How To Plan A Small Backyard Makeover

how to plan a small backyard makeover

There are many reasons you may want to make changes to your yard, with a small backyard makeover. It may look outdated, your family priorities may have changed, you might just be fed up with the current look, for example.

Whatever they are, with some basic planning you can transform your landscape, and make a real difference to its character, just by making the most of the space you already have.

In this post we'll look at your backyard now, what you wish to use it for when your makeover is done, what design features you can employ to achieve this, and how to plan a small backyard makeover that brings it all to fruition!

This post is for anyone who wants a full or partial backyard makeover - either a complete transformation, remodeling parts of it, or just a general cleanup!

Getting Started

You may already know how you’d like to landscape your yard and want to get started straightaway, but a good rule of thumb before you get ‘stuck in’, is to assess exactly what you have before you start doing any work.

You may have a mature yard that just needs a face-lift, one that is  is completely overgrown with weeds and shrubs, or a new property with nothing in the yard at all.

Perhaps you want to change everything and do a complete transformation, or just make some subtle changes here and there to give your yard a fresh look.

However the yard looks at the moment, you'll find your makeover will come together more effectively when you've made a full survey of everything in it and about it, so you're focused on all you'll be working with.

You don’t have to hire a landscaper to do the work for you, unless you want to, and you don’t have to be a master gardener or a super DIY-er.

You can easily make significant changes to the look and feel of your backyard that will create something you can be proud of.

As long as you don't violate any building codes in your area (or upset the neighbors), you can be as creative as you want.

Attention given to the small details of your yard survey at this stage, will benefit you later when you see if some of your ideas are going to work or not.

But where do you begin?

Your first step should be to analyse the space you have. The more you understand all aspects of the yard you’ll be working on, the more you’ll appreciate what is practical and what is not.

So…. What exactly have you got? …..and ...... What do you want to do with it?

Define The Outdoor Space You Have

In order that you can make the best use of all the space you have outdoors, a full survey of everything about your yard is essential from the outset. 

It should obviously include all measurements of your existing yard, but also other details. Things like knowing where the sun falls, and areas of shade during the day, and whether the wind comes in mainly from one direction. These all have a bearing on what plants would grow best in a garden, where best to situate a patio or deck for entertaining, or where to keep pets safely, for example.

Measure and sketch your back yard in preparation of your small yard makeover.

If you’ve not already done so, measure up your backyard. Factor everything in!

Make rough drawings of the size and shape of the yard, and record all the measurements you’ve taken, together with details of any distinctive features.

Make notes of the vertical areas such as walls, fences and hedges as well. These are all spaces that could be used in your makeover.

Take photos on your phone or tablet, make sketches, and when you have all the information, make a detailed (as best you can) scale drawing of your yard.

Pre-Makeover Survey Checklist

Of course you know what your yard looks like, but just go through the points below so that you are reminded of each aspect. Your backyard design ideas will flow more readily when all these factors are fresh in your mind. They may influence what you can or can't do.

  • Yard boundary - how is this defined? Walls, fences, bushes or trees?
  • Is the land flat, uneven or sloping?
  • Is it on several levels?
  • Does it have an unusual shape?
  • Does the yard collect surface water after rain or is drainage good?
  • Where are the areas of sunlight and shade?
  • Are there existing walkways?
  • Are there any existing patio, decking or concreted areas?
  • Are there outbuildings? Shed, greenhouse, deck boxes?
  • Any lawn? Any trees in the core of the yard?
  • Any existing planted areas?
  • Do you have an external water supply?
  • Do pipes or cables run beneath the yard? If so where?
  • What are the access points - gates, driveway?
  • Do you have a side yard? If you do, could it be put to good use in your makeover!
  • How close are neighboring properties?
Small Backyard Makeover Side Yard Arbor

Attractive landscaping between side and back yards. Do You have a side yard you could use in your makeover?

What Do You Want To Do In Your Backyard?

A backyard can be enjoyed in many ways. In preparation for your own outdoor makeover, you need to decide which activities are most important to you and your family.

How you intend to spend your time in your transformed yard will influence your landscaping design, makeover costs and the time it will take to get the work done.

How do you want to spend time in yours?

The most common uses for a backyard are:

  • Gardening
  • Entertaining and relaxing
  • Kids play area
  • Pets housing
  • Storage or workshop
  • Running a small business

There may be other uses you can think, of but these tend to be the main ones.

Gardening Choices

Small backyards don’t often allow for flowing lawns, lots of trees, or big flower or vegetable beds. You may have to compromise here.

Container and vertical gardening.

The Power of Pots! Vertical and container gardening at it's most colorful.

If gardening is your passion though, and you don't have room for large flower or veggie beds, there is plenty of scope to indulge your interest with raised beds, plants in containers, and vertical gardening that utilizes space on the wall and fence areas.

All these can be accommodated to great effect in small garden areas. Their great advantage is low maintenance.

Container gardening can be very satisfying for growing flowers, vegetables, herbs and small trees too. It is a great way for those new to gardening, to become involved in horticulture without it becoming too demanding.

All plants need a combination of sunlight or shade, water and nutrients from the soil. You'll need to research the plants best suited to your own garden makeover, before deciding on specific plant varieties.

Entertaining & Relaxing

Any size of yard can be made into a place where you can entertain family and friends, or have a quiet spot for you to relax in - somewhere you can read a book, sunbathe, or get some shuteye. Possibly even to install a small pool.

Small grassed area with thick perimeter shrubs creates a quiet place to relax in the backyard.

Privacy with simplicity - a quiet place in the backyard.

If entertaining is to be an important activity in your yard, you’ll need to plan cooking and seating areas into your yard design, and allow for the other features that add to the whole pleasure of eating outdoors.

Additional seating, umbrellas and/or sun sail, a fire pit, special lighting all need to be accommodated in your yard design.

These in turn will require either a patio or decking to provide the necessary level cooking and seating areas.

Kids Play Area

Wooden outdoor playset for kids. Lots of climbing, clambering & sliding fun!

Kids Outdoor Playset - A lot of fun on a relatively small footprint

Children need to play outside in the fresh air, especially when the weather is fine. They need to exercise and get a blast of vitamin D in the sunshine.

Creating a play area is a good way to achieve this, and is straightforward enough to create.

Sand pit, slide and hammock setups can be installed without too much effort. 

You will need to ensure the area is as safe as possible as kids do tend to fall over. Make sure there are no hard objects around the play zone and nothing that could trip them over.

Pets Housing

A few years ago we inherited a couple of pet ferrets - Hawkie and Kes. They were very entertaining and gave us a lot of pleasure. We hadn’t planned to have them, but took them on so they wouldn’t be put down.

I’ve never favored keeping small animals in cages, so I made them a wooden ‘Ferret Court’. It was 27 cubic feet over 3 levels and it accessed a custom built run - rather like a small aviary - for them to play and climb and burrow. We’d let them run around the garden at times but you had to constantly watch them or they’d ‘escape’.

This sort of pet housing can easily be set up in small spaces. You just need to ensure the animals have plenty of shade when the weather is hot, and sufficient cover for the winter months.

Storage or Workshop

Backyards, even small yards can be useful for storing all kinds of items. Large equipment like boats, motorcycles and quad bikes can be stored in the open, covered with a tarpaulin. Smaller equipment and tools can be housed in a storage shed.

Sheds are great, not just for storing gardening and domestic tools, but also for having somewhere to work on projects that need a workbench. Setting up a work bench is straightforward, and makes many DIY tasks so much easier to complete.

Sheds are also useful for potting out seedlings before the planting season, and other gardening preparation. Even with restricted space, you'll be able to find a shed that can be fitted out in your backyard.

I couldn’t exist without a shed - really, I couldn’t!

Running a Small Business

There are many small businesses that can be run from home, and working out of a shed in the backyard is a realistic prospect for many people.

Shedworking allows you (and those around you) to differentiate between your home life and work. It keeps domestic distractions to a minimum while you are trying to work.

You'll need a solid built shed that you can customize, one that can be made to provide good protection against the elements. Whatever type of work you'd be undertaking, you'll need to run a power line in to install good lighting and heating. You will also need good ventilation in order to keep your workspace clean and dry.

You should buy the best quality shed and the biggest you can afford. This will help you avoid everything getting damp, and running out of space over time.


In small backyards it doesn't make much sense trying to do everything. Decide on a few core activities that best suit your circumstances, and concentrate on them, rather than compromising the overall effect by trying to fit in too much, and not doing them well enough!

Design Your Backyard

Design your backyard

Don't be put off designing the type of yard you want, just because you have a small space. Any size yard or garden is going to have limitations. They just appear to be more difficult to overcome with tiny yards.

You need to work around the limitations and use them to your advantage.

Take boundaries for example. Walls, fences and hedging can't usually be moved so you need to make them a positive feature. Decorate them as you would the rooms inside your home.

Cover them with trellisses and climbing plants, hanging baskets, horizontal herb or flowering boxes; a fold-down occasional table perhaps, or a small lean-to shed.

Your overall design needs to be appropriate for the way you intend to use the yard, and for the yard itself. And it needs to take account of practical considerations such as where the trash is to be kept.

Your lifestyle will influence how your design evolves too. Do you want a low maintenance yard, is privacy important? Do you want a predominately greenscape appearance, or will hard landscaping be more your style?

But, first off.

What sort of makeover are you considering here?

  • Will it be a full makeover of the whole backyard?
  • A partial transformation
  • Or just a clean-up?

A full makeover starting from scratch needs a lot of thinking through, but can be great fun. It can be a major task, especially if you are doing most or all of the work yourself. It doesn't have to be started all at once, and can be planned to complete over whatever timescale you prefer, but it is a big project.

A partial makeover or face-lift is more straightforward, and can be worked on when funds and time permits.

A basic backyard clean-up can be started anytime. This is a useful exercise for smartening up your property if you are intending to sell up and move. It usually doesn't cost much and can be completed quickly.

It's Time To Get Creative

If you need some ideas about what additional features to add to your yard, read more here: Choosing Backyard Decor To Add Style & Character To A Small Yard

Then, using the dimensions recorded on the scale drawing you made earlier, sketch out your ideas on paper. Mark out in the yard where you plan to put the different features you want. Get clear in your mind which parts of the yard will get used the most.

Marking Out

A good way to visualize a new yard layout, is to mark out the proposed changes using wooden stakes hammered into the ground, connected by twine. If you have a concreted area, mark out using chalk.

By marking out the footprint of your intended changes - like pathways, shed base, patio area, pond for example - you get a better perspective of how everything might look and fit together.

Don't over-complicate your backyard designs - keep things simple. Too much crammed in a relatively small space can cause a sense of overwhelm. And try not to be too ambitious. Keep your plans in proportion. 

And ... don't forget to check your local area building codes!

Small Backyard Makeover Design Tips

  • Start off by dividing your yard into separate areas - garden rooms - based on what the yard will be most used for. The visual impact this creates is effective in making a small yard seem more detailed and interesting.
  • Plan ahead. Think for the long-term when planning your yard.
  • Create focal points - features that draw the eye towards them. A quiet seating area perhaps; a pond, a sundial, a large floral display.
  • Make as much use of the vertical spaces as you can. You can often make your yard seem much larger by making the boundary less apparent.
  • Create different levels in your yard. Raised beds, tall plants and small trees in containers help achieve this.
  • When laying out flower beds they don't just have to be laid out around the perimeter of your yard, at the base of fences and walls, as is so often done.
  • Use special outdoor lighting to create mood and atmosphere in your finished yard.
  • Make sure the walkways you create are wide enough.
  • Finally, make the most of what you've got.

Pulling It All Together - Get Organized

It's exciting when you get to this point. You should have a clearer idea of what you want to do with your backyard. You’ve made some designs and know what features you’d like to include in your yard plan.

You’ve taken measurements, made sketches of how it looks now, and how you’d like it to look in the future, and you've decided whether to transform the whole yard or only specific parts of it.

Now it's time to ask yourself a few more questions!

  • How much can I afford to pay for my backyard makeover?
  • Is this to be a DIY project, or will I use contractors?
  • When do I want the work to start, and how long will it take?

Budget Your Time & Money

You can only effectively plan a small backyard makeover if you know, at the outset, how much it is going to cost. The first thing you should do before starting any backyard remodeling, is to set a realistic budget, which allows for unexpected contingencies.

It doesn’t matter whether you have a shedload of cash to spend on the project or you’re working to a tight budget, making a realistic assessment of how much you want to spend, and sticking to it, will reduce the chance of an overspend.

Getting a yard to look the way you want it to doesn’t always work out as straightforward or as cheaply as expected. You need to allow for unexpected additional costs along the way.

Budget for your small yard makeover

Keeping the yard looking good may also involve ongoing costs associated with routine maintenance, so be aware of that as well.

And it’s not just expenditure that needs to be planned for. There’s also the time you’ll spend doing the work if this is to be a DIY project.

Some parts of a makeover can be completed in a weekend whilst other tasks can take much longer. And even when work does go according to plan, the weather can upset your schedule unexpectedly and cause delays.

If it's you doing most of the work, ensure you allow yourself sufficient time to get everything done. Sometimes, the simplest of tasks finish up taking a disproportionate amount of time.

Is This a DIY Makeover or Contracted Out?

There are four main factors that will influence whether you make your backyard makeover a DIY project or whether you use contractors.

  • The complexity of the design (and the size).
  • Your budget.
  • The time-frame for the makeover.
  • Your own skill level, or indeed whether you actually want to do the work yourself.

Contractors can be used to take over the entire project from architectural design, through structural changes and planting out.

Or, you use them just for tasks that will take you too long to complete, or which you don’t feel confident enough to try yourself.

Of course, the more you pay out on labor and fees for others to do the work, the less of your budget will be available for the features you want.

DIY Backyard makeover

If you are a practical person and can tackle most DIY tasks, then a small backyard makeover should be easy-peasy. What's more, if you're prepared to spend some time learning new skills to upgrade your yard and garden, then you can look forward to an enjoyable transformation process. 

One that will bring great pleasure and satisfaction to you and your family, and be the envy of your friends.

Backyard Makeover Timing and Duration

The length of time your backyard makeover will take to complete, and the best time to start it, will be down to a number of factors: The size and complexity of what you are planning, and whether you will be doing the work, or contractors.

If you are paying for the work to be done, you will be limited in part to the contractors' availability, but once they accept the job they'll advise you of the timeframe to completion. 

Where you intend to do the work yourself, you must estimate the time required to complete each phase of your overall plan, and then to decide the order in which each task is to be completed.

It may be appropriate for you to plan your makeover in the Fall, do some of the groundwork during the Winter months, and then to implement the work properly in the Spring. 

Plan Your Yard Makeover Work Schedule

Plan your yard makeover schedule

'Plan your work, and work your plan' is a good philosophy to follow, especially when you are going down the DIY route for your small backyard makeover.

Initially, you need to make a list of everything that has to be done, and then break those tasks down into separate workable stages. These will include:

  • Sourcing all the materials, plants and accessories you will need, checking prices and delivery times.
  • You may need to buy garden tools and DIY tools as well, and possibly rent specialized equipment for a while.
  • Listing the individual backyard tasks that need to be done, together with an estimate of the time for completion. This will be the longer list, and will include all the preparatory work that has to be completed before the main task work is undertaken. Often, task preparation takes longer than actually doing it!
  • Checking your local building codes so you stay within the rules.

When that is complete you'll need to prioritize the work so it can all be completed in a cost-effective and time-efficient manner. 

All major tasks, those that could affect the integrity of the whole project, should be at the top of your makeover work schedule, with priority status.

  • Replacing walls and fences, for example, should be done straightaway - they keep your yard enclosed and secure.
  • If you need to do a serious amount of digging, get that out of the way too before adding fine detail to flower beds, ponds etc.
  • If you are building a shed, clear the area and get the shed up. You'll need somewhere to store tools and equipment, and maybe set up a work bench.

There may be time restraints to take into consideration in determining the order in which you do some tasks. The weather, delivery delays, the availability of friends to help you out can all influence the timing of specific jobs.

You'll also need to differentiate between big tasks that are time consuming, and need planning ahead, and those that could be completed in a few hours work, and which could be started on the spur of the moment, as it were!  Some work could be seasonal too, and best done during the drier months.

Source Materials, Equipment & Accessories

When purchasing items for your makeover, try to strike a balance between good pricing and quality merchandise. I'm a firm believer in buying quality over quantity. It's a money saver in the long term. You get what you pay for my Dad used to say!

Make sure you get your purchased quantities right as well. For example when buying sand to lay a patio, take into account other parts of your project that would need sand as well, like a pathway or a pond. That way you buy more efficiently. It's especially important if you're working to a tight budget.

If you are planning a complete yard overhaul, how much of what is already in it could you keep, re-use or recycle? It'll keep the cost down if you can find a use for items you already have.

And keep an open mind about what materials you can use. If cost and availability are issues, there are bound to be alternatives that can be bought.

Also, there are plenty of recycling possibilities around. Cinder blocks, old railroad sleepers and pallets for example, all offer opportunities to be re-purposed into something that can give your yard a lot more character than what you'll find in many other people's backyard.


There are many different materials that can be used in a backyard remodel and garden makeover. There's a tremendous amount of choice - some new, some re-purposed. These are just some of them:

  • Stones
  • Boulders
  • Flagstones
  • Pebbles
  • Gravel
  • Sand
  • Bricks
  • Pavers
  • Cement
  • Cinder Blocks
  • Lumber
  • Decking
  • Boards
  • Wooden Barrels
  • Railroad sleepers
  • Old pallets
  • Logs
  • Synthetic turf
  • Garden membranes
  • Wood stain & paints
  • Soil & composts

Whatever materials you buy, try to avoid over or under-ordering. Shop around for a good deal.

Tools and Equipment Needed

Whatever tools you already have, the chances are that for a complete backyard overhaul you're going to need to get a few more - both DIY and gardening tools. Having the right tools for a job certainly makes it easier to get things done properly.

It wouldn't make any sense buying costly equipment that you're only going to use once, so renting could be an option for some specialist tools.

Also, make sure you have some basic safety equipment at the start - gloves, glasses, knee protectors, for example.

Plants and Accessories

If you don't have a great understanding about gardening - or you haven't up to now - you may need to research the plant types that will be suitable in your grand design. You'll need to identify the sun-loving and shade-loving plants most appropriate for your garden area.

You can grow your plants from seeds or purchase them grown from a garden center, whichever is easiest for you.

Our backyard decor post shows you some features that you can build into your makeover. There's plenty more detail that can be added such as fountains, statuary, bird baths and tables, outdoor music speakers, wind chimes, to name a few. There is a massive array of garden accessories available. 

Make Your Small Backyard Makeover Happen!

I’m a firm believer in working smarter not harder! You've made a plan, now you just need to to follow it through.

What's important in all this is that your personal outdoor space provides you with the enjoyment and satisfaction you seek. Your backyard makeover should be fun!

Keep to Your Plan

Human nature being what it is, it can be tempting at times to work out of sequence, and to work at something you are looking forward to doing, rather than a more boring and routine task. (Been there ... done that!)

But it's really important to sort the priority tasks first, the fundamentals, and to get them out of the way. Once the major tasks are completed the work will be a lot easier and enjoyable!

Final Thoughts - my two cents' worth

The best backyard makeovers are not achieved solely by having a lot of cash to throw at the job. They come about by making the best use of the space you have, and by using your imagination to make your yard its own special place.

You can get as much pleasure from a small backyard as you can from a much larger space, and you will probably appreciate it more. Small is certainly a lot easier to maintain and to keep looking good.

Anyway, here are a few final pointers from me, and good luck with your small yard makeover:

  • First off. Don’t let anyone say ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ in design terms. You do need to adhere to ‘technical’ considerations in a lot of things, but to get your yard looking the way you want it to, let your imagination run wild!
  • If you make a design mistake in a small yard it is going to be a lot more obvious than in a larger one, so be prepared to make changes if your earlier attempts don’t work out quite as you'd wished.
  • Break your workload down into manageable tasks, and complete them fully, one at a time, before moving to the next.
  • If you want to make a real impact in your small backyard, concentrate on one core feature, and do it incredibly well.
  • However small your yard, separate it into sections. This will help make your space seem bigger while adding more interest.
  • If I were contemplating a complete yard makeover now, I would work on the walls and fences bordering my property, before anything else. They are a lot easier to paint, stain, repair or replace before plants are growing against them, and a lot easier to customize. Get them sorted first.
  • If you intend to change the whole backyard, and you’ve not attempted anything like it before, please don’t run the risk of under-estimating the time it takes to get things finished, and over-estimating your own abilities.
  • There will always be some routine work that needs to be done to maintain your yard, even in low maintenance set-ups. Keep on top of what is required and your yard will always look great.

Final Checklist

To summarize what's needed for your small backyard makeover:

  • Make a complete inventory of your backyard. Measure everything relevant.
  • Decide how you and your family want to spend time in your backyard.
  • Consider possible layouts. Sketch them. Mark out your ideas.
  • Budget!
  • Design your makeover, and make a plan.
  • Source and price the best materials, equipment and accessories.
  • Implement the plan by completing one step at a time.

And then... enjoy it all!

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