The best outdoor rooms are comfortable, welcoming spaces that connect the indoors with out. With a little imagination they can be surprisingly easy to create.
Words Sarah Heeringa. Photography Getty Images (hero) and Amanda Reelick.
Summer is all about relaxed hospitality and enjoying the outdoors – so it’s great when the homes we live in can reflect this. Put in a bit of effort now and once done, your luxurious outside space will enable you to make the most of the warm weather ahead.
Pick your spot
An outdoor room can be created in any number of places; a courtyard or apartment balcony, a traditional covered veranda, a barbeque area set against a garden or garage wall or in larger gardens, a landscaped area laid out at the end of a path and arranged around several garden benches or chairs. You can even create a summer outdoor room in an unused old glasshouse or using fabric and a garden pagoda frame.
Consider the basics
Depending on the size or type of property you may not have many choices as to where to create your outdoor room – but if more than one option is open to you, consider which spot is the sunniest or the most sheltered from traffic, rain noise or wind. Proximity to the kitchen is not essential – but is a bonus if you intend to use your space for entertaining and will be ferrying food and drinks back and forth. A reasonable amount of privacy from neighbours is another plus. Less essential but nice to have is a nearby source of electricity for music or lighting.
Have fun with lighting
Hang long strings of festoon lights for an on-trend look (see thefairylightshop.com for a great selection). Decorate nearby trees with solar-powered string lights. Use solar-powered lanterns to illuminate tables. Keep a stash of citronella candles handy. Make simple candle lanterns in old tins or large painted jars to add dashes of light and ambiance to your outdoor room at night.
Determine the purpose
Formal, casual, colourful, tropical … what look or mood do you want to evoke? Consider what you’ll be likely to use the space for. Is your outdoor room a sunny area with a barbeque, seats and a table for entertaining friends? Perhaps your outdoor space is not sundrenched but a shady, whimsical space with ferns, hostas, garden gnomes and a mossy, trickling water feature – a quiet nook for contemplation or a place to escape to with a book. Maybe your ideal outdoor room is focused around an outdoor fireplace, pétanque terrain, paved chessboard, hot tub or outdoor bath. Outdoor rooms can have multiple uses – for instance a sheltered conservatory can double as a place to raise seedlings and nurture small potted plants. Likewise, an area set up for entertaining can also be a comfortable place to lounge. Your outdoor room needs to be functional, but it also has to be inviting and fit for purpose.
Consider your gardening style
A manicured garden room of white pebbles and clipped hedges will require a reasonable amount of grooming but your reward will be fabulously elegant. There are faster options if you can’t wait for your buxus hedge to grow. Vigorous yuccas, bromeliads and lush rubber plants in colourful pots are fast growing, relatively easy care and can be used to create a refreshing tropical vibe. Add bright floral cushions, hot pink plastic flamingos and put the Buena Vista Social Club on the stereo. Done! Another way to create an instant garden is by using S-hooks to hang hardy pot plants onto a trellis wall. Alternatively you can buy a tiered plant holder or set of garden shelves to hold a series of pot plants. Hardy herbs such as rosemary, parsley and sage are ideal for growing in pots. Potted succulents require even less maintenance, as they are drought-tolerant and only need to be watered once a month during the summer months.
Add walls where necessary
You can add definition and a greater sense of enclosure to your outdoor oasis using garden walls. These can take various forms; by planting permanent hedging, filling long rectangle planter boxes with hardy tall plants or by erecting trellis, brushwood or bamboo screens. For permanent garden screens, concrete posts into the ground and attach your chosen panels, or if you want the flexibility of moving your walls around, mount your planter boxes or garden screens on heavy caster wheels. Make sure you use wheels that are suitable for outdoor use. If you are creating an outdoor room on an existing deck, consider adding permanent side panels, or blinds that can be rolled up when not required. Clustering large pots and stringing up festoon lights overhead are more ways to define a space.
Create an entrance
Another way to create a sense of place – as well as adding drama – is with an entrance. If your room is an area that is independent of the house, such as a gazebo, create a passageway with foliage or a path of some kind to visually connect it to the house. Use topiaried or standardised bushes to create a doorway or look out for a rustic metal gate or garden arch and plant climbing plants such as clematis or old-fashioned climbing roses.
Mix old with new
Your outdoor room is the perfect place to apply a little imagination, experiment and add some quirkiness. Try combining new materials with architectural salvage and garage sale finds. Pick up old indoor furniture and give it a coat of enamel paint before repurposing it outside. Resene has a great range of water-based enamel paints so you don’t need to bother with smelly turps. Find an old mirror and hang it on a garden wall to create the illusion of depth. Re-use demolition materials to create your own outdoor kitchen. Collect old galvanised tubs to use as planters. Paint old pots in bright shades for pops of colour or all one shade for a unified look. Now is the time to indulge that secret love of mosaic garden art or garden gnomes.
Give your room a floor
Hard flooring really defines a space and if your outdoor room only has a grass floor you will be unlikely to use it very much. You can cover grass with a low decking or dig up the lawn and lay pavers or create a permeable surface using materials such as white pebbles, gravel or crushed shell. These surfaces are relatively easy and cost-effective to lay and have the advantage of allowing rain to seep through into the ground below. White stones or shells also provide a pleasing visual contrast with darker surroundings such as green hedging, brick walls or stained fences. Shells and stones can be scratchy underfoot, so interspersing them with pavers makes the surface more barefoot-friendly. Waterblast old concrete and spruce it up with a coat of paving paint; Resene Waterborne Sidewalk is one option here. A previously paved area can also be painted for a fresh new look. Alternative flooring options include outdoor wooden deck tiles which clip together, or panels of readymade decking. If your room is on a deck or veranda, think about adding colour and comfort using a hardy outdoor rug. Fab Habitat rugs are a good option; made from recycled cotton or eco-friendly recycled polypropylene they add a pop of colour and panache to any space.
If your outdoor room is a small patio, veranda or balcony consider how you might maximise space by your choice of furniture. Small benches and slim fold-up café chairs provide seating while taking up minimum room. A strong chest can provide both storage and seating. Large floor cushions might be another option. Potted plants hung on a wall add greenery without taking away floor space.
Integrate using colour
It’s good if your outdoor room feels like an extension of the inside. One way to enhance this effect is with colour. For instance, you might paint your wooden outdoor chairs the same shade as the exterior walls of your house. Or you might pick up a colour from the nearest room and repeat it in cushions and other soft furnishings.
Lay on some home comforts
Comfortable seating is a must – whether it’s a basic bench covered with cushions, bright retro recliners or classic wooden Adirondack chairs. If buying new wooden furniture, check it has been sustainably sourced. Cane furniture is a good option as it’s light, relatively weatherproof and can be given a variety of different looks. You could pick up second-hand cane pieces and paint them to match. Keep a waterproof chest handy for tossing in the cushions when a storm threatens.
Cover from above
Given New Zealand’s changeable weather, providing shelter from passing showers can greatly increase the usability of an outdoor room. It also gives greater protection to furniture or cushions. If your room is on a covered veranda consider adding extra shelter using shutters or drop down blinds. For rooms on a deck or set against an outside wall you might add a wooden frame with clear corrugated sheeting or install a retractable awning. A less permanent solution is to use a pop-up gazebo or a large market umbrella in a heavy weighted base. If your area is arranged around a central table, a fancy side mounted cantilever umbrella allows you to swing the umbrella in or out.
A cozy outdoor fire provides an instinctive focal point and extends the usability of your space by several months. They also provide an alternative place to cook food – or simply enjoy toasting marshmallows. Options range from permanent concrete, brick, stone or metal fireplaces or pizza ovens through to portable versions, including fire pits, braziers and clay chimenea.