A Modern Minneapolis Backyard Paradise


When the owners of this south Minneapolis home began to redesign their small, rectangular yard, they didn’t let the size of the lot cloud their ambitions. One of the owners, a chef, wanted to plant organic vegetable beds and herb gardens whose yield could supplement the fresh local produce at her small restaurant. Since the couple also loves entertaining, their urban garden would need to allow space to host dozens of friends for an evening or weekend soiree. When they asked Minneapolis-based landscape design/build firm Biota to help, principals Steve Modrow and Jim Saybolt didn’t shy away from the couple’s robust wish list.

“We didn’t want to shove things in there,” Modrow recalls of the design challenges Biota had to overcome for the small space. “In this yard, the vegetable gardens would be front and center. And vegetable gardens aren’t pretty.” Biota tamed the unruly greenery by building rust-hued, weathering steel beds that finger out from either side of the backyard like piano keys. Neatly clipped grass grows between each bed to create order, open space, and easy access to harvest each garden’s bounty. The bed on the south side of the yard is elevated to soak up every bit of sun that streams over a neighbor’s tall fence. Beds on the north side remain at ground level, to avoid making the walkway between them feel narrower.

This expansive walkway connects the vegetable gardens to a deck along the back of the home. When guests spill out the back door, they can lounge on plush patio furniture near an open fire pit with a weathering steel (often known by the brand name Cor-Ten) screen that protects the nearby gardens from stray sparks. The walkway is wide enough to accommodate several café tables, for guests who prefer to sit amongst the yard’s lush greenery.

Biota created other cozy nooks throughout the yard to make sure no inch went unused. A gently curved cedar-wood screen conceals a cove for a double hammock. A neglected hot tub on the deck was replaced with a covered garden containing a bubbling fired-clay fountain and large, white river stones that the owner hand-selected as the surface for her daily yoga practice. To accommodate the owners’ enthusiasm for going barefoot, the Biota team carefully considered the texture of each surface in the yard. The walkway is paved with tumbled natural bluestone, and the surface beneath the hammock is covered in tiny pea gravel, which gives way, like sand, under the weight of each footstep.

When the owners recently decided to relocate to Texas and placed their meticulously designed property up for sale, the buyers instantly fell in love with the backyard paradise. They now refer to it as another room of the house. “We hardly unpacked the first summer we moved in,” says one of the new homeowners. It seems that long evenings spent relaxing in this urban escape will be a tradition for years to come.

Making the Most of a Small Space

Tips from Biota Landscape Design + Build

✔  Observe sun/light patterns throughout the day. Elements outside your control (shade from a neighbor’s tree or house) can have a big impact on a small yard. Know what these influences are and plan around them.

✔  Design “rooms” within your small yard. You’ll enjoy using intimate retreats that allow for quiet reflection and privacy.

✔  Focus on plants that are the right size for your space. Ensure you know how large a plant will be at maturity, prune your perennials appropriately (consider hiring the experts once or twice a year), and don’t be afraid to remove plants that aren’t thriving.

✔  Use quality materials. Everything will be up close in a small yard, so don’t skimp on the details.

By Ellen Guettler
Photos by Alex Steinberg

Landscape Design: Biota

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