Creating cozy outdoor rooms in your landscape

Story and Photography by Meaghan Clark

“Putting together a great outdoor space is like fitting together pieces of a puzzle,” says Kenny Rabalais of The Plant Gallery in New Orleans. With lighting, sounds, water features, outdoor seating, pathways, and lush gardens to consider, it is a task that can be daunting for many. Hiring professionals to help map out a plan is always a good idea. 

Investing in long-lasting furniture that can withstand Louisiana weather is smart.

However, for those with the willpower, time, and ingenuity, creating a dynamic outdoor space is possible. Vendors offer everything from outdoor furniture, lights, and hardscaping supplies, to plants and services that will ensure your space is as relaxing and enjoyable as possible. “People are spending more and more time outdoors … for leisure purposes,” says Rabalais. As the owner of one of New Orleans’ largest and most popular gardening stores, he knows what people want for their outdoor spaces. “Whether it’s a small group or a larger gathering, entertaining is happening outside, and these spaces have become, for some, outdoor cocktail lounges,” he says.

“People are definitely going bigger with outdoor entertaining,” says Lindsey Fourroux of Brians’s Furniture in Port Allen. “Outdoor spaces are increasing while indoor spaces are being used less for entertaining,” she adds.

This cozy outdoor room, courtesy of The Plant Gallery in New Orleans, has the essential elements such as comfortable seating, lighting, and a variety of plants.

The furniture specialist says people are investing in nice patio and outdoor furnishings, increasing seating capacity and providing accommodations for larger outdoor gatherings. Fourroux says people are willing to invest in long-lasting pieces that can withstand the Southern climate.

Creating outdoor rooms that meet all our needs is possible, whether we hire professionals and services to help us, or if we take the time to do it ourselves.

Rabalais and his team of architects, designers, and plant experts have a long list of questions they ask potential clients before any recommendations given. “How many people, on average, do you entertain? What is the square footage total of your space? What are the weakest spots and why? What are some outstanding features? What are you trying to accomplish? Do you need privacy? What is your overall budget? What sort of maintenance plan do you have and/or anticipate?” These are just some of the many questions to ask when considering an outdoor space, according to Rabalais.

Having a rendering or blueprint for a planned outdoor space is a good idea.

Steve Schwamb, a landscape architect based in central Louisiana, poses similar questions to his potential clients and says determining their desires, as well as their needs, is an important factor when creating the ideal outdoor space. “I first like to ask what their goals are,” says Schwamb. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that every space in their garden has to be filled in, that it isn’t enough,” he says. “It’s all about the right plant in the right spot,” he adds.

Like so many others, Schwamb knows that putting together a functional, attractive outdoor space requires consideration of many elements – including water, plants, soil, and climate. A big fan of rain gardens, Schwamb often asks clients if it is something they have considered if the space is appropriate.

Bo Blackwell, of Blackwell’s Nursery in Hammond, says more people are paying attention to weather and Louisiana’s climate and taking into consideration elements such as humidity. “Lots of plants struggle with fungal issues, which require chemical treatment, something many folks don’t want to do anymore,” says Blackwell. He adds that his customers ask about plants that can handle Louisiana’s climate. “People want low maintenance, easy, and hardy plants, which include lots of evergreens,” he says. Blackwell says recent requests are for traditional Southern plants, such as sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans), Magnolia, and Gardenia.

Passionflower (Passiflora spp.) is a beautiful addition to this outdoor space created by landscape architect Stephen Schwamb.

Stephen Woodward, of Rosewood Services and Nola Lawn Service, is a maintenance expert. It comprises a large percentage of his business and what he focuses on when meeting new clients. A favorite of many real estate agents who need appealing outdoor spaces, Woodward creates programs for an outdoor garden’s specific maintenance needs. “My job is to make an outdoor space picture worthy,” he says.

Woodward and his wife have created their own outdoor haven under a giant live oak (Quercus virginiana). Under the tree, estimated to be nearly 500 years old, the Woodwards have two seating areas with firepits, a hot tub, two large swings, and storage space. They have lined several of the limbs with lights, giving the area a warm and inviting ambience. 

Gretna residents Amber and Stephen Woodward’s live oak tree provides more than just shelter for their backyard space.

A native of Hawaii, Woodward’s wife Amber had to include several tropical plants, knowing full well they could be lost during a major freeze. They balance them with native plants, which are easier to maintain.

Rabalais recommends many of the same plants and says people need to know their limitations. “I almost always suggest clients use fewer topicals and more hardy plants like evergreens,” he says. Not surprisingly, 90 percent of plantings his company recommends are evergreen.

Today’s homeowners and gardeners are smarter, more efficient, and less extravagant. Creating outdoor rooms that meet all our needs is possible, whether we hire professionals and services to help us, or if we take the time to do it ourselves. Outdoor spaces should be considered investments, just as indoor spaces are.

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