Outdoor spaces come in all shapes and sizes—backyards, patios, terraces, front porches, balconies. But no matter what kind of outdoor space you have, you want to make the most of it. For our Small, Cool Outdoors contest this month, we asked applicants to give us their best tips for creating a cool outdoor space. Here's what they had to say. It's a wealth of helpful and achievable ways to create a fabulous outdoor space that's perfectly suited for you.
1. You Don't Have To Spend a Lot of Money.
Outdoors is the perfect place to be funky, to be be mis-matched, and to kick off your flip flops. A great way to get that umatched look is to re-use things from other parts of our home. The bistro set from our front porch can serve double duty when used for waterfront dining on the backyard dock. A swimsuit coverup (the orange sarong) will happily moonlight as a tablecloth. - Julie S..
Accessorize with things you love. I have been collecting those California flowerpots for years, and they add color and cheer even when nothing's in bloom. Also, consider how your garden looks from different angles (through the kitchen window, looking down from a second story), since that way you can enjoy it even when you're not in it. My sitting room/library looks out onto the deck's main railing, so I combine specific colors of pots and plants to enhance this view. - KD
Biggest decorating tip: try to avoid breaking the bank for a relaxing, ideally stylish, patio space that could be easily achieved with a little thriftin' and scavenger-ness. We found our miniature pallets free at a neighborhood shop and the large deep cushions are baby crib mattresses, chosen for their second-hand affordability on Craigslist and liquid-proof lining, covered in thrifted outdoor fabric and shower curtains. Add a vintage trunk, bought at a garage sale, to keep all pretty things safe while not in use and you have a pretty, easy, pop-up lounge area when friends come a calling and Texas nights are cool. - Lacee
Be creative - don't spend a lot of money. Finding items on the street, at garage sales, or within your own home and re-purposing them takes a keen eye, patience and creativity, but we are happy with how it's a work-in-progress. If it doesn't work with your aesthetic, just bring it back to the street! - Laurie C.
If you are a renter and cost is an issue, ask your landlord if they would contribute towards gardening supplies if you volunteer to do the work. That strategy worked for us, since we share this entryway with our landlords and they get to enjoy it every day, too. - Sarah M.
Repurpose what you already have and don't be afraid to paint. The previous owners left us with a blank canvas. We chose to paint wide stripes on the floor to really enhance the overall. These stripes create the illusion of space. The bench is an unused coffee table. We added sides and a back to the table with decorative molding. The chairs and picnic table were items that we had, but were not in the best shape. With some sanding and black spray paint they were refreshed. - Meghan and Rob
Never use an entire matching outdoor furniture set. Change it up a bit. - Jason C.
Get creative... you don't have to let your space be limited by store bought items/furniture. We like to recycle and upcycle whenever possible. Alleys, dumpsters and construction sites are great places to get furniture and accessories for your outdoor space. - Kris S.
Outdoor spaces are great for scavenged items, since everyone expects things to be weather-beaten outside, anyway. Look at things that might otherwise be thrown out and imagine how they could be of use in your space. I found the wicker seat and couch on separate trash days. Spray paint and some new cushions made them look like a matching set. All of the tables, plant stands, and many of the pots were also curbside finds. The large, rectangular plant bed with the lettuce was a broken coffee table that I reinforced to hold the wight of the soil and water. It's the perfect height for hiding our worm compost bin underneath. Saving money on the basics allowed me to go crazy with the plants, which are squeezed in every which way. We were also able to let more air into our apartment by hanging a cheap Ikea curtain from a tension rod in the doorway, thus blocking the bugs while letting in the breeze. - Ashley T.
2. Add Color! Even Black.
The most effective way we utilized space was to build benches into the wall. We were able to make seating in an L shape against the wall which helped to maximize center space. Also, add color! It's amazing what a few pots of flowers will do to a small space (especially if it's made out of concrete, like ours). Also, be sure to use your walls not just for artwork, but for storage too. Shelving and u-hooks work wonders for storage so that you can have more living space. - Sarah J.
First, when working out a design, consider sun exposure and lighting requirements at all times of the day (and night). Second, don't underestimate the value of black in outdoor design. When used with vivid colors, black recedes into the background, providing a sound backdrop as the colors take center stage; when paired with white, the result is dramatic contrast. Curiously, in an outdoor space black has the opposite effect it does indoors – it makes the space seem larger. - Randolph P.
Choose a color palette that will make you happy and use a mix of containers that vary in height for a cheerful, eclectic look. We chose our bright pink flowers based on the paint color of a house across the street, and we love how the pink pops against the various shades of green. - Sarah M.
...But Not Too Much Color.
Adding a bright splash of color as an accent will brighten up any space, whether it's a pillow, a table, planters or umbrella. Just don't over do it or it may look a little chaotic. - Janet Y.
3. Make Sure to Have a Few Plants.
Do your research to find plants that will thrive in the existing conditions and won't require too much effort. You want to enjoy the space, and not have to constantly be working in it! - Sarah M.
Grow up. If you don't have square feet, pick things that like to climb on things. Vines are your friend. Or if you can anchor things to a wall, just get your containers going vertical. - Justine S.
Grow what you love! We use our mint, rosemary, oregano, shiso, sage, cilantro, and basil in almost every meal we cook. In addition to colorful flowers and herbs, we are also growing a healthy combination of fruits and vegetables because we are supportive of the organic, urban agriculture movement. Growing edible plants has really humbled us! Share/attract beneficial insects! Our terrace is on the fourth floor, so we're practically in the treetops with birds, squirrels, bees, butterflies, and many other insects. There are two rooftop beehives at my office a few blocks away, and we've certainly noticed an increase in the number of bees buzzing around! - Laurie C.
In Colorado's dry climate I opted to use clay pots with trays so that any water that drains out can be soaked back into the soil as it dries. As water evaporates from the trays it provides much needed humidity around the plants as well. I coated the inside of the pots with a waterproof sealant used for water gardening to prevent further evaporation through the terracotta pots. Utilize any available space including vertical space with plant stands or a trellis. I plant climbing plants on a trellis to provide as much greenery as possible in a small space and it provides a bit of separation from the adjacent balcony. I also took advantage of the thick exterior building walls to hang garden tools between the door and screen. - Danny M.
Buy a couple of bigger plants early and mix them up with with smaller ones. Eventually you'll feel like you're surrounded by greenery. - Debbie R.
Consider the microclimate. Small spaces, especially in Urban settings, tend to have a unique microclimate due to the amount of sun, air, and water the space receives. In my case, I chose drought tolerant and hardy plants that could handle the heat provided by the surrounding buildings and hardscape. Any finicky plants are in pots which can be moved around and managed more closely. Even my vegetable trough is on casters so that I could find the best growing location and move it if entertaining requires it. - Adam B.
Look to big gardens for inspiration. Great ideas can be scaled down and have the same big impact; Take advantage of the structural constraints of your space - Make them your backdrop, not your limitation; Small outdoor spaces usually come with small homes - Make your outdoor space another room to expand your living space. - Kelly D.
...But Not Too Many Plants.
If you have a space like our small screened porch, which is surrounded by open green space, try to not compete too much with the view and feeling of openness. I try to resist too many indoor plants and clutter that would just interfere with the feeling of being out in the open outdoors. When we are on our porch, it feels like a pretty seamless transition to the yard, and it really brings the outdoors in. - Shelley S.
4. Consider The Space, and Make It Fit Your Lifestyle.
If the space allows, think about it as if it's a regular room with different zones of activity. Use outdoor fabrics for upholstery. - Joyce T.
Think about what you will be most likely to use the space for and design around it. We wouldn't eat outside very often, so it didn't make sense to put a table and chairs, but a chaise lounge is flexible for reading, napping, and people watching with friends. - Rachel M.
Since everything will be viewed at close range, details are important. You can insert small whimsical yard ornaments that might get lost in a larger setting. Also, decide who you are designing it for...your own pleasure or to make it comfortable for guests. Feel free to depart completely from your "indoor" decorating style. - Shelley M.
Use what you have and don't worry about what the neighbors think - or have. Our space is an extension of our life and so should yours." - Linda and Bob D.
Make it intimate and cozy. Use natural light to your advantage. Simple accessories such as a couple of pillows and table top decorations make a huge difference! - Lisa D.
Take advantage of the structural constraints of your space. Make them your backdrop, not your limitation. Small outdoor spaces usually come with small homes - Make your outdoor space another room to expand your living space. - Kelly D.
Know your limits! But also know that if you love your space, you will find ways to fill it. As small as it is, with a chair or two, a glass of wine (or cup of coffee) shared with friends and dogs it becomes a welcoming oasis after a long day at the office. - Dina S.