I have lived in several homes and, almost universally, the side garden situation has been dismal. Why is it that this gap between one home and the next seems to get so little love?
Well, okay, I know the answer to that. The side return of a house is usually stuck in the shadow of the buildings it’s between, meaning that it’s colder and damper than anywhere else in your garden. For many people, the passage between their gardens is purely functional – a route for dragging garden materials and bins through without getting your carpets muddy.
Side Return Garden Ideas: Clearing Things Up
Honestly, the reason our side gardens are a bit of a downer is quite often because we neglect them. It turns into a bit of a vicious cycle – we don’t like venturing down the side of our house because they’re overgrown… which only lets the problem get worse. So, if you’re determined to reclaim the space along the side of your house, the first thing we should look at is clearing it out.
The degree of stripping back will vary depending on what you ultimately want to do with the space. For example, if you want it to become a comfortable part of your garden, you may want to keep flower beds, plants and any existing path. On the other hand, if you just need it to be functional and low-maintenance, you might want to take the opportunity to strip everything out and replace it with hardscaping.
Wooden or composite decking is practical and stylish, and can fit with modern or rustic garden designs. If your side return is especially narrow, your best bet is to completely cover the floor with decking – but lay the grain horizontally or diagonally to draw the eye outwards and make the space feel wider. Alternatively, you can build a decked path with flower beds or gravel on either side. Lay the path off-centre, or even gently zig-zagged, and put furniture or planters in the widest sections to give the illusion of more space. Read our tips for building a low-maintenance deck.
For a side garden that’s soft on the feet but low on the maintenance, try artificial grass. There are lots of low-budget options, and it’s easy to cut into various shapes to suit the angles of your specific side garden.
Make it as easy for yourself as possible to get from A to B by laying down a quality paved pathway. Brick pavers or flat stones will make it a doddle to wheel bikes or bins through your garden, striking the balance between form and function. Letting moss grow between the stones will give you a softer, overgrown look – or you can keep a clean, modern aesthetic by laying gravel in the gaps.
Gravel is attractive, hard wearing, low maintenance and low cost. It works in modern gardens and traditional ones, and the crunch as you walk across it can act as a security feature for your home. So, what exactly isn’t there to love? This video has more tips about laying gravel.
Painting your side garden fence will instantly change the tone and lift the mood. A light colour will bounce light around shady side returns, but why not go for something bolder? If you’ve been living with a previously uninspiring view from the kitchen window, treat yourself to a bright blue, deep pink or cheerful orange.
Making Your Side Return Inviting
Once it’s cleared out, you’ll see just how much space you have available at the side of your home – and it’s probably more than you think. Adding just a few practical and decorative elements can make using your side passage significantly more enjoyable from now on.
Plants are the obvious way to make your side return feel more welcoming, but grow strategically if you previously struggled with pruning them. Choose a single variety of climber for simplicity, or use containers to limit how unruly your vegetation can get.
Window boxes can be very practical in a side garden, if you have the room. Just make sure any herbs and flowers are suited to a shady position – we’ve got tips for both shade-loving vegetables and plants for partial sun. If you have any windows looking out into the passageway, prioritise the view from them. As in, start growing your plants against the fence directly opposite the window, and reposition your bins somewhere further down.
Light it up
Garden lighting can totally transform any outdoor space and make it much more usable. To turn your unloved side return into a cosy seating area, try hanging festoons or fairy lights along your fence. If being able to see where you’re walking is more important, try installing floor-level downlighters, or stake lights along the path.
Illuminating storage units is important too. Make sure you can easily find your way to bins – single-handedly (assuming you’re carrying rubbish), and without getting muddy or gunky.
If you’re keeping anything valuable in your side garden, like bikes or furniture, make sure you can see well enough to access it without getting damaged. Your lighting can also act as a security feature if you’re concerned about theft (but use solid fencing to reduce prying eyes)!
Be strategic with structure
The secret to a garden looking interesting and luxurious is to add structure. However, you don’t want to make your side return any shadier than it already is.
Pergolas and fencing should be as open as possible (you can always train climbing plants to give you a bit more privacy later). Archways or trellises are maybe a better way to create a little bit of structure without creating a lot of shadow.
If you build a lean-to or storage unit of some kind, try to use transparent or translucent materials that will still let the sun in.
Side Return Garden Ideas: Reclaiming The Space
When outdoor space is minimal, you should be using every inch that you can! There are loads of side return garden ideas that can transform even the narrowest strip into a dining area, seating space, cooking spot or practical storage zone (that might give you back some space from your main garden area).
Cosy, compact seating
I am constantly amazed by all of the innovative ways people save floor space in their garden. You might think there’s no way you could fit seating in your side garden, but you might want to grab a measuring tape and reconsider.
Folding bistro tables and drop-leaf tables are perfect for creating an occasional al fresco dining experience, and narrow benches and stools can create a cosy nook for relaxing. Figure out what the widest parts of your side return are, and whether you can arrange furniture in such a way that the space has an additional function.
Build a beautiful BBQ area
Talking of dining outdoors – what about using this narrow side space for cooking? This is especially useful if you have enough garden space for a dining table but not a lot else. Hard paving is a good, solid foundation for a small BBQ or fire pit, and it will keep smoke from blowing straight into your guests’ faces if they’re chilling outside as you grill.
Slimline storage spaces
If you already have a decent-sized garden, you might not need recreational side return garden ideas. Instead, how about using it as a practical storage space? Most people already hide their wheelie bins here, so building a simple bin shelter keeps things tidy and attractive.
Your narrow side return is the perfect place to build an outdoor log store if you have an open fire at home. Or, you might be able to finally create room for a solid fuel DIY fire pit!
Side returns are also good places to keep bikes, scooters and kids’ ride-on toys, especially if you often need to take them out front. Take a look at our other ideas for storing garden toys.
Adding a narrow table or workbench to your side return can help you in all kinds of ways. In spring, you’ll be able to use it as a potting bench while you spruce up your plants. In summer, it can be a refreshments table while you hang outside. When autumn comes, you can keep your garden maintenance and DIY tools handy, and putting a tarpaulin over the bench can create sufficient frost protection for hardy plants in winter.
Set up a safe play area
Gardens aren’t always the safest play areas for kids or pets, especially if they double-up as work or hobby spaces for other family members. By cleaning up and fencing off your side return, you can create a dedicated outdoor fun zone for your smallest housemates.
Of course, this idea only works if your side return is secure and easy to supervise. Ideally, you’ll have excellent visibility from windows and/or a back door. If your side return has gate access to the front of your house, please, please avoid this idea!
A home for wildlife
Even if you don’t intend to use your side garden, that doesn’t mean that other critters can’t have access. In fact, local wildlife is much more likely to appreciate a spot that isn’t interfered with by humans too often.
Install a combination of bird baths, bird boxes and bird feeders to welcome flying friends (and possibly squirrels too). Holes in fences and ground-level boxes can help hedgehogs, and bug hotels will support your local pollinator population – and keep pest numbers down.
Look at your side garden in a new light
In 2020, we spent so much of our time at home, our gardens became more valuable than ever. Don’t let a single square foot go to waste – try out some of these side return garden ideas and reclaim the space!