Challenging situations often lead to new opportunities. So it is with landscaping narrow side yards.
Perhaps the easiest side yard to deal with is a “dead-end” area that has a fence separating it from the front of the property but is open to the backyard. This can be an ideal place for a nursery area and a potting bench, especially if it’s sheltered on three sides and is in high shade or dappled shade.
It can also be the ideal place for bulb pots, from long-lived amaryllis that bloom once a year to tulips that put on a show for one season. In bloom, the pots can be out where you can enjoy them, but once the flowers have faded, the pots can return to the nursery.
If windows look out onto a little-used side yard, consider enhancing the view. You can create a lush fern grotto in a moist shady spot, add a planter that brings seasonal interest to eye level or plant a hedgerow of native berry plants to attract birds. I once had a flock of cedar waxwings visit a fruiting shrub outside my office window, and it was a delight to watch them.
A path along the side yard that gets regular use is another common situation. On the Going Native Garden Tour a couple of years ago, one garden featured lovely espaliers of California snowdrop bush, western redbud and golden currant on a fence, underplanted with a plethora of grasses, wildflowers and other natives. Only a foot wide, the planting bed was limited to the space between the fence and sidewalk. With part shade at ground level and full sun higher up on the fence, the flowering shrubs got enough sun to flourish.
Softening the hardscape
Other shrubs to try in a narrow side yard that is shady near the ground but can get sun part of the year, or part of the day, include cream bush, bush anemone, mountain mahogany, California hazel and California mock orange. Some of these can tolerate more sun than others. With full sun, pitcher sage is another option. Many of these will need to be trained as they grow to keep a narrow profile.
Understory plants that can grow in shade or part shade include western columbine, wild ginger, California fescue, seaside daisy, California aster, heuchera and Douglas iris.
In full sun, consider planting a low-water pollinator garden. Plants that stay relatively compact include many of the native buckwheats – coast, Shasta Sulfur, saffron, rosy – along with coyote mint and foothill penstemon, grasses such as grama grass and reedgrass, plus annual wildflowers and bulbs such as globe gilia, California poppy, single-leaf onion and Ithuriel’s spear.
Spreading plants are an often overlooked possibility for narrow spaces surrounded by hardscape. Plants that might otherwise be banned from small gardens but can flourish in contained areas include mugwort for shadier spots and California goldenrod, horsetail, anemopsis and the more rampant varieties of California fuchsia for sunnier spots. These highly adaptable plants can also tolerate – and even flourish with – nearby irrigation or overspray.