Summer is the season of outdoor living — especially in a place like Seattle, which spends much of the year battling rain and drizzle. And this year, many of us have spent so much time cooped up indoors during the stay-at-home order that we’re itching for the life al fresco even more than usual.

“People are feeling like their homes are smaller and smaller each day,” says Gabriel Shulman, owner of Seattle landscaping company Sage and Stone.

Most of us, though, are still facing limitations on where we can go and with whom — which makes this an especially good time to turn your outdoor space into a spot where you enjoy spending time. 

“Getting outside has been really important for everyone,” says Carrie Culp, co-owner of the Ballard-based landscape architecture company Urban Oasis. “I think people have really recognized the value of their outdoor spaces … having a little sanctuary outside, so you can get outside without dodging everyone.”

Whether your outdoor area is large or small, comprised of large tracts or consisting of a single balcony, here are four things you can do to make it a lush, inviting space that you’ll truly enjoy.

Lau recommends locating your outdoor-living area as near to your house as possible. “If your space is too far away, you’ll never use it.” (Getty Images)
Lau recommends locating your outdoor-living area as near to your house as possible. “If your space is too far away, you’ll never use it.” (Getty Images)

1. Pick your spot

Erin Lau, owner of landscape-design company Erin Lau Design in South Seattle, suggests locating your main outdoor-living area as close to your house as possible. “If your space is too far away, you’ll never use it,” she says.

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Lau notes, though, that if you’re already naturally gravitating to a certain spot in your yard, that’s likely a sign you should use it. Such an area typically has “the right type of light, maybe it has a view, privacy, etc.,” she says.

And if you can, steer clear of establishing any sort of gathering space near one of the region’s ubiquitous conifer trees.

“Inevitably, there’s going to be needle-dropping,” Lau says, adding that sap can drop onto your furnishings and get them sticky. Even if your beloved backyard Douglas fir provides some pleasant shade, the high levels of maintenance that will result aren’t worth the hassle, she says.

Seating should be comfortable and weather-resistant. Add a pop of color with bright cushions and pillows. (Getty Images)
Seating should be comfortable and weather-resistant. Add a pop of color with bright cushions and pillows. (Getty Images)

2. Add key pieces

Now that you’ve decided where to set up your space, what should you put there?

“Seating is first, then probably a table of some sort,” Lau suggests.

Seating can be simple, such as Adirondack chairs or benches, or more substantial; Lau notes that outdoor sectionals with comfy cushions are popular.

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If your yard is too small for a big seating area, though, you’re far from alone.

“Most people have small yards in Seattle,” says Shulman, of Sage and Stone. “Tables with stools can help make the most of a small space that you didn’t think was usable.”

It’s a good idea to keep our climate in mind when choosing your furnishings. Many manufacturers feature pieces made of rain-resistant materials. Ikea, for example, has a new line of outdoor furniture — the Bondholmen series — made of eucalyptus wood, which is durable and rot-resistant. “This was designed for wetter climates,” says Annie Boeckman, loyalty manager at Ikea’s Renton store.

Recycled plastic is another good material for your outdoor furniture. “Furniture made of recycled plastic is very popular because you can leave it out in our weather,” Lau says. “It withstands our climate.”

Whatever furniture you choose, consider an outdoor rug to set under it.

“I always like a fun sort of outdoor rug,” says Lau, who loves the recycled-plastic rugs from the Philadelphia-based company Mad Mats. “It really helps to bring that space together and define it as, ‘This is the seating area.’ ”

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Top off your furnishings with some comfy cushions — but make sure they’re strong enough to withstand all that the outdoors can throw at them. Ikea’s Boeckman recommends her company’s sturdy Sötholmen cushion covers: “It’s the one pillow that my labradoodle hasn’t managed to destroy!”

For smaller outdoor spaces, consider adding container plants and flowers. (Getty Images)
For smaller outdoor spaces, consider adding container plants and flowers. (Getty Images)

3. Go for the green

For outdoor living that’s both luxe and lush, make sure to include plenty of plant life, especially if you’re working with a small area.

“Plants are probably a bigger part of that than people realize,” says Culp, of Urban Oasis. 

Patios and decks are great spaces for plants in containers such as cedar boxes and galvanized troughs, Shulman says. Lau adds that large containers can even hold small trees.

For privacy, vines on trellises or posts offer a natural screen, Shulman says. Planting an herb garden gives you greenery that’s also tasty and fragrant, he adds, while placing flowers that look and smell lovely near the public-facing parts of your yard is a nice, “neighborly” thing to do.

It’s important to note that some plants grow better than others in the Northwest. For sunny spots, Lau particularly likes the “little gem” magnolia, while she goes for the kousa variegated dogwood for shadier areas.

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Culp recommends visiting the website Great Plant Picks to find additional  Northwest-friendly botanicals. “It’s a great website for plants that will actually grow here,” she says.

Use a cantilevered umbrella to add shade and waterproofing to your outdoor-living space, recommends Carrie Culp, co-owner of the Ballard-based landscape architecture company Urban Oasis. (©Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2020)
Use a cantilevered umbrella to add shade and waterproofing to your outdoor-living space, recommends Carrie Culp, co-owner of the Ballard-based landscape architecture company Urban Oasis. (©Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2020)

4. Stay comfortable

Though the Seattle area typically enjoys dry summers — once they get started! — it’s still crucial to plan ahead for when Mother Nature decides to rain on your lemonade.

Having a covered space is important, Culp says, as is adding shade and waterproofing. Cantilevered umbrellas are a good option; models with various features can be found across a wide range of price points.

If you’re looking for something more substantial, Culp says louvered patio covers are a popular choice that can be installed quickly, and they typically don’t require permitting. (Be aware, though, that landscaping companies are generally booked out several weeks right now.)

And don’t forget that Seattle can be cool in the summer, especially in the mornings and evenings.

“Adding a heat element or a fire table is a big deal because it increases the amount of time you want to spend outside,” Culp says.

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Fire pits have been popular for the past decade or so, Lau says. She and Shulman both note, though, that wood-burning fire pits can be problematic, as the burn bans frequently in effect during the summer will put them out of commission. Gas- and propane-powered fire pits, on the other hand, can be easier to deal with — and they aren’t affected by burn bans.

At the end of the day, Shulman advocates taking a low-stress approach to your outdoor living area, emphasizing that the important thing is how you feel about it when you’re done.

“No pressure,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of right decisions, and not a lot of wrong decisions.”