Architect Lisa Rapoport has seen every conceivable type of garden squeezed and stretched into the contours of Toronto.
So when Graham McLeod and Timothy O'Fallon presented her with a slender lot, a busy street corner and an ecofriendly bent, Ms. Rapoport felt inspired by the challenge.
"Typologically it's an interesting problem," says the principal with Plant Architect about the type of property in question.
Ms. Rapoport points out that many urban dwellers in Toronto have created modern houses from the former corner stores, tailor's shops and small factories that sit at neighbourhood intersections.
The architects and designers of these conversions must grapple with oddly configured lots that don't hide much from the passersby. Sometimes neighbouring buildings loom or create an eyesore.
The garden belonging to Mr. McLeod and Mr. O'Fallon presented all of those common challenges and some additional quirks.
The two homeowners live in a red-brick Victorian industrial building that has been carved into three dwellings. Their portion – with large windows pushed up close to the street – sits on a corner in the southern part of Riverdale.
They had already transformed the interior of the former dairy and ice-cream factory into a striking living space with a blend of contemporary architecture and rustic artifacts.
"It's modern but with some older, interesting architectural elements," says Mr. McLeod, pointing out an old concrete sink which has been given new purpose in the kitchen and the wood on the floor reclaimed from an old barn.
They hired Plant Architect to extend that approach to the existing side yard.
"We liked their aesthetic – kind of modern and encompassing recycled materials," says Mr. McLeod.
To begin, Ms. Rapoport had to consider the ways in which the space would be used. The rather ramshackle yard had been divided into a storage area and a sitting area with a walking path through the middle.
"There were too many disparate parts in something so small."
She decided to streamline the elements that would serve three distinct purposes: The space still allows for passage from the house to the street, a storage area, and a place for relaxation, but the parts have been rendered into a unified whole.
Ms. Rapoport also had to consider how to make the most of the relatively small budget of about $30,000.
You can look at the budget in two ways, she explains. The first is the cost of buying and bringing in new elements. But the second is the expense of removing the materials already there and paying to have them carted away.
The more the couple could re-use, the less they would pay in disposal fees. That approach also fit well with their concern for the environment.
A collection of random flagstone on the ground contributed to the untidy appearance of the space.
"From an aesthetic point of view, it didn't have the crispness they wanted."
She recommended using it to create an edge around the beds. Workers cut the stone to create a neat line.
"Stone is very expensive. It didn't make sense to take it away and replace it with more stone," she says, adding that shearing off the ragged edges suits the modern aesthetic. "The edging is strong; it has a presence."
Where the stone once created a floor, she had concrete poured and then sand-blasted to create an interesting texture. The colour of the concrete is warmer than the cool grey of the sidewalk, she points out.
The concrete suits the appreciation within modernism for industrial materials, she says.
"It's not just economical – it's part of an aesthetic of being very pure, of bringing a normal material into the design."
At one end of the garden, charcoal-coloured gravel covers the ground instead of concrete in order to protect the roots of the maple tree.
When it came to choosing the trees and shrubs, Ms. Rapoport had to consider the challenge created by the proximity of the narrow house to the sidewalk. The large windows running along the length seem very close to the street.
"Creating a screening and interest in the foreground was really important."
While a couple of large maples created the overarching canopy, Ms. Rapoport called for dogwood shrubs and a Japanese maple tree to create a middle layer that surrounded and enclosed the space.
The leaves create a filter through which people inside can catch glimpses of the street life outside without feeling pushed right up against it.
Anything more opaque, such as a cedar hedge, would emphasize how small the garden is, adds Ms. Rapoport.
"You'd make it into a little fortress."
Directly in front of a large window at the front of the house, she added a paperbark maple. The tree shields the interior from passersby while giving Mr. McLeod and Mr. O'Fallon something to look at in the form of exfoliating bark.
"It's something of interest to look at all year round," says Ms. Rapoport.
Mr. O'Fallon adds that the pair prefers the simple combination of green foliage and white blooms, so the garden beds are mainly filled with hydrangeas. The pair also wanted to ensure that no plants with poisonous leaves or berries would be planted because their three rambunctious pugs like to roam around the garden.
The furniture consists of a very long, salvaged wood beam that serves as a bench. A similar chunk of wood was used to create a table. The wood adds interest and texture and the length also mirrors the interior space with its narrow kitchen island and a big, long table.
The reclaimed beams, which likely came out of a demolished factory, rest on slim supports.
"They are on these very light steel beams so they kind of float," says the architect. "There's a kind of airiness around them."
An existing shed was also transformed with the addition of a perforated metal screen that was painted a deep charcoal to match the neutral palette of the other materials.
The metal is of the type often used in industrial buildings to create a railing or, in some cases, as a radiator cover.
"It came into use in the 1970s and it has had a legacy ever since," says Ms. Rapoport. "Here we are 40 year years later and it still feels industrial."
Mr. McLeod and Mr. O'Fallon are now enjoying the garden's transformation.
"People comment on how beautiful it is and how it really adds to the street," says Mr. O'Fallon.
The shrubs are growing taller and creating more privacy in the low-maintenance garden.
And they never have to worry about anyone walking off with the hefty table. When the pair entertains, guests like to sit on the bench for a pre-dinner cocktail.
While they still see passersby, they feel that they can relax in a serene setting surrounded by green.
"It's our little oasis away from the craziness," says Mr. McLeod.