Inviting Side Yard Designs

By Ken Lain, the mountain gardener

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

At our home Lisa and I turned our landscape lemons into palatable lemonade, easing our 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 greet visitors to our home’s ‘secret’ gardens.  It is a true treasure, but it took some serious design flair!

A steep yard can be a demanding challenge, but it can be met with some basic side-yard-2landscape skills applicable for most any side yard project.  Measure to see if there is room for a perennial bed, herbs, or walkway.  If this is the primary pathway from front to pack I encourage a no-nonsense walkway through the area to prevent tripping hazards.  Determine if space allows to guide a garden cart to the back with ease.



Walkway or Pathway

Walkways should be smooth and on the level.  The easiest and cheapest Southwest walkway is crushed granite packed down to hardness.  This gold surface does wash away and needs replenishing every few years, but suppresses weeds and is very inexpensive.

Flagstone, and concrete paving stones look newer with a style that matches most newer architecture. Yavapai Block is the most affordable local source, with block manufactured right here in Prescott.  A walkway should measure 28-36 inches wide whatever the surface material.  Straight paths, that reinforce the tunnel-like effect of a long narrow yard, are not as attractive as curved pathways.  A wide attractive walkway can even serve as a 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 often used.  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 small patch of lawn.  (This idea does entail regular maintenance. ) In areas with dense shade select a shade tolerant lawn mix like tall fescues.

Best Plants for Side Yards

Containers add style and interest to long walls with high fences, and eliminate having to dig in our often unyielding mountain soils.  But let’s assume that you will be planting directly into the soil.  Before heading to the garden center for some evergreen rosemary or mugo pine, measure how much sun is in this part of the yard.  Note whether it’s on the north or south side of the house.  If in doubt, bring an iPad picture of the space and my staff or I can read the shadows and come up with the best plants for the space.

Think small or dwarf-sized plants if the space is narrow.  We have entire sections of the nursery set up for small spaces, including some of my favorites: 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 grows easily in local gardens, is low maintenance, and can be planted now.

A long narrow side yard of a large home can feel cavernous.  Enliven the area by featuring some interesting yard art or the sound of running water from a small fountain.  If walls enclose one side of the yard, feature antique trellis works or old European courtyard doors against them.  Grow vines like ivy, akebia, pyracantha and honeysuckle in staggered spots along the expanse to soften the harshness of a wall.

watters-arborThe 2017 garden arbors just arrived, and while a large arching arbor is a natural for large yards, it can be especially helpful in improving the design in a small side yard. These arbors are just stunning by themselves, but all arbors are enhanced by vines growing up the posts.

Gardening Classes for the next two weeks are timely and fun. 

Nov 12 – Decorating with Winter Evergreens.  As the last autumn leaf drops, leaving our landscapes naked and bare, Watters’ winter evergreen collection fills the garden center.  Late fall is the ideal season for planting evergreens in the empty spots of any yard. Best varieties, planting techniques, and evergreen care are all included in the class. Watters’ ‘Living Evergreens Indoors as Holiday Decor’of printed tips is free to each student.

Nov 19 – Wildflowers to Bloom in 6 Easy steps Wildflowers can be harder to grow than you think, but not after this info-heavy class. Sit in for free, but the first 10 students to sign up receive a package of Ken’s specially blended mountain wildflower mix. The seeds come with all the goodies to make them bloom like crazy this spring!

Until next week, I’ll see you at the garden center.

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