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Skinny Garden Spaces
by Vanessa Gardner Nagel, APLD

If your home sits at the legal limit adjacent to your property line, chances are you have a very narrow space between the property line and your house.  These spaces are not only narrow, but also rather like a tunnel. They are usually approximately thirty feet in length, with a fence on one side and the house on the other.  How can you take such a challenging space and turn it into a garden you can enjoy?

Skinny outdoor spaces are often used for pathways (or circulation) and storage.  Functional, utilitarian spaces give no one a reason to hang around.  As anyone who has had an MRI can tell you, claustrophobic, tunnel-like spaces are places to leave - not linger.  I can’t help but think of a Star Wars episode in which hero and heroine find themselves in a garbage compactor.  The walls are getting ever closer and they are getting ever more panicked.  That’s not to say that narrow spaces create panic, but they can certainly minimize your degree of comfort.  However, there is no reason that a narrow space can’t be an opportunity to create a pleasant experience. 

Whether it is an outdoor skinny space or an indoor skinny space, the design approach is similar.  Two customary design goals for this type of space are to provide circulation and to alter the perspective by making the space look wider and shorter.  Improving the proportions of length to width will create a visually more comfortable space.  If you can’t actually expand the space how can you visually change our perspective?

If you were indoors, a boring hallway might have beige carpet, all white walls and be straight as an arrow.  An unpleasant hallway might have orange carpet, chartreuse walls, a high purple ceiling, be straight and long.  The first hallway puts us to sleep; the second makes our skin crawl.  Most people prefer to have a space that is energetic and pleasant, allowing them to enjoy the walk through the space.  This is just as true with a narrow exterior space.

The first step in creating a more interesting, linear space is to establish the path’s location, width and materials.  If the path is a parallel line following the edge of one or especially both of its boundaries, it will look longer and narrower – think bowling alley.  Diagonal lines work wonders in this situation.  Diagonal lines are more dynamic and within a given space make the space feel wider.  Diagonal lines used to create a path can be expressed as curves. 

Segmenting or dividing the length into smaller portions is also an excellent way to minimize the length.  There are innumerable ways in which to do this.  Regularly or irregularly-spaced columns in the form of architecture or shrubs would work.  For instance, the ubiquitous arborvitae or fastigiate forms of boxwood, false cypress, holly or barberry would be wonderful, living “columns”.  A wood fence with masonry posts or tall, narrow pots also helps to segment the space.    Art, as long as it has adequate visual substance, can be hung on the fence or on walls and it is useful in visually dividing the length.  Even a curvilinear path breaks up the voids unused by the path into unequal and, possibly, disconnected spaces. 

Paving materials can also help minimize the length of the space.  Rather than having a single length of concrete, consider either using smaller sections of concrete with ground cover or pebbles between them or using pavers or stepping stones.  Even using adjacent concrete squares that are shifted slightly left then slightly right in an irregular pattern prevents the bowling alley look. 

The building code’s minimum five-foot setback is not much space to install a path, let alone some plants.  If a hose reel, some stacked wood, a bicycle, a garbage can, or whatever needs to be stored there, consider disguising their place with a low storage structure to create visual simplicity.  Clutter makes a space less pleasant to occupy.  The home’s architecture will typically dictate a choice of paving materials, the style of the fence, plants, art and accessories.  Plants vary depending on soil, light, moisture conditions and the style of the garden.  Vary the height of the plants to enhance segmenting the area, and select plants that don’t emphasize height (except for our columnar-shaped shrubs).

Creating value and/or color contrasts between materials can either lengthen a space or shorten the space.  What you view at either end will be a focal point in the direction you are moving.  If a green tree is at one end versus a large red pot, which one do you think will be most noticeable, and create the most “pull power” through the narrow space?  Red is more visually stimulating than green which is why the red pot will be the easiest to see.

Creating a “lid” will help the “ceiling” of the skinny space stay in proportion to its width and length.  The height of the fence or plants will help define height.  The height of those materials gives the eye a “ceiling line”.  Placing some arbors, either wood or metal, will not only create a ceiling plane, but also segment the space. 

If there is a dead end at the end of the walk, then a meditative space like a lounge chair for reading or a potting bench would be a delightful destination.  Creating an area that is like a small room at the end not only draws the visitor through the narrow area, but the narrow area is also shortened by the space at the end.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a narrow area wider than five feet, then you have more options about how to use the space.   However, you will still need to incorporate circulation.  Circulation that is at least four feet in width is desirable because it allows passage of 2 persons going in opposite directions.  If you have a wheelchair accessible space, then a turn-around area of 5 feet in width is needed, if there is a dead-end.  If this is the only likely space to put the “dog-run”, then attempt to make the space more pleasant to view from the rest of the yard.  Even if chain link fence is used to corral “Bow-Wow Land” plant some vines on the fence - as long as they are not poisonous, in case Fido is interested in a late-night snack.

Skinny Gardens-1Each of these photos demonstrates the use of side elements that work to segment the length of a long, narrow space.

Skinny Gardens-3 Skinny Gardens-4 Skinny Gardens-2

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