How To: Make a Great Outdoor Space

Garden expert and author Debra Prinzing shares her top 10 tips for making an outdoor shed, hideaway or room go from dusty and boring to fabulous.

Sigh not, apartment-renters with balconies, there are tips in here for you too...

After looking at some gorgeous pictures of unique outdoor spaces, we now share Debra's tips to creating an outdoor space for reading, relaxing, or even painting, gardening, writing — or whatever else your work-weary heart desires to relax outdoors.

1 Check local building codes for zoning guidelines.
Sheds usually categorized as an “accessory building” or “temporary building.” There may be a maximum size (often 100- to 200- square feet) under which you can build a backyard shed without a permit. Adding electricity, water or other utilities will likely require a building permit. Be sure to ask how close to the property line or main residence you are allowed to build.

2 Identify the activities that draw you outdoors.
Are you creating art, making music, writing poetry, growing flowers, playing with children, stargazing, entertaining friends, or meditating? Virtually any personal passion can find a home in a small, but distinct garden shed.

Pin it button big

3 Consider the shed’s architectural role in the landscape.
Is it a design focal point or intentionally hidden from view? Will its outer walls support vines and climbing roses? Or will the shed be a backdrop for displaying flowerpots, artwork or sculpture? Will it camouflage an unsightly view? Is it for pure function or pure folly — or a little bit of both?

4 Choose its placement in the landscape.
Can you orient it to allow sunlight to stream through the windows and French doors? Or will it be nestled beneath a shade tree to provide a cool summer respite? Is the ground level enough to accommodate the structure or will you need to excavate or add fill?

5 Think carefully about the interiors.
So many people build architectural wonders and leave the inner spaces looking rather ordinary. Treat the interiors as you would any room of your house. One couple in Austin, Texas, built a tea house to echo the measurements of their dining room, because to them, that was a comfortable proportion.
What about the walls? It's fine to expose the rafters and studs, but can you paint them or mount shelves and hooks for displaying collections? A San Diego gardener lined the walls of her potting shed with pegboard, where she hung antique gardening tools as “art.”

6 Add home-like details that emulate those of your primary residence.
Windows should be operable so you can adjust temperatures, create ventilation and — most important — hear the sounds of your garden while inside. Make sure there's a deep ledge for displaying potted herbs or anything else that makes you happy.
As with your home, make sure the doorway linking your “inner sanctum” with the "outdoor world" is symbolic of shelter, safety and haven: don't settle for an ordinary door from a big-box home center when you can find something special. A salvaged door, especially one with multi-paned glass, is a nice choice; coat it with a brilliant color or allow it to weather with time.

7 Remember this is an outdoor structure.
It's okay if you have a cement floor, but consider staining it with an accent color and adding a drain in the center for easy cleanup of gardening projects. Sheds floors can be finished with wooden planks, colorful vinyl tile, terra cotta pavers, flagstone, wall-to-wall carpeting or pigmented concrete.

8 Give yourself a work surface.
Add a counter or potting bench, using the dimensions and proportions of your kitchen counter as a guide. Allow depth to accommodate stacks of terra cotta pots or a row of gardening books. Are there enough shelves overhead or storage cabinets underneath? Cover the countertops in a durable material, such as copper or galvanized metal sheeting.

9 Add ornamentation.
Artwork — inside and out — will adorn “a shed of your own” and make it a personal expression of your style. The freedom of erecting this private room outdoors means that anything goes, including mirrors, stained glass, vintage artifacts, retro pottery, hanging plants, birdhouses, a weathervane, chandeliers, collections and more!

10 Make it comfortable.
Even if your shed is mainly home to your gardening projects, designate one corner for R&R. Include a bench with cushions or a wicker chair and good reading lamp (of course, this means electricity), a desk for your reference books, correspondence, or even a small tea party. Create a sacred place that nurtures your spirit and feeds your soul.

Find more on Debra's blog.

(Images: William Wright)