Out & About: Creating Outdoor Rooms

04 Jul 2010

Summer’s the time to enjoy your yard, and creating an outdoor room lets you enjoy it even more.

Here are some tips for making an outdoor room you’ll really want to live in.

outabout-lightup Spending balmy summer days on your patio sounds great—unless you have wretched chairs, no shade and shabby views. Whether you only have room for a tiny table and chair, or enough for an outdoor kitchen, you can always maximize your comfort. So how do you create an “outdoor room” you can’t wait to go home and relax in? First, define what you primarily want to do there. Relax and read a book? Entertain into the wee hours? Spend time with the kids? Deciding your room’s main purpose lays the groundwork for a fun and functional space. Next, consider your tastes. Do you prefer a meditative spot, with a bubbling fountain and potted plants? Or is a desert oasis more to your liking? Which furnishings do you feel most comfortable in: contemporary, traditional, country, Mediterranean, modern? Is your household overrun with kids and pets? If so, consider creating a user-friendly, low-maintenance space. Then think about configuring it. You want your outdoor room to feel like an extension of your home, so placing it close to the house ensures you’ll use it more. Does your space have views? That helps dictate furniture placement and angles. No views or too close to the neighbors? Consider screens, trellises and other privacy barriers. Define your space with weather-resistant flooring and furnishings, soften it with plants, and spiff it up with flourishes like fire pits, torchières, water features and lighting. Outdoor rooms can get expensive, so decide what elements are crucial for your comfort, and what you can live without or add later when your pocketbook allows.
Here are a few ideas for outdoor rooms, along with photographs of local projects that may help inspire you.
[pp_gallery gallery_id="9748" width="150" height="150"] Cozy it up This intimate outdoor room easily captures starry nights and clear skies, and the room’s landscape, raised deck and undulating pergola give it a secluded feeling. Appeal to the Senses Interspersing stonework and constructed elements with fragrant herbs and flowers adds a whole other dimension to an outdoor room. Consider planting chocolate-scented geraniums, jasmine, thyme, lavender or peppermint for an all-natural room fragrance that imparts a subtle yet lovely scent. Double Whammy Instead of a basic walkway leading to a terrace, consider a double staircase. This feature allows for good traffic flow when you entertain, and spices up the landscape because you can place interesting plants between them. Gimme Shelter Protection from the elements allows you to use your outdoor room in all weather. A simple pergola provides partial shade, keeping you comfortable and keeping the views, too. A minimal overhead structure of complementary colors and materials gives a room a cohesive, defined feeling without being obtrusive. Frame It If you want to mostly enclose your outdoor space, arrange the hardscape materials so that they frame stunning views. Let Nature Take Its Course Choose natural materials like rocks, stones  and brick that blend, rather than compete, with views. Maintain symmetry and visual flow with low-key borders that embrace the views, and bright bedding plants that enhance them. Fancy Furnishings When it comes to furnishing your outdoor room, think indoor styles. Weather-resistant furniture comes in a variety of colors, patterns and styles, and throw pillows add homey comfort. Flimsy furnishings won’t cut it in wind, and wicker takes a real beating outdoors. Instead, choose sturdy pieces that are easy to wipe down. Gather Round the Fire Instead of having an outdoor room all in one location, install a walkway to a slightly more secluded space for more intimacy. Expanding an outdoor room provides more options for entertaining and a nice change of pace. Light Up the Night Lighting can make or break any space, including an outdoor room. By utilizing different lighting schemes, you can instantly change your room’s ambience and maximize its use. Bright overhead lighting allows for anything from meetings to entertaining, while a fireplace, hurricane lanterns, candles and accent lights keep things intimate and casual. Privacy Please While privacy is important, constructing a thick wall between you and the neighbors isn’t always necessary. Instead, define your room’s perimeter with natural options like trees and shrubs. A thin woven screen can shield you from prying eyes, while allowing outdoor elements to shine through. Cost-Cutters Alternative materials are a great way to cut costs. Use gravel instead of stone for an inexpensive flooring option, and incorporate salvaged stonework in with newer materials. While not recycled, some man-made products, such as cultured stone, are cost-effective and don’t sacrifice style.
The following plants help define outdoor rooms: • Vertical evergreen shrubs, such as Ames juniper (Juniperus chinensis ‘Ames’), grow up to 3-feet wide by 8-to-10-feet high and are perfect for creating an evergreen wall. They’re also particularly useful for narrow planting areas. • Tall hedge buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula ‘Columnaris’) is a great option if you’re looking for a deciduous vertical shrub. This shrub grows up to 3-to-4-feet wide by 10-to-12- feet high and has attractive, dark-green glossy leaves. • Autumn blaze maple (Acer x freemanii ‘Autumn Blaze’) is a fantastic tree to plant next to patios, and anywhere a nice shade canopy is desired. Available in both single- and multi-stem forms, it provides brilliant red fall color and is a relatively fast grower. • Boxwood (Buxus spp.) are often used for hedges and topiary, and are perfect for formal gardens and outdoor living spaces. They’re available in a variety of sizes and shapes, and have finely textured green foliage. Boxwood requires moderate watering and needs to be protected from hot summer sun and cold winter winds. • For a more native look, try Saskatoon serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). This hardy, large shrub with yellow-to-red fall color and a nice, multi-stem form is great for natural-looking shrub borders. • For an Asian look, use a mixture of ornamental evergreens. Many local nurseries now stock a fantastic variety of these sculptural plants. Growers regularly introduce new varieties, from twisted and contorted pines to weeping spruces in dwarf and compact forms.  
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