We live in a two-bedroom house in an urban environment. Neither our home nor our property is very big and we are cozily tucked next to and in between three other properties. Privacy isn’t something we have a lot of, but we have the advantage of being on a hill, with a lovely view of the eastern hills from our back yard.
As our family grew, we planned and dreamed about our home, which we bought when pregnant with our first. It had seemed spacious at the time. As a fixer-upper, we had the blessing and curse of making decisions to suit our style and budget as we puttered along, putting our own dreams and muscle into each change we have made. But we chose not to change the footprint of the house, and money and time have so far limited us from moving walls and doing a thorough renovation of the interior.
This left us with the outside, and despite our awkwardly split, two level back yard, we saw the potential for expanding our living space outward, garden style.
We gardened an extra room. Our goal, always, has been to make our outdoor space as usable to our little family as our indoor space is, believing that a welcoming back yard could serve in the place of an additional indoor room.
Our yard renovations have had several lives. The first was with no money. The yard at that time had dirt and weeds on one level and fence to wall concrete on the other. We took a can of spray paint to mark out sections on the concrete and then took the sledge hammer to the concrete, beginning on those marked lines. We were left with a “patio” and walk way of concrete with three cleared sections, ready for dirt and grass seed and plants. Old fence boards got recycled into raised beds for the edibles in the dirt patch area of our yard. Yard toys claimed from Freecycle entertained our growing daughter. Suddenly, the space was usable and welcoming.
Renovation number two was more dramatic and has happened slowly after a year during which six new chicken friends, allowed to free range in our yard, ate and destroyed nearly every planted space we had. We cooped the chickens in a large, hand built pen and realized our chickens and their new coop had taken over the yard and wondered what to do about that. We built a deck from the house, which now allowed us to enter the garden from our kitchen, rather than our basement, and provided an easy-access outdoor dining space. The remainder of our outdoor renovation began when we won a school auction for a consultation with an interior and landscape designer. We told her we wanted a livable outside space that could harmoniously handle gatherings, kids, chickens, and loads of edible plants. A tall order in our small, awkward yard, but she created a list of suggestions and possible layouts.
While we won this consultation and certainly benefited from it, but due to the expense we would never have sought a landscape designer on our own. A landscape designer can be a costly option and there are economical ways to find assistance in creating a welcoming outdoor space.
Some of our inspiration came from neighborhood garden tours we took last spring, free or low cost, through two different local organizations promoting local, sustainable landscaping. You can look for such organizations or extension classes in your area.
The computer and Internet have benefitted us greatly. Landscape software, either store bought or online, would have suited our needs on a budget.
When friends of ours decided to make changes in their yard, they invited friends over and asked for any and all input. Have those who know you well provide suggestions.
I have kept a home and garden scrapbook, with magazine clippings of ideas and spaces that have inspired me over the years. Referring back to this helped remind me of tricks and materials we could use in our garden.
And as we went along, I took before, during, and where already applicable, after photos. This has kept us motivated, seeing how our imaginations and hard work have brought to life our outdoor living space.
We have combined all the inspiration we have gleaned and shaped it into our own creation, slowly working as a family on making our outdoor space one we can all enjoy. We moved the chicken coop, sent a number of items off to others via Freecycle, purchased plants through local school garden sales and closing nurseries, and got some assistance in removing the rest of the broken concrete and putting in a hardscape of decomposed granite. We are creating our space with input from each of us and with family use and the earth in mind.
Some things to keep in mind when creating an outdoor room on a budget:
:: Seating for adults and play space for kids is important.
:: Keep your surroundings in mind. Weather, wind, and predators all affect choice of plants, need for fences, and more.
:: Some free materials can have multiple uses. Cut logs, for example, can be used as stools, an enclosure for a sandbox or raised garden, the base for a see-saw, side table, and more. Broken concrete can be steps, a retaining wall, an enclosure for a raised garden, or the makings of an outdoor fire pit.
:: Someone else’s cast-off may be a treasure to you. The plastic turtle sandbox in our yard was a freebie and has been cycled out several times in my attempts to have something bigger and more natural, but it always comes back because the kids love it and it has stood the test of time. We are assembling an outdoor fountain given to us by my mother-in-law, we have two wooden chairs a former colleague passed on to us, and so on.
:: A few “little” things can bring the space together. Outdoor pillows in matching colors, a bird feeder to attract feathered friends, bright flowers in pots all contribute to the outdoor atmosphere.
:: Consider how you will use the space. In our most recent, ongoing garden renovation, we opted to include a reasonable sized space of decomposed granite, rather than plant the entire space with grass or edible and medicinal plants. None of us felt strongly that we needed grass, I didn’t want a non-permeable material such as pavers, but we did want a hard, flat, non-planted surface for the kids to use for scooters, wheel barrows, jump rope, and the like.
Have fun with creating your outdoor room! It could be as little as a chair and a couple potted plants, but bringing something special into your outdoor space may expand your living space more than you expect, and provides rich outdoor experience for your family and friends.
Nicola Alesandrini lives in urban, coastal Northern California with her husband and two young children. She spends her days chasing kids, enjoying bits of nature, avoiding laundry, and nourishing simple dreams. She writes and crafts anywhere she can weave it in and blogs about it all at Creative.Light.Less (formerly Which Name?).
Rhythm of the Home is an online magazine for families that focuses on creating with children, nature explorations, seasonal celebrations, conscious parenting, and mindfulness in all that we do.