the towel and forget about this area, but since I’m a garden designer and I can never seem to find enough space in which to garden, I wanted to maximize every square inch of space that I can possibly squeeze out of my property.  So, over the years I’ve had to be creative.

And, as if this area wasn’t challenging enough, last year new neighbors moved in next door and cut down ALL of their beautiful, established trees.  Don’t ask me why.  Now we were left with a view of their shabby, unattractive roofline, as well as having our bedrooms blasted with baking hot sun all afternoon.  We had to do something FAST.GreenBar


My husband and I came up with a plan to build a super skinny trellis along our shared fence to provide both privacy and shade.

Since there really isn’t much soil (or space) in which to plant, we attached the trellis directly to the fence with the hopes it would support an existing, very old ‘Cecile Brunner’ rose, as well as an established pyrancantha bush.

Most people I meet seem to hate pyracanthas, but not me.  I love the fact that they’re evergreen (providing year round coverage of the ugly roofline) and have beautiful red berries in the fall.

Over the years my daughter has loved watching hungry birds swarm the bush, getting ‘drunk ‘off the berries. (click here to see some pretty fabulous photos of this!!)



I also wanted to create an edible garden along the other end of the fence, as I had plenty of sunshine in this one spot.  The only problem was the lack of soil in which to create this garden.  My solution?  A trio of Woolly Pockets!



In these pockets I planted chives, alpine strawberries, ‘Icterina’ dwarf golden sage, dwarf tomatoes (‘Windowbox’ variety), red peppers, parsley and thyme.

I also planted beans, lots of beans, to scramble up the fence and along the nearby trellis.  My favorites have been Spanish Musica (flat, long and deliciously juicy) and Rattlesnake heirloom pole beans with their beautiful maroon stripes – both from Renee’s Garden.

I must say, I’m thrilled with my woolly pocket garden!GreenBar



Since my daughter’s room also faces the fence, she wanted to add a few special touches of her own.

Over the past several years, she’s made stepping-stones at our town’s annual Fall Festival, so we decided to display them along the fence, arranged in a flower pattern.

Along this fence we also placed small birdhouses and an old fence post from our previous home.

It’s little touches like these that really help to personalize your garden, making it truly one-of-a-kind.GreenBar

Having all the bedroom windows face this narrow side yard brings up an important aspect of garden design, which is referred to as inside-out design. Simply put, this means ‘don’t forget the views from inside your home!’

Using the window as the ‘frame’, create vignettes within this frame to act as the ‘art’.  When this vignette coordinates with the decor from inside your home, (perhaps using similar elements and colors) it can be an effective way to visually extend your room’s boundaries.

For example, out of one window’s view we hung different varieties of carex, using my grandmother’s old wall planters.  We chose carex as they tend to be evergreen in our mild climate, and when the afternoon breeze blows they sway ever so gently – just beautiful! With the rose climbing on the arbor overhead, and my neighbor’s towering sunflowers, the view is really charming.


The other bedroom has several antiques in it, so I extended the theme by placing an old window frame along the fence to mingle with the espaliered roses.  Even in the winter, when the roses are dormant, the window frame provides something beautiful to look at.

I hope this gives you a little inspiration to go outside and re-think your side yard!GreenBar



20 Responses to Think vertically when designing side yards

  1. Can’t think about anything Wooly in this heat (Austin, TX), but I LOVE your tips for creating inside-out design, with photos to illustrate. Once again, a wonderful, useful post, Rebecca!

  2. My dear Rebecca,

    This posting (as usual) is wonderful and packed with useful and creative ideas for turning an ugly spot into a beauty spot.

    Thanks so much…love the borrowed views too. Haven’t tried woolly pockets yet.

    I love Pyracanthas with their lovely white blossoms and their plump scarlet berries. Mockingbirds, robins, Hermit thrushes, waxwings etc. adore them (as you know).



    • Thank you so much, Sharon. I knew you’d love Pyracanthas as well – they’re so important to birds, aren’t they? I hope you’re enjoying Maine – think of you often!! XO – Rebecca

  3. I absolutely LOVE the edible garden on the wall! What a clever idea! Thanks for sharing your yard — it has given me food (so to speak) for thought for mine!

  4. Rebecca… the beauty of your gardens, vertical and horizontal, never cease to delight me. I’ve never raised Pyracantha’s, maybe that’s why I love them so. The clusters of orange berries always make me smile.

  5. Impressive! Transforming the often forgotten side yard into a beautiful place. And if the rooms are facing that way, they are now rooms with a lovely view. Perhaps aside from the edible garden, a small outdoor kitchen is possible in case there isn’t one yet in the backyard or some wider side lawn.

  6. Wooly pockets. How intriguing. In Arizona, the walls might be a bit hot. Your design is gorgeous. Thanks for sharing.