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Outdoor Living Spaces – Part 1

Divide and Conquer: Creating Outdoor Living Spaces

By David Beaulieu, About.com

Why stay cooped up inside when you can extend the livable portion of your property by creating outdoor living spaces? It certainly isn’t difficult to build outdoor living spaces. But it does take an appreciation for the “divide and conquer” approach.

We take it for granted that our houses are divided into rooms, but the concept of having similar “outdoor living spaces” may sound odd, at first. Indeed, the biggest obstacle standing in most people’s way is that it just doesn’t occur to them to divide up a yard so as to maximize their enjoyment of it. Not consciously, at least. Yet the more conscious we become of outdoor living spaces, the more we can tailor them to suit our needs.

Outdoor Living Spaces: Design Considerations

Part of the beauty behind the concept of separate “rooms” in a house is that each unit is unique unto itself. Consequently, you can install a component in the kitchen that looks great there, without worrying that it would look out of place if viewed from the bedroom. The same is true for outdoor living spaces.

Having separate outdoor living spaces allows you to create mini-landscape designs (each somewhat different from the rest) for each of them. Not that you shouldn’t still strive for unity across your landscape design, as a whole. But the more successful you are in physically separating one outdoor living space from another, the more flexibility you have to diversify without creating a hodgepodge.

For instance, you may wish to include a storage bin for towels in the pool area. Such an element would be functional and would look fine there. But the problem is, you might not wish to view it from another part of the yard dedicated, say, to meditating in naturalistic surroundings. The answer: screen off the pool area with a tall hedge or fence, effectively creating a “room” separate from the rest of the yard.

Outdoor Living Spaces: Setting the Mood With Color

Just as you can paint or wallpaper an indoor room using a color scheme unique to that room, so you can use color to make individualized statements for each of your outdoor living spaces. But here, instead of paint or wallpaper, you determine your color scheme when you select the plants you’ll be using for the area.

Proper application of color theory in landscape design can even influence mood and perception. For instance, the flower colors to employ for a relaxing nook intended for meditation would be different from the colors used for play areas. You can also make small spaces seem larger (and vice versa) depending on the colors you use. I discuss these ideas further in my article on applying color theory to landscape design.

Outdoor Living Spaces: The “Building Blocks”

Think of the structural components of outdoor living spaces in terms of their counterparts in indoor rooms: floor, walls and ceiling. Only for outdoor living spaces, the term, “structural” is used metaphorically. So much the better for you, as the “builder,” since it means there’s a lot less to worry about. Taking out a “wall” because you don’t like your initial choice won’t cause the “ceiling” to come crashing down on your head!

Furthermore, think of the materials you need to assemble the floor, wall or ceiling of an outdoor living space as the “building blocks.” Here are some examples:

    For “floors”:

  • Grass
  • An alternative ground cover, such as clover
  • Mulch
  • Patios
  • Decks
    For “walls”:

  • Formal hedges
  • Lattice screens
  • Fences
  • Informal hedges
    For “ceilings”:

  • Arbors and pergolas
  • The canopies of shade trees
  • Decorative canvas canopies
  • awnings
  • lawn umbrellas

You have a lot of leeway in your use of these building blocks. For example, the building blocks for a “wall” (hedges, fences, etc.) are interchangeable parts that you can mix and match with, depending on your needs, budget and personality. Hedges may form two of your four walls, fencing the other two. If complete screening isn’t required, you can also define outdoor living spaces with lower vertical elements that may be more attractive/functional. For instance, raised beds, container gardens and furniture. Creating outdoor living spaces isn’t a one-size-fits-all project.

A “ceiling” is optional for many outdoor living spaces, although it does create an added sense of enclosure that you may crave. Ceilings are necessary only for areas where staying dry/cool is a must.

By default, all projected outdoor living spaces already have “floors.” The only question will be, “Does the current floor do the best job of meeting my needs?” For example, maintenance is always a consideration, and you may decide, upon further reflection, that a grassy area you’ve been treading upon for years isn’t worth the upkeep (mowing).

Outdoor Living Spaces: Function

Many of your questions regarding which “building blocks” to use in assembling your outdoor living spaces will be answered if you determine the true function of the “room” in question.

Tips on Fertilizing Lawns

Fertilizing Lawns in Spring, Summer, Fall: A Schedule

By David Beaulieu, About.com

Your grass craves periodic feedings, and it is best to meet this need for periodic feedings by fertilizing lawns with “slow-release” products. You’ll find such products at local home improvement stores, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot. Because these products release their nutrients over time, rather than all at once, fertilizing lawns with them allows the grass to “eat” at its own leisure. As nutrients are released, the root system of your grass fills in any bare patches, depriving weed seeds of a place to germinate.

Of course, as a substitute for all this, you can stay organic and simply top dress your lawns with compost in spring and fall.

Scotts suggests a four-part schedule for fertilizing lawns. The schedule will depend on where you live and your grass-type; but, as an example, here’s the schedule for a Northern lawn composed of a mixture of bluegrass, ryegrass and fescue:

Sample Schedule for Fertilizing Lawns

  1. Apply a fertilizer called, “Scotts Turf Builder With Halts Crabgrass Preventer” in April or May. Fertilizing lawns goes hand in hand with weed control.
  2. “Scotts Turf Builder With PLUS 2 Weed Control” can be applied in June. This fertilizer fills the need for additional weed control, as the herbicide component fights everything from ground ivy to purslane to white clover.
  3. In July or August, apply “Scotts Super Turf Builder with SummerGuard.” This fertilizer is billed by Scotts as a product that “strengthens and summer-proofs” your grass while “combating a spectrum of harsh seasonal threats like insects, heat and drought.”
  4. Finally, Scotts winterizering fertilizer should be applied in fall. Fertilizing lawns with this product will not only prepare grass for winter, but also give you a head start towards achieving the green turf you’ll want next spring –- bringing us full circle.

Before fertilizing lawns with these products, read the instructions on the bag carefully (or ask someone at the store for details). A particular product may not be suitable for your type of grass. Likewise, when applying fertilizers, follow directions explicitly, concerning how much to apply, how often they should be applied, and under what conditions they should be applied.

Fertilizing lawns is best done with a spreader. Be advised not to fill the applicator with the spreader parked on the grass. Doing so invites grass-burn, as you may accidentally discharge too much while loading. Instead, fill the applicator somewhere else, then wheel the spreader onto the grass.

I also provide an expanded version of this story on fertilizing lawns, for those who desire a fuller picture of what it takes to keep your grass green and healthy.

Best Wood For Decks

What type of wood is best for decks and porches?

By Jackie Craven, About.com

Will your new deck be an enhancement or an eyesore? The answer depends on the type of decking wood you use. Pressure-treated pine resists rot and repels pests, but the green-tinged lumber is unsightly and the pesticides it contains are unhealthy.

To build a safer, more attractive deck, choose a prettier yet still durable wood for the floors, railings, and steps. Save the pressure-treated wood for the frame and supports.

If you purchase a tropical rainforest wood, make sure it carries the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) trademark, which certifies that the wood has been harvested responsibly.

1. Western Red Cedar

Western Red Cedar is reddish brown and ages to silvery gray. The soft wood splinters easily, but holds up well in rain, sun, heat, and cold. To add beauty and durability to your cedar deck, use a penetrating stain.

2. Redwood

Like cedar, redwood is a soft lumber that ages to a pleasing gray. Prolonged moisture will cause the wood to blacken. A redwood deck will resist rot, but will look more attractive if you use a sealer.

3. Philippine Mahogany

Philippine mahogany is a tight-grained hardwood that resists pests and rot. Treat it with marine oil and it looks like teak. Or, let your mahogany deck age to a silvery hue. Look for the “FSC” trademark to assure that rainforests have not been harvested irresponsibly.

4. Ipé

Known by the brand names Pau Lope® and Iron Woods®, Ipé is an almost magical South American hardwood. The USDA Forest Service Products Laboratory gives Ipé top marks for bug- and rot-resistance, and the wood is so hard, it’s nearly as difficult to burn as concrete. The use of rain forest woods is controversial, however. If you choose Ipé for your deck, make sure that it has been harvested responsibly.

Where to Find Inspiration for Your Outdoor Living Space

Need Ideas for Your Backyard, Patio or Other Outdoor Living Space? Look Here

By Lisa Hallett Taylor, About.com

At a loss for what you want to do with your backyard or outdoor living space? Are you tired of living in a cookie-cutter environment but don’t know how to subtly break out of the mold? Ready to try something totally new, but not sure where to start?

Follow these ideas to give you ideas on where to go to for inspiration. Have fun!

Watch Some of That Design TV

Here’s a thought — turn on your TV and turn on your inspiration. Sounds like an RCA ad from the 1960s. Much of the cable networks’ weekend programming is dedicated to landscaping and gardening series, where they cover everything from surprise swimming pool makeovers to DIY hardscaping projects like building a deck or repairing a concrete patio. Combining the expertise of contractors, landscape architects or designers and horticulturists, these programs frequently show the elements that need to come together for certain styles of design, like Mediterranean, Cottage, Formal or Tropical. If nothing else, the shows might help educate you on landscape and hardscape design basics.

Browse Through Magazines

The most immediate sources for ideas include magazines, design books or the internet (you’re here, aren’t you?) Chances are good that something will catch your eye or inspire a possible idea for your yard.If you don’t want to drop a small fortune on the many home and garden magazines available, try other ways to get them. Swap or borrow with friends or co-workers. My favorite sources are “Friends of the Library” bookstores, where kindly, usually older, volunteers oversee a small room stuffed with donations. I often find magazines the same month of their publication date, along with vintage landscaping and garden books by Sunset Books. Magazines are usually 10-25 cents; books are usually under a dollar.

It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Photo by Lisa Hallett Taylor
When the magazine thing loses its appeal, get out and stroll through your neighborhood. Scrutizine the landscaping around you: consider tree and shrub choices, annuals and perennials, and anything different, like native grasses or succulents. Besides plants used, look at their arrangements and relationships. Take a look at hardscaping materials like wood, brick or pavers; things like raised planting beds, berms (small hills) and foot-path materials like pea gravel, cedar bark, or decomposed granite (DG). If there’s something that stands out about a neighbor’s yard, try to figure out what that is. Take photos are talk to your neighbor — gardeners love to share their secrets and might send you home with some cuttings.

Or Check Out Someone Else’s ‘Hood

Photo by Lisa Hallett Taylor
If you can’t find any inspirational designs in your own neighborhood, cruise on over to another area with houses and yards you like. Park and take a stroll, checking out the yards and landscaping. Take a small digital camera or use your cellphone’s camera to capture images of features that capture your attention. If anyone asks what you’re doing, tell them you’re with a local real estate office or are scouting for a yard-makeover cable series. Or tell the truth — they’ll probably be flattered. Who knows, they might invite you to look at their backyard, stay for a cocktail, bbq, etc.

Take a Garden Tour or Attend a Home & Garden Show

Photo by Lisa Hallett Taylor
Most of the home and garden tours occur in the spring, but check your local newspaper listings or nursery to find out when and where these tours occur. Many are held by garden clubs and local chapters of gardening and horticulture groups and associations.Home, pool, spa and patio shows are held at convention centers throughout the year. While many are product-heavy, they often hold seminars and feature guest speakers on topics like eco-friendly homes and gardens and small-space landscape design.

Visit Botanical Gardens or Nature Preserves

Photo by Lisa Hallett Taylor
Some of the best ideas or inspirations for redesigning your living area come to you when you get out of your environment for awhile. Visit one of the many botanical gardens, wildlife preserves, nature conservancies or parks that are usually a short drive away from most major cities. While most of us can’t precisely recreate a favorite botanical garden, you can take away with you the feeling of the garden. Make it a fun day trip: pack a picnic, take along a fellow nature lover, wear comfortable shoes and don’t forget your camera. Take photos of architectural and landscape design details, along with features like rocks, stones, walkways, fences, or whatever you find interesting.

Take a Vacation & Open Your Mind

Photo by Lisa Hallett Taylor
Travel is one of the best ways to physically remove yourself from stress and distraction. If you’re lucky enough to do so, use some of your time in a different environment or culture to really observe things beyond the typical tourist attractions. Consider where and how residents live. Take note of local materials used and how they relate to their setting. Does the landscaping seem to naturally blend with the architecture? Look at details, like pathways, gates, mosaics and planters. Again, you’ll want to bring your camera to capture intriguing images along the way. Besides a respite from our everyday lives, traveling helps us look at things in a different light. And that’s when inspiration is ignited.

How to Hire a Contractor for a Deck Project

From Kris Jensen-Van Heste, for About.com

Adding a deck to your home can provide you with a space to socialize, relax and eat with friends and family. But before you can enjoy your dream deck, you’ll need to hire a contractor to build it. This article provides the basics of hiring a contractor.

Before You Hire a Contractor

Unless you want to hire a designer, you’ll need to come up with a reasonable idea of what you want included in your project. Above all, you’ll want to set a budget so you know precisely how much you can afford. Some things you’ll want to consider when planning a deck include:

  • Size: Rough dimensions will clue you in to what’s possible and impossible to include in your deck. It will also give the contractor a clear idea of the scope of the project from the start.
  • Levels: Do you want a single expanse or multiple levels? Are you considering two deck areas connected by a passageway deck or stairs? Will the deck lead down to a pool or garden?
  • Material and finish: Pressure-treated wood used to be the only choice for an outdoor deck, but the wide variety of materials available today gives you enormous latitude in composition as well as appearance. Pressure-treated wood is still a very popular choice, but synthetic decking is becoming increasingly popular. Some are made completely of plastic, while others blend wood fibers with polymer bonding agents.
  • Features: Would you like a fire pit? A water feature? Built-in seating or planting areas? Metal, wood or composite railings? Make a list of what you can and cannot live without in a deck, and work it out with your contractor.

How to Find a Contractor

With the budget and your ideas in place, it’s time to find a contractor. The best way is to ask friends, neighbors and colleagues for recommendations, because a contractor’s reputation among former clients is the best gauge of his work. It’s also a good idea to look at the work a contractor has done for previous clients.

Questions to ask former clients include:

  • Did your contractor finish the job within the budget? If not, what caused the overage?
  • Were you informed of the costs as they came up?
  • How did the contractor handle setbacks or glitches?
  • Was he or she easy to work with?
  • What was the contractor’s crew like? Were they respectful? Did they clean up after themselves each day?
  • If plans changed while the work was in progress, were the changes accommodated, or was the contractor inflexible?
  • Would you hire that contractor again?

Another good way to find a contractor is by using the website of a reputable professional organization, such as the National Association of Homebuilders.

What to Ask a Contractor

  • How many deck projects have you built?
  • Who will handle any required permits?
  • Who will contact the public utilities and have underground lines marked?
  • May I visit a site you’re currently working on?
  • How early and late in the day will workers be here?
  • What would the payment schedule be like?
  • What type of insurance do you carry?

Getting an Estimate from a Contractor

Estimates should be given to you in writing and include these essentials:

  • The work to be done in detail, including a rendering of the project
  • The specific materials to be used and quantities of each
  • A time frame for the work to be completed
  • A firm price

Give the same information to each contractor so the comparisons are fair, and when you’ve narrowed it down to one or two, check references thoroughly. Ask homeowners on the reference list if you could visit and see the work that was done.

Things to Watch Out For

Don’t hire the contractor if he/she:

  • Requires cash only or pressures you for an immediate commitment
  • Doesn’t have or can’t provide proof of insurance and applicable licensing
  • Requires you to get the necessary permits