8 Ways to Make Your Small Yard More Sustainable

Ever wonder how you can make your small yard more sustainable and wildlife-friendly?

We’ve always had the luxury of having plenty of land to work with around our nursery properties, giving us ample space to create habitats. Some of you may have smaller lots that are a bit harder to design – In reviews on Amazon of the book “Living Landscapes” (Which is a must-read for anyone interested in making their landscape more sustainable and wildlife-friendly!), many readers say that the book isn’t as geared for people with smaller lots, say 1/8 to 1/2 acre lots. Many of the principles can be applied, but here are a few tips that are specially written for those of you with these size lots!

Tip 1 – Analyze What You Do Have

For the sake of an example, we’re going to use an anonymous lot in an unnamed subdivision near the nursery. This subdivision has mostly 1/8 to 1/4 acre lawns, and there’s about 350 homes altogether. We selected one at random to use as a case study of what’s possible on a smaller lot.

The property in question has a lot that measures 55 feet wide by 130 feet long. That is really, really small by Indianapolis area standards – Most properties around here have at least ¾ acre, many would have an acre and a half to 2 acres. A property owner that only has 1/8 of an acre may not think they can make any difference as far as providing for wildlife goes, but it doesn’t take much area to support tons of insects, and by extension, birds!

A cool tip is to go onto Google Maps satellite view – Punch in your address and you can see fairly quickly what you’re working with. By right-clicking, you can measure distances, and it’s really easy to measure your yard.

Grab yourself a pad of graph paper – Well worth having a pad around, and they really aren’t all that expensive – and start penciling in your property. Plot out the main things:

  • Property Boundary, ideally with locations of fences
  • House
  • Patio Areas
  • Driveway
  • Existing Trees and Landscape Areas

Chances are, if you’re in a small lot on a newly-built subdivision, you aren’t going to have a whole lot existing in your landscape in the way of trees and plantings. Guess what – That’s awesome! Rarely do you have the chance to build your landscape completely from the ground up (no pun intended) as you do with a small yard in a recently established subdivision.

Tip 2 – See Where You Could Let Go of Lawn

To go back to our example 55 x 130 lot, we have a bit of a case study. Where do you actually need a lawn? Of all the landscape covers, Lawns are the most expensive and highest maintenance! If you invest in a few trees and long-lived native perennials, you may spend more up front but it’s going to cost much less in the long run. It will also save you time – It takes a lot of time to mow grass, and you really should mow it twice a week in the main season. A planned, sustainable landscape only requires checkups a few times a year – Pulling out invasives in the spring, trimming back vegetation in the summer and maybe shredding leaves in the fall. With this, you don’t have to buy gas from March to November, you don’t have to apply toxic chemicals (which we don’t recommend anyways, even if you do have substantial lawn cover), and you have a landscape that is full of life. Pencil out on your graph paper where you absolutely have to have a lawn, maybe if you have a septic field or if you’d like to have an open area for kids to play. You can plan around these areas, and those lawns will actually be more enjoyable if they’re surrounded by attractive plantings.

Another place where lawn isn’t needed is the strip along your driveway. Most of the time, there’s about 10 feet of space between your driveway and your neighbor’s property – This is an excellent space to plant shrubs and grasses, plus it offers a little privacy from your neighbors.

In our example property, taking away strip at the back of the property 55 feet wide by 20 feet deep, it still leaves 30 feet of lawn, plenty for sitting in the sun, playing volleyball, croquet or whatever. With that 20-foot deep by 55 foot wide spot, you can easily fit in 3 full-size forest trees! Planting them as seedlings gives them a better chance to establish. For ideas on what to plant, jump down to “Think Small.”

Tip 3 – Use Your Fencelines

If you have fences around any part of your property, these are a great place to install plantings. Usually in typical subdivisions, grass is the main ground type from property line to property line – Anywhere grass meets a fence, it makes it difficult to maintain, because you’re constantly having to line trim. If you put plantings along your fences, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. Additionally, birds are more likely to use these strips of vegetation to get from one place to the next.

Tip 4 – Think Small

Just because your yard is small doesn’t mean you can’t have a single tree – Even mature oaks only need about 12 feet between them! With informed selection, you can fit in plenty of trees and shrubs for cover.

There are also hundreds of cultivars of native plants, with new ones being released constantly. Many of these are selected for heavier bloom and a more compact habit. Here’s a few of our top choices for smaller trees, shrubs and perennials you can easily integrate into a compact landscape.

Small Trees for Small Yards

There are dozens of species of smaller native trees that can easily be incorporated into small yards. These 5 trees barely skim the surface of what’s available:

  • Flowering Dogwood – One of the most commonly planted native trees, dogwood is popular for a reason. Though it can grow over 50 feet tall, it typically makes for a well-formed small tree in the landscape, typically around 15-25 feet tall, maximum. Flowering dogwood offers 4-season interest, with pretty spring blooms that last for weeks, attractive deep-green summer foliage, bright scarlet berries and foliage in the fall, and a pleasant tiered architecture in the winter.
  • Redbud – Another commonly planted species, redbuds are well worth having around. They too are capable of large sizes, but typically are well-behaved in the landscape. Redbuds also grow quickly and can take a variety of soil types, offering beautiful pink flowers in early spring in the landscape.
  • Hop Hornbeam – This tree is much less commonly planted than the previous 2. Hop hornbeam is a very pretty tree, with birch-like leaves and a shaggy, platy trunk. Hop hornbeam can take dry soils and full sun conditions, and they support many species of insects. The trees are hung with yellow catkins in the spring, have a nice, tight form in the summer, and offer seeds for songbirds in the fall and winter. The papery seeds hang in bunches all winter long, vaguely resembling hops blossoms.
  • Alleghany Serviceberry – The plentiful white blossoms are the first to open in the spring, and look particularly beautiful when planted with redbuds. Alleghany serviceberry offers berries for the birds, and pollinators flock to the blooms early in the spring.
  • Nannyberry – This viburnum isn’t very frequently used, but it should be, especially for smaller gardens! Nannyberry is a tough, adaptable small tree that looks beautiful in the spring. Viburnums support hosts of insects, and they offer plenty of berries for birds. Be sure to plant two for better pollination, as viburnums tend to be self-infertile.

5 Shrubs Made for Small Yards

Some shrubs can grow huge, but there are some that are easy to maintain at smaller heights:

  • Fothergilla – Both Mountain Fothergilla and Common Fothergilla are easy to grow. They stay modestly sized, and offer honey-scented flowers in early spring. Fothergillas also erupt into color in the fall, with brilliant golds, reds and oranges.
  • Sweetspire, especially ‘Henry’s Garnet’ – This shrub is easy to grow, will take tough soils, and offers plentiful flowers and scarlet fall color. The mounds of twigs look pretty in the winter, offering cover for birds.
  • Spicebush – Able to take heavy shade as well as sun, spicebush is a great shrub for planting next to the above trees. Spicebush blooms very early in the spring with bright yellow flowers, and has a striking form in the summer with its football-shaped leaves. They also turn gold in the fall with red berries, and contrast very well with flowering dogwood.
  • Common Witch Hazel – No other shrub blooms as late as common witch hazel! Sometimes the size of a small tree, witch hazel can be kept in size by cutting larger branches off at the ground. With its vase shape and winter-defying flowering habit, it’s definitely well worth having.
  • New Jersey Tea – This uncommonly-used low shrub is very useful in smaller landscapes! The white summer flowers look good alongside native grasses, and give the winter garden a little twiggy substance.

There are also many different compact native perennial cultivars – A google search of “Compact Native Plants” yields hundreds of varieties! Keep an eye out in the future, as we are planning on posting an article highlighting some of our favorites.

Tip 5 – Don’t use Vigorously Spreading Plants

Many native perennials are vigorously colonizing plants – Think common goldenrod, mayapples, common milkweed – While they are important plants, they can overwhelm a small landscape area. Be sure to select clump-forming species, as these will be more well-behaved in the garden. Most spreaders have a similar plant that is clump-forming. If you’d like to help monarchs but can’t afford to have milkweed take over your entire garden, plant butterfly weed instead. These plants form neat clumps, and offer a color not seen on many other native plants. If you like the look of foamflower, use the clumping variety instead of the running variety.

Tip 6 – Don’t use Too Many Varieties of Plants

While it can be tempting to try to plant as many different species of plants on a small property, it’s best to use larger masses of plants. To keep the landscape more cohesive, try to plant in drifts of 5 to 9 plants, and repeat drifts of the same species throughout the landscape to help tie it together. In natural areas, small sections are often dominated by a handful of species; if you apply this look to your garden, it helps you to keep a “designed” look to your landscape.

Tip 7 – Select Varieties of Plants That Will Make the Most Difference

On a small lot, space is a premium. Make sure that what you are planting supplies food and cover, especially for butterfly and moth larvae and pollinators. In the Midwest, the top five species that support the most butterflies are oaks, willows, cherry, goldenrods, and sunflowers. You don’t have to include all of these, but do try to include at least one – It’s often said that the best thing you can do to support landscape sustainability is to plant an oak tree. While they are capable of becoming forest giants, you can plant a white oak on your small property and it will take centuries to get that size.

Tip 8 – Plan for People as well as Animals

Birds and other wildlife really proliferate in old, abandoned pastures with overgrown grass and shrubs. While duplicating this in your backyard would definitely support wildlife, most subdivisions have HOA’s that really frown on what they deem to look “untidy.” With a bit of careful planning, it’s possible to have a landscape that is both neat and organized, but still hosts plenty of wildlife. By using varieties of natives that have good form, it’s definitely possible to accomplish both of these goals.

To make your backyard the most sustainable landscape it can be, the most important thing to do is completely eliminate the use of chemical pesticides. A rich planting of natives usually won’t have that much insect problems anyways, and the insects that are there are a much better source of food than what you can provide in your birdfeeders.

By incorporating layered landscaping into your yard, i.e. a good balance of trees, shrubs and perennials and dense plantings, your 1/8 acre yard can support all kinds of birds. If we consider the subdivision with 350 houses that this 1/8 acre yard is part of, if every one of these houses planted a 20 x 55 garden, that would be nearly 9 acres of vibrant, wildlife-supporting landscaping!