Side yards are usually peripheral matters, and rather neglected, but they deserve a closer look. With a little bit of imagination, that strip of grass or gravel on the side of the house can become a charming and respectable part of your garden.
Side yards naturally do not receive the attention gardeners are willing to devote to their front yard, the public face of their garden, or to the back, their private oasis and escape. In the narrow space between one house and the next, we stash recycling bins, coil up hoses, stack bags of mulch and park our bicycles. It's a passageway, and often a grim one.
In neighborhoods where houses are close together, a side yard is often narrow and shaded by adjacent structures. It may not be possible to plant sun-loving flowers in such a space, but there are lots of ways to make a side yard of any size a more pleasant place.
To start with, you might install a pretty gate. A handsome garden gate always looks inviting, and it will inspire you to take steps to make the space inside the gate more interesting, too. A gate wide enough for a wheelbarrow is called for. Outside the gate, fill a big flowerpot with bright flowers. Impatiens will bloom all summer long even in a shady spot, but you could decide to fill the pot with texture instead of color -- try a big hosta or two, or a few exuberant ferns. A small shrub -- a boxwood, a hydrangea or a spirea -- also looks great in a flowerpot and will not need pampering.
Side yards tend to lead someplace else, and stepping-stones enhance the notion of an attractive destination. They make the space look tidy, and are very functional in wet weather. Large stepping-stones are the most practical; you should lay them quite close together, but you can avoid the look of a paved runway -- which also rushes you through the space -- with irregularly shaped flagstones. Combinations of bricks and flagstones are also very handsome.
Sometimes side yards are just that: They're simply a space separate from the rest of the garden, leading nowhere in particular, rather like a balcony. A small space, hidden away, can be a wonderfully relaxing spot. It could also easily be put to use as a potting station. A potting table (from a garden shop, or even an old hutch from a thrift store) gives you a place to organize your tools and supplies, without stealing space in the garage or from the rest of the garden. A trash can with a lid will hold potting soil, and flowerpots stack neatly under the potting bench. A gardener in California turned his side yard into a potting alcove by getting rid of a plastic shed and installing a table and panels with slats of bamboo to hold hand tools. He recycled ordinary six-sided concrete pavers from another project, and stained them to make them look like weathered terracotta.
The incentive to make the side yard more attractive is much greater when you can see the space from inside the house. A bubbling fountain in a bed of dark cobbles moves the focus from a featureless fence or the neighboring house's siding to something more lively. A gardener in Kansas City installed a wall fountain in his side yard; the fountain doesn't crowd the narrow space, and it definitely improves the view from his living-room window. Even a small birdbath on a pedestal, filled regularly with fresh water, will bring both birds and reflected light into a side yard, and immediately make it look more like a garden. A bench, painted to match the trim of your house, furnishes the space.
Trash has to be dealt with, but you can reduce its impact in your surroundings by building a functional but good-looking enclosure for the bins in a side yard. Plans for small sheds and enclosures are available on the Internet and are adaptable to all kinds of spaces. A sloping roof is important to keep rain and snow out of recycling bins, but doors may not be necessary.
Turning a side yard into an attractive spot -- or at least into a pleasant perspective, instead of letting it fill up with clutter -- doesn't take a lot of time or a big investment. The main thing is to take a fresh look: There is great potential in small spaces.