Outdoor rooms are in. It could be as formal as a patio with brick walls, as casual as a covered porch filled with plants and furnished in wicker, or as unstructured as a few benches in a copse of trees and shrubs. But these days, more people are bringing their inside lives outside.
"People have done the inside of their homes to the nth degree and now they have moved outside, where they are entertaining more and more," says Martha Baker, a prominent garden designer and author whose newest book, "The Outdoor Living Room" provides do-it-yourself types with many ideas.
If the idea of an outdoor room appeals to you, Baker suggests starting by establishing the boundaries of the room, but don't feel you have to build a brick wall to do so.
"It can be intimidating," Baker admits. "The scale is so much larger than all the rooms in your house. But look at the part that you enjoy being in the most and consider that a room. Now, that's not so intimidating."
Baker, who lives in Manhattan and gardens at her house on Shelter Island, says:First, determine your style. Is it classic, romantic, whimsical, rustic? An outdoor room should be treated as an indoor room in terms of personal style.
Second, focus on the arrival area, or doorway. This can be a gate, a staircase with two piers, and obelisks flanking the entry. It can be a piece of architectural salvage, or a door with urns on either side.
"The arrival to the space re-establishes a drama about entering the garden as an outdoor room," Baker says. "And there are so many ways to treat it."
Third, as you pass through the arrival space, establish a focal point to draw visitors in. It will be a piece that causes them to walk the path, turn the corner.
"It offers surprises," Baker says, "and really pulls you into the space." This could be a sculpture, or a potted plant that offers a contrast from the other plants in the space, a striking flowering bush, a fountain, a birdbath, a pergola. Garden centers, home-improvement stores and architectural salvage yards offer all manner of creative garden ornamentation.
Next, create access from one space to another. A path - whether gravel, paved, bluestone or brick - will bring a visitor in, and lead a visitor out. Baker once created a path from cedar logs that were left on a property. She had the logs cut into 2-inch disks and set into sand and gravel for a creative yet natural pathway.
Consider changing the level in your outdoor room.
"If you can change the grade, it really feels like a separate space," Baker says. "Add the interest of different kinds of staircases, or bring in boulders that are on the property. All will create the feeling of a room."
For a sense of intimacy, add an outdoor fireplace.
"This is one of my favorites," Baker says, noting that outdoor fireplaces are becoming more and more popular. "It centers the space, and gives you a device around which to place furniture. You can gather round with guests."
Look about you for what Baker calls "a borrowed landscape," also known as a view. Any larger vista promises to expand an outdoor room with its scenery, from a seaside scene to a view of the hills beyond. Baker designed a garden in Long Island City, Queens, across from the Manhattan skyline, and a view of the 59th Street Bridge became a part of the garden.
Remember to accessorize. Use containers filled with flowers and herbs to create a border about the room. Install an awning or put up an umbrella for shade.
"It's another way to show off your personal style," Baker says.
Finding furnishings and decorative objects to establish personal spaces outdoors can be simple. Stop by the dozens of garden centers in Connecticut for garden sculpture, or by Home Depot or Lowe's for affordable - cheap, really - trellises. A hefty metal trellis in forest green can be had for a mere $29.99 at Home Depot, flimsier ones for $14.99.
Topiaries can be found at Gardener's Eden in Avon. Birdbaths and fountains abound this year at Smith & Hawken in Glastonbury, as do teak benches. Those looking for tables and chairs should see the store's new all-weather wicker, luxe and lovely too.
The Lillian August Warehouse near Westfarms mall often carries distinctive pergolas and one-of-a-kind garden ornaments to distinguish and define the garden. RLF Home on Bartholomew Avenue in Hartford has wonderful iron grates, perfect as rustic garden sculpture, and large terra-cotta plant pots - 2 feet in diameter - for sale, along with a roomful of other garden-related items.
For a distinctive birdbath - and one that no one else will have - follow the instructions in Mary Englebreit's "Outdoor Companion" to create your own. Paint and decorate three large terra-cotta plant pots, turn them over and place them one atop the other. Paint and decorate a terra-cotta planter base, apply a protective coating such as polyurethane or varnish, and place rightside-up atop the pots. Secure it to the pots for stability, and watch the birds bathe.
For those more inclined toward found items, try Jones Destruction Co. on New Britain Avenue in Farmington (860-677-9336), open Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and assorted hours on Saturday - call before you go. Also try Associated Building Wreckers on Albany Street in Springfield (413-732-3179), open Monday through Friday 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to noon. Although these spots may seem like havens for discarded toilet bowls, treasures are hiding among the junk. Look hard.