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Garden party: Designing your small yard for family and friends

by Timber Press on February 8, 2018

in Design, Gardening

A mix of furniture sizes makes a patio comfortable for adults and kids.

Once the decision is made to upgrade a backyard, most of us want to get started immediately. But taking time to thoroughly identify what you really want from your space is a crucial first step to creating a successful, livable garden to enjoy with your friends and family.

The makeup of most households changes over time. When putting together your program, understanding who will be using the space, both now and as your family expands or shrinks, will ensure that the investment you make in a new landscape today will serve your family’s needs well into the future. The more you focus on enhancing your lifestyle rather than simply installing a list of things, the more you will truly enjoy spending time in your garden.

If there will only be one or two people using the garden, less space can be allocated to seating. Designing a space for just a few users can also make it easier to find room for more than one seating area. Consider devoting one patio, or portion of a patio, to a dining table and creating a separate area for conversation, reading, or relaxing. Just remember to leave enough space for comfortable furniture! Cushioned seats you can sink into, rocking chairs, or a space with room for a couple of lounge chairs are more likely to be used on a regular basis than a cute but spindly bistro set.

Family time
In addition to dining, large families need space dedicated to play. This may mean lawn, but other surfaces can also accommodate play, such as gravel or gold fines (also known as decomposed granite or DG). If your yard is quite small and there is a neighborhood park close by, don’t waste space on a swing set or a patch of lawn that will be too tiny for most kids’ games. Dedicate garden space to creative play instead, such as a sandbox, a children’s garden, or a craft area.

Planning for younger children also means taking safety into consideration. Water features should be avoided unless they are specifically designed to eliminate the risk of drowning. Using an in-ground reservoir or filling the majority of an above-ground reservoir with gravel is one way to accomplish this. You can also choose a simple birdbath over running water. If you are planning a primary play space, situate it to be visible from a window, making it easier to keep kids in sight while you’re indoors.

If your children or grandchildren are very young, do not choose plants with berries or flowers that are poisonous if ingested. (An internet search of “poisonous plants” will bring up lists for different USDA zones.) The website 1stinflowers.com breaks common plants into categories such as those that cause rashes, those that cause upset stomachs, and flowers and plants that cause serious conditions.

You don’t need space for a dedicated play structure—opportunities for active play can be integrated throughout the backyard.

Consider the comfort of family members or friends with allergies as well. Choosing plants carefully can help entice them outdoors even in high-pollen seasons. Many all-male tree cultivars have become popular as they are more likely to be litter free, but unfortunately, they tend to produce much higher levels of pollen. Instead, opt for a tried-and-true performer such as a crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.). Available in a range of sizes and spring or summer flower color, tolerant of both heat and humidity, and not a heavy producer of airborne pollen, there are multiple reasons this lovely tree is popular throughout the country. Another plant category to use sparingly if allergies are an issue is ornamental grasses. They have become landscape superstars recently, but unfortunately can cause hay fever. If you like their graceful look and want to incorporate them into your garden, consider grass-like plants that mimic the fine, narrow foliage, such as mat rush (Lomandra spp.) or flax lily (Dianella spp.).

Play it safe in gardens where young children will be—choose water features without an above-ground reservoir.

Unless you or a family member is allergic to bees, however, there is no need to avoid the flowers that attract them, such as common yarrow (Achillea spp.) and catmint (Nepeta spp.). Bees are not aggressive and are necessary pollinators that keep both your garden and the neighborhood around you healthy and productive. Remember, many of the plants that attract desirable garden visitors like birds and butterflies draw honeybees as well, so you can’t have one without the other.

As all parents know, having kids requires you to check your perfectionist tendencies at the door. I encourage clients to be realistic about the toys, trikes, and assorted detritus that children (and their adults) inevitably leave strewn around a yard. Despite the impression given by the perfect photos in glossy home and garden magazines, gardens are for people, and most of us don’t live a photo-op lifestyle on a daily basis. Make sure attractive storage, whether it’s a small shed on the side of the house or all-weather toy chests that can double as deck or patio tables, are part of your plan.

A shed can be both decorative and practical as a storage solution for smaller gardens.

Friends and guests
If you entertain frequently, think about how often you realistically host guests, as well as the size of typical get-togethers. If you expect to host more than four to six for meals on a regular basis, make sure the size of the patio or deck can accommodate guests sitting, standing, and mingling comfortably. On the other hand, if you only entertain larger groups occasionally, it might be better to have a flexible plan that lets you seat crowds in a pinch. Just as a big family gathering at the holidays means pressing temporary tables and chairs into service, it may make sense to keep extra folding chairs and tables in storage, and bring them out only when necessary. As homeowners have extended the ways they spend time in their gardens, the outdoor furniture industry has kept pace. It’s easy to find furniture pieces such as drink trolleys that can be wheeled from one part of the garden to another, then stored away when not in use. Dining tables with leaves stored inside are popular for expanding seating from six to a dinner party of ten or twelve.

Susan Morrison is a nationally recognized landscape designer and authority on small-space garden design. She has shared her strategies on the PBS series Growing a Greener World and in publications such as Fine Gardening. Morrison has also served as editor-in-chief of The Designer, a digital magazine produced by the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.

Click image to look inside this book:


A mix of furniture sizes makes a patio comfortable for adults and kids alike.

You don’t need space for a dedicated play structure — opportunities for active play can be integrated throughout the backyard.

shed can be both decorative and practical as a storage solution for smaller gardens.

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