Planning Your Outdoor Space Part III–The Forgotten Side Yard

a picture of a well-designed narrow side yard garden path

By Jerry Pence

(This article was first published in the April 2006 issue of The Gateway Gardener.)
a picture of a well-designed narrow side yard garden path

This narrow space between two urban homes offers a pleasing garden pathway between the buildings.

Side yards have always been the areas of the yard that are least tended to and usually considered just a way to get between the front and back yards.  For these reasons, those areas are generally left alone or maybe planted with a few foundation shrubs.  Occasionally we’ll see a walk that goes from the garage around the side of the house to the back yard.  This path is known as a secondary pathway – usually narrow and purely for the function of getting to the back yard.  Sometimes, we’ll also see the side yard as a storage area for various things such as firewood, trashcans or children’s yard toys.

There are many ways to tackle this area of the yard, however, to make it both functional and aesthetically pleasing.  One way to approach these areas is to stand out on the sidewalk and view your house from an angle.  We rarely see a home from straight on, but rather as we are passing by or approaching from down the street.  Therefore, if you look at the house from those angles, you will get a better appreciation for how your house (and side yards) are being viewed by others.

Dress It Up!

a picture of a side-yard shade garden

This "shared garden" improved a former turf area between two neighbors where grass was difficult to grow.

Even though the side yard is often a narrow space, we can make it look attractive.  One thing we like to do is walk through a landscape, and side yards allow us to do just that.  Maybe you walk through your front landscape on a path that leads on around the side of the house.  At the front corner of the house, you might put an arbor of some sort that denotes the movement from one space to another.  This is also known as a threshold – the passing from one area to another.  Often times in tight spaces light may be at a minimum, therefore you will have to pick shade-loving plants.

The side yard, especially when extremely hot or extremely shady, also creates a

a picture of a side-yard garden path

The shade provided by the two home make this narrow side yard a perfect spot for these hostas.

microclimate – an area with characteristics all it’s own that may be different from the rest of the yard areas.  Your walkway through this space could be as simple as a mulched path or as intricate as a paved walk.  If the area between your house and your property line is ten feet or less, consider planting the entire area – leaving no turf.  If you need to screen your neighbor, consider using tall narrow shrubs such as serviceberry or ornamental grasses.  You could also use fencing, but a better way might be to use a few sections of fence in key screening areas and filling in between the fence sections with the tall shrubs or grasses.  Be sure to check your survey plan or check with your municipality to see if there is an easement running down the side of your house – that may help determine what you do.

Make It Functional

If you do need to use the space for storage, you can do so without making it an eyesore for your neighbors.  Again, you can use fencing or sections of fence to block your mess.  You’ll have to check with city ordinances to see what types of fencing can be used and where they can be connected to your house.  Containers to hold trashcans are available at local home stores for a nominal cost and keep the area neat and tidy.  As mentioned before, if the area is narrow, consider making the entire area a walk with some storage.  You’re going to want to block this area from the street as well, and this can be done with fencing or plantings.  A raised bed with some tall shrubs or a small tree will do a great job screening, as well as helping to balance your house.

Along The Driveway

Another area that can be considered the side yard is the area along your driveway.  One of the things that we want to do when designing is to make you feel like you’ve come “home” when you pull into your driveway.  We want to create a feeling of “arrival” – the “Aah, I’m home” feeling!  A really good way to do this is to plant the area next to your driveway.  The heavier you plant it, the more “at home” you feel when you pull in.  Crowding trees into this space creates a future overhang on your driveway, shading and cooling it as well as cutting down the glare from it.  Trees hanging over your driveway create your own arbor into your space.  You have to be careful not to plant too close to your driveway if it is a narrow one, as people may trample your plants getting out of their car.

The side yards are great areas to plant to create lower maintenance and less mowing.  Planting these areas will also set you apart from your neighbors as well as act as areas that join the front and back yards.

Planning Your Outdoor Space Part IV: The Entrance

Jerry Pence is an award-winning designer and Vice-President, Design Management & Horticulture for a local property management company, where he oversees grounds for properties in St. Louis and Florida. He also has been an instructor in the Horticulture Department at St. Louis Community College at Meramec for 15 years.