Side yards are often thought of as leftover space, but these transition areas are critical to the overall design, functionality and appreciation of the garden. Horticulturalist Frank Kershaw explains how to get yours in tip-top shape.
When planning a side garden, the first step is to obtain a legal survey that indicates property size and ownership. The plan should include above or below-grade utility services, indicating their setback and clearance requirements. Exterior wall obstructions such as rainwater downpipes, hose bibs, drier and furnace vents, along with steps, handrails and window wells also need to be indicated. Furthermore, before making any amendments to your side garden, check municipal regulations related to the height of fences, gates and the location of air conditioners and generator units. Where neighbors share a common side yard entrance, a coordinated approach is required as a shared path and landscape improvements may straddle the property line.
You will also need to document site conditions before deciding how you will use the area and what plant materials are required. Consider seasonal and daily sun and shade, soil and moisture conditions and wind exposure, particularly in winter. The size, health and maintainability of existing plant material also need to be considered.
A shared gate between two houses features a unique door draped with vines.
This should go hand-in-hand with that of the front and backyard gardens to ensure the style and mood of the side yards mirror or complement these other garden areas. If your property has two side yards, as most do, decide which will accommodate visitors and which will be used for service functions.
A side yard that is separated from the residential entrance by a driveway and garage and is further encumbered by utilities and wall obstructions will most likely become the service entrance. Regardless, it still needs to be well organized, functional and attractive.
A wider, sunnier side yard devoid of obstructions and connected to the front door walkway will probably become the visitor entrance. This may also be the case where the side yard leads directly to a backyard deck or patio.
Rain barrels and other utilities are often located in the side service areas.
Of all the side-yard components, the walkway is most critical. It can vary in terms of alignment, width, paving material and landscape enhancements. A service-oriented side yard will probably be hard-surfaced concrete or cast-concrete pavers in a straight alignment with minimal landscaping. Gates need to be wide enough to accommodate wheelbarrows, tree carts, lawn mowers and other equipment.
Alternatively, the visitor path could be random flagstone, cut stone, outdoor landscape brick, interlocking-concrete pavers or cobbles laid in intricate patterns. This path’s alignment can vary to provide opportunities for sitting areas and more extensive landscaping.
Attractive containers filled with shade-tolerant species solve the problem of having a path with no planting area.
This can become expensive, particularly when security and privacy requirements are included. Where adjacent houses have the same setback, a large single gate or two matching gates could be constructed. This provides a secure entrance for both properties and extends the line of both houses, making them seem larger. Where abutting houses are not aligned, gates are often recessed deeper in the side yard or limited to a single backyard gate.
Side-yard house walls can be accessorized by placing a small bench or chair in a wall recess. Where windows overlook the space, planted window boxes add color and fragrance. Blank walls might accommodate all-weather garden art, ironwork, sculpture, water bowl and decorative trellis.
A vibrant front-yard flower bed sweeps around the side of the house.
Most side yards have limited space, so choosing plants can be challenging. Often side yards fall within the shadow zone of multi-story buildings, necessitating shade-tolerant boxwoods (Buxus spp.), upright yews (Taxus spp.), euonymus, hostas, hakone grass (Hakonechloa spp.), and ground-hugging wild gingers (Asarum spp.).
Where rainwater washes down walls, ferns, hostas, sedges (Carex spp.) and moss might suffice. If light is not a limiting factor, a fuller range of sun-loving shrubs, perennials, annuals and ornamental grasses are possibilities. Tight spaces are ideal locations for container gardens that can be used to frame benches, steps and border paths.
If the space allows for columnar and vase-shaped trees and shrubs, some of my favorites are Blue Arrow juniper (Juniperus virginiana 'Blue Arrrow'), Pencil Point juniper (Juniperus communis 'Pencil Point'), upright Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata) and the compact bloodtwig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea 'Compressa'). Larger spaces might accommodate the beautiful semi-double, pink-flowered Amanogawa columnar Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata ‘Amanogawa’), Lucas pyramidal hornbeam (Carpinus betulus 'Lucus') and the showy pink-flowering Chinese redbud (Cercis chinensis).
Small side gardens can be quite colorful when you include plant choices such as this flowering quince.
Topiary trees and shrubs are popular side-yard additions, particularly as matching pairs at entrance points. Investigate the many spiral twist junipers, spruces and cypresses. Standard forms of trees and shrubs, with their grafted mop heads, add animation. Not only do they set human scale and add a sense of whimsy, they also allow for planting groundcovers below. Examples include dwarf Korean lilac (Syringa meyeri 'Palibin'), dwarf Hinoki false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Nana Gracilis'), Emerald Gaiety euonymus (Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald Gaiety'), dwarf burning bush (Eounymus alatus 'Compactus') and flowering almond (Prunus triloba) standards.
Wall space affords opportunities for trellises, as well as the trained branches of climbing hydrangea vines (Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris), espalier fruit trees, roses, firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), cotoneaster and ivies. Vines can also be trained on wall-mounted wires to soften blank walls and add color. Cover overhead arches, bowers and pergolas in colorful clematis, wisteria, morning glory or chocolate vine (Akebia quinata) to add a romantic touch. However, watch invasive root species, such as trumpet vine (Campsis radicans).
This side garden between the house and the neighbour’s driveway is planted with shrubs and an Acer campestre ‘Carnival' as a focal point.
Problems and Maintenance
The confined nature of side gardens and their moist soils and regular use can lead to excessive soil compaction, which is commonly the result of downpipes from eaves troughs. These pipes also contribute to the frost heaving of bulbs and perennials. To remedy this, extend covered downpipes well into lawn areas or investigate a rain garden, if space permits.
Cold winter winds can freeze and kill flower buds. Select plants hardy to your area and wrap in protective burlap at least until they are well established. Because it’s a confined space, limb breakage on trees and shrubs is a common problem in a side yard. This often leads to drastic pruning measures that destroy plant form. For this reason, knowing the mature sizes, forms, growth rates and hardiness of selected woody plants is essential.
A change in elevation at the side of the house is dealt with by building a raised bed and stone steps.
Gardeners often try to hide air conditioner units with plantings. This seldom works since exhaust air can dry out and defoliate plants. Alternatively, a decorative enclosure that looks great and doesn't impede airflow could suffice.
If you are in a newly built house without any landscaping, refrain from making side-yard enhancements until the back yard has been completed. This will afford maximum flexibility for construction equipment and save gates and pavers from damage.
Don't relegate side yards to the sidelines in your garden planning and design. Take time to get to investigate the opportunities they present to the overall garden.
Text by Frank Kershaw
Photos by Marnie Wright
Frank Kershaw is an award-winning horticulturist with more than 40 years of experience. He teaches garden design and horticultural courses at George Brown College in Toronto and at the Toronto Botanical Garden. Frank is also a seminar presenter at the Toronto Lee Valley stores.
Marnie Wright is a lifelong gardener, writer and passionate garden photographer. Her Rocksborough Garden, developed over 30 years, is located in Bracebridge, Ontario.