Five Ways to Use a Small Urban Backyard

City dwellers often rely on botanical gardens and city parks for their outdoor fix, but many may have a perfectly green garden space in the back yard. Of course, the small backyard area may be covered with concrete or overrun with weeds and worse. That doesn’t mean there is no hope.

4x4 gardens in an urban Chicago backyard. Photo: roman.petruniak/flickr creative commons.

You can never magically expand a small space into a lush suburban garden escape, but there are good ways to use minuscule urban backyards. Here are five of the best.

1. Vegetable patch

The idea of a vegetable farm may conjure up visions of huge rural acres, but plenty of food can be grown in a very small square footage. Companies such as Minifarmbox specialize in products for tiny vegetable gardens, downtown and otherwise. The company suggests an ambitious city dweller can grow 80 heads of lettuce, 70 pounds of tomatoes, 50 pounds of beets and more in a four-foot-by-four-foot raised garden bed.

Of course, it takes some planning and strategy to optimize a non-rural vegetable garden. Ideally, most vegetables want six to eight hours of full sun, so you may need a raised bed on wheels to help chase the sun. Also use a good rich planting mix and fertilize regularly, particularly if using raised beds, where you have no access to the natural nutrients in the soil. And focus on dwarf varieties. Miniature eggplants, tomatoes and more are packed with plenty of flavor you can’t find at the supermarket.

2. Wildlife habitat

The National Wildlife Federation will register certified wildlife habitats as small as apartment balconies. In the dense concrete jungles of cities, it is particularly important to ensure safe places for birds and other wildlife. The NWF has four requirements for its certified wildlife habitats:

• You must provide food for wildlife, which can be as simple as a hanging feeder or a few native plants.

• You must supply water for wildlife, which may include birdbaths or small puddling areas for butterflies.

• You must create cover for wildlife, such as birdhouses or even dead trees.

• You must have a place for wildlife to raise their young, which can include a nesting box, mature trees, caterpillar host plants or a planting of dense shrubs.

3. Dining room

For an episode of HGTV’s “Landscape Smart,” one couple hosted their wedding in their long-neglected back yard. The centerpiece of the project (and the stage for their ceremony) was a circular flagstone patio, created by a contractor in Oakland, CA.

It may seem counterintuitive to pave over an existing yard, but a nice flagstone patio, plus plants and furniture equals an outdoor dining room for the warm months.

Of course, city thieves will prey on anything not nailed to the ground, so scour local garage sales, freebies and thrift stores for cheap outdoor furniture.

A paved space may still have landscaping of sorts. Put all your plants in containers, and you can move them around to chase the sun or accommodate groups of various sizes. If you use large containers, consider putting empty plastic bottles or other filler in the bottom of the containers to keep them from getting prohibitively heavy.

4. Meditation or relaxation area

Can anybody meditate among the honks, shouts and bustle of the city? With a dense relaxation garden, the answer is yes. The smells and sights of shrubs and flowers are naturally relaxing and healing. A metropolitan meditation garden just needs to be more compact, dense and vertical than most.

Moreover, beekeepers say their hobby is fairly meditative, and (careful) backyard hives are generating quite a buzz. Beekeeping also can help bring back an insect that seems to be mysteriously dying off.

5. Playground

If you can secure your yard, let the kids run free in a private playground. Everything is built up vertically in the city, and playgrounds are no exception. Most kids naturally want to climb, so the sandbox can be under the swings, which can be under the monkey bars, which can be under the fort.

A quick daily hose-down of all the toys and equipment will pay off in the long run. The alternative is periodic scrubbing of grime and soot, or accepting that the children will “look like the chimney sweeps from Mary Poppins,” as one New York blogger noted when she became disillusioned with her Manhattan condo playground.

As noted above, there are some unique challenges and additional work involved when establishing and using an urban back yard, but you may be surprised by how much use and joy you can get from a small space.

Steve Graham wrote this article for

Updated September 3, 2018.

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