Patio Retreats

No matter where you live, you can fashion a stylish outdoor room that's an intimate getaway just beyond your back door.


+ enlarge image Wrought-iron furnishings invite alfresco dining, while a terra-cotta waterfall makes the destination soothing and secluded.

What's exciting about a patio? It seems so passe -- just a boring slab of concrete that sits right outside a back door. Nothing about it beckons. Nothing about it inspires you to relish the outdoors.

At least that's what patios used to be. Today's versions are beyond bland. They now come in a variety of materials, from brick to flagstone to pea gravel, and they're less barren, too. People are starting to combine these outdoor floors with overhead structures such as gazebos and cedar pergolas. At the ground level, a proliferation of decorative containers makes it easier than ever to cozy-up these once plain slabs. With the right materials and decorative accents, a patio can become a backyard retreat that won't rot, attract termites, or require a fresh paint job or sealant every few years.

+ enlarge image Rustic furniture and Southwestern-style plantings make this Chicago retreat a private getaway from the city streets.

The key to making a patio appealing is thinking of the space as an extra room. "One thing I love to do is make the patio an extension of the house," says Buck Buchan, a Kansas City, Missouri, landscape architect. "When you're in your house, your view is out onto the patio, so when we look out we need a focal point in our yard space.

Which is exactly what San Diego landscape architect Cindy Benoit created when she dressed up a client's yard with a formal, English-style wrought-iron gazebo that stands 9-1/2 feet tall and 7 feet wide. A wooden gazebo once stood in the patio's place, but it had rotted and was demolished. A focal point needed to fill this highly-visible spot in the house's expansive lawn, so Benoit asked herself what she would want in this space if she lived there. "I would want my morning breakfast and afternoon teas out there," she says. So she decided to create an outdoor room with a classic appeal that would draw the homeowners outside. She searched through garden catalogs for inspiration, and when she saw the formal English gazebo, she knew it was the sitting space's crowning touch. She draped the structure with white mosquito netting and decorated the pea-gravel flooring with wicker-and-iron furniture to complete the room's romantic-fantasy quality.

+ enlarge image Simple touches, such as a blue water bottle, complement the table's dishware.

Turning a terrace into a destination, such as Benoit did, is what transforms a patio into a backyard escape. Benoit and Buchan give their outdoor designs appeal by personalizing them. Buchan repeats fabric and accent colors from the home's interior to make the outdoors an extension of the house. Benoit includes some type of structure over or around a patio, such as a gazebo or fence, to define the site.

Both landscape architects try to work clients' personal items, such as a favorite birdbath or plant, into the patio's design to give the outdoor getaway character.

You're much more likely to use a room if it includes elements you love, such as your favorite color or favorite painting. That goes for patios, too. Following are some tips for turning these outdoor living spots into a personal paradise, from landscape architects Cindy Benoit and Buck Buchan:

  • Take the time to dream. Before you tear out your old terrace or start laying brick for your new one, consider Benoit's advice. She says to thoughtfully consider what you want the backyard room to be. How will you use it? As a family outdoor dining or sitting room? Do you plan to entertain there? If so, how many people do you plan to accommodate -- from 8 to 10 or from 25 to 50? Do you want it to be a dreamy protected space, or do you want it roofless so you can stare up at the stars at night? Whatever you do, think about your climate and whether you need protection from the wind or sun. Look through magazines for surface styles, structures, and materials that catch your eye.
  • Match the patio to the house's architectural style. An outdoor retreat should complement the home's architecture -- not fight it. For example, a Southwest-style courtyard enhances an adobe home, while a formal English outdoor sitting room top suits a traditional style. Use your house's trim color in the patio's decor to tie the spaces together.
  • Extend the inside outside. Pick colors, fabrics, and furniture styles you like inside your house and take them outside for a harmonious connection between the indoors and outdoors.
  • Define the space as an outdoor room. Structures help define a patio as a "room." Adding an overhead structure gives the sense of a ceiling. Fencing or walling in one or more sides makes it feel like its own quarters. Placing columns, 3-foot-tall containers, or posts topped with attractive finials in each of the area's corners helps lend the space a sense of privacy.
  • Turn it into a focal point. A patio should grab your eye. Buchan says to consider how you look out onto the terrace from the house and what you want to see from those windows. Benoit tries to show just enough of the outdoor room from the house to intrigue an onlooker to come outside and see it in its entirety.
  • Go shopping. Look around for art pieces, such as a birdbath or statuary, that capture your interest. These pieces will make the patio your own.
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