How to make the most of your outdoor space

After stay-at-home orders took effect last year, homeowners began making their way toward their patios, porches, backyards and balconies — any spot where they could extend their living space while enjoying fresh air and privacy. As a result, outdoor spaces became oases — gardens were planted, hammocks were hung and patio furniture was set up to mimic the look of indoor rooms. 

“It was the year of the outdoors, and I’m sure it will continue into 2021,” says Mary Maydan, principal of Maydan Architects in Palo Alto, Calif. “In a way, COVID has changed outdoor living. … Everyone is noticing how much they want their outdoors to be appealing and connecting. A lot of experiences that until now we’ve mostly had inside have moved outside.” With restaurants restricting indoor dining and many entertainment venues closed, “the backyard is now a way of ‘going out.’”

Tara L. Paige, a mom of two living in Dallas, says when the pandemic hit, her attention immediately drifted to the outdoors, in part because she needed a break from having her entire family home around the clock. “With everything halted, I decided to tackle the patio as a way to get outside of our four walls.” 

Sprucing up her outdoor space was something she’d been meaning to do, but never seemed to have the chance — until the pandemic gave her the gift of time. “We bought our 9-acre forever home last year, in part because it had a beautiful front porch, a side patio and a back patio,” she says. “Suddenly, I had all the time in the world to make the most of it.” 

In April 2020, Paige’s new hobby inspired her to launch the Black Women Who Love Outdoor Living Spaces Facebook group as a way to document her progress and connect with like-minded women. In just a couple of months, the page had more than 200,000 followers. Soon after, she launched The Patio Chic, a website where she and other outdoor enthusiasts share makeover and DIY projects for their balconies, decks, sheds and other exterior spaces.

Paige’s first “pandemic project” involved spray-painting an old patio set and adding new cushions. “A can of spray paint is like pixie dust for DIYers,” she says. “You can spray-paint something and give it an entirely new look even if you don’t want to go through the process of sanding and scraping. It’s easy.”

“Think of an outdoor lounge area in the same way you would think about your indoor spaces.”

The key to making the most of any outdoor space, she says, is to make it feel like home. “Think of an outdoor lounge area in the same way you would think about your indoor spaces,” Paige says. From pillows to lighting, it’s the details that make the space comfortable. “Even indoor pillows can be sprayed down with Scotchgard, so they become water-resistant. Just make sure you flip cushions over regularly to prevent (insect) nesting and fading.” 

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She also recommends anchoring your outdoor lounge or dining space with a rug, just like you’d do indoors. “I’m not a fan of plastic rugs because they’re so lightweight that the wind just blows them, so I use a regular rug and just spray it down” with a fabric protector. 

Having the right lighting is also important. “It really sets the mood,” Paige says. “I’m a huge fan of solar lighting because it gives the right amount of glow at night, so you can still see people and move around. I even have a solar chandelier hanging from a tree over my outdoor table.”

Another simple way to take your outdoor space to the next level is to think about the sounds you’d like to hear when you’re outside. Consider adding a soothing water feature like a fountain. “It’s a pretty inexpensive way to add another layer to your outdoor space,” Paige says. For podcast and music lovers, outdoor speakers with Bluetooth technology make it easy to listen while outdoors.

As high-impact as simple changes can be, some homeowners have chosen to tackle bigger projects that require construction. Among the most popular are outdoor kitchens. “We’re not just talking about space to grill, but also space for a sink and a stove, basically everything but a dishwasher,” Maydan says. “It’s like people are thinking about how to move their whole lives outside.” 

Gardens and greenhouses have also gained popularity, with some retailers reporting record sales last year. It’s not the first time Americans have turned to Mother Earth to help them get through a crisis. During World War I and World War II, “Victory Gardens” sprouted because of food shortages. Today, the pandemic has morphed the farm-to-table movement into the yard-to-table movement, with vegetable gardens sprouting in yards everywhere. “It’s a way to connect with nature, be creative and deal with stress, too,” says Paige. Gardening is also a great activity for all ages, providing a way to bond with loved ones. 

For those living in regions with a wide range of temperatures, greenhouses make year-round gardening possible. “People think of them as a warm place, so why not create a heated sitting area as a way to get you outside during the winter,” Maydan says.

Record sales of patio heaters and fire pits mean more people than ever are enjoying the night skies. “One thing I like to do is create multiple areas for different activities, so you might have a sitting area with a fire pit for s’mores in one corner and a reading nook or stargazing spot in another,” Paige says. 

Wherever you have sitting areas, Maydan says it’s important to have easy access to them. “Try using steppingstones to make a path,” she says. 

USA TODAY's 2021 "Home" magazine (Photo: Colleen Scott)

When it comes to adding trees, shrubs and flowers, “look at the areas where you might want privacy or shade year-round and plant accordingly. This way you’ll always have privacy, comfort and something beautiful to look at.” 

Whether you decide to make changes that are big, small or something in between, there’s never been a better time to make the most of your outdoor 

space. 

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