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Making the most of your outdoor space, no matter how small

By Boston Globe | June 25, 2020

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Coronavirus quarantines have many people rethinking the interiors of their homes this spring. DIY projects were tackled, and rooms reorganized. Now that summer’s here, why not give the same mini-makeover to backyards and outdoor spaces?

You’ll feel less cooped up if you bring some indoor style outside, even if it’s just to a tiny balcony or front porch, said New Jersey interior designer Anna Maria Mannarino.

“You’re expanding the real estate really by bringing the indoors out,” Mannarino said.

Here, she and two other design experts — Connecticut landscape architect Janice Parker and Houston interior designer Lauren Rottet — share advice on how they create stylish outdoor spaces that can accommodate a range of activities, from cooking and socially distant entertaining to relaxing and working from home.

Comfort and coziness

Even the smallest outdoor space probably has room for one or two comfortable chairs and a bistro table, Mannarino said. If you don’t normally keep a table outside, Rottet suggested bringing out a small folding table when you want to dine or work outside. Add a crisp linen tablecloth, she said, and even an inexpensive card table will look special.

Layering the space with pillows and a throw blanket for evenings adds a cozy vibe. Choose pillows and cushions in an outdoor-friendly fabric like Sunbrella, which needs little care to stay looking and feeling good throughout the seasons, Mannarino said.

“And I would definitely add an outdoor rug if you have the space to do it,” she said.

If you don’t want to buy an outdoor rug, Parker said, just bring out a throw rug from inside to use on a sunny day.

Sounds and scents

The sounds of rippling water or birdsong can be great antidotes to rumbling traffic or barking dogs. Parker suggested buying an inexpensive tabletop fountain, and bird feeders to attract songbirds.

“It’s a great time to get into bird-watching,” she said, “because they do seem to be more abundant than in the past.” (Get a squirrel-proof feeder if you want to make sure the food actually goes to the birds.)

There’s an even simpler, virtual option, Parker pointed out: When you sit outside, play recordings of chirping birds or rippling water from your phone or other device.

Pleasing scents will also elevate your outdoor space. Buy a potted lavender plant, Parker said, or flowering plants like nicotiana (also called “flowering tobacco”), which “are iridescent in the evening and have a wonderful scent.”

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Many grocery stores are selling potted plants, and “you don’t have to fuss with re-potting them,” Parker said. If they come in plain plastic containers, simply wrap the container in a bit of burlap or other fabric to make it more attractive.

For something more dramatic, Rottet said, potted citrus trees look and smell lovely. Or add a pencil cactus or other succulent in a tall planter; it can withstand summer heat while functioning like a sculpture in your outdoor space. When summer ends, fill the planter with a hardy flowers like pansies, which might even last through the winter.

No time or resources to add plants this year? Floral or lavender candles are another option, Parker said.

Dining and cooking

A gas grill can be an asset if you’re cooking outdoors a lot. But Rottet also recommended the Big Green Egg charcoal grill. “It’s not a huge commitment,” she said, “because you can roll it into a tight little space.”

If you have a grill and would like to create more of a kitchen around it, add an outdoor table or console that can serve as a work surface and perhaps has some storage, Mannarino said, “so you’re not just walking over to a grill and holding a tray in your hand.”

Want to create the feel of an outdoor bar? Add a rolling bar cart, or, even more simply, fill your biggest salad bowl with ice, Parker said, and bring out a selection of cold drinks.

Sunshine and shade

If you’re working outside, you need shade to see the screen. Retractable awnings are helpful, as are large outdoor umbrellas that stand alone or fit into an outdoor table. (They also let you spend more time outside, if it’s raining.)

In the evening, Rottet said you can expand the feeling of even a small backyard by wrapping strands of small white lights (available in outdoor-safe versions that are battery-powered or solar-powered) around your trees.

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Lanterns with lit candles inside are lovely outdoors after the sun goes down, though LED candles can be a more practical choice on a breezy night.

A fire pit will also brighten up your outdoor space, and warm it up this fall and winter.

Rottet created one for her Houston home using a large concrete planter that can withstand heat.

But as Parker pointed out, you don’t have to buy anything to have a fire pit. It might be fun to create one the old-school way: Dig a wide hole in the ground, she said, contain the space safely, and build a campfire “Boy Scout style.”

The changes you make to your outdoor space don’t have to be elaborate, she said. “Just get out there. Take your chair from the kitchen table if you need to. Take your coffee cup and go.”

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