Jun 09, 2023
Create a Backyard Oasis for Relaxing, Dining, Entertainment
These easy ideas will transform your deck—or patio or terrace—into a comfortable
These easy ideas will transform your deck—or patio or terrace—into a comfortable haven for all your favorite summer activities
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With summer about to go into full swing, it's time to ready your deck or backyard for all the gatherings you have planned—or that spontaneously arise—during this kick-back time of year. No doubt your outdoor space already has much of what it needs for good times, such as chairs to relax in, an umbrella for shade, and a great grill.
But if anything could use a quick cleanup or replacement (broken wicker? nonworking string lights?), or if you’re simply ready for something fresh and new, these suggestions and how-tos from landscape designers, safety experts, and CR's grilling pros will help transform your outdoor space into a sanctuary for memorable parties and hangouts this season. Read on for ideas on décor—from seating to lights to rugs—shelter from rain and sun, and entertaining that's a breeze.
The best outdoor spaces seem almost like another room of the house, according to Kat Aul Cervoni, founder of Staghorn NYC, a landscape design firm. She suggests you take stock of what you love indoors, then find ways to bring that feeling outdoors. Lush greenery, splashes of favorite colors, a rug, the right style chair, and a good playlist, and your backyard is a new living room, except with the sky as your ceiling.
Solid SeatingIdeally, chairs should be stable, multifunctional, easy to care for, and comfortable. If you need replacements, keep these characteristics in mind as you shop. "Table height chairs with arms are best; they give you something to push up from," says Priscilla Flores, occupational therapist at the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas.
For an all-weather wicker option, consider the Sol 72 Outdoor Lancashire Wicker/Rattan 4-Person Seating Group with Cushions ($1,296, Wayfair), which includes two chairs, a sofa, and a table. Add an ottoman, such as the Goplus No Collection Brown Rattan Ottoman ($132 for two, Lowe's), with a flip top and you’ll have a rest for your feet—and extra storage. For materials, think low maintenance, says Julie Farris, a landscape designer and founder of Landstylist. Styles made of mesh or woven rope are particularly easy to care for.
If you choose a set with cushions, she says, anticipate regular cleaning and storing. And beware of inexpensive natural wicker sets: "They degrade over time and can break underneath you," says Alyssa Bowser, an occupational therapist at Stanford Healthcare in Palo Alto, Calif.
Another point to keep in mind: What's comfortable and practical indoors might be less so outdoors. Take recliners. Those zero-gravity reclining chaises may be tempting, but they can tip too quickly and are hard to lift yourself out of, Flores says. Similarly, tall bar stools can get harder to climb up on or down from as you age.
Whatever furnishings you choose, don't overcrowd your deck or patio, Flores adds. An uncluttered space with clear, wide paths is safest for all.
Stealth StorageThere are hundreds of outdoor storage solutions, from hinged plastic bins to shelved sheds, but Cervoni recommends that you look for stealthy storers, such as the Zimtown Beige Fir Potting Bench Garden Workbench ($100, Walmart), based on the size of your space and what you need to stash close at hand. "Sturdy, durable materials, such as composites, metals, and hardwoods, tend to be the most watertight and last the longest," she says.
Light the Way: The Right Lighting Is Safe, Practical, and Pretty• Path lights: Solar metal ones like the Harbor Breeze 10-Lumen Black Solar Integrated LED Outdoor Path Light Kit ($35, Lowe's) are easy to install and don't require a power source. Measure your path to see how many you need. (The packaging will provide spacing information.) To install, drive the plastic stake in first with a mallet, then slide the fixture onto it, says Kevin Magness, pro specialist at the Lowe's in Grand Forks, N.D.• String lights: Gather wire, eye screw hooks, and lights to string between one wall of your house, say, and a tree or shed opposite. Make sure you can plug the string in easily to an outdoor outlet, or use a solar model like the Brightech 27-ft. Solar Black Indoor/Outdoor String Light ($40, Lowe's). Measure 8 to 10 feet up from the ground and mark where you’ll need hooks (about three on each side spaced a few feet apart). Screw eye hooks in, or wrap a tight loop of cable around trees or a pole, to attach the lights. Zigzag wire tautly back and forth from one hook or loop to the other, then attach the strings to the wire using zip ties.• Solar lanterns: For extra charm, hang durable Soji Stella Pearl Solar Lanterns ($115 for a three-pack, Allsop) from a tree or hook.
How to Do Rugs RightA rug is cozy for bare feet but can also pose a tripping hazard, so follow Bowser's ground rules. First, avoid placing one on walking pathways, in high-traffic areas, and under your dining table, where it can trip up guests’ dining chairs. Instead, put a soft one underfoot in your seating area and choose one that's big enough to fit under the legs of all your furniture so that no one catches a foot. For ease, Stafford Meyer, founder of the doormat company Porte + Hall, recommends rugs that are either washable, like the Ruggable Outdoor Havana Multicolor Rug ($229, 5x7 feet, Ruggable), or made of polypropylene, which resists mildew and signs of wear, and is easy to wipe off.
Outdoor PillowsChoose pillows made of UV-treated polyester like the Arden Selections Sapphire Aurora Blue Stripe ($30 for a pair, Walmart)—to add comfort and personality to your deck or patio.
GreeneryFor some natural color, add a few bright annuals. You can tend to them while standing—using pots clustered on a table, tiered shelving, or a raised-bed planter, like the Demeter Elevated Raised Bed ($160, Gardeners), which can create a visual divider between dining and seating areas, too. Look for one that keeps you from having to bend at an awkward angle.
For music at your gatherings, look for water-resistant, Bluetooth, and wireless speakers with long battery life, like these two CR Recommended models.
Sudden showers, burning rays, biting bugs, or chilly temperatures don't have to force your outdoor plans inside. To protect you from the elements, here are expert-approved, ingenious fixes, including pop-up shades and fire pits to add warmth and atmosphere to any setting.
Give Yourself Some ShelterThe right shelter can keep everyone happy right where they are, regardless of rain or bright sun. Patio umbrellas are a popular choice, because they work in almost any space, are easy to install, and come in a variety of sizes. (A 9-foot umbrella provides shade for most table sizes.) Look for one that has a metal pole (less likely to break than wood), a vented canopy so that wind won't cause your umbrella to set sail, and a water- and UV-resistant fabric like Sunbrella (a brand also used for upholstery and cushions) because it never fades, says Jesse Bawsel, manager of the Armstrong Garden Centers in Pasadena, Calif. One good option is the Treasure Garden 9-Foot Deluxe Auto-Tilt Umbrella ($287, Amazon), which also has an auto-tilt function so that you can move it as the sunlight shifts. And don't forget to buy an umbrella base (typically sold separately) that's at least 50 pounds; some are designed for freestanding umbrellas, others for use under a table with an umbrella hole.
For a smaller porch or balcony: Roller shades are a good choice because they are inexpensive and quick to install. (Check out the Coolaroo Cordless UV Blocking Fade Resistant Fabric Exterior Roller Shade, 72x72 inches, $62; Home Depot). If your deck or patio is right off your home, a shade sail or awnings that attach to the wall can provide plenty of overhead shade, Cervoni says. Many, like the Veikous 10’x8’ Retractable Patio Awning with Manual Crank ($193, Walmart), retract when you want to let the sunshine in.
For a larger yard: A gazebo or pergola will offer the most shade and protection. There are freestanding pergolas as well as ones that can be attached to a wall, say, to extend a living room, says Gary McCoy, store manager at the Lowe's in Central Charlotte, N.C. Freestanding options include a pergola with a retractable canopy, such as the Veikous 10’x10’ Aluminum Outdoor Pergola Canopy ($500, Home Depot and Veikous), that opens for good weather or closes to keep rain out. Or for even more coverage, consider a gazebo like the more portable Sunjoy 2-Tier Backyard Portable Pop Up Gazebo ($220, Sunjoy and Amazon), which has both a canopy and mesh curtains to help keep insects away.
Add Some Ambience and a Little HeatIf you don't have much room, tabletop fire pits—small fire-safe vessels that burn isopropyl alcohol, bioethanol, or wood pellets—can provide an inviting glow (but not a lot of warmth). To use one safely, keep the flame away from low-hanging branches or fabrics; place it in the center of a sturdy, flat, noncombustible surface; and never leave it unsupervised, says Russ Dimmit, director of education for the Chimney Safety Institute of America. The tiny Colsen Portable Fire Concrete Bowl Pot Fireplace ($40, Amazon) can use its own brand of fuel or others and burns for about 40 to 50 minutes—enough time to roast your marshmallows. The smokeless Mesa ($120, Solostove) burns for about as long but uses wood pellets or mini logs. TerraFlame's Basin Fire Bowl Table Top ($100, TerraFlame and Amazon) made of concrete, burns up to 3 hours on a gel fuel that comes in a can. For all tabletop fire pits, follow the manufacturer's instructions and use only the fuel that is recommended.
For extra warmth on a chilly evening: Try a standing propane heater, like Style Selections 48,000-Btu Stainless Steel Patio Heater ($169, Lowe's), which runs on a grill-style propane tank. To warm a 200-square-foot area, you’ll need between 46,000 and 48,000 Btu, McCoy says. Follow the manufacturers’ safety guidelines and keep kids away. Propane patio heaters can be tippy, Dimmit says.
If you have more space, consider a smokeless fire pit. Just be sure to place it in an open area, at least 6 to 10 inches off the ground on a metal or noncombustible surface, and ideally 10 to 20 feet away from flammable structures, trees, shrubs, and wires. Here are two top-scoring models from our testing; you can also find more in our review of smokeless fire pits.
If you don't have a screened-in porch, try an oscillating pedestal fan, which reduced mosquito landings on people sitting nearby by 45 to 65 percent in one CR test. And keep gutters free of debris and your yard clear of empty pots and troughs. "Mosquitoes lay eggs in standing water, so reducing such breeding sites can significantly reduce their population," says Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, an entomologist and coordinator of the New York State Integrated Pest Management Community program at Cornell University.
Forget bug zappers. Research suggests they kill very few mosquitoes (and zap many insects that actually eat those biters). Citronella candles are no good either; their scent, which does the work, floats away on the breeze. Instead, the best approach is an integrated one: a fan, screens (where possible), and a good insect repellent.
Check out the CR Recommended options below, which will provide several hours of protection, and our best insect repellents for other options.
Dining on your deck with good friends on a summer evening is one of life's great pleasures. That said, all the lugging and toting from the house can be a headache. Here are pro tips to make your setup and cleanup as easy as possible, from Meg Critchell, owner of Meg Critchell Events in Greenwich, Conn.
Paper and plastic are outdoor dining staples for good reasons—safety, easy cleanup—but their disposability is neither cost- nor eco-conscious. The alternative: tableware and flatware that are light, nonbreakable, and cost-effective in the long run.
Melamine dish sets: They come in pretty designs like traditional dishware but are lightweight, shatter-resistant, and not plastic; they’re not for use in a microwave, though. One attractive example: Crate & Barrel Marin Blue Outdoor Melamine Dinner Plates ($10 each, Crate and Barrel). Our editors also liked the fun pattern, scratch resistance, and durability of the Certified International Talavera Melamine 12-pc Dinnerware Set for 4 ($127, Amazon). For flatware, think simple and sturdy: for example, the Annova Silverware Set, Retro Style ($43, 20 pieces, Amazon)
Nonbreakable glasses: One convenient choice is wineglasses that won't shatter, like the 15-ounce Michley Unbreakable Stemmed Wine Glasses ($32 for a set of four, Amazon), which are plastic but look remarkably like glass. To keep wine cool on hot nights, consider Corkcicle's Classic Stemless Insulated Wine Tumblers ($30, Corkcicle and Amazon). And check out Tossware glasses ($17 per 12-pack, Tossware and Amazon)—they’re shatterproof, recyclable, and made from BPA-free, single-use water bottles. "They can't go in the dishwasher, but you can use them a few times and not feel bad about tossing them," Critchell says.
Cloth instead of paper napkins: While you’re working at reducing waste, you might swap out paper napkins for cloth ones such as the 20x20-inch Ramanta Home Oversized Cotton Dinner Napkins ($25 for 12, Amazon). Just toss them in the wash after each use and agree to be casual about wrinkles. "Napkins that retain full wrinkle-free status aren't absorbent—they do nothing but smear food around," says Chris Mooney, chief marketing and merchandising officer at Welspun, a global textile company. Look for cloth napkins that have little or no polyester.
Limit the lifting with trays and trolleys: Eating alfresco can be relaxing, but carrying all the dishes, food, and drink in and out of the house? Not so much. A handled tray can help you carry more, minimizing the back-and-forth. Opt for rattan, like the 14"x20" Natural Woven Tray with Handles ($23, Target), which is lightweight and comfortable to carry. (A safety tip from Bowser: Carry your tray slightly to the side, rather than in front of you, so that you can see your feet; it increases stability.) A rolling cart can carry even more, especially if it has holders for drinks and glasses that prevent toppling in transit. Some—such as the Foundstone Calla Straight Bar Cart ($150, Wayfair)—come with a liftoff tray to make the transfer to the table easier. Just be sure that whatever trolley you choose is easy to maneuver over your threshold, Bowser says.
Add a rolling cooler: Tall versions, like the Vineego Gray Resin Rolling Cooler Cart ($270, Lowe's), are preferable—they don't require thirsty guests to bend or squat. Look for one with a shelf, where you can keep glasses and bottle holders; locking wheels (essential, says Bowser); and a drain for easy emptying.
Here are three CR Recommended gas grills—one portable, one small, and one midsized. For more choices, see our best gas grills.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the July 2023 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.Solid Seating Stealth Storage Light the Way: The Right Lighting Is Safe, Practical, and Pretty Path lights: String lights: Solar lanterns: How to Do Rugs Right Outdoor Pillows Greenery Give Yourself Some Shelter For a smaller porch or balcony: For a larger yard: Add Some Ambience and a Little Heat For extra warmth on a chilly evening: Forget bug zappers. Melamine dish sets: Nonbreakable glasses: Cloth instead of paper napkins: Limit the lifting with trays and trolleys: Add a rolling cooler: Editor's Note: