Create a High-End Outdoor Space on a Low-end Budget

Living Life Outdoors

In the Garden

Create a High-End Outdoor Space on a Low-end Budget

Living life outdoors

Cathy Riordan

A beautiful garden enhances quality of life and adds an extra dimension to any living space. If you are ready to take yours to another level and create an outdoor room that your family and guests will love without breaking the bank, it’s best to start with a few key basics. All high-end gardens have certain elements that you can create on your own. So grab a notebook and head outside!

1. Determine your flow. Let’s start with a simple question. How easy is it for you to get to your garden? Once you get there, can you carry a martini from one end to the other without spilling a drop? If your answer is “no”, then the first step is to create a seamless indoor-outdoor connection and smooth passage through the yard. Here are some things to consider.

Walk around the garden. Can you follow the graceful arc of a tree branch over a path; spot a whimsical object, a beautiful rock? Would you like to hear water, smell something fabulous? Do you have furniture, plants, pots and ornaments that grab the eye and invite wandering? Where do you naturally want to be? Is there a comfortable chair there? Jot down how you would best like to keep the senses engaged. Note where the garden gets boring and you stop being interested.

Are your paths and patio spaces level? No matter the slope of your property, paths and sitting areas must be level to create an outdoor room. It is easy to flatten out little bumps and fill in holes. If you don’t have a nice level space for hanging out, spend your budget here; you can sit in flea market chairs and dream of the plants and accessories you’ll add next year- at least you won’t be falling over!

2. Clean it up.  An outdoor room can be rustic, sophisticated, unfussy or minimalist, but to be civilized and comfortable, it should always be clean. Approach cleaning your garden as if you were cleaning the inside of your house.

Start in one spot and move methodically around the space, addressing every plant, cobweb and pile of leaves. You wouldn’t tolerate cobwebs on your ceiling, so why are they OK on the fence? Splurge and pressure-wash your flagstone or wood surfaces to reveal the natural beauty. Look at the corners of your steps, walls, paths and curbs, where soil tends to wash down and accumulate. Clean and level out all the little corners where the dirt has piled up. Wipe down ceramic pots, ornaments and furniture, of course; and every so often, wash your plants. Don’t forget that while plant roots are getting drip irrigated in the summer, the dusty foliage would love a drink too. Leaves will lighten up and shine brighter.

3. Create comfort. As you look around your garden, think about what will make you more comfortable. Do you need a source of shade for the day or heat for the evenings? For relief from the hot sun, try a sun shade or awning or put up and umbrella. If it works with the style of your house, consider adding a pergola to provide dappled light.

On cool nights, a heat source is essential. Consider gas, propane or wood-burning firepits. Infra-red heaters can be mounted unobtrusively and are extremely efficient.

One of the things that determine your level of comfort indoors is, of course, the furniture. The same is true outdoors. Good garden furniture is lovely to have, but it can be very expensive. Think outside the box. Flea markets and secondhand stores are full of inexpensive wood tables and chairs that can be covered, cushioned or painted. You can “whitewash” raw, new or old wood with a small amount of paint mixed with water. The thirsty wood soaks it in, leaving a hint of color that instantly brightens the pieces. A bright, eclectic look that speaks to comfort and creativity is lots of fun for the outside.

Don’t forget to add side and coffee tables. I have an old one topped with a beautiful piece of flagstone for a total cost of $12. Try using flagstone for serving platters and tabletops, or a piece of thick glass on a gorgeous lacquered pot.

Make a bed! While a true luxury, beds and couches swathed with mosquito netting are irresistible, and can provide a destination spot in a corner of the deck or garden. 

4. Provide good lighting. A well-lit garden is sophisticated and dramatic. Low-voltage landscape lighting is affordable and easy to install. Use path lights for brightening the ground, and spots, pin lights and washes to highlight trees, walls and water features and to create shadows. While high-end, contractor-grade fixtures are over $100 each, some department store brands carry decent-quality metal fixtures for as low as $20.

And when natural daylight starts to wane, light some covered candles. Votives create the flickering shadows that make a garden so magical at night, creating intimacy perfect for thought-provoking conversation and quiet reflection.

5. Love your plants. In a refined garden the plants are happy, well nourished and perfectly pruned. Do a thorough cleanup and assessment of your plants every year. Feed them, remove dead leaves, trim broken and crossed branches and shape them carefully, keeping in mind the effect you want them to have on your space as a whole. A little trimming and the right placement will “decorate” your outdoor space with dappled light, peek-through views and dazzling color, fragrance and texture.

Don’t forget to add containers if you can. A few large pots provide more impact than lots of small ones. Group containers, or nestle them into the borders.

Break down your to-do list into manageable pieces, and remember: Your garden is alive, and the changes that take place are part of what makes an outdoor space so magical and intriguing. Perfection in nature is fleeting, but when it happens, you’ll be out there to see if from your perfectly placed, comfortable chair.

Cathy Riordan has appeared regularly as a featured designer on HGTV’s “Curb Appeal” program as the owner of Cfly Design. Her latest landscaping venture, The Yard Squad, creates high-end gardens on small budgets and services San Francisco and Marin County. Cathy holds an M.S. in Vegetable Crops from the University of California at Davis and a B.S. in Plant and Soil Sciences from the University of Massachusetts.

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0 thoughts on “Create a High-End Outdoor Space on a Low-end Budget

  1. I spend lots of hours a week in my garden in Puerto Rico. I am always happy to read articles that give me different ways to consider my approach. I also love that Cathy suggest using articles that can be new found treasures from flea markets etc.

  2. Nothing like a comfortable backyard. What’s the point of having one if you can’t actually go outside and sit there and enjoy the tranquility of it.

  3. Cathy is my friend and insurance client. She is extremely talented, creative, dedicated and committed in providing creative ideas and cost effective solutions for your needs I can’t say enough about Cathy and her company! Bobbi Fox

  4. Great article with ideas that are simple and creative. I especially like the coffee table ideas! Living in Va. with weather that allows us to be outside a lot of the year, I can always use help sprucing up our outdoor spaces. Thanks Cathy!

  5. Cathy has an unique talent for making an outdoor space very special. I have seen a garden completely transformed by her crew from an overgrown jumble to a verdant paradise of flowering plants and inviting pathways, with places to rest and absorb the natural beauty. Her end-results are always breathtaking!

  6. What a perfect time of year to celebrate the outdoors. My yard has been calling to me for months, now I have some ideas that are not only “doable” but affordable. Thanks!

  7. awesome article!! Yes, the garden is very ALive!!Excellent tips that I will share with those around me who have gardens. I have a few that would benefit for your wonderful tips!!
    Peace Out Sista!!

  8. these are such practical and easy upgrades to make for those of us who don’t have a ton of time to spend on creating our little outdoor mecca. Thanks Cathy!

  9. Cathy, thanks for the super ideas. As long as I don’t have to pay your air fare, consider yourself hired to design and build my garden! Better hurry, the weather is getting nice, I don’t have time to do it myself, and my wife tends to be impatient. Jack, Kingston, Mass

  10. Fantastic article, Cathy Riordan really understands what it takes to make a garden beautiful and livable at the same time. Great ideas for small and large gardens alike!

  11. Cathy – this piece is so inspirational and I don’t even have a garden! I learnt heaps of great tips and am gonna go out and get me a garden right now!!

  12. Great Advice!!!!! This article inspired me to get outside and try new things in my garden. I spent all of Saturday on the list I made and I can’t wait for next month’s BBQ.

  13. Spider webs are fine on my fence because spiders share my garden ,as do insects, birds & small animals.
    Though I agree you need to care for your garden,I don’t like an over-tended garden.Some people are really obsessive.I like some stones, grasses ,native & woodland plants & possibly a little pond.

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