How to Reimagine Outdoor Living Spaces, According to 6 Experts

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For the past year-plus, the outdoors has been our saving grace. It’s where we went to find peace in the uncertainty of our “new normal”; where restaurants turned to survive, ushering patrons around heat lamps and into personal igloos; where weary frontline workers found respite from overwhelmed schools and hospitals. With that embracing of it as a safe haven has come a newfound respect for it, a reinvigorated valuing of the five yards or five acres we call our backyards.

“The pandemic undoubtedly surfaced an appreciation for our yards like we’ve never seen before,” says Allison Messner, CEO and co-founder of Yardzen, an online landscape design service that provides clients with virtual renderings of their dream outdoor space, then connects them with the local pros that can make it happen. “Our yards have become the space to do essentially everything we also do inside—dine, cook, entertain, work, play, and relax.”

The slow, stay-at-home pace of life this last year has also encouraged many of us to embrace gardening, according to Arianna lappini, a garden designer and owner of The Birch Arbor Gardens. “It has quickly transitioned from an ‘I’ve always wanted to try that’ hobby to the top of the to-do list for a lot of people,” she explains. “Uncertain times often germinate the seeds of self-sufficiency and resilience, and I’ve had the opportunity to witness the empowerment my clients receive from cultivating confidence in the garden and the security that comes with supplementing their food supply with homegrown produce.”

Though the importance of our outdoor spaces is now indisputable, it’s still unclear what long-term impacts pandemic life will have on how we invest in our open-to-air hangouts. Will cities prioritize the funding and infrastructure to support outdoor access for all communities? Will government leadership protect our national parks, which saw a staggering 237 million visitors in 2020, despite several being closed for months on end? Is street dining here to stay? Will we ever lay in a hammock or settle onto a sandy beach the same way again? It remains to be seen. But in the here and now, we’ve tapped a slew of pros that are ready to help you make the most of your warm-weather freedom, with easy, accessible ways for you to continue your appreciation of the great outdoors (balconies, terraces, concrete slabs, lawns, and dirt plots included).

Give Outdoors the Attention It Deserves

Many of us have no problem striving to make the inside of our homes a reflection of our tastes and lifestyles, but neglect to apply that same careful consideration to our outdoor spaces. If you haven’t already, it’s time to turn your attention to the potential packed into your backyard.

“We’ve seen what it’s like to be stuck at home, and now everyone is looking around and realizing they’ve been underutilizing their outdoor spaces,” says James DeSantis, landscape designer, co-founder of the New York- and Los Angeles-based company Manscapers (you’ve probably spotted their work on their Bravo show, Backyard Envy) and co-author of the team’s forthcoming book, Take It Outside. “Whether you’re a chef who wants an outdoor kitchen or athlete who wants room for a sports court, your exterior should be planned and thought out in the same way that your interior is. Look at the uses and requirements for your space—just like you would a room inside—and implement those, making sure to incorporate your style and aesthetic preferences.”

Create Living Zones

Relying on one space to serve as a workout zone, relaxation area, al fresco office, and entertaining space is a lot to ask—but those are often the many demands on our outdoor areas after this past year. The solution? Create “living zones” that help cater to your varied needs, whether that’s a living privacy fence of cypress trees that helps shield your yoga spot from nosey neighbors, or an outdoor rug that acts as a soft landing zone for post-pool bare feet.

“We’ve seen a four-fold increase in requests for pergolas since the pandemic started,” explains Messner. “It’s an indication of people’s desire for separate and distinct outdoor ‘rooms’—especially outdoor dining rooms. A pergola defines an outdoor dining space, and creates a beautiful moment when you enter someone’s backyard.”

As with your interior, making the most of whatever outdoor space you do have is all about maximizing your footprint. Ask any city dweller: there’s a lot you can do with 300 square feet—you just have to know how to make it work. If you don’t boast the space needed for larger additions like pergolas or stone patios, look to small-scale furniture, accessories, and plants to delineate each “area” of your outdoor space.

“Even if all you have is a fire escape, you can still implement some design. Place a few potted herbs outside, so when you need to top off that caprese salad or garnish that drink, you’re going onto your little fire escape or balcony to interact with the plants,” says DeSantis. “Or, add a set of string lights over a small outdoor space to transform it at night. Finding comfortable seating is also always crucial—if space is limited, put out a small folding cafe table and chairs, but maybe add some tie-on cushions so you really invite yourself out.”

Pack On the Accessories

When decorating and designing our outdoor spaces, we tend to think utility first, aesthetics second. And while that makes sense (what’s a BBQ area without a grill, after all?), according to the pros, if you skip all those design goodies, you’ll be doing your space—and your ability to enjoy it—a great disservice.

“Adding comfort and visual interest to your outdoor space is definitely key,” says Heather Taylor, a home goods and textile designer (check out her new line for West Elm. “I’ve noticed an increase in cozy add-ons to outdoor spaces that can then be swapped in or out for a fresh look. Our customers are striving to create a home that is not only comfortable, but also a representation of themselves—it feels like everyone is really settling into their spaces. We are noticing people buying handfuls of our throw pillows and using them outdoors to create a feeling of warmth and coziness—in fact, we’ve sold more pillows this year than ever before!

Think about some of your favorite ways to accessorize the rooms inside your house and bring that same decor ethos outdoors—whether that means throwing a comfy throw on the arm of a lounge chair, hanging up a few favorite pictures in your sunroom or accessorizing your outdoor coffee table with one or two of your vases.

“I try to make my outdoor space feel like an extension of my house,” says Taylor. “To me, a perfect outdoor space would include a long farmhouse table and a mini “living room,” complete with a couch, coffee table, and a couple of comfortable chairs. I also love having a hammock somewhere if possible—they create such a relaxing feeling.”

Cultivate Your Mental (and Physical) Health

During a time when anxiety was high and the future felt unsure, a back-to-nature approach to everyday living helped set our minds at ease and lift the burden that pandemic responsibilities (like social distancing, telecommuting, and remote learning) set atop our shoulders. For many, tending to a garden became not only a distraction, but a form of therapy.

“The sentiment new gardeners have shared with me most is that their garden has offered resilience in more ways than one this year,” says Iappini. “When anxiety was amplified and social connections limited, the garden gave its caregivers a space to literally feel grounded. Garden therapy is real, and studies show that contact with soil and a specific soil bacteria, Mycobacterium Vaccae, triggers the release of serotonin in our brains. Not only does gardening help to elevate our moods but it can be a phenomenal place to rest, reflect, and connect with nature.”

Photo by The Birch Arbor Gardens

“I feel like the priorities are shifting from nice, manicured lawns and spaces to admire, to more functional, inviting spaces that beg people to come spend time outside,” says Tiayonna Liska, gardening expert and founder of Carolina Garden Coaching. “A lot of people are now trying their hand at growing edible foods in their outdoor spaces, and I am here for it. If you want to learn to grow, just jump in and start where you are. Square foot gardening is a super easy way to really pack in the plants and get the most yield from a small space.”

“If minimal square footage is a factor, consider a DIY or purchased vertical garden placed up the side of a wall or structure,” adds Iappini. “Espalier fruit trees, which are trained to grow flat against a structure, are another excellent opportunity to maximize a small growing space. When searching for small-space edible plants, look for terms like ‘compact,’ ‘patio,’ or ‘dwarf.’ Many growers are breeding new varieties with small-space gardening in mind, and the options are broadening each year—lucky us!”

Focus On Tangible Connections

To get the most out of your time spent outdoors, consider disconnecting from the digital realm. Instituting a no-phones policy outdoors while entertaining, gardening, or simply relaxing may seem over-the-top at first, but it will allow you to capitalize on the meditative nature of, well, nature.

“Life is lived better outside,” says Messner. “Our mission [at Yardzen], which we repeat to the entire team every time we all meet, is to help homeowners across the country spend more time outdoors truly connecting with their friends and loved ones.”

Photo by Houses & Parties

Speaking of connection, consider this summer an all-out excuse for celebration. No need to wait for a national holiday, birthday or anniversary party to safely host a close group—every day ending in “y” is good enough reason for a gathering. “After everything we’ve collectively been through, I think that this is the summer (and fall) for outdoor entertainment,” says Rebecca Gardner, founder and creative director of retail, event and interiors company Houses & Parties. “We should strive to make each occasion memorable.” Gardner suggests dressing up an outdoor dining table to the nines with your favorite dishware, hosting a few friends for cocktail hour or theming your celebration (the online retail arm of her brand even has pre-curated [party collections] to choose from).

Another must-have on Gardner’s party-ready list? Mood lighting. “I think paper lanterns are an excellent way to offer soft overhead light and anchor the sky above. If that’s not your style, then try old-fashioned tiki torches to add drama—you can even fill them with citronella oil to distract the bugs.”

Give Back To What’s Served You

We can’t touch on the great outdoors without speaking to the vulnerability of our planet. Show respect to the outdoor spaces that served you so well this past year (and beyond) by shopping sustainably and planting with purpose this summer.

“Pollinator spaces have a pivotal role in the overall health of our planet and productivity of a garden,” adds Iappini. “I advocate for my clients to interplant flowers in their veggie beds or landscapes. Edible flowers like nasturtium can bring beauty, biodiversity and beneficial insects to every space.”

“We’ve noticed homeowners, in general, are ready and willing to invest more in quality furniture that is sustainably made and will last longer,” says Messner. “We’re partnering with some amazing new brands who are making their furniture from wood that’s certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. We also launched The American Rewilding Project in an effort to support biodiversity and healthy ecosystems by encouraging the use of climate-adapted and habitat-supporting plants in all of the yards we design. Many of our clients are inherently climate-conscious, and they want to make earth-friendly decisions throughout the design and planting process. We take our responsibility to educate our clients and guide them through the right decisions very seriously.”


How has the last year changed the way you approach—and appreciate your outdoor space? Tell us in the comments below





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