Shape your Space

The right ideas to transform your ugly, dilapidated backyard into an outdoor haven.

The deck serves as a perfect spot to entertain and dine amidst the natural surroundings.

Never Skimp on Space. Southern California lends itself to a year-round life of living large outdoors, and Claudia and Jeanie -- both partners in a landscape design business -- wanted to take full advantage of the balmy breezes. The original patio with its rotting posts and wavy green plastic roof that flapped in the wind didn't quite fit the bill. With measuring tape in hand, Claudia estimated the width needed for a new outdoor room that included all the amenities: a dining area, a grill, built-in seating, and potted plants. Twelve feet allowed a reasonable width to fit a table, and because the house was 50 feet long, a deck that stretched 40 feet felt right. Claudia hired a builder to construct the 12 x 40-foot outdoor room opposite with a pergola.

MAKE IT WORK: For your own backyard redesign, determine your wish list, then measure and plot a practical size to accommodate those amenities.

Make Materials Count. Claudia considered tile and concrete for the flooring, but settled on wood to cast a more inviting feel. The builder recommended a money-saving combination: durable cedar for the floor and strong, but less expensive, Douglas-fir for the pergola. The lower wood costs enabled Claudia and Jeanie to select a more expensive oil-base marine primer for longer protection and less wood maintenance.

MAKE IT WORK: Research building materials for your own project by checking local prices, talking to professionals and homeowners in your area, and considering the elements that will batter your outdoor space.

Flashes of bright colors make the entryway a delight for your pupils.

Consider the Elements. Nothing ruins the desire to sit outside more than relentless, hot sunshine; a pergola ensures the outdoor room can be used any time of day. Constructed from 2 x 4 boards spaced 3 inches apart, this pergola adds coziness to all but 12 feet of the deck's far end, above, which was left open to soak up sun. Inspired by a trattoria in Italy, Claudia added shade by growing grapevines over the structure to form a living roof.

MAKE IT WORK: Make yourself comfortable and your space usable year-round by considering the effect of insects, sun, and humidity when you determine the features of your outdoor area.

Using climbing roses and other greenery provides privacy and security from onlookers.

Create Privacy. A perimeter cinder-block wall just shy of 5 feet tall and a couple of wooden fences left backyard privacy almost nonexistent. Lattice panels on top of the fence that borders the yard and a new tree in the back corner dramatically increase the sense of enclosure. The finishing touches to the perimeter fencing: climbing roses, bougainvillea, and perennial morning-glory.

MAKE IT WORK: Think of creative ways to use fences, structures, and plants to add personality and privacy to your outdoor relaxation area.

Make Room for Guests. Jeanie loves to barbecue and wanted seating near the grill so friends can keep her company while she cooks. Armed with ideas and lots of deck-building magazines, she and Claudia decided to add a railing with built-in benches, above left, around one corner of the deck.

MAKE IT WORK: Add seating by seeing the possibilities in unconventional places or things, such as walls, railings, steps, and cushions.

Look at Every Mistake as an Opportunity. During the remodeling of the interior, a contractor's mistake left Claudia and Jeanie with an extra set of windows. Because she hated to let the windows go to waste, Claudia used them to improve privacy outside, where the neighbor's yard is just 5 feet from the deck. Dangling from galvanized chain, three windows, above right, form a floating wall at the side of the deck. A seamstress friend helped finish the windows with an indoor touch: a valance.

MAKE IT WORK: Use salvage items to add character and a personal touch to your outdoor room.

Don't Be Afraid of Color. Determined to make the outdoor room above left feel like a natural extension of the house, Claudia livened up the deck with color stain. In the end, a wreath from a friend inspired her to choose simple but dramatic eucalyptus green, cream, and brown hues.

Because the house is situated only 5 miles from the ocean, Claudia first applied a heavy-duty marine primer to combat the drying and weathering effects of salt air, then she coated the wood with semitransparent stain. A dense backdrop of green supplied by shrubbery and grass reduces the need to feel shy about using color outside.

MAKE IT WORK: Pick colors that suit your home and that you won't tire of quickly, and then go wild.

Furnishings and lighting add a sense of home to this garden deck.

Add Creature Comforts. To continue the indoor feel, Claudia attached small lamps to walls and furniture rather than spending money on traditional landscape lighting. A big fan of exterior power outlets, Claudia had five installed on the deck. She uses furniture or stray flowerpots to keep the outlets hidden.

MAKE IT WORK: You might add weatherproof artwork, storage units, snazzy linens, a gurgling fountain, an overhead fan, or colorful cushions to get your space ready for living.

Grow Living Decor. An eclectic mix of potted plants -- such as the calla lilies, tuberous begonias, and double impatiens -- infuse the space with color, but Claudia let her creativity go beyond pots. She trained plants to climb over structures for even more character. Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) crawls lazily over a sun-drenched arbor; wax plant (Hoya carnosa) wiggles its way throughout a twig chair; and the fragrant bell-shape blooms of angels' trumpets (Brugmansia arborea) dangle just above the railing.

MAKE IT WORK: Who needs cut flowers to dress up a room? Pick a mix of colorful, fragrant, and cooling plants to surround your open-air space.

Green wicker is a great alternative to deck furnishings.

Finish It with Furniture. Furniture completes Claudia and Jeanie's retreat, above right. Comfortable wicker armchairs cater to morning coffee; a table and chairs wait for alfresco dining; and a chaise longue is parked to soak up sun.

MAKE IT WORK: Outdoor furniture draws the eye, so select pieces that suit your style and your comfort needs.

Earth tones add some warmth to your deck.

Add kick to your deck with a color stain. Not only do bright hues add personality, but an opaque stain also protects your wood longer than a transparent stain does because it contains color pigment that acts like a sunblock. Consider these tips.

  • Decide how much wood grain you want to see. Sun is one of the major causes of wood degradation, so your stain choice may affect the wood's longevity and how frequently you'll need to recoat your deck. If the stain has more pigment, it provides more protection from UV rays.
  • Prepare your deck before you stain. If deck boards aren't clean before you prime and stain, the coatings will sit on top of the boards instead of sinking into the wood. Try using a commercial cleaner or brightener on your deck to remove dirt buildup or old stain before you add a new stain. If that doesn't work, you may have to power-wash. Any areas of the deck that are deteriorating should be sanded down until a layer of fresh wood shows through.
  • Use a primer before you stain.¬†Like a clear coat of nail polish before a coat of color, primer provides a smooth, protective base that helps wood stand up to wear and tear.
  • Reapply periodically.¬†Color stains are durable -- a solid-color stain lasts three to five years, a semitransparent stain lasts two to three years, and a transparent stain lasts one to two years -- but decks still need maintenance.
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