The demand for outdoor space skyrocketed during the pandemic, as people sought safer places to socialize and reconnect with nature. And we aren’t walking away from this newfound passion. 

Outdoor living will continue to be a priority for architects and homeowners over the next three years, according to a New Home Trends Institute report by John Burns Real Estate Consulting. But the study also found that the functionality of the outdoor space was more important than the size.  

That has certainly been the case for me. My partner Doug and I managed to lurch onto the housing ladder right before the world slowed to a standstill. We landed a compact West Seattle cottage formerly on an equally compact 2,048-square-foot lot. 

The previous owner — an artist — made bold choices when creating an outdoor refuge for the home: an atlas cedar archway here, bamboo hedging there, a flood of invasive (but gorgeous) bluebells under lavish plumes of pampas grass. He created several distinct outdoor “rooms,” including a side yard where a silver maple frames the city skyline. 

My favorite touch is a privacy wall he created to block the street, crafted from fiber cement siding painted iguana green and goldenrod, its exterior softened by purple irises each spring. Opaque glass panels rise up from this sturdy base: thick ridges of industrial glass containing hexagonal chicken wire, which welcome in buttery western-exposure sunshine. It’s like living inside a 1970s-nostalgic Instagram filter.  

Neighborhood scuttlebutt claims these glass panels were skylights upcycled from a 1930s factory near the Duwamish River. Whatever their origin, they bring much-needed privacy to our little scarlet house atop a hill, which is something of a local landmark thanks to its bright, almost Mondrian color scheme. The wall provides enough seclusion that we can soak outside in our Japanese cedar tub, a foot away from the sidewalk, without feeling as if we’re re-creating an Esther Williams synchronized-swimming extravaganza. The same goes for when we grill, eat at our fire table or work outside, laptop screens shaded by a canary-yellow umbrella.

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Tips for small spaces

Often, people with small yards try to make them feel more spacious by sidelining plants and furniture, leaving an open central area. Counterintuitively, that’s not the best move, says Scot Eckley, a Seattle-based landscape designer. Instead, divide your area into smaller compartments, each with its own personality, he advises. And consider anchoring the spaces with oversized focal features such as a large fire pit or a dramatic tree in a container.

“Don’t be afraid to go big,” Eckley says. “A larger-scale item will be much more dramatic and interesting than something small.” In particular, he recommends raised planters that can double as seating. “If it’s a container you can buy at Costco and lift easily into the back of an SUV, it’s not big enough!” 

For areas without long sightlines, lift the interest up, Eckley recommends. “In small spaces, we’ll often use tall containers so plants are at eye level when you’re sitting down, as opposed to a little planting bed on the ground that’s a couple feet deep,” he says.

Eckley frequently adds flair with hardscaping — including stones, paving, decks, screens and walls — rather than high-maintenance lawns and hedges (which also can hog several feet of space). “Bring energy and movement to the design with horizontal lines. Your eye picks them up and moves through the garden, as opposed to fence boards that go straight up and down. Then your eye just stops,” he says. Items in groups of three also help with visual engagement.

A focus on food

Lexy Moy planted a bite-sized garden outside her tiny home in Seattle. She has packed at least 90 plants into a 10-by-45-foot microyard, mostly on a paved driveway. Moy has also added a turquoise outdoor rug — found on her local Buy Nothing group — and a plastic-rattan table set. A pavilion shelters an all-weather seating space with easy access to an outdoor smoker and cooker. 

She also transformed a vintage glass bowl into a terrarium for carnivorous plants, which helps control flies around the outdoor dining area. If you go that route, make sure to nourish the plants with rainwater and give them a boggy soil with a mix of sand, peat and sphagnum moss appropriate for the species.

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Moy uses vertical hangers and layers of stacking containers to maximize her growing space. “I created a whole-food garden every summer with everything you’d need for a salad,” she says.

The pandemic was a big driver of her work on the yard, Moy says, especially when her nanny job paused during the lockdown. “I was like, OK, I’m in 120 square feet. I at least need to give myself something to do outside,” she says.

Moy was in good company. About a third of households started gardening in 2020 because they had more time, according to a study in the journal HortTechnology. And gardens functioned as therapeutic landscapes during the depths of COVID-19, confirms a paper in the journal Wellbeing, Space & Society. 

Mitchie Vega, an Antioch University Seattle student and peer counselor, found this sense of refuge five stories up at the Artspace Mt. Baker Lofts, a mixed-use building next to the Mount Baker light rail station. Atop the development is a 4,800-square-foot green roof and an agricultural area with raised stainless steel planters for each of the 57 residential units.

To jazz up his section of the communal garden, Vega rescued a discarded Japanese-style wood screen and created a rainbow-ombre trellis for climbing vines. Potted plants get shifted around on sunny days. 

Vega shops for interesting vessels at thrift stores, garage sales and online. He likes to plant densely. “The spacing and thinning suggestions on seed packets are extremely conservative and geared towards machine harvesting,” he says. “You can cram them far closer together, especially with varieties such as tomatoes that can be pruned to allow small, quick-maturing crops like radishes to flourish underneath.” Vega also recommends a “sacrificial marigold” to attract invading insects. Kale, lettuce and nasturtiums work well for this too.

He also has a small mobile enclosure so his two pet rabbits can visit the green roof. Vega feeds them plant scraps there as they hop around the sedums.

Vega credits the podcast “Bloom & Grow Radio” with inspiring his newfound green thumb. “And it’s been a cool way to connect with my mom,” he says. “Now we can talk about plants. And I never have to worry about getting her the wrong gift.”