First, Choose Your Garden
Before you buy any foliage or furniture, decide how you want to use the space. Do you intend to host outdoor dinner parties all summer? If so, do you see a guest list of four or 40? Or do you envision a quiet retreat where you curl up with a good book and a glass of iced tea, and watch the birds perch on your cherry tree? Perhaps this is the place where the kids throw a ball, and the family plays. Even the tiniest of city balconies could have a rich personality, with the right set of bistro chairs for outdoor dining and a trellis to turn a brick wall green with ivy. Once you know how you aim to use the space, select the seating, plantings and accessories that make your idea a reality.
Next, Consider Your Assets
Every outdoor space has its strengths, so embrace yours. “Look for the power spot,” said Jan Johnsen, a landscape designer and the author of “Gardentopia: Design Basics for Creating Beautiful Outdoor Spaces.” Once you find your power spot, she said, “then you work around that.”
If you have a roof deck with an enviable view, celebrate it by placing the furnishings so they direct the eye to the vista. Is your backyard shaded by a narrow New York brownstone? Enhance the mood with a shade garden, cozy seating and soft lighting. You can play up a large outdoor space by using plants, pathways and furniture to divide it into separate areas serving different purposes.
If all your outdoor space is on a slim city balcony, highlight its charm and character by creating an inviting spot. Interlocking deck tiles or an outdoor rug could warm up a sterile concrete floor. Hanging planters could add greenery without claiming valuable walk space; a trellis or screen could provide privacy and personality; and a few pieces of small, but comfortable furniture could draw you in.
Not all spaces have an obvious focal point, so spend time finding yours. Perhaps there’s a perch in the yard at a higher elevation where you could place a bench and build a footpath leading to it. Or maybe a lower spot makes for a natural gathering place.
Then, Look at Furnishings
If you plant a magnolia tree in the middle of your yard before you decide where you want to sit, you may discover you relinquished a prime seating area to a tree that could have happily lived elsewhere. So figure out your seating first: Determine where it will go and measure the space before you shop.
You may have a fantastic view when you stand on your balcony, but if you fill the space with a daybed, will you be staring at a brick wall instead of the skyline? Check your views from seated and standing positions, then select furnishings that work from both perspectives.
Look out at the space from inside your home, too. What can you see from the living room? An outdoor sofa with thick cushions may look great when you’re enjoying the outdoors, but if you have to cover it for the winter, you may face an eyesore for much of the year. If that’s a concern, consider furniture with no cushions or small ones that can be easily stored.
Select the Materials
All outdoor furniture requires some amount of maintenance. It needs to be cleaned, and some materials need to be treated to protect them from the elements. Before you shop, decide how much upkeep you can manage. Wood furniture, for example, lasts years, but it must be oiled every year to keep it from graying. Furniture with weather-treated fabric cushions and pillows will need to be cleaned and stored at the end of the season. Decide how you will store the bulky cushions before you buy them. Looking for a lower-maintenance alternative? Powder-coated steel seating is durable and sturdy. Think of your environment, too. Aluminum seating is often light, affordable and easy to move around, but it can also fly off a balcony or roof deck in a strong wind. So you’ll need something heavier for higher altitudes.
Lastly, Make Your Backyard an Escape
Add a fire pit on a stone or gravel surface, surrounding it with low, comfortable seating like Adirondack chairs to keep your parties going late into the night. Select a tabletop-style one like the Outland Living Fire Table and the space could be used for cocktail hour, too. If your space is compact, consider a small one, like a Solo Stove. Be sure to check local ordinances before you install a fire pit. New York City, for example, prohibits fire pits in private residences.
Use heat lamps to extend your summer season into fall.
Install a hammock between two trees for a quiet retreat. Or hang a seated hammock in the corner of a porch, turning a forgotten space into a private nook.
Build a treehouse or secret hideout for the children, giving them a getaway that blends in with the surroundings.
Make a walking path out of mulch or stone slabs, leading to a bench or chair in your favorite spot.