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Tips to make the most of your little city backyard

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In this small Medford backyard, Judith Lipson-Rubin, landscape designer and owner of Moodscapes in Arlington, had room for a deck as well as a patio with a dining area under a pergola.
In this small Medford backyard, Judith Lipson-Rubin, landscape designer and owner of Moodscapes in Arlington, had room for a deck as well as a patio with a dining area under a pergola.(Lisa Kessler)

With the median lot size in Boston measuring less than 5,000 square feet, most city dwellers are happy to have any backyard, let alone a nice one. And when the city's public parks are your literal playground, even families with kids sometimes allow their backyards to languish. After all, why spend all that time, money, and energy landscaping when Frederick Law Olmsted's meticulously manicured Emerald Necklace awaits?

But your little patch of urban green space can be much more than a scrubby, overgrown buffer between you and your neighbor. We asked landscape, design, and garden professionals how to spruce up a postage-stamp parcel, whether you want to sip cocktails on a low-maintenance party patio, get your hands dirty working the earth, or replicate the suburban American dream.

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The first step in revitalizing any backyard is figuring out what you want from the space, said Judith Lipson-Rubin, landscape designer and owner of Moodscapes in Arlington. "Usually I ask people: 'What would you do outside if you could be outdoors more? What makes you feel good?' "

The challenge of a small backyard, however, is that it forces you to prioritize your goals rather ruthlessly. "When a yard is that small, it's like a little puzzle. You want to fit things in and make it work and not feel cramped," Lipson-Rubin said.

"The biggest guideline is to keep designs simple," said Jon Barmby, owner of Barmby Landscape & Design in Paoli, Pa., and an authorized Belgard paver contractor. "If you get too ornate in your plans, you'll make the yard look busy and even smaller than it really is."

Patios, plants, and pergolas

Let's start off with the basic building blocks of a simple outdoor entertaining area, beginning with the patio itself. Instead of the concrete slab of your childhood, "Many urban homeowners are moving toward permeable pavers, which reduce storm water runoff," Barmby said.

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When space is at a premium, Jon Barmby, owner of Barmby Landscape & Design in Paoli, Pa., and an authorized Belgard paver contractor, suggests incorporating seating into the hardscape construction.
When space is at a premium, Jon Barmby, owner of Barmby Landscape & Design in Paoli, Pa., and an authorized Belgard paver contractor, suggests incorporating seating into the hardscape construction.(Belgard)

When space is at a premium, Barmby suggests incorporating seating into the hardscape construction — a stone retaining wall or raised planter that can also serve as a bench, for example — so you don't need as much patio furniture. "It's also important to think about storage," he said. "We'll often build a nook in the yard's corner where you can store firewood, seat cushions, or gardening tools."

When it comes to plantings, Lipson-Rubin stresses the need for layers and ground cover, which cuts down on weeding, and favors low-maintenance, native perennials. "To make things more sustainable, in any landscape really, the more native the plants are the better," Lipson-Rubin said. "The idea is to keep things sustainable and not choose plants that grow too big in a certain area, so you don't have to prune constantly." She avoids the popular spring bloomer forsythia, for example. "You blink your eye and it's over, and then it looks lousy," she said. "For that yellow I'm going to plant witch hazel, which is native."

Lipson-Rubin recently finished a project in Medford with a backyard typical of urban metro Boston. "It's a very small yard, but we were able to put in a deck as well as a patio with a dining area under a pergola that will shield them from the close neighbors in back — especially once the vines grow." Pergolas — arched, rectangular structures with a lattice-framed top that evoke a Tuscan vineyard — are a popular, if pricey, way to add privacy and much-needed shade to a sitting area, she said.

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"When you live in a concrete paradise, it gets bright and hot," Barmby said. "Shade is an important element to incorporate into your design, whether with a simple umbrella, a pergola, or even a single shade tree to help keep the space cool and comfortable."

Another patio favorite is a chiminea or a built-in stone fire pit, which makes for a natural gathering spot and can extend your outdoor enjoyment into the colder seasons. Local regulations vary, however, and using a fire pit is technically illegal in many dense Massachusetts communities, including Somerville, Arlington, Cambridge, and Quincy. In Boston, only gas-fueled outdoor fire pits are permitted.

Backyard bounty

For sustainability-minded foodies who enjoy getting their hands a little dirty, a backyard garden can be incredibly productive, even on a small city lot. "Typically, we say that two four-by-eight-foot beds are enough to fully replace a person's produce needs for the year," said Jeff Gilbert, head of marketing at Green City Growers, an urban farming company based in Somerville.

Green City Growers of Somerville installed three raised gardens in the backyard of Daniela Winston's Newton home.
Green City Growers of Somerville installed three raised gardens in the backyard of Daniela Winston's Newton home.(The Boston Globe)

In postindustrial urban areas like Boston, however, there's often lead in the soil that you don't want edible plants to absorb. The solution is to grow in pots, milk crates, or raised garden beds. The latter can be outfitted with cold frames, which act as mini-greenhouses that extend the growing season by a full two months.

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Other gardening challenges aren't unique to the city: While some herbs and greens can handle areas with as little as four hours of light, to grow the crops you probably associate with a garden, like tomatoes and peppers, you need a lot of sunshine. "You really need at least six and a half hours of sun for a full range of produce," Gilbert said.

To be sure, planting, maintaining, and harvesting a productive vegetable garden is no small task. "It's definitely something you'll need to be hands-on with," Gilbert said, "but usually as people get their hands in the dirt, they get excited about it and they want to return to their garden."

If your intentions are greener than your thumb, services like Green City Growers can do much of the hard work for you — whether it's maintaining your garden all season long, consulting, or simply getting you up and running in the spring with their Farmer-in-Training program. "Our goal is for our clients to become self-sufficient," Gilbert said.

You might also enlist the help of worker bees — literally. A backyard beehive gives your garden a boost and brings a yard to life, said Noah Wilson-Rich, founder and chief scientific officer at The Best Bees Company in Boston.

Honey bees aren't the stinging monsters you might imagine. "All bees are vegans. People think they're like wasps or hornets or yellow jackets, but they're different insects altogether," Wilson-Rich said. "Wasps are carnivorous . . . and that makes them aggressive."

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Paige Mulhern of The Best Bees Company tends to a langstroth hive in the backyard of Linda Griffith’s home in Cambridge.
Paige Mulhern of The Best Bees Company tends to a langstroth hive in the backyard of Linda Griffith’s home in Cambridge.(Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Beekeeping experience and proper management is key, he said, or they can become a nuisance to neighbors.

Bees simply need a flight path between their hive and blooming flowers, he said. "Bees go right to a garden and come back, so we can direct the opening of the beehive to face away from where people are," he said. "They're really very easily integrated into the city."

In fact, he said, there are active beehives at the Taj Boston, Seaport Hotel, and the Prudential Center, among other locations in the city, which officially legalized urban beekeeping in 2014. Zoning regulations apply and vary by community.

Surprisingly, bees thrive in the city, producing more honey and surviving the winter better than their peers in the country — but they aren't the only ones who benefit from the relationship. There's also your inner Pooh Bear. "The honey is delicious and unique with each city block based on where the bees are foraging," Wilson-Rich said.

Suburban lite

What about city residents yearning for the all-American backyard, a nice green lawn with a swing set, even if it's in miniature form? Any lawn will require more maintenance than a patio, but not nearly so much as a vegetable garden. And it gives the kids or the dog a spot to run around. But growing grass on a city parcel has its own pros and cons.

"Small yards are easy to manage because of the size, but because they're small they tend to get more foot traffic per square foot, which causes more soil compaction," said Peter DiClemente, turf director at Pure Lawns, an organic-lawn care service in Weston.

DiClemente suggests combating this by aerating high-traffic areas and applying a top dressing of screened compost to add organic matter to the soil. "We use a leaf compost, and it looks like a dark rich soil," he said. Overwatering can also contribute to soil compaction, DiClemente said, so he suggests watering lawns of any size longer but less frequently to encourage deeper roots.

Now that you've got a nice patch of grass, maybe it's time for a swing set — but will it fit?

"In a suburban yard, budget is usually the main consideration," said Evan St. George, owner of E Street Assembly, a playset-installation service based in West Yarmouth. "In an urban area with a smaller yard, it comes down to how much space is available while still leaving a little room for the adult area."

St. George said that after 17 years of assembling playsets, he has some tricks up his sleeve. "A lot of times some accessories such as the slide, rock wall, and ladder are interchangeable to help fit into a specific area better," St. George said, but make sure switching things around doesn't void the warranty.

Tube slides and rock walls tend to be the kids' favorite features, St. George said. "If there's enough space, try to get a set with a five-foot-high deck," he added, which allows for a 10-foot-long slide rather than an 8-foot. "Bigger slides are more fun."

And if you still can't fit a playset in your yard? Well, there's always the playground down the street.

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LOOK AHEAD: The July 10 issue of The Boston Globe Magazine explores the incredibly shrinking yard as developers sacrifice the green space buyers once treasured for modern amenities.


Jon Gorey is a freelance writer in Quincy. Send comments to jongorey@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey.