How to Optimize Small Outdoor Space

Staring out of the windows of my family room, which I do a lot these days, I can’t help but feel like my side yard isn’t living up to its potential. It’s basically a green blur with an ivy-covered floor, shaded from (admittedly beautiful) trees. All of this extra time at home has my husband and me ready to do something about it, though. We want to make the most of our outdoor space, even if we’re just looking at it from the couch.

Laura Osteen, a landscape designer in San Francisco, shares my sentiments about side yards. “They’re such unique spaces. They’re kind of an afterthought often, but there are so many neat things you can do with them,” she says. “And (if you can see them from your house) they’re the window to nature,” she says. If you, too, are wondering what the heck you can do with your side yard, we asked a few experts how to make the most of the oft-overlooked space.

Mix up your plants

Before Molly Williams became an author (her book Killer Plants will be out this fall), she worked with in a garden shop in Boston. She suggests bringing in plants of different heights and sizes to make the yard more interesting to look at. If you can safely shop at an outdoor gardening store or nursery, try arranging plants there to see what you like together. She also suggests planting succulents in the ground. “They’re a great way to bring in texture. When you’re creating any landscape design, you want to bring the eye in and around and down,” says Williams. And succulents tend to do great in full or partial sun.

Osteen suggests keeping your plants evergreen and adding perennial plants, “like sprinkles on a cupcake.” That way you won’t feel overwhelmed with maintenance and you’ll get little pops of color throughout the year.


If gardening isn’t your thing, you can still add charm to your side yard with accessories. Beth Kooby, an interior designer in Atlanta, has been working on her house’s side yard for over a year. Channeling a Southern France vibe, in addition to raised garden beds, a rosemary-lined path, and she’s added a concrete bird bath.


Beth Kooby’s side yard, which she is in the process of turning into a garden.

Beth Kooby

She loves to look out over the garden that she and her family have planted and admire the bird bath when she’s washing her dishes (although she swears she not a bird lady). “That connection with nature is great,” says Kooby. “I love looking out, and seeing the amount of birds we’ve seen just bathing and drinking is really fun.”

You can also add a water feature or an outdoor sculpture. “In the winter, you are definitely going to want your yard to have those hardscape elements, whether it’s pottery, art, or furniture, just to help you kind of get that sense of organization in the yard during winter time,” says Osteen.

Decorate along the fence

If your side yard is a more of a walkway to the backyard, but you can see it from your house, consider making the fence look nice. Osteen recently completed work on a small yard and made the most of the space by putting lattices and fruit trees along the fence. “The lattices help with the plants growing up, but also add some warmth to the fence,” she says. Another way to add some charm to the fence is to install decorative panels.

seating area in garden

A garden by Laura Osteen.

Laura Osteen

Start small

Deciding where to start can be daunting so the best thing to do is start small. Osteen suggests clearing out what you can and focusing on the views from the windows that overlook the side yard. “You could always make little vignettes in front of all the windows and focus on maintaining that,” says Osteen. One vignette might be a water feature while another might be a seating area.

If you do want a seating area, it doesn’t have to be extravagant. Stephanie Andrews of Balance Design in Atlanta (who created the seating space at the top of this story) says the most important thing is a comfortable chair and a place to put your feet up. “Ideally it’s a little destination where you can easily get there,” she says. These Adirondack chairs made with recycled material are a favorite of Osteen’s because of their durability and these outdoor rugs add a pop of color.

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