When Less Really Is More

Space is a premium in Charlotte, especially in your own backyard. Here’s how a Myers Park couple made their tiny space feel big

Photographs by Chris Edwards

They say good things come in small packages, but the old adage doesn’t usually apply when it comes to your backyard. There, more is simply just more. Unless, that is, you’re Carole Joyner and Bruce Benfield.

Having worked as landscape contractors for decades, Joyner and Benfield started their own business, Joyner-Benfield Distinctive Land & Waterscapes, in November 2004. While they have hundreds of clients, including high-profile sports stars with sprawling estates, they’re seeing a growing number of customers enlist their help to maximize their small yards.

Such was the case when a Myers Park couple asked the landscaping dynamic duo to transform their backyard, which measures a mere sixty feet by seventy-five feet.

“We wanted the backyard to be an extension of our house,” says the homeowner.  “A place with a pool and an outdoor seating area that we could use for entertaining.”

The homeowners presented Joyner and Benfield with this basic vision. After a few consultations with the homeowners and a couple of minor tweaks, Joyner and Benfield started the transformation process. The end result is an example of how you don’t need a lot of space to have a charming and picturesque yard that mixes various landscape elements and boasts enough room for relaxing and entertaining.

Laying It Out

A white, arched arbor frames the entranceway to the backyard and ushers you into the meticulously kept grounds beyond. Per the homeowners’ wishes, the area was designed with an emphasis on outdoor living. A swimming pool is located along the back side of the property and a partially covered patio is adjacent to the house. “If it’s planned, planted, and irrigated correctly, it’s amazing what you can do with a small yard,” says Joyner.

But before any of these elements were put in place, Joyner says that, as with any landscaping job, she first noted how the house was situated and what parts of the yard had the most sun and shade. Also, Joyner says, proper drainage is a key component to any healthy and livable yard. This was particularly true at this home, because the area was very flat. So before the first shrub or tree was planted, Joyner and Benfield installed a sophisticated drainage system, including catch basins. These small grates installed in the ground are barely detectable and take up very little space, yet are crucial aspects of the landscaping as they help drain storm water and other excess debris.

Plant It

Once you’ve identified the layout, you’re ready to start planting. Joyner offers a couple of rules-of-thumb when landscaping a small space. For one, she stresses that you should layer your plants according to height so the area doesn’t look too one-dimensional. For instance, hardwood trees can be used first, then, in declining height, ornamental trees, small evergreens, and finally blooming evergreens. “You don’t just line plants up that are the same height,” says Joyner. “It will make your yard look like a playpen.”

Joyner also recommends grouping certain plants together in order to maximize when they’re in bloom. But she warns that if you have too many different plants, the yard ends up looking like a “tossed salad.” “You don’t want one of everything, but if you plant them in the correct place you can have as many plant varieties as you want,” she says. “But there has to be some repetition and continuity. This makes the property look larger. ”

In layering the plants according to height, Joyner and Benfield started with waxleaf ligustrums, a dark evergreen, which provided a buffer between the backyard and the neighbor’s property. Under the waxleaf ligustrums are tea olive bushes, ornamental evergreens, which produce highly fragrant white flowers in the autumn, winter, and early spring. And the pool area’s perimeter boasts hydrangeas. “Always make sure you have evergreen plants that bloom,” says Joyner of the hydrangeas.

Strategically placed throughout the backyard are nearly twenty plant and shrub varieties, which serve as both a border and ground cover. Along the right side of the yard are dogwoods, as well as brightly colored azaleas and rhododendrons. There are also fragrant daphne adoras and gardenias.

The partially covered patio, a great outdoor space, is anchored on both sides by dome-shaped Japanese maples, which add symmetry to the yard. A three-foot-high brick wall separates the patio from the rest of the yard and is covered with a flat, small leaf fig vine in order to soften the brick and give the area a more weathered, homey look.

Connecting the patio and pool area is a brick walkway. Joyner explains that this connection not only helps maintain a smooth, transitional flow, but it also helps maximize the space as it keeps the area’s various sections contained. “When you have limited space, the first thing you have to think about is getting from point A to point B,” says Joyner. “Here, you can get out of the car, walk to the patio or pool without ever stepping on the grass. This aspect is often overlooked.”

And while connectivity is important, Joyner also says she was sure not to make the walkway too wide or too obtrusive, in order to keep as much grass in the yard as possible. “Grass is pretty much 75 percent of your landscaping,” she explains. “It helps show off and define your bed lines. A lot of people think grass makes a large area look smaller, but it’s the exact opposite. It’s the matting for your picture.”

All of these various design elements—connected living spaces, a variety of vegetation layered vertically, plenty of grass, defined flower beds—come together to create an ideal place for entertaining. “It’s like having a second living room,” the homeowner says. “We use it almost the entire year. It really is fantastic.”