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Several years ago, my wife and I packed up our two toddlers, filled our car and part of my parents’ car, and moved into an apartment in Kensington Market, downtown Toronto. Although the rent was significantly more than our 15-year mortgage here, the apartment was less than a quarter of our entire house.

So we shed weight.

“How many clothes can we use in three months but still fit in one suitcase? What couple of toys can we bring for the kids? We’ll borrow books at the library and go to drop-in centers.”

The purging exercise was actually refreshing. I think the impulse is part of what is driving today’s “Tiny House” movement.

Then I visited a professor’s house in Toronto and saw the backyard.

What we call a “half-double” here is called an “attached house” there and is quite common. The difference is that not only is the house itself separated by a wall; so is the backyard. A six-foot-high fence typically divides the “shared” backyard, resulting in a tiny lawn.

Far from producing claustrophobia, however, my professor’s tiny backyard – less than 1,000 square feet – instead produced the inspiration of an elegant courtyard. It was simply another beautiful room of their home. The homeowners knew and cultivated every plant. In fact, they valued every branch of every tree. Everything that grew or was positioned around the growing things had a function. In fact, even trimming a small branch had disposal consequences – what we might simply toss on a brush pile, for them, would have to be cut into small pieces, carried through the house, and put out for recycling.

The feelings produced by the professor’s backyard surprisingly came back to me last week as I consulted with some embarrassed homeowners in Scranton. Their 1,500 square foot backyard had become a jungle due to a combination of some unsustainable planning by the previous owners, some neglect on their part and some aggressive weeds.

If anyone knows the overwhelming feeling of owning a “jungle,” I do, having purchased one ten times that large.

Yet in surveying the “tiny jungle,” memories of my professor’s backyard returned and inspired me. “You can easily make this space an asset,” was my message, “but intense planning will be the hardest part.”

The principles of the tiny lawn apply to our larger, suburban properties:

1. Lawns and patios are the easiest spaces to maintain. Build around this foundation.

2. Know the function, benefits and requirements of every plant you use to ornament your lawn and patio. Treat all plants as carefully-selected specimens.

3. Incorporate some substantial boundaries to provide privacy and a sense of enclosure. An intentional, sheltered, and inviting, postage stamp outdoor space can provide more respite and inspiration than an open acre.

4. Use inviting furnishings to draw guests away from the house.

Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business. Reach him at