Does increased working from home and social distancing have you feeling a little stir-crazy? When your couch, home office and kitchen table become places you dread, there’s one refuge to turn to: Your outdoor space.   

As temperatures rise and the sun peeks out more and more, it’s a great time to spruce up your yard, patio or deck, and take in a big breath of fresh air when you’re feeling oh-so stressed out. Here are some ideas — from small to large — for making your outdoor area your happy place.

The red-flowering currant is a top native plant to add to the garden. It’s colorful and attracts hummingbirds.
The red-flowering currant is a top native plant to add to the garden. It’s colorful and attracts hummingbirds.

Start small

Add an instant dose of color to any size space with early blooming flowers. “Bright bulbs make a huge difference on our gray spring days,” says Mark S. Garff, principal at SCJ Studio Landscape Architecture. “As the bulbs go dormant, you can add more spring annuals and perennials in the same containers.”

If you missed last fall’s planting window for spring blooms, try buying potted daffodils and tulips, which generally last as long as those planted in the ground. Once the blooms fade, plant the bulbs outdoors for happy color next year. 

Garff also has recommendations for native plants that are great for small spaces: sword fern (for shady spots), creeping Oregon grape (partial shade), western iris (full sun) and tiger lilies (full sun). 

Mark S. Garff is principal at SCJ Studio Landscape Architecture in Seattle. (Miranda Estes Photography)
Mark S. Garff is principal at SCJ Studio Landscape Architecture in Seattle. (Miranda Estes Photography)

For larger spaces, Garff suggests the Northwest natives of red-flowering currant, oceanspray, vine maple, evergreen huckleberry and the Pacific madrone tree, all of which thrive in partial to full sun.

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If you’re looking to incorporate large containers, Garff says there’s a formula to follow: “You need a thriller — something tall, flowering or striking in texture; a spiller — a groundcover or annual that will trail over the side of the container; and some filler — something in the middle with contrasting texture to the other plants.”

Buying plants is also a great way to support local businesses. Garff’s go-to nurseries are Swanson’s, in Crown Hill, and Sky Nursery, in Shoreline. They both have friendly and knowledgeable staff, Garff says, along with a wide variety of plant options and striking premade container arrangements. Of course, if you visit any store, be sure to practice social distancing and check operating hours online before you go.

When restrictions ease and you’re in the Portland area, Garff recommends Cistus Nursery on Sauvie Island (it also has mail order). “It’s a small nursery, but so worth a visit,” he says. “Make sure, when you visit, you tell them where you live. It’s just a bit warmer in Portland, and that might make the difference for some of the plants.”

Take it up a notch

It’s OK if you’re not up for a lot of hardscaping; creating an outdoor sanctuary can be as simple as a trip to the nearby hardware store (or its website if you’d rather not visit in person). There you’ll find easy-to-install hammocks, hanging chairs and rope swings for lazing on crisp, sunny days.    

You can also create a simple bistro setup, out on the grass or under the shade of a tree, with a pair of outdoor chairs and round table (Fermob’s colorful French-inspired pieces are a popular, durable choice). Come sunset, add lanterns or candles to the tabletop for happy hour at home. 

To transform the atmosphere further, hang twinkle lights (be sure they are made for outdoor use) and accessorize with stylish outdoor throw pillows and rugs to add warmth and coziness on cool evenings. 

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If you’re feeling ambitious, pick up some pavers to make a stepping path or DIY patio. Garff cautions that working with pavers is more labor intensive than it seems, and it may be best to hire professionals. Instead, if you’re up for a challenge and looking for a quick way to create a usable outdoor living space, Garff recommends crushed rock. 

“You can get crushed rock from Pacific Topsoils, the Dirt Exchange and other suppliers. It comes in different sizes, so be sure to look at the rock before you buy it,” says Garff, who notes the material makes for a clean surface with a pleasing crunch. “Once the crushed rock is down, you can always add more-expensive pavers on top of it later.” 

Be sure you won’t disrupt any buried cables or lines before you start your project and that you have a clear plan for your pattern. Garff suggests looking for free materials from sites such as Freecycle, Buy Nothing, Next Door or Craigslist. Since you’ll want level ground to work on, consider renting a plate compactor from the hardware store to help keep everything even.

When you’re ready to invest in a deck or patio, research design and materials before reaching out to professional builders.
When you’re ready to invest in a deck or patio, research design and materials before reaching out to professional builders.

Go bold

An outdoor renovation can completely alter how you experience your backyard, and there are countless options when it comes to outdoor structures. These projects, however, are best left to the experts. 

“Decks, platforms, gazebos and structures should be designed by a professional,” says Garff. “Imagine having a party on your deck — you want it to be designed to safely handle the weight of the people.” 

Garff points out that, depending on where you live and your property’s configuration, it’s also wise to consult a professional landscape architect to help you navigate any permits you may need.  

Transforming and expanding a deck, constructing an outdoor dining platform, putting in a patio and outdoor fireplace, or incorporating a gazebo are just some of the many ways you can take your outdoor living space to the next level. 

When it comes time to hire a professional, make sure you “click,” as you’ll be working closely on design and material decisions and budgeting. “You’ll want to hire a designer or contractor who has worked on similarly sized projects before, and in the same city, so that they’re familiar with local codes and regulations,” says Garff. “If it’s a complex or large project, or if you need permits, you’ll want to see that type of work in their portfolio.” 

It’s also important to do your homework before starting a project. To keep everyone on the same page and ensure clear communication, be sure you have a plan and budget in mind before any earth is cracked.  

Sustainability is becoming a more important factor when it comes to designing outdoor structures. As such, Garff has stopped recommending the Brazilian hardwood ipe. “Essentially, the ipe trade is destroying the rainforest and it will never be replaced,” says Garff, who recommends renewable alternatives such as black locust wood and fused bamboo. 

Composite lumbers are also a choice Garff favors for decks since they are eco-friendly and made partially or entirely of recycled materials. “Composite lumber outlasts wood by 10–30 years and doesn’t need to have the finish renewed like natural woods,” says Garff. Yet another reason to build sustainably and ensure your beautiful new outdoor living space endures.