Helpful hacks to make your small outdoor space feel bigger

A pint-sized oasis awaits

Tiny outdoor garden balcony area
(Image credit: Artur Aleksanian)

Whether your outdoor space is a petite patio in a city apartment or a small backyard garden in the suburbs, designing with limited space can present a myriad of challenges. From deciding how to arrange furniture to choosing the right color tones, there are creative ways to design the small balcony, patio, or outdoor area of your dreams. 

When it comes to designing for an outdoor area, Beth Edelstein, president of BE Landscape Design, sees a lack of space as a positive. “The smaller the space the better,” Edelstein says. “Limited space equals more creativity, whether in the form of details or streamlining design. Incorporating interesting containers, tiles, built-ins, and plants are items that could be used to make a small space interesting.” So if you're looking for ways to make a majorly mini outdoor "room" work, we have a few expert-approved tips.

Plan out every detail

Before jumping head-first into your shopping list, the first step in designing your small outdoor space should be to plan each detail. “When working on your own space, make sure to start with a drawing or template," Edelstein advises. "It may seem unnecessary, but you'll save time and money when you're working off a map and list. The bright and shiny objects can lure you away from your original concept. Stay disciplined, the impulse buys can come later."

Remove the space-hogging items

Designer and owner of Urban Oasis Landscape Design Deborah Gliksman explains it can also be helpful to identify anything that’s taking up too much space before you get started. “If you have limited square footage, it is crucial to analyze the space on paper first to ensure that every square inch is utilized to the fullest,” she says. Though things like AC units or more permanent fixtures can't be solved if you're in a rental, get creative and work around them.

Use plants to your advantage

Yes, those leafy plant babies of yours can help make a tiny space look larger! Edelstein has a few tips on bringing them in and making them work. “Try using unique plants of differing heights," she says. "Find interesting planters, maybe they are uniform, maybe they're eclectic. What's the feeling you're going for?" She also adds that a small fountain or water feature can bring a little more dimension without taking up your whole patio or balcony. Another tip? "Paint is a great, low-cost way to create a sense of space, dark gray is wonderful for making an ugly wall or fence disappear."

Use multifunctional pieces or built-in furniture

When it comes to placing furniture, Gliksman says to custom furniture and built-ins work wonders. “Using built-in furniture can really maximize the efficiency of a space,” she explains. “By constructing a built-in bench directly onto a wall, an unused wall or corner can be transformed into valuable seating space that fits perfectly. Avoid using large pieces that will overpower a smaller area. Opt for a compact loveseat over a sprawling sectional.”

If built-ins aren’t a possibility, it’s also worth finding pieces that can be multi-functional. Indoor/outdoor rugs and tables, foldable chairs, and storage units that double as seats are all good options. Gliksman says to repurpose empty space, too, whether that's under chairs or in an outdoor cabinet.

Think sustainably

Edelstein, who is based in Santa Monica, California, knows a thing or two about designing with challenges, as many of her Southern California clients prioritize sustainability in their outdoor living spaces, a quality that is also a helpful way to upkeep smaller areas. “We emphasize permeability," she notes. "Often included in the design are seating, shades, and plants that are also food, including bay laurel, rosemary, guava hedges, citrus trees, and more. Also, low water needs, updated irrigation, and landscape lighting are all included in my designs."

Think if there are ways you can make your area more sustainable (which will contribute to lower costs, extra space, and good feelings all around). 

Maximize your space

Gliksman also appreciates how important it is to choose the right plants and greenery for your outdoor space. “Our goal is to work in harmony with the natural landscape to create a design that is both unique and perfectly suited to its environment,” she says. “By carefully assessing your needs, the site conditions, and the impact on the environment, you can design and create a truly unique garden that will thrive, regenerate, and nourish both the earth and your soul.” In the end, if you make a plan, maximize your space, and work with your environment, your outdoor space can be a place of tranquility for seasons to come, no matter how tiny it is.

Kate Santos

Hello! I’m Kate Santos, a writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. In the design world, I got my start working as an Editorial Intern for Dwell magazine in San Francisco. Since then, I’ve written about design and architecture in many national magazines and online publications, including Playboy, Hunker, and The Culture Trip.

I grew up in a very old house in North Carolina and am still influenced by the rustic, charming, antique and aged elements of a home. Sustainability and longevity is extremely important to me and I believe learning to reuse materials or purchasing items you’ll love forever goes a long way. I also lean towards the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi when designing my own home, embracing the perfectly imperfect items I can find.