Ideas To Enhance Side Yards

By Ken Lain, the mountain gardener 

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Many mountain homes have a side yard that is not only long and narrow but treacherously steep. Good landscape design for such a layout is complicated at best, but when done well, it can tie the entire landscape together in a masterful manner. 

Sideyard Rock

Don’t have time to view the entire article, see the highlights below: 

  • Stone, pavers, and retaining walls turn ordinary side areas into extraordinary landscapes. 
  • The easiest and cheapest Southwest walkway is crushed granite. 
  • A walkway should measure 28-36” inches wide. 
  • Suppress weeds in an area by laying down weed fabric. 
  • Containers add style and interest to long walls with high fences. 
  • Think small or dwarf-sized plants if space is narrow. 
  • Enliven the area by featuring some exciting yard art or running water features. 
  • Pinterest Board that stimulates creative juices. 

At our home, Lisa and I have turned our landscape lemons into some truly “tasteful” lemonade.  Our most challenging project was to ease the steep access to our backyard. A flight of stairs with a different herb garden and wall art at each step, a commercial-sized pot of rosemary and sedum, with a “welcome” sign at the gate help visitors move effortlessly along from the bottom to the top into our home’s secret gardens. It is a real treasure, but it took some unusually creative design flair! 

A steep yard can be a demanding brain twister even for experienced gardeners, but it can be handled with some landscape skills applicable for almost any side yard project.  If this is the primary pathway from front to back, I encourage a no-nonsense walkway through the area to prevent tripping hazards. Measure to determine if there is room for a perennial bed, herbs, along the walkway. Also, determine if space allows for guiding a garden cart easily along the way.


Walkways should be smooth and, on the level, measuring 28 – 36” wide.  The easiest and most inexpensive Southwest walkway is crushed granite packed down to a supportive hardness. This gold surface will wash away and needs replenishing every few years, but it suppresses weeds while coddling the bank account. 

Flagstone and concrete paving stones create contemporary styles that are suited to any expression of modern architecture. Yavapai Block is the most affordable local source, with block manufactured right here in Prescott.  

Whatever its surface material, a walkway should measure 28-36” inches wide. Straight paths that reinforce the tunnel-like effect of a long narrow yard, although not as desirable as long, curved pathways, sometimes are unavoidable, and can be made attractive. On the opposite side of the size spectrum, an invitingly wide walkway can serve as a fully functional patio. 

Alternatively, you may choose not to have a well-defined walkway but opt for a free-flowing path. Suppress weeds in the area by laying down weed fabric covered by mulch. This is best for side yards that are not used very often. If the side yard doesn’t get much traffic, and you need a place for the family dog to piddle, there is nothing like a camouflaged small patch of lawn. In areas with dense shade, select a shade-tolerant lawn mix like tall fescues. 

Best Plants for Side Yards 

Plants on Trellis

Containers add style and interest to long walls with high fences and eliminate having to dig in our unyielding mountain soils. But if you must plant directly into the ground, first determine how much sun will be in this part of the yard. Before heading to the garden center note whether the area is on the north or south side of the house.  If in doubt, bring iPad pictures of the space at different times of the day and my staff or I can read the shadows.  This will enable us to come up with the best plants for your side yard project. 

Think small or dwarf-sized plants if space is narrow. We have entire sections of the nursery set up for small spaces, and they include some of my favorite small-area plants: lavender, rosemary, mugo pine, spirea, dwarf burning bush, and carpet roses. For taller plants, look to Alberta spruce, tiny towers cypress, skyrocket junipers, and flowering redbud. Each proliferates in local gardens, is low maintenance, and can be planted now.  

A long narrow side yard of a large home can feel cavernous. Enliven and/or cozy-up the area by featuring some exciting yard art or the sound of running water from a small fountain. If walls enclose one side of the yard, feature antique trellises or old European courtyard doors against them. If a contemporary feel is more to your taste, try free-standing or wall-mounted colorful, angular metal pieces.  Grow vines like ivy, akebia, pyracantha, and honeysuckle in staggered groupings. 

I’ve put together a creative Pinterest Board that should stimulate your creative juices. Plan a design that excites your style and get it started. This is a great month to plant, especially winter evergreen varieties. If the project seems overwhelming, ask for help. Watters’ designers await your digital photos or can even come directly onsite for a detailed consultation

Until next week, I’ll be here at Watters Garden Center helping gardeners design beautiful side yards. 

Ken Lain can be found at Watters Garden Center throughout the week, 1815 W. Iron Springs Rd in Prescott, or contacted through his websites at or