Side yards, the often-forgotten strips of land between neighbors, can be turned into interesting passageways with character and function...

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Side yards, the often-forgotten strips of land between neighbors, can be turned into interesting passageways with character and function.

If your home has two side yards, consider making one the main circulation route (good enough for company) from the front yard to the back; the other side can be more utilitarian.

The pathway surface is one of the most important design elements in the side yard, providing the pattern and texture that can add richness to a small space.

If the side yard is sunny, lawn can serve as the path. In a shady side yard, keep a heavily used path firm and dry underfoot by using stone, gravel or concrete. In a dark space, you may want to choose a light-colored paving material to brighten the scene.

Be neighborly

Consider working with your neighbor to create a shared side yard. Instead of two paths, place one down the center and create plantings on each side that will work together to enhance the space.

Privacy is an issue, particularly if your windows face a neighbor’s. Trees or tall shrubs can provide a more effective screen than a fence, growing taller than a fence could reach. A trellis is another good option — the open latticework can provide a visual barrier and still let in light and provide a support for plants.

If you decide to go with a fence, place a decorative plaque or a hanging pot on it for visual interest from a window.

Feast for the eyes

In a narrow space, add climbing plants for a vertical garden and to allow more bloom and leaf texture.

If the side yard is on the south side of the house, you may have enough sun for climbing roses or clematis. Provide wires or trellises for them to climb on.

For a shady wall, five-leaf akebia (Akebia quinata) is a vigorous grower. Variegated Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus henryana), with its bright splash of silver white on the leaves, will shine in the shade.

Place a focal point at the end of the side yard to draw the eye. Use a brightly colored tree, such as golden black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’). Add a fountain in the corner of the property so you can see it from both the side garden and the adjoining front or back garden.

Storage on the side

Side yards are a place to add out-of-the-way storage. For space-efficient tool storage, build a cabinet against the house with textured plywood paneling, or use the same siding that is on the house. The back of the cabinet can be the original siding of the house. Attach pegboard for hanging the tools. The two-foot depth will provide enough room for tools and still leave enough space for a path and planting.

Another useful addition is a potting bench, built against a fence or house. A side-yard utility area can also provide space for compost bins and green cones (used for kitchen waste). Screen them from view with fencing or plants.

Low-water options

Because a side yard is out of the way, you may want to choose plants that need little additional summer water once established.

Many Northwest natives will thrive in these conditions, so one approach would be to create a native garden. Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) can reach 4 feet tall and wide, so give it room. For a smaller fern, choose deer fern (Blechnum spicant).

Other good plant choices are salal (Gaultheria shallon), tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), low Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa) and Pacific bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa). Pacific wax myrtle (Myrica californica) will make a tall evergreen screen 10 to 30 feet high. Vine maple (Acer circinatum) would provide a deciduous screen.

Nonnative plants have a place here, too. Epimedium is a shade plant native to Asia. The clean-looking foliage can be evergreen or deciduous, and forms a slowly creeping clump from 1 to 2 feet high, a good ground cover under taller shrubs. Loose spikes of flowers appear in spring in white, yellow, pink or red.

Other low plants for shade requiring little summer water are gladwyn iris (Iris foetidissima) and big root hardy geranium (Geranium macrorrhizum).

Avid gardeners will welcome the opportunities that a side yard offers for new challenges and space for more plants. If you’re not an avid gardener, consider this inspiration to make good use of space that you’ve paid for.

Phil Wood has a degree in landscape architecture and designs and builds gardens. Send questions to thegardendesigner@seattletimes.com. Sorry, no personal replies.