9 improvements that can get you more out of your outdoor space

Whether you have a backyard big enough for socially distanced entertaining, or even a stoop, balcony, patio or corner lot, you can upgrade your outdoor space to make it somewhere to visit.

Photo courtesy Metro Newspaper Service.

Stuck inside for the past few months, we're ready to get out, even if we can't get all the way out to a restaurant or a park. What if, instead, we could add on a room to our homes - another place to go, at home?

Whether you have a backyard big enough for socially distanced entertaining, or even a stoop, balcony, patio or corner lot, you can upgrade your outdoor space to make it somewhere to visit. Take into consideration your family needs and your climate, and then get going with these ideas from outdoor-loving experts.

-- Start with a clean sweep

Buy, rent or borrow a power washer and find out why homeowners love them. Max Humphrey, an interior designer( in Portland, Ore., used one to clear the moss and sidewalk chalk off his driveway. You can clean up dirty outdoor furniture, a patio, outdoor pillows, fences, bikes, garbage cans and more. (Be careful to follow your power washer's instructions and use the right amount of pressure for the item you are cleaning. In fact, sometimes all you might need is a strong hose.)

-- Pick up a paintbrush


Humphrey has used his time sheltering in place to give his deck a fresh coat of paint. He painted an old wooden bench the same color ("it looks sort of like a built-in") and made it a plant stand.

If you have a door that opens out to an outdoor space, Katrina Blair, a design blogger( in Sacramento, suggests painting it a bright color. "Mine is painted a chartreuse yellow, and I get compliments all the time," she says.

-- Take color-palette cues from the landscape

Feel free to go bold with pillows, art and accessories, and "don't worry too much about stuff matching," Humphrey says, but do take into account your environment. "Inside, we say you want to respect the architecture; when it comes to outdoor living, I would say respect the landscape," Humphrey says. "There are certain palettes and landscapes that would look better in different parts of the country." The muted colors of a Southwest landscape, for example, might call for muted colors in your outdoor area, while a greener landscape can handle more saturated colors.

-- Create ambient lighting

Just as with furniture, think about lighting outdoors as if you were indoors, using multiple sources of light. If your outdoor space already has lights - flush mounts on a porch or wall mounts for a patio - add lanterns, candles and string lights. "Everybody likes string lights," Humphrey says. He recommends Edison-style lights for a "slightly industrial look." In a small area, Blair suggests hanging string lights vertically on walls.

-- Mix and match your patio furniture

Indoors, designers frown upon buying an entire bedroom suite in the same style, color and material. So why do we buy matching sets for the outside? Humphrey suggests pairing vintage metal chairs, say, with an old cooler for a coffee table. "Outdoor furniture is a great category for shopping vintage," he says. Vintage metal sets are also a good find, he says, because they've already withstood the elements for years, so you know they're durable. (If you can't find them vintage, he also likes how new retro-looking Coleman coolers at can do double-duty in outdoor spaces.) For another sustainable furniture option, Humphrey recommends Loll Designs's outdoor furniture (, made of recycled plastic.


As for outdoor furniture materials, "wood is always my preference," Blair says. "It lasts a long time and can be restained as needed or painted with exterior paint, extending the life of your furniture, if it starts to look worn." She recommends covering furniture with a cover when not in use.

When it comes to size, try to buy the biggest furniture you can for the space you have. Imagine a patio with a sofa big enough for a nap, as opposed to lots of little seats and tables. "If you have enough room for a love seat and a chair, I would skip it and do as big of a sofa as you can fit," Humphrey says. "As with inside, I think you can play with scale; sometimes bigger furniture in smaller spaces is more useful."

-- Warm up with heaters and fire pits

"If you live in an area where it rains a lot, or it's not as warm, think about bringing in outdoor heaters, heat lamps, a fire pit," says Sacramento designer and blogger Shavonda Gardner( "Something that will make it be warm and a space you want to be in. Plus, who doesn't love having s'mores on a summer night?" Think ahead to fall, too, when, in some climates, it's the best time of year to "enjoy weather that's not too hot, not too cold."

-- Use potted plants for an oasis feel

All three designers recommend decorating with plants. Put them in pots, or for small balconies, hang them in pocket planters on walls or railings, Blair says. Think about herbs, houseplants and succulents. Blair has even grown a lemon tree.

Plants we think of as being good houseplants can also be great outdoors in the warmer months, typically in full shade: succulents, snake plants, ZZ plants, rubber trees. Just water them more often and watch the direct sunlight. "Once the temperature begins to drop, I bring my houseplants back inside," Blair says.

-- Decorate the walls


"Outdoor art gets a bad rap, because people think about lawn gnomes and flamingos," Humphrey says, "but try to think outside the box." He has a vintage barn star on his exterior wall.

Blair hung a mirror over her outdoor sofa; she has an eave that hangs over the sofa, which protects it, and when winter comes, she brings the mirror inside for the season. You can buy a mirror made for the outdoors, or "you can take a regular mirror with a frame, paint it with outdoor paint, and that will help keep it safe from the elements," she says.

-- Bring the entertainment outside

Try movie nights outside, Blair says. Get a small projector, hang a sheet on a wall or a fence, and project your film. "It's a really affordable setup," she says. Arrange baskets of blankets and comfy pillows for lounging.

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