5 Design Mistakes to Avoid in Small Backyards — And What to Do Instead to Elevate Compact Outdoor Spaces

Tiny spaces can become overcrowded quite quickly if you don't pay attention to even the smallest of details. Here is some expert advice on what to look out for when it comes to your garden

a small paved backyard with a fruit tree
(Image credit: Manolo Langis. Design: Mandy Graham)

Space is an important part of any place, but when it comes to small backyards, it can be quite the challenge planning out what patio furniture, outdoor lighting and plants would be just the right fit to create balance — rather making the mistake of overcrowding your yard.

'In order to have the most beautiful outdoor space possible, it’s important to think about the different ways you can maximize the area, particularly if you want to make it look bigger and add visual depth,' says Lucy Hooton, a designer at design firm Yabby.

With that being said, there are many mistakes people make when they have a small backyard. But worry not, if you're struggling with making the most of a compact garden, we've asked experts to highlight 5 mistakes they often see, so you know how you can avoid them.

The mistakes people with small backyards make

Small backyard with modern pink garden furniture

(Image credit: Matthew Williams/Studio DB)

We've all been through it before, getting excited and buying different items to spruce up your backyard, but eventually it just looks overcrowded and not quite as appealing as one would have hoped.

To avoid this from happening, Landscape Architect, Cate Singleton from Tilly Designs tells us: 'Creating different zones for different uses can certainly make a backyard appear larger in size. A good example of this would be creating walkways from patios to a possible destination fire pit closer to the back of the yard'.

'One side of the walkway can become an area for raised garden beds, while the other remains open lawn space. Layering plantings can also create depth within the garden bed and give the illusion of a larger space,' Cate adds.

1. Overcrowding

deck with furniture and lights

(Image credit: Yardzen)

When you are trying to find the best way to bring those backyard ideas to life, it can be quite the task if you have a limited amount of space to work with. Finding the right furniture is the key to get the best out of your small backyard.

Lucy Hooton, an Interior Designer at Yabby tells us: 'Even though having an outdoor space is an exciting new area to decorate, trying to fit too many large pieces of furniture into a small backyard can make the space feel cluttered and cramped'.

To avoid this, Lucy recommends, 'looking for smaller, multi-functional furniture pieces that can be easily moved or stored. This will mean looking at options like foldable chairs or a compact table - all to give you that functional feeling without overcrowding the area.

2. Not considering scale

an outdoor patio with a dining table and gate

(Image credit: Joe Schmelzer. Design: Mercantile & Merchant / Ryan Perella)

Depending on the scale of your backyard, oftentimes for an added layer of privacy, homeowners look towards adding trees for a fence line, but with a smaller yard, this could downsize the amount of space in you have.

Landscape Architect, Cate Singleton from Tilly Designs says how you utilize the space while understanding the scale is important. She notes: 'Planning uses for a small backyard without considering scale implications can be problematic. For example, including lots of large trees that will crowd the space and building a large shade structure with a low horizontal plane, that can make your entertaining space feel smaller'.

Landscape Architect, Cate Singleton
Cate Singleton

Cate is Director of Design at Tilly Design and a Landscape Architect who lives in Texas. She has more than fifteen years of experience working on residential and commercial projects with a passion for client service, tech-enabled design and sustainable practices. She earned her BLA from Arizona State University.

3. Not being cohesive

a backyard planted with dogwood tree

(Image credit: Gieves Anderson. Design: Brook Landscape / Frederick Tang Architecture)

A balance in a space is important. Your outdoor living room should be an extension of your home, rather than a completely different entity. Lucy says not being cohesive is another mistake many people make with small backyards.

She says: 'Mixing too many design elements and styles can create a disjointed look to your garden, which is great if that is the aesthetic you’re looking for, but otherwise, it’s an easy fix'. To add harmony to your space, Lucy advises to 'stick to a cohesive design scheme, aesthetic, or color palette to create an outdoor space that is visually appealing and to have a sense of continuity in the space'.

Interior Designer Lucy Hooton
Lucy Hooton

As an interior designer at Yabby, Lucy brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the design and construction industry. With a Diploma in Project Management and a passion for creating stunning interiors, she's dedicated to helping people on their journey to create beautifully curated spaces. She aims to share valuable insights, tips, and inspiration to assist others in achieving their dream space!

4. Neglecting the importance of lighting

a backyard deck illuminated at night by lighting

(Image credit: Travis Rhoads. Design: Seed Studio Landscape Design)

Poor lighting can make a big difference. Lucy tells us: 'It can make a small backyard feel dark and uninviting, which is not the best in the evenings. To make sure your yard is well lit, think about bringing more light sources into the space with things like string lights, solar-powered path lights or even wall-mounted fixtures to brighten things up more. This is a really important factor to focus on if you like using the yard at night, and will help bring ambiance into the space'.

Summer nights are quite pleasant when the sun goes down, but if you're looking to entertain guests outdoors, you're going to need to switch on those lights. Embracing modern garden lighting will make your yard look 100 times better and help you enjoy alfresco dining even when the sun falls into slumber.

5. Ignoring pathways

a small paved patio in a backyard

(Image credit: Gieves Anderson. Design: Brook Landscape / Frederick Tang Architecture)

Entertaining in the backyard is a great way to be one with nature, while also embracing the sun in all its glory. With that being said, you need to make sure your guests know where to go if they're hanging out in the garden.

Lucy says: 'Not having defined pathways can lead to a disorganized look, and can make it difficult to navigate the space. If you want to have your yard feeling polished, create clear pathways out of gravel, stepping stones, pavement or something else. You will be in awe at how much this will improve the flow and functionality of the space'.

What to do instead

If you have limited space to work with, Lucy has 3 pieces of advice which can help you through your journey of decorating small spaces.

1. Create zones: With limited space, Lucy says you should 'approach it like you would in organising your house by dividing it into different zones for dining, lounging, and gardening to make the space feel larger and more organised'.

2. Add plants and greenery: 'In order to make the most out of your outdoor space, bring in lots of plants and greenery to turn your backyard into a hush and green oasis. If you don’t want to plant new plants and wait for them to grow, use a mix of potted plants, hanging baskets, and vertical gardens to give your garden a more green feeling without taking up your ground space!'

3. Keep things simple: Last, but not least, 'avoid overcomplicating the design with too many decorative elements and try to stick to a simple, clean layout with a few well-chosen pieces that serve both functional and aesthetic purposes'.

Advice & Gardens Editor

Faiza is the Advice & Gardens Editor at Livingetc. She previously worked for The Independent as a News Feature Writer, where she wrote articles on lifestyle, entertainment, news and more. She also worked as an Audience Editor for the newspaper for over two years. Spending a few years in the newsroom, Faiza also previously worked for Sky News as an SEO reporter, where she produced stories based on trending topics. Lifestyle and Interior design is a space Faiza has been interested in for quite some time and as she continues to grow in the field, she will be diving into an interior design course to further her skills. Faiza has a background in SEO, social media and reporting. Her passion for writing goes beyond her work as she loves all things poetry and creative writing.