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Small Spaces

September 6, 2011


I recently reconnected with a woman from my alma mater over her garden. She and her husband had gotten my name from a mutual friend and were ready to make a major change to their tiny Capitol Hill back yard.

I have worked on residential landscapes that spanned a hundred acres or more and I have worked on tiny spaces like this one, only about 800 square feet. In an urban neighborhood like Capitol Hill, even that 800 square feet makes a huge difference to a home. It extends the usable space of the house during the warmer months and when the weather isn’t as nice, it provides a beautiful view, much needed light and a reminder that Spring is coming.

In many ways, I prefer designing smaller space; it’s more of a challenge. That sounds a bit cliche, but it’s true- you have to make every design decision count with a smaller garden. Each change you make affects all of the other design elements, so you have to really think about how the space will be used, viewed and even maintained.

My clients had a garden space that had been “spruced up” for the sale of the house. The former owner planted a small tree and laid down new sod, so when my client saw the yard, it looked great. Over the years the sod deteriorated for a number of reasons: too much shade, neighboring Walnut and Norway Maple trees, and the attentions of the couple’s dog. The shade and cramped patio made the space unappealing, and as a result, my clients hardly ever used the back yard as an extension of their home, though they knew it was a good size and could be transformed through good design.

Over a couple of conversations with the couple, I was able get an sense of what they wanted from their yard

  • an entertaining space that could expand for larger gatherings but yet feel intimate enough for their shared morning coffee and newspaper.
  • lots of patio space, but not a “parking lot” look- keep the edges soft and green.
  • drainage was critical, the yard slopes back toward the house because of the level of the alley. We couldn’t change this, but we could be sure to maintain the existing drains that had always worked. Using the existing drains required some careful leveling of the patio area.
  • add some storage space- notoriously lacking in older Capitol Hill homes.
  • a low maintenance plant palette that provides interest year-round, as well as a place to grow vegetables and herbs.

My design came together after a few rough drafts. I ended up with a series of interlocking rectangular patios. The materials are irregular Pennsylvania flagstone for the field of the patio and 1’x2′ Pennsylvania flagstone borders. The varied sizes of the patios and the straight

The plants were chosen to work in the moist, shady back yard. I chose a few basic perennials and shrubs to make the “backbone” of the garden, and added a lovely Sweetbay Magnolia to offer screening from the alley and a soft, grey-green shimmer to the back of the property. The shrubs and perennials play with texture and Fall color- the pops of Summer color will come from pots of herbs and annual flowers placed on the patio. The organic joints between the large irregular flagstones are filled with creeping plants that will intertwine and soften the patio expanse with lacy green lines of the borders make the space feel larger by taking your eye on a “tour” of the space.

The main patio is generously sized to accommodate a table for eight with room to move around, while the smaller patio works for a couple of chairs for the clients to relax after work, or for an intimate conversation space for guests at a party. The main landing off the covered porch is a great spot to set the grill off to the side- making it easy to prepare food, but keeping it out of the way of guests. A future built-in bench under the deck will provide additional seating and opens up for storage. A small shed at the back of the property will be filled with garden tools and the client’s woodworking materials.

My clients are thrilled with their new space and are excited that they still have some of DC‘s lovely Fall weather to enjoy it (if it ever stops raining!).

Take a look at the before, during and after photos- I think it turned out great!


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