How to make every detail count in a tiny urban backyard

Privacy on a small city lot is an all-too-elusive concept. But in a neighborhood of compact lots,a San Jose backyard ―which sits right up against two-story houses ― includes a pergola-sheltered hot tub for long, slow soaks behind a curtain of vines.

Landscape designer Cathy Drees managed to create a tranquil outdoor room thanks to a sophisticated color palette, a screen of greenery around the perimeter, and a few artfully chosen accents.

Drees's first step was to heighten the garden's sense of enclosure. Along the fence, she planted an evergreen screen of Tristaniopsis laurina 'Elegant' and Thuja occidentalis 'Emerald', both of which grow tall but not wide.

Then at one end of the backyard, she designed a cozy relaxation area with a hot tub and a vine-covered pergola; at the other end, she added a C-shaped bench with an arbor.

To make the yard appear larger, she set the bench and pergola at angles to the house. A recirculating fountain in a rock-filled channel marks the transition between the two areas.

To further enhance the illusion of space, Drees layered the plantings ― short ones in front, taller ones behind. Evergreen foliage plants (including Carex oshimensis 'Evergold', dwarf mondo grass, loropetalum, nandina, pieris, and pittosporum 'Cream de Mint') keep the garden looking good year-round. 'Sango Kaku' and 'Bloodgood' Japanese maples add seasonal color, as do flowers from variegated bower vine ( Pandorea jasminoides 'Variegata'), though the vine's foliage is a highlight in every season.

Design: Cathy Drees, Accent Gardens, Los Gatos (408/356-2435)


Play with paving
Drees chose 18- by 18-inch tiles of Connecticut bluestone, which contain shades of cool blues and rust. To echo the pavers' warm tones, she edged the patio with a channel of apricot-hued cobbles.

Think vertically
To create privacy, the designer planted columnar trees around the garden's perimeter and trained vines to climb arbors and trellises. That leaves the center of the garden more open for outdoor living.

Keep the color scheme simple
A minimal plant palette that's primarily green with a few hits of color blurs the boundaries behind patio, pergola, and arbor, and provides a restful backdrop.