The Outdoor Living Room

by Jan Cashman

Outdoor living rooms are not a new idea, but creating a unique outdoor living area is one of the biggest trends in landscapes today. Homeowners want areas outside their homes to enjoy life in the great outdoors. Some of these high-end outdoor living areas contain elaborate kitchens with huge barbecue grills, refrigerators, sinks and countertops. Big or small, fancy or simple, here are a few guidelines for creating your own outdoor space:

Outdoor living spaces are most often in the backyard where there is more privacy. This space could be divided into two areas-a more intimate area for cooking, dining, entertaining, sunbathing, reading, hot tubbing, and relaxing. This area needs easy access to the house, especially the kitchen, so food and dishes can be brought out easily. The second is the larger adjoining grounds, often a lawn area used for children to play, dogs to run, and hobbies.

To create an intimate outdoor room out of an expanse of backyard, it is important to delineate a space with a “floor, walls, and a ceiling.”

FLOORS of this intimate area need to be level for barbecue grills, tables and chairs. This surface can be made of poured concrete, flagstone, pavers, brick, or wood. Shelly Engler, our landscape architect, says even grass will work for your outdoor room’s floor, if the ground is fairly even. A grass “floor” would be cooler than pavers or concrete. If you will be using this area in the winter, a surface smooth enough to be shoveled is important. If you’re pouring a new patio pad, consider a stamped design and add color to the concrete. Julie, an employee of ours whose husband is an architect, purchased a home with a nondescript cement pad out the back patio door. They scored the concrete into a brick pattern with a masonry blade on a circular saw and alternated two colors of concrete stain on the new “bricks” to dress it up.

Hedges or fences planted with vines can create the WALLS to enclose and soften this “room” and give you privacy and a windbreak. Evergreens, such as the row of techny arborvitaes we have planted between our deck and the road, give our deck privacy and muffle the road noise. Deciduous hedges such as cotoneaster or lilacs are less expensive and grow quicker than most evergreens. Try mixing shrubs, trees, and evergreens for a less formal planting around your outdoor living room. Shelly suggests, if possible, create a planting area between your house and patio to break up the wall of the house and surround yourself with cooling plants. Vines would work well planted in this space.

Montana’s wonderful big sky is the obvious CEILING to your outdoor room, but trees, canopies, or arbors with vines will give you shade, especially needed if your outdoor living space is on the west side of your house. Gordie Bailey from Bailey Nurseries in Minnesota once told me everyone should have a shade tree strategically planted on the west of their deck or patio to shade their picnic table for evening meals outside in the summer. We have a thornless honeylocust tree planted near our deck. Its small leaves give us light, dappled shade.

Creating a pleasing space in your outdoor room follows the same design principles as decorating the inside of your home. Shelly suggests using materials that are changeable for variety from year to year. Trellises planted with a different annual vine each year or beautiful pots full of annuals, using different plants and colors, are ways to vary your outdoor room. Weatherproof garden art, such as gazing balls, statuary, or even decorative pots left empty add interesting focal points. The selection of pottery available today from Mexico, Southeast Asia, and Italy is outstanding.
Fires of one sort or another complete many outdoor rooms and extend their season. Chimineas, freestanding firepots from Mexico, ward off the evening chill. Firepits are popular today. Some are permanently dug into a spot in the yard, but Shelly’s is moveable so she can always be out of the wind.

One of our customers in Summer Ridge subdivision brought with them the idea of a fireplace in their backyard when they moved here from out of state. Their stone fireplace is about 50 feet away from the house, and covered with Virginia creeper vines, which turn brilliant red in the fall. The cozy arrangement is completed by an outdoor table and lounge chairs on a flagstone patio. Shelly helped them design the plantings around it: quaking aspens and spruce to frame it and provide some windbreak and shade on the west, and a slightly bermed perennial and shrub garden to provide definition to the outdoor room’s entrance.
Small or large, self-contained or not, water features can add to the enjoyment of your outdoor space. The sound of flowing water is peaceful and calming. Don’t forget bird feeders and baths; put them close enough to your outdoor room so you can observe the birds.

The bigger lawn area adjoining outdoor rooms is used for vegetable gardens, dog runs, volleyball and other sports. We helped a golfing family install a putting green in their back yard. When planning a backyard landscape, Shelly likes to use curving paths leading from one of these areas to another to create a sense of intrigue; the question of “What’s next?” arises when you cannot see everything in the whole yard/garden at once, but paths lead into an area beyond. Crushed rock, pea gravel, or flagstones laid with steppable, fragrant thyme in between them–all are good materials for a path. Try mixing and matching materials for your patio and paths, such as brick and stone or pea gravel, to develop your own unique and exciting designs. Consider using gates (maybe an antique one you’ve salvaged) in your garden, even if they serve no function beyond indicating entry points.
With the right combination of plants, hardscape, and furniture, you can create a useable, comfortable outdoor living space for your family.