How I Turned My Tiny Backyard Into an Outdoor Oasis
One small space blogger shares her tips and tricks.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:59 AM
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Whitney Leigh Morris had wanted to remodel her backyard for a long time—pretty much as soon as she and her husband-to-be, Adam, moved into their Venice, California, home eight years ago. But it took them a few tries (and plenty of mistakes) to create their little outdoor oasis.
“We didn’t have the budget to do what we wanted, so we were basically putting bandaids on things. It turns out that this makeover was not nearly as expensive as our Band-Aids,” says Morris. “What we’ve learned over the years is that if we had just done it right or had been a little more patient, we would have actually saved a ton of money and prevented a lot of waste, which is one of the things that tiny living is all about.”
Now that the blogger and author of Small Space Style has finished the makeover, complete with a custom sofa by Tumbleweed and Dandelion, a strategically sized dining area, and plenty of plants, she has the yard of her dreams. Here, she shares the things she learned along the eight-year journey.
Start from the ground up
Finding the right foundation took a few rounds of trial and error. “Initially, when we moved in, it was dead earth, and then we added grass, but then there was the California drought, and we had to let it die because we didn’t want to waste water,” says Morris. “We tried high-end artificial grass, but it’s still wasteful—it takes water to produce it and it takes water to clean and maintain it. By the time we ripped it all out to put in pea gravel, it was a tremendous amount of waste—that was one of our big mistakes.”
Pea gravel won out because it could easily stay in place, without being tracked into Morris’s all-white home by her son or dogs. “Gravel is a good, inexpensive way to create a drought-tolerant garden that can still look really lush and beautiful,” she adds. A word of warning: “A lot of people love the look of it but aren’t sure if it’s comfortable—so just get a sample and spill a bag! See what it looks like wet versus dry and see if you can walk over it. Everyone is different—just test things out in small batches.”
Be patient with plants
The lush plant trellis over Morris’s yard is enviable, but that wasn’t always the case. “The only things that are still here that were here when we moved in are the ficus trees, of course, and then there is one red trumpet vine that was just a little nubbin. Now, that red trumpet is the single vine that you see extending through the whole yard,” she says. “With the help of some wires and some string lights, we’ve been able to train that vine to create a natural canopy. Our hope is that for next year that we can have a full feeling of greenery all around.”
Don’t be afraid to call in the experts for a project like this. Morris tapped Big Red Sun, a female-owned garden studio in Venice, to help with plant selection for the rest of the space, cementing hidden posts to support the heavy vines, and putting down that gravel. Paying for extra help can save you money in the long run by preventing rookie slip-ups that you have to fix later.
Morris’s outdoor space is more of a thoroughfare than a full-out patio, so figuring out the best seating situation proved a challenge. Ultimately, a custom option by Tumbleweed & Dandelion made the most sense.
“The back of the sofa is usually what takes up a lot of room. So we basically made the couch with a straight back and we added mirrors above it to cover up the shed,” she says. “I wanted mirrors to amplify the vines and the light in the yard, and designer Lizzie McGraw suggested we secure them there so they’re safe in the event of an earthquake—or when my son jumps on the couch.”
It was an investment but one that will last for a long time. “What we decided to do was make this the last piece that I would buy for the yard. I wanted to do it right, so we would also reduce our environmental footprint.”
When it comes to outdoor dining tables, there is certainly no lack of options. But when you’re short on square footage, it’s worth reconsidering how big of a table you really need. “We had folding tables for a long time, and while they can be great, you still need to find a place to put them. We wanted something that we didn’t have to bring out that could be super low-maintenance,” Morris says. “Having a circular bistro table was the solution for us. When you’re navigating a small space, you don’t want sharp corners you might bump into.”
Grow your garden vertically
Want to hide an ugly fence or just give your yard jungle vibes? For just $200, the Morrises made a lattice vertical garden with the help of Big Red Sun. “Now, we can grow strawberries and things like that without our son being able to reach and pull them off before they’ve matured.” Mission accomplished.
See more outdoor ideas: If Nothing Else, Add a Firepit to Your Yard This Summer 7 Chic Inflatable Pools That Aren’t Just for Kids Sarah Sherman Samuel Just Redid Her Backyard—and It’s Full of CB2 Finds