Sunday, May 22, 2011

How to Create a Small Outdoor Oasis

The time when I feel most vindicated in my choice to buy a condo over a single family home is during the winter. I get to stay toasty in my PJs reading a book while those with detached houses have to brave the elements to shovel the driveway. But they always get their comeuppance in the summer, when they're a step away from their yards and I'm stuck schlepping my kid to the park like a sucker.

But our condo does have a small deck off the living room, but it's a tricky space. It's narrow and surrounded by pine trees that shed their needles. We face north, so we don't get a lot of sun. And it overlooks a parking lot, so it isn't the most private. The last five summers always start with me hoping that this is the year we'll use the deck, and ending with shriveled up plants and us realizing we haven't gone out on the deck in a month. It's not been the most usable space.

Until now! Here's what we did to revamp our small outdoor living area. These tips can help anyone create an oasis … even if you only have a sliver of outdoor paradise to work with.

1. List your priorities. Think about what you want your outdoor space to achieve. For me, a big priority was giving my son a place to play outdoors – one he could access by walking out the back door instead of having to make the trip to the nearby park. So we found a great deal on a sand and water table that happens to fit nicely on one side of the deck. Sebastian loves it, and I'm amazed at how much more time we're spending on the deck just because he has something to do other than trying to dig up my flowers.

I also wanted to have a comfy place to sit and read a book. While our previous bistro set was nice for dining al fresco, it wasn't a great place to read outside with a glass of wine, so we swapped the dining table for a lower one, and the stiffer chairs for chairs with a slight recline. If growing herbs and vegetables are high on your list, planting will take priority over furniture.

Finally, we needed to address the privacy and safety issues. Surrounding the railing with wood lattice was an affordable and attractive way to make the deck safer and make it harder for people in the adjacent building to see what we're up to.

2. Define areas. A small space will look bigger if there are clearly defined areas with a little breathing room in between them. On our deck we have a conversation/lounge area on one end, with two chairs and a table. The side of condo is used for the grill, and then we have plants lining the railing. Finally, the far end is where my son's sand table resides. There's enough floor space in the middle for sidewalk chalk drawing and navigating the narrow 6x9 space. Someone can be sitting in a chair, someone can be grilling, and my son can be playing and we're not bumping into one another.

3. Think about scale. Before setting up our conversation area, the left end of the deck was completely filled by a glider. The glider was a freebie from our previous downstairs neighbors when they moved, and while it was nice, it was took up far too much space. Now we have furniture that's more to scale for our narrow deck, and also lends itself better to rearrangement.

4. Research alternatives. We're not allowed to have gas or charcoal grills due to our association bylaws, but I came across this great electric grill and snapped it up with birthday gift cards. One of the things I bemoaned in the past about not having a yard was the inability to grill out. And now we can! Think about what you'd like to do if you had a yard, and try to find ways to adapt it to the space you have. We'd love to host bonfires, but instead are making due with a small, propane-fueled fire bowl. And a vegetable garden would be nice, but our north-facing deck only allows us to have a couple pots of herbs instead. 

It's amazing how different our home feels now that we have a little extra living space outdoors. We're looking forward to a summer enjoying the great outdoors!

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