Creating cozy outdoor rooms in your landscape
Story and Photos by Richelle Stafne
Ideas and materials for pulling off a cozy outdoor room on a budget can be found in many places. The basics include a comfortable room away from the house with seating, an area to prepare food, and seclusion or privacy. A simple outdoor room can be inviting with just a few tips.
Having a floor for your outdoor room helps set the space apart, making it something more than just patio chairs and a picnic table out on the lawn. Consider a “floor” of mulch, pavers, concrete, gravel, or a mixture of these. Landscape fabric placed under gravel will reduce weeds. A stone floor can be combined with moss or low growing ground cover for an “earthy” feel. Choosing materials that allow water to percolate back into the soil will ensure your outdoor room is also environmentally friendly.
Seating doesn’t have to be expensive as long as it is functional. Combining concrete blocks with landscape timbers and concrete pavers is a simple way to use budget-friendly products to create bench seating. Leave these products natural, or stain or paint them with outdoor paint and sealant. Jazz up basic seating with colorful outdoor cushions and pillows. Built-in benches can be created from brick or stone to match the walls or flooring of an outdoor room, resulting in a cohesive design.
Tables are a must for food and as a place to play cards and board games. Tables with a propane-fueled fire pit in the middle are popular and add ambience. Tables can be educational, where children learn the art of leaf rubbings or where freshly picked posies provide inspiration for watercolor paintings.
Adding a shower completes the outdoor room. Outdoor showers can be as simple as a garden hose hooked to a shower head, as evolved as solar-heated, or fully plumbed with hot and cold running water. Recycled windows hanging from trees or on walls or fences give the impression of a room with a view. While you may not have actual windows, you might consider creating views into the landscape in order to observe wildlife and birds. Roofs provide protection from sun, wind, rain, and snow, as well as additional privacy. They can be as simple or as elaborate as you wish – patio umbrella, a retractable awning, an arbor with Wisteria, or a permanent wooden gazebo.
Lighting makes a space more inviting as the sun goes down and can help create moods – from festive party to secluded romantic. I recommend using both electric and solar lights. Solar lights may last several hours if they are fully charged, but still need annual maintenance to extend their life. If you have trees nearby, you can use both up and down lighting for dramatic effects.
Fire is also a source of light. When adding fire, consider its purpose – to provide ambience, cook food, or provide warmth. Perhaps multiple fire sources (wood and gas) would better suit your needs. Portable metal fire pits are very popular, but stone-lined, permanent pits last longer without inevitable rust. Tiki torches provide ambience, mosquito relief, and can define the borders of an outdoor room.
If you plan on frequently cooking outside, consider an outdoor kitchen in addition to or in place of a fire pit. Most outdoor kitchens have running water and electricity and possibly even gas hook-ups.
Water, in the form of pools, fountains, and misters, offers relief from summer heat and provides sound to mask unwanted background noise. The sound of splashing or flowing water can be enjoyed by installing a water feature, or features, nearby. Lightweight electric fountains are an economical option. Ponds without moving water add to the aesthetics of an area with the addition of electric or solar fountains and/or lights. Most solar-powered fountains only operate while the sun is out and do not hold a charge, while fully charged floating solar lights may provide several hours of illumination.
Sound can be added for personal enjoyment, to create the environment that matches the space you have designed, or to mask undesirable noises made beyond your outdoor room. Music, wind chimes, the rustling of ornamental grasses, chirping birds and singing pond frogs provide auditory enjoyment. Music transmitted via solar, wireless, and/or water-resistant speakers can be even be set up wirelessly and able to play from various sources such as a house stereo, tablet, phone, or television.
Electric, solar, or battery-operated fans provide cooling breezes on hot days, limit flying insect pests such as mosquitos, and create soothing background noise for afternoon naps.
Anchoring an outdoor room to the rest of the landscape may be easier if you are carving out a space within an existing garden. However, some folks like the look of an “island oasis” plopped down in the middle of a sea of green grass. If that’s what you’re planning, consider a meandering path of stepping-stones to guide guests in the right direction.
If privacy, security, safety, and seclusion are your goals, then make your outdoor room says Do Not Disturb, for as John Milton wrote, “Solitude is sometimes best society.” Walls (full, retaining, living hedges), fencing, and lattice are all commonly used to provide privacy. Arbors, trellises, and gazebos can also provide a feeling of privacy as well. Having an entrance signals that some degree of privacy is expected. An entrance can be a gate, doorway, an archway created from an arbor, or a seemingly secret garden door lending itself to mystery and intrigue. Use these tips and ideas to create your outdoor room.
OUTDOOR ROOM BASICS
Roof (retractable or permanent)
Fire for ambience, cooking, or warmth
Relief from heat: fans, water, umbrellas
Relief from insects: fans or citronella torches or candles
Natural sounds: wind chimes, nature sounds played via outdoor speakers, running water
Entertainment: protected TVs, wireless speakers, retractable screen for television or movies, bird feeders/baths/houses, bat houses
Sleeping: hammocks, chaise lounges, water-resistant storage for pillows, cushions, etc.
Aroma: candles, night-flowering plants or fragrant ground cover
Movement: kinetic wind sculpture, wind chimes
Color: brightly colored pillows, cushions, flowering plants
Edible elements: such as herbs for cocktails and garnish