Are you thinking about renovating a small backyard or narrow rowhouse outdoor space?  If so we at therowhouse-backyard Urban Backyard know how daunting it can be.  Trying to envision creating a warm and inviting space out of a dilapidated and overgrown backyard isn’t easy.

That’s why we’ve put together a guide of things to consider while you are planning to get you on your way.  Having gut rehabbed small outdoor spaces we know some of the pitfalls that can reek havoc on a project.  From drainage to irrigation and retaining walls to patios the following article details all of the elements to consider when planning your new backyard!

As you plan it’s a good rule of thumb to start from the ground up…no pun intended.


The grade or the overall slope of the entire space should be considered first when addressing an outdoor space. The grade is what determines how water will drain throughout the space. While proper drainage away from the house is important in every yard it is especially important in a rowhouse environment. The small footprint doesn’t always provide an obvious area for the runoff.

While you always want to direct water away from structures in a rowhouse situation you want to make sure you aren’t directing it to your neighbors on both sides.

This is also the time to think about addressing the runoff from downspouts as well. If you’re tearing up the entire yard, plan to direct downspout runoff in a way that can help irrigate or into a sewer.

Check out this example!


Dry Wells

One tried and true solution used to direct water is a dry well.  Dry wells work by grading the landscape to a drain connected to a plastic pipe. The pipe carries water below ground through a sloped channel and empties into a collection barrel that disperses the water into the subsoil in an area of the yard that can use the water like a lawn or flower bed.

Retaining Walls

backyard-retaining-wallNow that you’ve considered grading and drainage it’s time to think about keeping soil and earth from moving. Retaining walls will keep your backyard in one place especially if you live on a hill. They’ll also keep your neighbors yard from collapsing into yours and in some case they’ll provide a solid structure for things that need to be anchored like fences.

They don’t necessarily need to be utilitarian either. Retaining walls can be used to raise a flower bed or add vertical depth to your space. Depending on their height throw a few pillows down and your wall can be used for extra seating.

Retaining walls can be made of just about any hardscape material you can think of from brick to stone to concrete as well as materials like railroad ties.


Patio areas don’t need any definition or much of an explanation, but there are a couple of things to think about as your planning your design.
Floating patios are a nice option if you want as much green space as possible. Stepping stones through a garden to a small patio is a classic look.

You can also add a layer of depth to your space by creating a patio with levels. A top side terrace with a couple of steps to an eating area can make a small space feel bigger.

Storage Area

At this point, the backyard design is well under way but before you get too far consider an area set aside for storage. One thing a lot of folks forget about is storage, but when your space is finished your going to want a place to store things you will need to maintain your new yard. Lawn mowers, gardening tools, and patio furniture, and in some cases trash barrels all need a place to go.

Related Articles: Backyard  Storage Ideas

Whether you have a free standing shed or a small fenced in area concealing all of your outside “stuff” think about what that looks like now before it’s too late.

Flower Beds

Flower beds are another backyard element that need no explanation, but it is good to start to think about what you’re going to put in the beds as you design them.

If you are planning on adding plants that need a lot of light, make sure your design puts your flower beds in an area that gets good light. Also consider any structures that might come later that could block light like fences or pergolas.

Lastly, if your bed is in a hardscaped enclosure make sure to install a weed barrier fabric and think about a border material for your flower beds like cobblestone or an edging material.


Another often overlooked element of an outdoor space is irrigation. There is nothing worse than investing in expensive plants and flowers only to lose them during a hot spell. This is especially true in newly established plants as their root system hasn’t matured enough to get deep into the subsoil.

There are several ways to provide irrigation to your lawn and garden from custom solutions laid out by a landscape professional to drip irrigation systems you can find at your local Home Depot or Lowes.

A DIY drip irrigation system will run about $40 – $100 per 100 feet where as a custom solution can run into the $1000’s.  This Old House has a nice how-to article around drip irrigation here.


In planning your new outdoor space, we highly recommend adding electricity to the yard. Since the yard will already be dug up installation becomes much more manageable and the number of times you’ll wish you had it if you don’t install it are countless.

Thinking long term maybe you add an outdoor kitchen with a refrigerator that requires electricity or an outdoor theater or speaker system. You’ll be happy you have it when you need it!


Sod works best in a small space as its relatively affordable and grows fairly easily if installed properly. One thing to consider if you don’t want to deal with maintaining and mowing your lawn or if you don’t have an area that gets enough light is the new synthetic turf products on the market.

Synthetic Turf has become more affordable and gotten easier to install. There are a ton of different varieties with varied looks to match grass typically grown in your geographical area. A fair amount of prep work is involved but once installed all you need to do to maintain it is sweep it up once in a while.


While the style of fence you decide on is based on personal preference it is generally advised to match a new fence to any existing fences that abut the yard. It’s also a good idea to make sure any new fence you install in a row house situation that you are installing the fence on your property.

I know it sounds incredibly obvious, but we’ve heard horror stories of real estate transactions going bad due to fences being placed one foot over the property line requiring easments so make sure to double check.

Grilling and BBQ

Make sure to dedicate space for whatever cooking components you choose. In overhauling an outdoor space, it makes sense to get exactly what you want in terms of outdoor cooking. If the budget allows consider an outdoor kitchen.

Check out our outdoor kitchen series here.

Also, think about whether it makes sense to plumb gas to your cooking area. Try to think about this area in zones. You’ll want a prep area, a cooking area, and a serving area convenient to any patio furniture set you are planning.

Related Article: Small Space Patio Furniture

Overhead Structure

The last element to consider during the planning process is whether an overhead structure makes sense. Elements like pergolas and gazebos are great if the sun beats down all day making it almost too hot to use the space. Remember any structure like these need to be anchored in cement footings so take that into consideration as you plan.

Another newer addition to a shade structure is sail cloth. UV and weather resistant these can be customized to provide shade that best suits the space. Anchored to a post or the house they come in a bunch of shapes and colors and are a more affordable option than pergolas in most cases.

Tell us about your rowhouse backyard makeover! Leave a comment below.

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