Need help with a friend’s yard

Last week a friend asked me if I could give her some ideas on what to plant in her backyard. She had recently taken out some existing landscaping and now had a mostly blank slate. She had already bought some plants which needed to be incorporated into the overall design (like the fig tree, Green Spire eonymus, and Alphonse Karr bamboo in the first photo below).

Her yard is very small so it was important not to overwhelm it with too many “heavy” plants that make the space smaller or darker.

For plant ideas we made a trip to Lemuria Nursery, a wholesale nursery in nearby Dixon which is open to the public. I had never been there, but our friend loves it and I can see why: extremely friendly folks, low prices, and a decent selection, especially for shrubs and trees.

Here is the layout for the planting strip along the backyard fence after our nursery run:


To give you a better idea of what our friend likes, the next photo shows the side yard that leads into the backyard. Here she has four specimens of her favorite foliage plant: variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’).

Variegated shell ginger (Alpinia zerumbet ‘Variegata’) in the side yard

While we were able to come up with a satisfying design for most the yard, two trouble spots remain: one in the back and one in the front next to the front door. I’d love to have your input on what might work well in these areas, taking into account the types of plants we’ve already chosen.

In the next photo you’ll see the problem area in the backyard. It’s a little over 2 ft. wide at its widest and about 12 ft. long. The window is about 2.5 ft. above the ground and whatever is planted here should not obstruct the view in any way. This bed receives 4-5 hours of morning sun in the summer and is in the shade in the afternoon.

Any ideas that spring to mind? Ideally, something with all-season interest as opposed to herbaceous or deciduous. Tropical/exotic-looking would be good, but not required. The plant(s) for this bed have to be small and well-behaved.

Problem area in backyard

I think something like this small Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ might look nice. Here’s a quick mockup I created. The yellow variegation contrasts well with the light blue of the house.

Euphorbia x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’ mockup

The other trouble area is a similar 2 ft. wide strip next to the front door. The window you see is about 3 ft. above ground. This area receives no direct sun but thanks to light reflected by the house next door, the light levels are fairly bright.

I had thought of dwarf oak leaf hydrangea, but even the dwarf forms are too large. Ideally, nothing should overhang the walkway, at least not by much. Again, all-season interest would be preferred, especially since it’s so close to the front door. Even a row of small, well-behaved shrubs might work here.

Trouble area next to the front door. The narrow width makes it difficult to come up with good choices.

I can’t wait to see what ideas you might come up with. I will post photos of the finished project later on.


  1. I was also about to suggest some of the smaller growing Euphorbias on to the first problem area but yad the same idea :) What about smaller growing pittosporums that can be pruned low from time to time, almost like a hedge?

    For the second one, what about rows of evergreen, and medium sized ground ferns?

    Looking forward to seeing what you guys eventually choose to plant :)

  2. I love Euphorbia's and that one would look great! As for the other. If it's not succulents I have no idea!

  3. I don't have too many specific plant suggestions, as I'm not familiar enough with your climate, but I do have a couple of general ideas. In the first spot (with the euphorbia suggestion) I'd avoid filling the whole bed with one plant. With a small yard (limited planting space) giving a whole bed to a single species seems wasteful. How about euphorbias as shown in the middle, but something potted on each end? The pots will give more height, some added color (possibly), visual interest, and let you easily move plants that don't work well there. Maybe repeat something that's already in the backyard to help tie things together (a smaller Ginger, if there is such a thing).

    The second spot looks like it needs to be a plant that can take some abuse, as it will probably get stepped on. Seems like a good spot for something that can fill some space -- like vinca. Or maybe a spreading sedge like Carex 'Ice Dance'? I have a similar spot between the driveway and the north side of my house and it has bamboo (Sasa veitchii -- looks fantastic!) and variegated vinca major.

  4. Mark, great suggestions. I will look into smaller pittosporums. Their flowers smell heavenly. For the bed in the front, I was initially thinking farfugiums. Maybe interplanted with some heat-tolerant ferns? Worth exploring.

    Candy, another thought I had was Aloe 'Blue Elf.' It's small and its bluish color would blend well with the house. The flowers are a plus.

    Alan, I like your idea of adding a couple of pots to the bed in the backyard. I wouldn't have thought of that. Carex is a great suggestion for the front. Fortunately, local nurseries seem to have discovered carex and carry a much larger selection than before. (Groundcover bamboo came to mind, too, but I don't want to unleash something potentially invasive.)

    Thank you, all, for your excellent suggestions. I love your collective creativeness!

  5. I was going to suggest Carex evergold if you can get it - its very hardy and thrives in a light but shaded area in my garden. The dogs walkj over it all the time and it doesn't "spring back to life" because it doesn't need to - it doesn't even flinch. On the top one I'd plant something with a bit of height on either end.

    A great post! I love these type of before and afters.

  6. I would like something fragrant under or close to the windows that you could enjoy the odor in the house on lovely evenings! Just a thought....


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