Outdoor Renovations

Got a small backyard? Here’s how to make it feel big

Size isn't everything.
Outdoor fire pit with timber log stoolsPhotography: The Palm Co / Styling: Sarah Yarrow Interiors

Whether you have a small backyard by choice or have inherited a limited outdoor area, making the most of your outdoor space can help to extend your living and entertaining zones, while fostering a lively connection to nature, all year round.

The traditional concept of a backyard doesn’t have to be a vast lawn with a shed and swingset for the kids. Even the smallest balcony, deck, paved courtyard or lawn can stimulate the senses. It all depends on how you use the space. Read on for our favourite small backyard ideas to capitalise on what you do have, instead of what you don’t.

Outdoor garden with firepit
If there’s a lack of mature trees in your garden, borrow your neighbours’ landscape! (Credit: Photography: The Palm Co / Styling: Sarah Yarrow Interiors )

How do you make a small outdoor area look bigger?

“Less is more,” says Richard Unsworth, leading landscape designer and co-owner of renowned outdoor store, Garden Life. “Don’t try to squash everything into your small backyard. Decide on how you might best use your space (ie for lounging, dining, kids play, or simply viewing) then plan a layout to maximise sunlight, shade and privacy, without too many elements”

Think outside your own square when looking for backyard garden ideas. “Borrowing a view is a fantastic way of creating the illusion of space,” says Kevin Parker, Senior Horticulturalist at The Greenery Garden & Home  “Be it a neighbouring tree/s, a distant landscape view or a feature within the garden itself.”

“The use of layers of plantings to hide property boundaries and give a feeling of depth.”

Kevin Parker, Senior Horticulturalist at The Greenery Garden & Home

Sometimes it’s what you can’t see that has the most visual impact. “Screening fences or neighbouring structures block visual barriers and give an illusion of more garden greenery,” says Kevin. “The use of circular paved or timber sitting areas at different levels in appropriate areas encourages people to stop and enjoy the smaller space, as do fragrant plants strategically positioned.”

Keep it simple and look to essentials in design and layout. This is where the less is more design principle applies. “Combine diagonal lines, flooring or planting beds to draw the eye and lengthen the visual space,” suggests Linda Brattlöf, CEO and Founder of Garden Glory luxury appliances. 

“Keep your finishes palette (e.g. paving, fencing, paint colour, materials and furniture) simple and timeless,” says Richard. “Let the location, architecture, and interior style of your home guide your external selections, so the spaces are cohesive.”

Boston viy covered exterior garden wall
Simple and elegant; Boston ivy crawls up a white-painted wall around a traditional paned window. (Credit: Abbie Melle)

The best plants to choose for a small backyard

Plants are key to maximising the use of limited space in a small backyard. Just as you would choose furniture and objects indoors, an appropriate selection of plant varieties can enhance your small backyard. Small- to medium-growing trees allow more natural light into a small space. “Larger trees in small spaces create a feeling of overcrowding and shading making the areas appear smaller,” says Kevin.

Clever landscaping techniques can create an illusion of a larger space in a small backyard. “It sounds counterintuitive but in a small garden, lots of small pots can make a space feel overcrowded,” says Richard. “Instead, select one large-scale hero planter to provide the illusion of space and create a strong, single focal point.”

Back garden with vertical garden and large urn water feature under pergola
(Credit: Shania Shegedyn)

“One of the best plants for vertical screening in smaller spaces are the non-invasive varieties of bamboo,” says Richard. “Favoured for their tall, vertical screening ability and variety of decorative culms (stalks), particularly good for narrow spaces and also do well in containers.” Kevin agrees. “For privacy in a narrow space or along a boundary line, we love bamboo, specifically Slender Weavers Bamboo (Bambusa textilis gracilis) is a great option in the right garden setting.”

backyard with lawn and home exterior
Smaller growing trees allow more natural light into a small space and don’t dominate the area. (Credit: Photography: Armelle Habib / Photography assistant: Sara Wilkosz / Styling: Julia Green / Styling assistant: Jade Lee Martin)

The best trees for a small backyard

Don’t let a tiny area stop you from making a statement with a tree in your backyard, whether in-ground or in a pot. “A small tree in an inner-city courtyard or backyard is a must!” says Richard, noting that the benefits extend beyond the visual. “Not only will the right tree provide shade and privacy, but it will also help contribute to the local biodiversity.” Kevin agrees. “Growing dwarf varieties of fruit in pots is a fantastic space-saving idea and a welcome addition to indoor or outdoor cooking.” he says. Select one or two statement trees or shrubs, depending on space availability.

Top 3 trees for a small backyard:

Banksia integrifolia or Banksia serrata

Olea europaea (olive tree)

Juniperus ‘Keteleeri’ (cloud tree)

Crepe Myrtle

Cercis Forest Pansy

Where to plant in a small backyard

Select plants that are suited to the environment and follow the sun where possible to give trees and plants the best chance of survival. ”Often smaller spaces have limited sunshine due to neighbouring buildings, overhangs, or trees, therefore shade or semi-shade tolerant plants may be required,” says Kevin. Consider using pots for herbs and vegetables to allow for movement around a small backyard where garden beds have limited sunlight, but avoid cluttering the area.

How you plant is just as important as what you plant in a small backyard. “Layered planting provides depth and can create the illusion of space in a smaller garden,” Richard suggests. “This could be multiple planting layers, or in the smallest of spaces we often pleach (clear and raise the canopy) screening trees or shrubs to provide space to underplant with interesting plant textures.”

Back garden with raised grassed steps, mature trees and layered plantings
Borrow from surrounding gardens and create layers in planting and landscaping to give the illusion of space. (Credit: Photography: Anjie Blair )

Vertical Garden ideas for a small backyard

“If there’s no place to go, go up,” says Linda. “Use walls, fences and trellises for vertical gardening, hanging plants or install shelves to free up useful space.”

Utilising the walls and fenced surfaces in your backyard garden for space-saving plant possibilities is a great idea, says Richard, but warns that they’re tricky to get right. ”If you’re keen on a vertical garden we suggest you go to a greenwall specialist, like Vertikal and invest in a system that’s installed and maintained by professionals.”

Do your research before settling on a garden wall and be realistic about your ability to nurture it – a bunch of dry, empty planters is not a good look and some varieties perform better than others when planted vertically. “Our go-to alternative is to use climbing plants on structures like walls, stainless steel wires or mesh framework,” says Richard.

“Vertical-growing plants (taller than they are wide) allow screening of buildings, fence lines, etc without restricting movement through the space,” says Kevin. “Stainless steel tensioned wires add interest to smaller spaces, or consider using decorative metal or timber screens to add an element of interest.”

“Evergreen climbing plants such as Chinese Star Jasmine are quick-growing and provide year-round screening and sweetly fragrant Spring/Summer flowers,” says Kevin. “When suspended between supporting posts and covered with an evergreen climbing or espaliered plant such as citrus, apricot or peach for instance, this allows for the growing of fruit which may otherwise be restricted due to sun and space requirements.”

“The key to success is to plant the climbing plants into deep soil (not a pot) and select a climbing plant that will thrive in the light and water conditions of your space,” says Richard.

Vertical garden with outdoor shower
Vertical plantings do double duty to screening sheds, fences, or obtrusive views. (Credit: Photography: Simon Whitbread | Courtesy of Vertikal)

How do you decorate a small backyard?

Lighting and colour schemes can be used effectively to make a small backyard appear more spacious and inviting – the sky is literally the limit. On balconies, decks and under pergolas, Linda suggests fun styling and focal pops of colour, such as a fountain, statue or vigorous plant to create a sense of depth and distract attention from the confined space. 

“Use lighter colours for furniture, flower pots and cushions to reflect more light and create an atmosphere with more openness.”

Linda Brattlöf, CEO and Founder of Garden Glory

Often large format items such as pavers make a small space feel bigger. “Selecting lighter coloured landscape materials such as paving and paint make a smaller space appear larger,” suggests Kevin. The same goes for furniture, flower pots and cushions. 

Why not have a little fun and decorate with colour in your outdoor space? Linda suggests dark colours or cool tones on the wall or fence to create the illusion of depth and beautiful, uncomplicated design and to keep the space, “free of frills or too many plants to create an open feel.” Be adventurous. “Colour can evoke the feeling you want to create within a garden,” says Richard. “It can also provide a pop of colour as a feature element, not just in walling or fencing, but with your pot selection.”

Outdoor lighting and seating ideas
Built-in seating and wall-mounted lighting maximise use of this outdoor space. (Credit: Marie Homer)

Lighting ideas for a small backyard

Garden lighting is crucial for any size garden,” says Richard. “First consider functionality, e.g. lighting for wayfinding, such as paths and steps. Then plan for feature lighting. This involves uplighting your garden’s key features, like trees or seating areas. Finally, make sure lighting shows the extent of the garden at night.”

Kevin adds that mounted outdoor mirrors can also improve the illusion of space, particularly when used together with effective lighting, extending the use of your garden outside normal hours. “Using lighting at night to highlight walking or sitting areas or spotlight feature trees or statuary adds a sense of mystery!” he says.

“Don’t just light up areas close to your house, provide lighting throughout the whole garden, to create a sense of the depth of the space.”

Richard Unsworth, Garden Life
Garden lighting ideas
(Credit: Photography: Nicholas Watt for Garden Life)

Choosing furniture for a small backyard

While essential in any backyard, outdoor furniture can take up crucial meterage at the expense of room to move, work and play outside. Measure up and be selective when buying outdoor furniture for a small space. “Choose small furniture that fits the space, such as bistro sets, folding chairs, or built-in benches,” says Linda.

Create different functional zones to avoid overcrowding and arrange plants and furniture accordingly. Where possible, cross over these uses such as dining, lounging, and planted areas. “Opt for multi-purpose furniture,” Linda suggests, “A couch with home accessories or a dining table that can also double up as a work area.” Copy indoor decorating ideas by combining storage with seating. “A favourite landscape feature for small spaces is a built-in bench seat,” says Richard. “When designed well, they are a versatile solution for dining, lounging and storage for garden tools and kid’s toys.”


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