Transforming Your Garden into an Outdoor Living Space

0 comments Posted on April 1, 2016

by Jocelyn Green

I didn’t always want to hang out in the garden. To me, the garden was the place where I pulled weeds, planted and transplanted, mulched, watered, fretted about pest control and daydreamed about hiring a professional landscaping service to do it all for me. But then the small changes my husband and I made yielded big results. Whether I’m reading on the chaise lounge, hosting neighborhood potlucks, or directing children’s birthday parties, my own backyard is truly my favorite place to be.

Here are seven keys to transforming any garden into an outdoor living space you’ll relish:

1) Offer shade. Unless you only plan on after-dark parties, offering shade is a must. With one lone shade tree in our backyard, our personal solution was a simple umbrella and stand that can stay by the dining table or be moved elsewhere—to protect little ones playing in a baby pool, or a bookworm on a chaise lounge. Other options include installing a retractable awning on the outside of your house or building a pergola. If you have the space for it, a gazebo would be very useful.

2) Frame the space. Borders and boundaries give a comfortable, secure sense of being enclosed and help control the view. We’ve chosen to use maintenance-free vinyl fencing, but a natural hedge of shrubs or trees works well, too. If you have wooden fencing, consider softening it with climbing vines. Enhance the entryway with an arch or arbor, or at the very least, by grouping container plants together to mark the way out and in.

3) Furnish. Nothing says, “Sit and stay a while,” like a table and chairs, a glider, a rocking chair, swing, or even a simple park bench. Be sure to position them near shade, or bring the shade to the furniture. Add a splash of color with an outdoor rug and cushions. If flying insects bug you, consider enclosing the space with mosquito netting or providing some type of citronella product. In addition to the candles, there are also citronella incense sticks, citronella streamers to hang overhead and mosquito-repellant wristbands.

SpyOfRichmond4) Landscape with purpose. Avoid plants which might attract unwanted visitors. For example, I love sedum, but won’t plant it where I want to spend my time because it attracts bees—which repel small children, including my own. Likewise, if you want to draw butterflies, hummingbirds, or songbirds, plant their favorites.

To lend balance and unity to your outdoor space, try planting in masses, limit your color palette, and repeat plants around the garden. Sharp, defined edges between flower beds and lawn and alongside walking paths keep your outdoor room neat and tidy.

Gaps between still-young shrubs or perennials not yet blooming can be filled in with annuals or with container plants that can be rearranged as needed. Consider adding some structure and variety with a few large, well-placed limestone rocks.

5) Arrange artfully. I’ll be the first to admit, I can easily get carried away with garden art, probably because it doesn’t require a green thumb! But when we lost more than a dozen plants after one particularly fierce Iowa winter, it really helped fill in the holes. A weathered antique chair with a white sculpted cat on its seat sits between two peony bushes. A galvanized watering can rests at its feet. An antique tricycle rests in the shade of our ornamental crab tree. An old shutter leaning against the fence adds some height to the visual line in one area, and in another, an old white screen door provides a perfect backdrop to a hydrangea bush. A yellow painted-metal windmill offers a focal point above my purple salvia. Of course, more useful pieces can also double as decor: a birdbath, a bird feeder, bird house, attractive rain gauge or wind chime.

Creative containers for annuals and herbs become works of art, as well. Put a chest of drawers from a flea market to work for you by pulling out the drawers adding petunias or sweet potato vine. Fill an antique wheelbarrow with pumpkins, geraniums, or chrysanthemums. Flower pots on an old chair or ladder add height to the garden. Hang flower- or foliage-filled baskets from the fence or a deck railing for beauty that surrounds.

6) Put it in lights. Sunset need not mean lights-out on your party. One of the simplest outdoor lighting options is the lantern. Kerosene lanterns burn longer, but candles in glass lanterns offer a more whimsical ambience. Votive candles in Asian-inspired vellum-paper lanterns add an elegant flair. Festive holiday-style strands of lights can be used year-round, and tiki torches offer the added benefit of helping to keep mosquitoes at bay.

7) Heat it up. Northern gardeners especially may be interested in outdoor heating options to extend both the evening and the season. The most common for warming large areas is the free-standing, mushroom-shaped heater you’ve likely seen at outdoor restaurants. They run on propane, gas, or electricity and are available in many styles from home improvement stores. Lower-profile tabletop propane heaters can sit on a table, bench, or the ground and provide enough heat for a small space. An old-fashioned fire gathers guests together, too, whether via a simple fire pit or an outdoor fireplace. (Just please be careful around open flames! I’m a mom, I have to say it.)

Sow small changes in your garden and reap a harvest of a beautiful, tranquil space. Whether you want to share it with friends or simply with a good book and a tall lemonade, you’ll love the transformation.

Jocelyn Green is the award-winning author of ten books, including Faith Deployed: Daily Encouragement for Military Wives and The 5 Love Languages Military Edition, co-authored with Dr. Gary Chapman. Her latest release was Spy of Richmond, the fourth and final novel in her Heroines Behind the Lines Civil War series, inspired by real heroines on America’s home front. She loves Mexican food, Broadway musicals, Toblerone chocolate bars, the color red, and reading on her patio. Jocelyn lives with her husband Rob and two children in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Visit her at

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