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The Green Scene in Pool and Spa News, Nov. 14, 2008

excerpted from Squeeze Play by Rebecca Robledo
When faced with unusually small yards, a little finesse is all it takes to expand the space.
Stec pond patio and bridge

Picture opposite ends of a pulley, where one side rises while the other falls. The relationship between clients' backyards and their expectations often follows this model — as square footage shrinks, plans grow more elaborate.

But once customers realize the constraints that exist, they're not unreasonable. So sacrifices are made to accommodate the basics, some of which can never be compromised.

For instance, the yard always should contain at least two "rooms", be functional and include some eye candy for good measure. And it must feel spacious.

Here, two industry experts reveal some tried-and-true tips for designing to small spaces without forgoing the essentials.

Think Courtyard

When arranging a small backyard to feel as if it has everything, consider an alternative approach.

"In courtyard or atrium-style designing, we're surrounding you with plants and water," says Scott Cohen, garden artisan and owner of The Green Scene Landscaping in Canoga Park, CA. "You're not just having patio-to-water-to-grass."

Whenever possible, Cohen tries to avoid lawn entirely.

"We'll use ground covers and flower beds instead, just to reduce maintenance," he says. "If you're not going to have a decent size lawn, what's the point of doing all that extra work?

Any tall items also should remain along the yard's perimeter. While big water features and fireplaces serve as effective dividers in larger yards, they're often just obstructions in smaller spaces.

Use Space-Saving Dividers

There will always be challenges to achieving the effect of multiple rooms. What if you can't fit walls, large water features, or other space-killers to break up the plot?

Lawrence Back yard

The answer: Look for low-lying alternatives. Long, narrow sprawling pools and water features are an ideal choice.With the reflective quality of water, it makes everything look larger," Cohen says.

Babb pool and firepit with bridge connecting raised patio and spa

"It's like putting a mirror on the ground or a mirror in a room. If you put fire on the backside so it's reflecting across the water, it makes the whole feature look much larger."

Streams and runnels make nice alternatives as well because both can wrap around the back of the house. Clients now can see water through every window facing the backyard.

"If you have water that's connecting from one side of the yard to the other, it can stretch the feel of the space," Cohen says. You may also divide space using different deck materials for each area. For example, pavers could mark one section while stamped concrete denotes another. Stepping stones and groundcover can help break up hardscape so it doesn't feel monolithic.

Feel free to experiment. On one project, Cohen thought placing a covered patio flush against the house was too stifling. So he moved it to the corner of the yard.

"It becomes kind of a destination point," he says. I think the yard feels larger as a result, rather than feeling closed in."

Similar features can create the sensation of journeying from one space to the next. Long, winding walkways are out. But small bridges that cross sprawling streams or moats provide passage from one sitting area to another. Or you may choose to outfit the water element with floating stepping-stones.

Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate.

Wherever possible, convert one element into many. You can create additional seating by raising a pool or spa by 18 inches.

Whaley covered patio with pond and firepit
Another trick is to extend the outdoor kitchen to accommodate extra counter space, or even a lower level dining table. Here you'll need 2 feet of clearance to move the chairs in and out.

Kirschner outdoor kitchen

Whenever possible, design patio cover posts so they go straight through countertops. The patio cover post is going to block the flow of traffic," Cohen says. "When I'm designing a yard like that, I'll typically have the post go through the counter. Otherwise, I'd need to leave 3 feet clear around and kind of post just for traffic flow."

Also consider incorporating the property wall. You could place the outdoor kitchen on the perimeter, and use the wall as a backsplash.

Soften The Walls

Few things shrink a space quicker than heavy, daunting barriers along the edges. Instead, open up the area by softening the walls as much as possible.

Some designers favor vines. When used to cover walls, they help surround guests with greenery rather than barricades.

Portions of the wall can be converted into space-saving focal points by installing wall-mounted water features or fire features. These help break up the barrier, and offer the benefits of moving water and fire without eating up any space.

Use Strategic Lighting

At night, multi layered lighting often adds depth to a backyard. This is especially helpful in tight spaces. Select and highlight points at the farthest reaches of the yard to create a sense of expansiveness.

Backlighting may create a glow around a tree, or graze a wall to bring out its texture. Place a bright light behind a feature wih a striking outline — a favorite tree or plant — to create a dramatic silhouette.

If you light only those things that are focal points close to the house, the yard looks smaller," Cohen says.

Kurkcuoglu Fire and swimming pool

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