Fixing up your side yard
Published: Friday, May 24, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013 at 3:50 p.m.
Few homes in urban and suburban locales escape the challenge of a narrow side yard. It often ends up a neglected space, filled with derelict weeds or odds and ends waiting to be discarded.
But side yards don't have to be abandoned wastelands. With little effort, you can turn them into pleasant passageways and charming garden sites.
Before drawing up a plant list to fill the space, first determine the amount of sun and shade in your side yard.
If it runs east and west, chances are you have at least 6 hours of summer sun available for nearly any type of vegetable and many different flowering plants.
To make best use of the limited space, use a trellis or sturdy cord attached to a side fence to support vining peas in spring followed by pole beans, cucumbers, squashes, gourds, tomatoes, or melons.
All can be trained to grow vertically where there's enough sun.
With only a few hours of sunshine a day — especially in hot inland microclimates — grow non-climbing crops like lettuce, chard, kale, kohlrabi and even rhubarb.
Always be sure to first enrich the soil and give it adequate moisture.
If you prefer planting ornamentals, plant climbing vines or roses against a fence. Use lattice, sturdy cords, or sections of wire fencing for support. Avoid weighty, rampant growers such as wisteria, trumpet vine (Campsis), or cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) in favor of a hybrid clematis or espaliered shrub.
In a space 6-feet or wider, there's room for annuals or perennials with a narrow pathway down the center. Foxglove (Digitalis), larkspur (Consolida), coneflowers (Echinacea) and other naturally narrow perennials will do well where there's half-day sun.
Some tall growers such as flowering maple (Abutilon) are easily managed by clipping off protruding stems as they sprout outward at ground level.
In shade, try evergreen Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica) or its hybrid relative xFatshedera. Both eventually grow to 8 feet and are valued for large, glossy leaves on fairly rigid stems, though support is sometimes needed.
To maintain a narrow disposition, trim periodically to remove outward-growing stems.
Various begonias, whether tall or short, evergreen or deciduous, woody or non-woody grow easily in most shaded microclimates.
Give them adequate moisture and their delicate blooms will light up shaded or semi-shaded areas. Hellebores thrive in semi-shade and need only moderate summer water.
Species such as verbena, impatiens, black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata), or nasturtium (Tropaeolum) lend themselves to growing in pots supported near the top of a fence so that blooming stems trail downward for months of bloom from spring through fall.
Explore your options
Generally, bulky plants fit awkwardly in a side yard, but if you choose any, place the largest in the center against a wall or fence with smaller species at either end.
Azalea is one of the few shrubs that fit a narrow site, but dwarf selections of other woody plants such as Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), daphne, holly (Ilex), nandina, spiraea and pieris are also small enough.
Ferns and low clumping perennials may be more suitable than shrubs in heavy shade. Grasslike lily turf (Liriope) produces attractive spikes of white or lilac blooms spring thru fall. Leafy heucheras, sometimes called coral bells, come in dozens of hues and prefer shade as does trailing lamium with its white or pink blossoms.
Make a path
Stepping stones make a fast and easy-to-install path through a side garden.
Use prefabricated concrete, imitation stone, or irregular slabs of slate or flagstone.
Avoid laying them in a straight line, which emphasizes the narrow space. Instead, incorporate as much curve as you can to suggest a more interesting winding path.
If weeds or grass is the default groundcover, simply cover that with thick layers of newspaper before putting down stones. Fill in spaces with finely crushed gravel or mulch.
A less expensive treatment, one that installs more easily and quickly, forgoes stone in favor of a 4-inch thick covering of rough mulch over newspaper.
After paper decomposes in a year or so, set out tiny, walk-on plants here and there in the pathway for added interest. Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox or T. minus), half-inch high Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), sandwort (Arenaria montana), or dymondia are maintenance-free choices.
Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.
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