Creating cozy spaces in your landscape

Story and Photos by PJ Gartin

Whether it’s an impromptu gathering under a poolside umbrella or shooting the breeze with friends around a picnic table, people are drawn to intimate outdoor spaces. Amenities such as patios, balconies, courtyards, front porches, and conversation pits add intimacy to landscapes.

Our desire to create outdoor sanctuaries often takes root when we’re children. When my sisters and I were little, one of our autumn pastimes was raking fallen leaves into “rooms.” Sometimes, especially if it was warm and the wind wasn’t strong enough to blow away our demarcations, we’d haul our toys outside to make our haven feel homier.

Elephant ears (Alocasia, Colocasia), banana trees (Musa spp.), plus a pot-bellied chiminea lend a tropical feel to this courtyard garden. The raised planting bed provides additional seating.

As adults, our outdoor rooms are on a much grander scale. We carve out special gathering places and decorate them with elaborate “toys,” such as heaters, chimeneas, elaborate grills, fire pits, and fancy furniture. Then, in an attempt to make our verdant sanctuaries feel even cozier, we install water features and add lighting and music.

However, without a well-thought-out plan, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the design’s execution. When this happens, we often end up with “stuff” that we have no idea what to do with.

Neighboring trees and a red umbrella soften this urban setting. Flowerboxes filled with blooming annuals add a bucolic touch.


Successful gardeners mentally divide their landscapes into rooms. Much like chapters in a book, the parts come together to tell a complete story. Partitioning allows one to focus on a specific area’s attributes and hidden qualities. You might discover that a neighbor’s grand tree can become a focal point for a leafy outdoor den, or that a cluster of evergreen shrubbery holds more potential than you had previously assumed.

Even patios or decks can take on new roles. Instead of using them exclusively as conversation areas, use them as an outdoor foyer, or draw guests out into your yard with a gateway of small, containerized trees. Consider placing an uneven number of deciduous southern sugar maple (Acer floridanum) near an entry. They’ll provide shade in the summer and a splash of color in fall.

Brightly colored Adirondack chairs make impromptu celebrations seem even happier.


While a widescreen TV mounted on the side of the garage is bliss for some, others prefer a professionally designed area filled with exquisite furnishings. But no matter our preferences, we all want a space that makes us happy.

Collecting photos of stunning outdoor living spaces might offer inspiration, but don’t overlook public and commercial gathering places. A gazebo in a public park or covered swings on a municipal pier might spark your imagination. Because most Carolinians, especially ones living along the coast, pretty much give up socializing outdoors at the height of summer because of mosquitoes, consider a screened-in area. Consider a front porch swing, which offers a welcoming message to guests.

While a mixture of native plants, including wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), offer extra privacy along a property line, they also add visual interest and texture.


No matter your style, consider the advice of one of Charleston’s grande dames of gardening, Emily Whaley (1911–1998): “Decorating … is simply the result of a lot of use and happiness going on.” As long as you and your guests are happy in your garden, then you’ve achieved success. Following are a few tips to help make your outdoor space more inviting:

Create a sense of privacy
If a cozy space can be viewed from a public right of way, you’ll want to provide some sense of seclusion. However, avoid using a monoculture of plants as a screen. A phalanx of trees as is not as interesting as a mix of plant materials. A solid wall of vegetation is not necessary. Simply break up the view with varying heights and textures. Consider planting evergreen trees such as Magnolia and Italian cypress (Cupressus sempervirens). Such plants also provide a background for lower-growing shrubs.

Add a personal touch to your side of a neighbor’s wall.

Take advantage of existing walls, fences, or structures
Even if they aren’t yours, they still offer privacy. Enhance your side with latticework or, if the owner won’t mind attachments, an espalier.

Take advantage of distant focal points
Whether your cozy place is situated facing the garden’s central axis or tucked away in a corner, keep part of it open to an attractive vista. This not only allows you and your guests to keep an eye on the children, but gazing up into the evening sky seems to encourage good conversations.

This fire pit (lower right), carved into an earthen bank, overlooks a pond and various trees. The surrounding stone retaining wall provides additional seating.

Offer pops of color at eye level
Secure a flower box filled with overflowing blooming plants nearby or plant flowering shrubs or those with colorful foliage, such as purple-leafed Loropetalum or barberry (Berberis spp.).

Consider incorporating containerized citrus, such as Meyer lemon (Citrus x limon ‘Meyer’), kumquat (Fortunellaspp.), or calamondin (x Citrofortunella microcarpa) into the design. Not only do they add height, but their colorful fruits last until the first frost. Also consider berries. Tree-shaped holly hybrids (Ilex x attenuata) to consider include ‘East Palatka’, Fosters 2 (‘Fosteri’), and ‘Savannah’, which all sport bright red berries throughout winter that usually last until spring.

Water, lights, and music
While Bluetooth has eliminated the need for wired speakers, fountains and lights often require electrical outlets. Use only childproof GFI outlets and when installing lights, be considerate of your neighbors.

Black and white photographs make it easier to evaluate designs. This one accentuates the visual play between the fenced enclosure’s vertical lines and feather-like palm leaves.


Cameras are useful tools for evaluating a garden design. Take shots from as many angles as possible and then look at them backwards in a mirror. When viewed in this manner, missed design opportunities and imbalances become more obvious. If your digital camera has a black and white setting, use it also. Because monochrome has no distracting color, black and white photos make minor mistakes or overlooked opportunities easier to spot.




The following is a brief list of fragrant shrubs and their bloom times:

Swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) – May–June
Sweetshrub/Carolina allspice (Calycanthus floridus) – May–July
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) – June–July
Gardenia (G. jasminoides) – June–July
Dwarf gardenia (G. jasminoides ‘Radicans’) – May–June

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