Every spring, you look out at what you have to work with outside, whether it’s a full-on backyard or a fire escape landing, and you have this sense like, “Yeah, I’m the mountain king. This is my dominion and I will make it truly badass.”
Your intentions are so good, like the estranged father in every ‘90s movie who just never makes it to the kid’s Little League game. Your outdoor space is your kid. And those Pinterest mason jar lanterns you made for your girlfriend two years ago and have never hung on the porch are your kid’s sad imaginary baseball game.
To give your space a more refined feel, all you've got to do is appeal to the five senses.
But this year is going to be different. This is the year you come back and become a relevant part of your kid’s life and win the Little League championship. Metaphor going a little far? Yeah, we thought so. Let’s drop that and just talk about what you need to construct a great place to spend time outside.
There are a few basic elements you need to address, regardless of how much room you have to work with, and there are a few twists to make each one pretty unique.
Fire It Up
The desire to gather around a burning pile of wood is probably a primordial instinct buried deep within our humanity. Or maybe it’s just fun to watch stuff burn. Either way, having some sort of fire adds a huge atmospheric element to any outdoor gathering. Stone-ringed fire pits are the best for this, if you have a yard — even a small one. And raised, store-bought metal pits or fire boxes work well, and are fairly cost effective. Or...
Building Your Own Setup
If you want a permanent structure, it’s pretty easy to build your own (not to mention a great way to kill a Saturday).
It’s basically a retaining wall of paving stones, gravel, and concrete glue. Kits at Home Depot can easily run over $500, but more basic packages with just the stones and iron ring are less than half that, and there are totally ways to cut corners to spend around $100. Remember, your pit is going to be a huge focal point in your yard, and should be a good distance from any buildings or trees, on the flattest ground possible.
If You Don't Have a Yard
Obviously, we don’t all have the luxury of a yard. Even if you've only got a small porch or balcony, toss some candles in mason jars and suspend them at different heights from the rafters. Or you can fit old wine bottles with a wick and some tiki torch fluid, adding a lot of personality to any outdoor space. Just remember to be smart about where and what you light on fire. And yeah, this is us denying responsibility if you torch your apartment.
Things grow outside. Just like every room in the house should have something alive, every area of your yard/porch/balcony should have some greenery, too. If you don’t have a lawn, it’s okay. Your Don Draper tableau of mowing the grass and coming in for a cold beer and moment of realization can wait.
A raised-bed vegetable garden or just a window boxes with some fresh herbs are pretty simple to construct, and again, a great way to get your eyes off a screen every weekend. Here are some of the best plants to try:
Lemongrass is not only a staple in Asian cooking, but also a natural mosquito repellant. Growing outdoors from seed can be tricky since it’s native to India, so instead find some pre-potted plants, let it rest in the heat and full sun of the indoors during the spring, and then transfer it outside in the hot summer months.
Onions are pretty low maintenance, fast-growing, and can be used in almost any dish. Plant small seedlings in a raised bed or pot with holes in the bottom for easy drainage. Just make sure to water consistently, as they’ll look fine on the surface even if they’re dried up under the soil. You can harvest just a few weeks after planting.
Herbs like chives, basil, mint, cilantro and rosemary are all great to grow outdoors in the summer, even in small beds you can fit on your fire escape. Research the quirks of each one, like the fact that mint will totally take over whatever it’s planted in, and that you have to snip off the flowers from cilantro in order for it to keep growing long-term.
Got a Light?
Just like inside your house or apartment, lighting is everything outdoors. Enormous floodlights, while perfect for the inevitable undead uprising, paints everything in a really flat, unflattering sheet of light. Opt instead for many small, subdued bulbs spread above the space and through any trees or bushes that might be around.
Low-watage plastic LED bistro lights are great because they’re less expensive than glass and you can string like infinity of them together without overwhelming the charge. Small lights like this work equally well spread around the trees and fences of a big backyard, or draped all over a downtown balcony.
Have a Seat — or Several
There’s nothing worse than setting up an otherwise awesome outdoor summer event and realizing you're gonna have to use your dad’s cast-off NASCAR sweepstakes folding camp chairs.
The simple answer for those with room to spare is to screw some 2x4s together and make picnic table benches, with or without the picnic table. Or you could go uber rustic and find some logs with a wide base and sand down any rough edges for stump stools.
For those who don’t have room for a koi pond next to the trampoline in their giant yard, big outdoor pillows make great seats and also add bright colors to an otherwise white-washed balcony or deck. You can find these at most stores or websites with a patio section - just make sure they’re weather resistant.
Chew the Fat
If you can’t eat or drink in your newly amazing outdoor area, what has all this been about? Summer grilling can’t be topped, but again, sometimes the space just isn’t there. If you’re just looking to grill up dogs and burgers and some vegetables here and there, try a portable camp grill. They’re way more manageable and affordable than those stainless steel behemoths with clam steamers, seventeen-tier grates, and walk-in smoking houses.
Then again, if you do have a yard and want to move beyond simple propane grilling, look into the virtues of a barbecue pit. You can build one yourself (seeing a theme here?) and fuel it with different kinds of wood, like oak and mesquite, which lend their own flavors to whatever’s on the menu.
Tip: If you opt for the pit, try cooking squash, onions, garlic and other tough-skinned vegetables right in the coals. They’ll develop really different, interesting flavors by melding with the wood embers.
Now get out there and make your yard, porch, deck, balcony, or open window everything it was meant to be. Paying attention to aesthetics and your own five senses will take you far in having a cool place to hang out once it starts heating up. Oh, and son... we’re proud of you. Nope, still weird. Get out there and make this summer yours.