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The Portland Metro area is a beautiful and inspiring place to live but as more and more people flock here, developers are building homes on ever tinier and tinier lots. This means there’s not much outdoor space and even less privacy. So, what’s a homeowner to do?

First of all, come up with a plan. Working with a Landscape Designer to help create a functional and beautiful garden is even more critical in a smaller space where every square inch counts. Often outdoor spaces are being tasked to do double or triple duty while also incorporating specific client requests. It’s a tall order, and a landscape designer is uniquely qualified to provide great ideas, a design plan that works for your site and your budget, as well as a network of other professionals they can refer you to in order to get your garden built and keep it looking great. If you work with a design/build landscape company, they can provide one-stop-shopping for both design and installation.

One of the first considerations a landscape designer will make is where and how to create privacy. No one wants to spend time in their backyard feeling like they are in a giant fish bowl for all the neighborhood to see. And while the saying goes, “Good fences make good neighbors,” many counties have a 6’ high fence restrictions, which just isn’t enough to provide privacy from two-story homes. As a result, the feeling of exposure is greatly amplified.

This is a typical view for many new home buyers.

This is where screening comes into play. In order to block views into the garden from neighbors’ windows or possibly hide unsightly views, a visual barrier needs to be created. The easiest and most cost effective way to do this is with plants and trees. Creating a narrow hedge can give instant privacy and add some lushness and texture to an otherwise sparse yard. Of course, there’s more than just arborvitae that can be used. Basically, a good hedge plant will tend to be fairly bulletproof, easy to maintain, won’t break the bank and can be bought in large sizes if instant screening is desired. Buxus ‘Graham Blandy’ is one of my favorites. It can handle full sun to shade and everything in between. It’s easy to prune and can get rather tall while still staying svelte where it counts. Below is a photo of a Buxus ‘Graham Blandy’ hedge we planted that same day. Talk about instant gratification! These beauties came in at around 10’ high and 2’5” wide. As you can see, they blocked the view from the neighbors beautifully while still being narrow enough to allow for a pathway. Some other great options are Camellias, Bamboo, Privet, Laurels, Cypress and Yews.

Here are 3 Buxus ‘Graham Blandy’ blocking the view into a bedroom across the gravel pathway.

While hedges can certainly do the trick it’s nice to add a bit more excitement and variety into the garden. By layering plants with different sizes, textures, colors and forms, we not only create intimacy and privacy but also a sense of depth to the garden. This however doesn’t mean cramming in every plant available from the nursery. It means carefully curating the right plants for the right space, using repetition, whether it’s through planting the same plants or using similar colors or textures to create harmony and flow throughout the garden. Scale is another important component to layering plants in a small space. Keep in mind: just because it’s a small garden you don’t need to use small plants. Sometimes a large tree or shrub can provide the privacy and backbone from which to build a beautiful garden. The key is not only proper plant selection but to have enough bed space so that plants can grow to maturity without having to be constantly pruned to keep from overcrowding.

This bed is only a few feet deep and boasts a variety of texture, color and scale.

So what if you don’t have enough room to go out, then how about up! A well-placed arbor or trellis can do wonders for a tight space. If paired with vines or espalier shrubs these areas can quickly form a nice privacy screen for you and the neighbors. Some things to consider are most vines and shrubs will tend to have a bit more maintenance with training and pruning. Also, some vines will grow quickly (think Wisteria) while others may take several years to fill the space. The other aspect to look into is budget. A custom arbor can set you back several thousand dollars while a simple wire trellis can be strung up in just a few hours for a couple hundred bucks.

Here is a custom arbor detail will add privacy for both neighbors once the plants mature.
Privacy panels are a great option if you don’t already have a fence in place.
This bed is only a few feet deep and boasts a variety of texture, color and scale.

With a small space, you create an illusion of more with the concept of hide and reveal. With this technique you partially obstruct a view or feature of the garden. This gives the sense of depth and makes the garden more intriguing. For example, a path curves behind a garden bed, you instinctively want to find out where the path is leading to. This can be done with planting beds, pathways, screens and patios.

The path stretches out of view – what lies behind?

Another technique to increase the perceived size of a garden is to use a borrowed view. If your neighbor has a beautiful oak tree in their yard, then why not incorporate it into your garden and highlight it. Framing the view helps block out those elements that would indicate distance so hiding a fence with some shrubs for example, will make the oak tree feel like it’s part of your garden. You’re also not limited to your neighbor’s yard, sometimes even small yards have expansive views of a nearby greenspace, park or even a mountain.

Creating a focal point can also help increase a sense of space and give your garden drama. A focal point can be just about anything, a large specimen tree or shrub, a fire pit, a piece of art, or even a small water feature. Anything that draws the eye and gives it a place to rest.

Here a small bubbler water feature is tucked into the garden bed creating a beautiful focal point.

A destination gives a place for not only your eyes but you and your friends and family to relax and hang out in. Creating a destination in any garden means thinking about how you want to use the space. Is the patio for dining, having a conversation, BBQing, relaxing by the fire? Often times we require our seating areas to accommodate many functions that may be at odds with the space we actually have. This is why in a smaller garden doing double duty comes into play. A raised planter can double as a seating area, the firepit can be used as a table, perhaps smaller scale furniture will accommodate a larger gathering or there may be an opportunity to create a seating niche somewhere else in the garden. Sling a hammock between two trees or add a post and you have an intimate destination for one. Tuck a bistro set into one of the planting beds with a few flagstones to anchor it and you have a fabulous spot for morning coffee. While a small garden space can present a challenge in getting everything you want, with a well thought out design and execution you can create a garden that everyone will enjoy.

Contact Blessing Landscapes and we’ll offer some big ideas to make that small space something special.