Get an apartment in the city with a balcony, roof deck or terrace, and you are guaranteed to be the envy of your friends. In the suburbs, a green backyard is practically a requirement. Once you have that sliver of green, however, it can quickly lose its freshness, becoming the last place you decorate and the first chore you neglect. But there’s reason to hope: With a little planning and effort, you can turn a passable outdoor space into your own secret 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.
Your outdoor space should reflect your sense of style. To narrow the field of design choices, pick a theme and run with it. Perhaps you will take cues from a Japanese garden, enclosing the space with a bamboo fence and focusing on a soothing palette of evergreens and mosses; a stone footpath and a trickling fountain complete the look. If you want to evoke summers spent in the English countryside, aim for a cottage garden lined with wild flowers, along with a fire pit made of cobblestones and seating of weathered wood. These themes could work in a small balcony, too — by scaling the foliage and furnishings to the size of the space.
“It’s about creating a sense of taking a journey,” said Todd Haiman, a landscape designer in New York. “When you step outside into a garden you want to be transported.”
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.
Your instinct might be to start with plants — aren’t flowers the point? — but resist that urge.
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.
Keep outdoor seating minimal so you have space to move around — you can always supplement it with folding chairs. If you have a grill, leave enough room for staging and food preparation. And make sure the grill is not too close to your home. New York City, for example, requires owners to keep barbecues at least 10 feet away from a wall or a deck railing, and not under eaves or overhanging branches. There must also be access to water or a fire extinguisher. If space is limited, consider a miniature grill, like the Big Green Egg. Check with local ordinances to make sure grills are allowed on your property.
Choose a shady spot for seating. “Shade is hugely important,” said Cara White, the founder of Elevations, an urban design studio in New York. “Where is your best opportunity to create shade?”
But if your only option is to have your seating area beneath the blazing sun, install a shade sail, a retractable awning or a large umbrella. Or, step it up and build a pergola, letting vines grow over it to create a natural canopy.
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.
To save space, find multipurpose furniture, like a built-in storage bench that could house cushions and provide extra seating. A weather-treated cushioned ottoman could work as a footrest, an extra seat or a tabletop for books or magazines.
Pull the seating area together with an outdoor rug to give the space a cohesive look. Whatever your style choices, make sure your outdoor design works with your home décor to create a sense of continuity and flow. “The inside and outside should talk to each other,” Ms. White said. “The furniture and planters outside should complement the furniture inside.”
A garden is an ever-evolving part of your home, grown and tended through the years. Don’t expect to get it done all at once. Instead, focus on one or two projects a season, with a long-term plan in mind.
If your outdoor space allows it, make a privacy screen with foliage, using evergreens like arborvitae to create a green wall. Turn a brick balcony wall into a green one with a trellis wrapped with climbing ivy, Virginia creeper or clematis. Use tall potted plants or a freestanding trellis as a screen to separate areas within your outdoor space. Think of your evergreens — boxwoods, juniper or holly — as the bones of your landscaping, the plants that will stay green throughout the year and serve as the base of your spring and summer palette.
A tree can unify a landscape, and create a focal point for a space. Add mulch to the base and surround it with a stone border to give it definition. If you want a potted tree on a balcony or roof deck, make sure it’s one that can withstand the wind and is in a container large enough for it to grow.
Ask yourself what you want from the tree, and think about what it does for you and your garden. A multi-stemmed tree, like a birch or dogwood, with branches that spread out, can provide privacy as well as shade. A serviceberry tree flowers in the spring, gives fruit in the summer and has leaves that turn red in the fall. “You get a lot of bang for your buck” from a serviceberry, Mr. Haiman said.
Larger trees, like lindens and oaks, are likely to predate your time at your home and provide shade and maturity to your landscape. Keep an eye on them to make sure their branches do not hang too close to your roof. Look for signs of disease, which can weaken a tree.
Now that you have your backdrop and focal point, layer the look with decorative plants. Use repeating patterns to give the space balance and continuity, and think about the long-term. Don’t overpack your garden with flowers that bloom in the spring. Instead, choose a selection that will bloom throughout the year, like lilacs for the spring, hydrangeas for the summer and goldenrod for late in the season. “The secret is planting for each season,” Ms. Johnsen said. Add some annuals like hibiscus and violets for color all summer long. Consider not just color, but texture, like lamb’s ear, which is soft and velvety, or ferns, with their intricate leaves.
Potted plants add color, dimension and personality to any garden. Decorative planters can divide or define a space. Line the steps to your home with colorful ceramic pots filled with flowering annuals. Planters that live on a rooftop or balcony will most likely need to be assembled on site, and sturdy enough to withstand harsher conditions. Turn the wall of a tiny balcony into a lush vertical garden with hanging pocket planters, like those from WallyGro. Make sure your planters have proper drainage. Store decorative ceramic pots for winter so they do not crack in the cold.
You don’t need a large plot of raised beds to have an edible garden. Grow foods like tomatoes and herbs in pots on your balcony or roof deck. Nestle vines like squash in your flower beds to create a leafy border. Peppers and eggplants offer not just food, but vibrant color and texture to your flower garden. If you commit to larger vegetable beds, add mulched walking paths through the crop so you can enjoy your bounty as you weed and harvest.
With your garden planted and your furniture arranged, add a few final touches to highlight your efforts.
Unless you don’t ever plan to step outside after dark, you need some lighting in the space. Choose fixtures with low-wattage LED bulbs to create a romantic mood, and keep your neighbors happy, particularly if they are only one apartment wall away. Look for rechargeable or solar lights, and mix the fixtures up to light different areas at different angles. Some ideas:
Be sure to light any steps for safety, and make sure your lights don’t shine directly into a neighbor’s window.
Bluetooth technology has made it simple to bring music outside. Look for a portable speaker that is water resistant in the event of an unexpected summer storm, like the Tribit 360. Don’t want to carry a speaker with you? Buy a planter speaker, which is a flower pot with a built in Bluetooth speaker. If you have a built in stereo system inside your home, ask your installer to put a speaker outside.
Running water can lend a soothing, trickling ambiance to your space, and many water features are easier to install than you might think. A water wall fountain can liven up a drab surface. A bird bath bubbler is an invitation to feathered friends. And a decorative fountain can add a creative touch to a garden. Be aware of foliage nearby, as leaves can clog the drains. Water needs to keep moving or mosquitos will follow. If your balcony is in a noisy area, however, a water feature may compete with the sounds of sirens and horns, rather than mask them.
The outdoors don’t just look pretty, they should smell pretty, too. Fill planters near a seating area with aromatic plants like lavender and sweet alyssum. Mr. Haiman especially likes a variety of clethra called ruby spice. “In June or July it gives off this scent which is the Chanel No. 5 of plants,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Place or hang an outdoor essential oil diffuser near your seating area, choosing scents like lemon eucalyptus, lavender or citronella to repel mosquitoes.
With the hard work done, you can sit back, relax and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of your little slice of the great outdoors.
Ronda Kaysen writes the Right at Home and Ask Real Estate columns for The New York Times Sunday Real Estate section.
Post time: Sep-17-2019