We think you’ll find inspiration in our small backyard landscape ideas! Planning and laying out a garden can be challenging in a small yard where space is limited, but we’ve got some solutions!
We took our sad looking backyard from this…
…to this lush oasis (thankfully by the time we were done, our neighbour in the back removed the gargantuan satellite dish!).
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Creating a Backyard Oasis
Creating a backyard oasis is a process. Like the nursery rhyme, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, How Does Your Garden Grow, there’s more to creating a backyard oasis than meets the eye. The ‘silver bells’ and ‘cockle shells’ referred to in the rhyme were colloquialisms for instruments of torture. In a lot of ways, landscaping is much the same; full of backbreaking work and torture. So I’m officially calling this DIY project ‘the Mother (Nature) of All Projects’.
You’ll find plenty of ideas on the net showing you backyard ideas for small yards. But when you put your own blood sweat and tears into a landscaping project like this, you come to love your own better than anything out there!
Small Backyard Landscape Ideas Video
Watch this video to see how pretty the garden is – even after a rainstorm!
I’ve never personally crossed paths with another handy woman ambitious enough to build and landscape her own backyard. I used to be able to bench press patio stones with the best of them, but not now. I will likely never undertake such a strenuous project again. But then again….. maybe creating a backyard oasis is like giving birth. You might swear you’ll never do it again, but then you soon forget the pain; especially as you see your garden creation grow and take shape.
Here’s where we started:
Now, I have to preface my DIY garden story by letting you know that I didn’t do it all myself. Although I did more than my fair share, my ‘partner in grime’ – Hubs – did a lot of the heavy lifting too. He also did some of the heavy thinking—but I’ll get to that later.
Motivation For Small Backyard Landscape Ideas
My motivation behind doing hardcore DIY projects, like this backyard garden, is a little different than my husband’s. After the worst experience in my 20’s with a shady contractor, I swore that I would never hire anyone again. Ever since, I have DIY’d just about everything.
My husband’s motivation, on the other hand, is that he won’t spend money on something he can do himself. After all, there’s not only a lot of satisfaction but financial gain to be had. Improving your investment by feathering your own nest – and learning new skills along the way, is a win-win.
I guess you could call our backyard transformation a ‘labour of love’. We quite literally started right before our wedding and got right back to it again the day after our honeymoon.
Our backyard oasis project took a year and a half from start to finish; not counting the ‘do-over’ you’ll read at the end. That amount of time might seem excessive versus a contractor. But when you DIY it and do your own shopping, there’s no comparison. You’ll find special touches (like statuary) to add along the way that customizes your landscaping beyond what any contractor can do.
Backyard Oasis DIY
We divided our small backyard landscape ideas into four phases:
- Backyard Design; plan/dig/ compact base
- Hardscape and Softscape; set pavers, fill in with polymeric sand, plant garden and install rock garden;
- Water Feature; set up the pond
- Water Saving and Privacy Features; install dry creek bed/ flagstone/moss, build and install trellises
By breaking the work into manageable sections, we were able to get it done at our own pace. And I also think at a reasonable price. The budget came in at around $25K for everything.
If you’re not comfortable with landscape design, your local nursery often has designers on staff. They can help you draw up a plan and also advise you on the plantings. The fee for this service is usually around $60 – $120. It really depends on the time involved, so check with your local nursery.
IMPORTANT: Before you break any ground, call your utility company. They will mark the phone and gas lines so you don’t accidentally dig into these services!
My best advice when attempting a backyard oasis project is to start small (or at least smaller, in our case!). As neither of us had ever installed a patio before, we decided to do our front walkway first. Practice makes perfect. We were able to get all our mistakes out of the way before starting the backyard oasis! Here’s a glimpse of our project to create a small water feature:
Phase One – Backyard Design
(Plan, dig, compact base)
With the design plan complete before our wedding, we literally broke ground right after returning from our honeymoon. Our idea was to let nature takes its course over the winter to help compact the base for us. So the goal was to dig the patio and pond, and get the initial base in place by the Fall. It must have worked because nothing has heaved in the near-decade since it’s been completed.
I’m a big proponent of laying out a design on computer. Since our travertine has multiple sizes of stone and a particular pattern, I wanted to lay every stone in the correct order. Back then I didn’t have any fancy graphic programs, so I scanned a picture of the drawing, imported it into powerpoint and completed the paver layout there. I don’t know why, but somehow it managed to work it out to scale.
Get a Deal
We really lucked out on the hardscape material. After seeing real travertine marble on display at the stone yard while shopping for the front paver walkway makeover, I fell in love. But not with the price. So Hubs let his fingers do the walking by calling the manufacturer to see if they were open to the public. Our timing couldn’t have been better! The manufacturer was moving the entire facility and, since stone is expensive to move, they were selling their inventory at incredible prices.
We jumped right on it. Even though we weren’t quite ready to start the backyard oasis project, we placed our order. Luckily it could sit on skids in our garage.
To start, measure out from the house and place flags or markers at each corner of your project. If your patio is a rectangle, you’ll only need four flags. But we had jogs in our plan (and a pond) to account for. Tie some nylon string onto the first stake and stretch it to each one around the perimeter. Then pound more permanent wooden stakes into the ground about 1 foot away from each ground flag. You’ll need the extra room for the edge restraints (which you’ll see further ahead).
Back in the day, we didn’t have a laser level. So Hubs used an ancient method – a water level – to establish our grade.
We suggest you watch this excellent video from This Old House. The video demonstrates three different methods for establishing a grade. We wanted our patio to slope slightly away from the house for water drainage. We laid out perfectly level lines, as they did in the video. Then we re-adjusted our lines 1/4″ lower for each foot out from the house to get the gentle slope we wanted.
Calculating Width and Depth
One thing to keep in mind when you dig out the area for the patio is that you have to excavate BEYOND the size of the patio. For instance, if your patio is 10′ x 20′ you need to add at least 6″ onto each side (ideally, the area should extend past the pavers a distance that’s equal to the depth of the base material or 10′ + 6″ + 6″ by 20′ + 6″ + 6″ = 11 x 21).
The pictures above and below illustrate the extra width around the perimeter of our patio. When the base material extends beyond the perimeter of the patio, this stabilizes the edge and will allow you to install your edge restraints.
Once the patio is complete, back fill with soil and plant grass seed. Or put in strips of sod to fill in the gap if you want it to grow in faster. Be sure to water thoroughly until grass establishes. We didn’t do that; we have other plans for the last patch of grass!
Retaining the Edge
Don’t skip the step of installing edge restraints around the exterior edges of your patio or it will shift over time and your hard work will be a waste (again, you don’t need it up against the house). We chose metal edging and installed at least four spikes for every 6 foot length.
High Performance Bedding
As a base material, we used a stone called HPB (High Performance Bedding). I have to say that HPB was a dream to work with; you can get it through some local nurseries or a stone yard.
HPB does double duty by replacing the bedding layer and the base layer of material with only one material (vs. sand and stone) under pavers. HPB is also a real convenience to use because only one huge pile of material comes to the site instead of two!
Before you have it delivered, but sure to put down tarps on your driveway and along the edge of the grass to keep it contained (you can drape it back over the stone afterwards and weigh it down to keep the tarp from killing your grass). If you don’t prepare your area this way you’ll be picking stone out of your grass for years to come.
HPB provides excellent drainage. Because of the size of the chip (3/8″) it achieves 97% compaction without mechanical means. However I would still recommend compacting it. Avoid the temptation to dump all the HBP onto the ground and compact the stone only once – it won’t work.
Using a rented compacter, compact the ground first, then also compact after you apply each 4 inch layer of HPB.
There isn’t a rule of thumb when it comes to the depth of the base material. We used way more HPB than would normally be recommended – which might be overkill, but we didn’t want anything to heave during the freeze and thaw of our Canadian winters. You should ask for advice from your local dealer; Unilock also has a great technical guide that you can read for further information on how to determine how much material for your base (amongst other great information): Unilock Technical Guide
landscape Dumpster Rental
When removing large areas of grass, rent a dumpster that’s specifically for compost material (vs.renovation waste) as it will be cheaper. If you can rent one that opens at the side for easy access, your back will appreciate it; its amazing how quickly the pile builds up! Removing grass is dirty dusty work; here you can see I’m wearing goggles, mask and gloves.
Don’t forget to trench out for electrical if you’re installing a pond with a pump. When it comes to electrical, be familiar with your local building codes – or better yet, hire a licensed electrician to complete this aspect of the project.
When you are doing your own landscaping, and are novices like us, you need to keep a flexible attitude because you’ll likely run into several challenges. We ran into two obstacles that had similar solutions:
Stone Block Retaining Wall
Our first challenge came after realizing that the side of our house, where the patio was extending fully to the fence, had a drop off to our neighbour’s lot line. It’s very common in suburban areas, where houses are tight, to have a subtle valley between each house to direct rain water away.This discovery meant we had to find a solution to contain the HPB base and prevent it from falling out from underneath the pavers.
We ended up having to build a retaining wall against the fence that we didn’t plan for. Since we were building a step under our sliding patio doors, we had to construct the retaining wall first. Back again we went to the stone yard to get the proper retaining wall system!
Retaining blocks have ledges that stack together, so you really can’t stack them wrong!
In the end, the retaining wall was a nice addition; it frames the privacy screens we built beautifully!
Pouring Concrete for a Retaining Wall/Step
Our second challenge came after discovering that the entry into our backyard oasis would also need a retaining wall of sorts. I didn’t want a different stone there however; I wanted the travertine to be the first thing you see as you step into the backyard. Since necessity is the mother of invention, I designed a semi-circular step. It entailed making a concrete form and pouring cement so there was a permanent structure to float the patio over.
We ended up mixing all the cement ourselves in one of those ‘rolling’ cement mixers buckets, similar to the one pictured below. By the seventh bag, I was exhausted. If we had to do it all over again, I would plan ahead and look into the cost of getting a truck to deliver a pre-mixed batch so we could pour it all at once.
finishing the step
Once the cement was poured and cured, I applied stone to the face of the inner curve with adhesive made especially for marble (other adhesives may stain and show through natural travertine).
Be sure NOT to cement the edges down on top of the concrete. If there is no flexibility at the point where the pavers meet the top of the poured cement retaining wall, the stones could crack and/or heave. The best option is to adding some flexible caulking under the edge of each paver (where it meets up with the rim of the wall) to hold them down. This will help prevent them from gradually shifting forward over the edge. If the pavers do happen to ease forward over the years, you can reapply some caulk and stick them back down.
When we laid the travertine up to the step, we transferred the curve of the step with pencil to the underneath of each stone – adding on a 1″ overhang. Then cut them all on a wet saw.
Fast forward. You can score right up to the line, then remove each section to get the curve.
Our two challenges were a lot more work than we bargained for. However, when it comes to landscaping, as novices, you just have to go with the flow!
Phase Two – Hardscape and Softscape:
(Top up the base, grade away from the house for water drainage, set paving stones and fill in with polymeric sand, shop again – for plant material and pond accessories, install rock garden and plant garden).
After nature took its course and compacted our initial layer of HPB stone, we topped it up in the Spring and did our final tamping and grading.
You’ll need some long metal pipes to do your screeding and final levelling; as you can see here we used aluminum. Lay the metal pipes on either side of the area you’re levelling and set them to the finished height of the string you set up. Make sure you have a straight edge that’s long enough to span the two pipes and then set it on top of the pipes and drag it along, steadily levelling off the top of the stone.
After the first pull through the stone, check with your straight edge to make sure you don’t have any gaps underneath. If you find gaps, throw a little more stone in that spot and then re-screed until everything is perfectly level. When you’re happy with it, carefully pull out the screed rails and fill in the indentations with more HPB and pat it down level (I did this as I laid the patio stones because my reach into the field only went so far!).
This video demonstrates how to screed (they are using sand instead of HPB, but the technique is the same).
I started laying stone in front of the step and retaining wall. That small bucket is to hold HPB and a plastic scoop so I can fill in the gaps from the metal screen rails. I also have a small level so I can ensure everything is still flat before placing the stones.
Once all the pavers are laid, wash them down and let them thoroughly dry before applying polymeric sand. Polymeric sand should be swept into the spaces and lightly misted to allow it to set. It’s a great product; it will repel ants and prevent weeds from growing between your beautiful pavers. Check out this Unilock video to learn more about polymeric sand.
Using Polymeric Sand
Some words of caution when using polymeric sand with travertine pavers: our pavers happened to be ‘unfilled’ and in their natural state… meaning that any natural imperfections, pits and holes on the surface were not filled in. We personally love that rustic look, but when you add polymeric sand, keep in mind that it will settle in these crevices and be noticeable.
There are two common sense solutions to this dilemma: buy filled travertine pavers in the first place or make sure the colour of your polymeric sand is as close match to your travertine pavers as possible.
Now, don’t laugh too hard but I went the extra mile and came up with a third solution to this problem – a solution that actually sucks! Yes, that’s right, that’s me vacuuming …. the patio! Or more specifically ‘sand boogers’ from the crevices of the travertine.
With a wet/dry vac I sucked all the noticeable sand out of the crevices of the travertine. Since I did this BEFORE misting them with water, I didn’t get what I affectionately call ‘sand boogers’ on the surface of my pavers. #vacuumingsandboogers
You’ll find more information on using polymeric sand to resand a walkway here.
Once the patio and garden was done, we completed a rock garden to fill in this corner of the yard.
By the way, in case you’re thinking we must have a rugged vehicle ready to transport our MANY MANY rock purchases home with us, below is the actual car we used to schlep every piece of rock and flagstone home. It’s literally being held together by duct tape! But that’s a whole other story!
Planting the Garden
Now for the exciting part: buying the plants and installing all the ‘softscape’. This is the part I LOVE – seeing it all come together.
I adore this pom pom Juniper and I feel like a proud paint mama! It’s grown so big now that it wraps around our happy sad faces. There is some trimming necessary with an ornamental like this in an otherwise low maintenance garden, but it’s worth the extra effort! See how to reshape a pom pom topiary to keep it looking great as it grows.
Ferns love shade so there’s one beneath this chair and another under the umbrella.
In spaces like the rock garden, plant ‘fillers, spillers and thrillers’! The thriller is the mini ginko tree in the back. It will grow slowly and not too tall for this small corner.
Snow on the mountain is a spiller but can easily overtake other plants (as you see above) so it must be pulled back in the Spring to keep it in check.
Fill in with low maintenance succulents.
Phase Three – Water Feature:
Time to set up the pond. After everything else was done, Hubs took over to figure out all the mechanics of the pump for the pond.
We found a concrete bowl, and the plan was to drill a hole in the bottom and insert a fountain in the centre of the bowl. But because he wasn’t sure about the capacity, he bought two pumps so he could test them both out; one after the other. One hose was mounted in the pond and the other one was set up to recirculate water from outside of the pond—precariously balanced on top of our brand new green bin and weighed down by a patio stone.
Upcyling at its worst …and a big mistake, as it turned out!
Don’t Do This At Home!
One fateful day, when we were out until almost dusk, Hubs left the pump with the makeshift hose running outside the pond. Some rascal of an animal knocked over the stone securing the hose to the green bin and ALL the water in the pond drained out and seeped underneath, which floated the pond liner like the Titanic!
It was an ‘Ay Carumba’ moment of gargantuan proportion. By the time we came home, our liner was pointing up to the sky and all the plants were figuratively screaming to be rescued (sadly, even the floating plants were landlocked).
We worked like mad to lift everything out and drain the water before it was pitch dark.
But right in the middle of our panic, my father and sister dropped by for a visit. Talk about bad timing. But—take it from me—if you ever want to get rid of uninvited guests, threaten to put them to work. And then grab a tool—any tool—like you mean it! Works like a charm. They hightailed it out of there pretty quickly 🤣.
End of Season 1
Once the rock garden was done, we were at the end of our first season of hard work in the backyard oasis and had to stop to get ready winter. A LONG LONG LONG LONG LONG INTERMISSION GETS INSERTED RIGHT HERE.
The next spring, we (meaning Hubs) re-dug the pond, fit the liner back in. And, bless his heart, Hubs set the pump up safe and secure, permanently attaching it INSIDE the pond!
We couldn’t really be too upset about the do-over situation when the yard has come so far. Afterall, our pond area started out with a dead twig emerging from the ground and ended up as part of a tranquil spot to relax.
Phase Four – Water Saving and Privacy Features:
(Install dry creek bed/ flagstone/moss and build and install trellises)
Small Backyard Landscape Ideas – Dry Creek Bed
Installing a dry creek bed is a great way to save water; no need to water a tiny patch of grass our backyard oasis! Besides, it would be too awkward to maneuver a lawn mower through the backyard to mow this small patch of grass in our yard.
We dug out a flowing shape for the dry creek bed, added in landscape cloth (which we staked into the side to prevent it from shifting) and filled it with a colourful variety of smooth river rock.
We then went shopping for even MORE stone – this time flagstone. It’s fun to handpick the pieces you think will fit best; like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
We also found the PERFECT statue to watch over our newly resurrected pond. Given the aforementioned pond disaster the previous Fall, how fitting is this tragedy and comedy mask statue? It’s like it was meant to be!
Dry lay the flagstone before digging around each one. Use an edging tool and remove a few inches of topsoil to inset them into the ground. That will keep them in place and prevent shifting).
After plant materials start to mature, it will look like this! A few larger stones anchor the perimeter of the dry creek bed. Day lillies and drought resistant (aka low maintenance) ground cover are far more beautiful than the grass ever was!
To fill in the flagstone with more greenery, plant moss in between and around them. There’s a narrow pathway between the dry creed bed and the fence that wraps around the rock garden and ends at the pond. Covering it in mulch helps to keep the mud and weeds at bay until the moss fills in. Until then, I find the contrast against the pale stone preferable to the dirt.
Small Backyard Landscape Ideas – Trellises
Every small backyard oasis needs at least one trellis. The one you see below was built so we could grow silver lace vine to bring privacy to our small suburban space.
We also built a privacy screen (behind a retaining wall, not shown). Click the link for the DIY on how to build trellises and privacy screens.
Believe it or not, you only need to plant two silver lace vines to get this amount of coverage!
By the time fall rolls around, the silver lace vine blooms. Magnificent!
Once the foliage dies back, you see the beautiful form of the trellis once again. So there’s always something interesting to look at no matter what the season.
Small Backyard Landscape Ideas
our little Oasis
The garden facinates me as it changes with the seasons. It even looks great after the rain (as you see in the video near the start). Aside from the how-tos on building a pond, dry creek bed and privacy screens linked throughout this post, be sure to check out our other inspiring garden posts.
A Little More Privacy
Even with all the DIY trellises, there was still one spot lacking privacy. Check out the solid fence screen we made to complete our small backyard landscape ideas.
Phew – I’m almost as exhausted writing about the ‘Mother (Nature) of All Projects’ as I was actually doing the work of creating our backyard oasis! So the final word goes to…..
FAQs for Small Backyard Landscape Ideas
What is the best low maintenance yard?
Here are some low maintenance landscape ideas for backyards:
- Install a stone patio with a strong base. If you have a good base, you won’t experience heaving during the winter months. Stone will endure, while a deck will eventually rot. For DIY installation, nothing could be easier than using High Performance Bedding under the stone. Then fill in with polymeric sand to seal out weeds for years of maintenance free enjoyment.
- Remove remaining grass and install a dry creek bed. You won’t have to mow or water and low maintenance plant material looks great flanking the perimeter.
- Build a rock garden; tuck in hens and chicks between the rocks and in the garden too. They need little water and are drought tolerant.
- Plant the majority of beds with perennials to come back year after year. Check with your local nursery for native varieties that will thrive in your climate. Wait to purchase and plant them in the Fall to save money too!
- Use moss between stepping stones. The moss allow water to drain and looks as lush and green as grass without the maintenance of mowing it.
What are some landscaping ideas for small backyards?
1. Make use of vertical space to grow vines (see how to train clematis now for beautiful blooms by summer).
2. Add some mirrors in strategic locations to expand the space and to also train flowers
3. Add some dwarf species (like the dwarf ginko tree in our rock garden)
4. Use multiple levels for planters, like small pillars (show below) and shelves placed on the fence (following picture).
Hostas work well in planters too!
Here again is a reminder of the progression!
Outdoor Garden Decor
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