It pays to know the tricks.

September 10, 2019

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 garden 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 a reason to hope: With a little planning and effort, you can turn a passable outdoor space into your own secret garden. Read more, ‘Making a Modern Garden.’

Every great garden starts somewhere. To bring yours to life, do your homework first.

Before you buy any foliage or furniture, decide how you want to use the space. Image via – available from Fanuli Furniture.


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 cup of tea, and watch the birds perch on your lemon tree? Perhaps this is the place where the kids throw a ball, and the family relaxes. 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. Read more, ‘2019’s Top Three Trends in Garden Design.’

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 wildflowers, 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. 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. Once you find your power spot – 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 townhouse? Enhance the mood with a shade garden, cosy 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. Read more, ‘Architect’s Top Outdoor Furniture Picks.’

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. Read more, ‘Your Outdoor Furniture: 5 Mistakes to Avoid.’

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 a certain distance 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.

Choose a shady spot for seating. Shade is hugely important. 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.

Select the Materials

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 greying. 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. Read more, ‘Exterior Metal Work to Suit Every Outdoor Space.’

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. The furniture and planters outside should complement the furniture inside.

Make Your Backyard an Escape

  • ADD A FIRE PIT: on a stone or gravel surface, surrounding it with low, comfortable seating like Adirondack chairs to keep your parties going late into the night. Select a tabletop-style one like the Robert Plumb table and the space could be used for cocktail hour, too. If your space is compact, consider a small one, like a fire pit from Robert Plumb. Be sure to check local council rules before you install a fire pit. Melbourne and New York, for example, prohibits fire pits in private residences. Read more, ‘The Fire Pit is the Perfect Start to your Autumn.’
  • USE HEAT LAMPS: to extend your summer season into Autumn.
  • ADD A HAMMOCK: between two trees for a quiet retreat. Or hang a seated hammock in the corner of a courtyard, turning a forgotten space into a private nook.
  • BUILD A TREEHOUSE: or secret hideout for the children, giving them a getaway that blends in with the surroundings.
  • MAKE A WALKING PATH: out of concrete pavers or stone slabs, leading to a bench or chair in your favourite spot.

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