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You can turn a side yard into an outdoor retreat—here's how

Big ideas meet a small space

Small outdoor yard space with patio furniture and vibrant flowers. Credit: Getty Images / HannamariaH

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As we move into summer and temps start getting hotter and hotter, you may be seeking a bit of respite from the day-to-day. If you’ve got a backyard, this can be as easy as walking out your backdoor and onto your patio, into your garden room, or into your pool and cabana area.

But, if you live in a townhouse, apartment, or tight confines of city property lines, the idea of an outdoor oasis can often seem far-fetched and impossible. But we have good news: No matter how small of a space you’ve got, it’s not nearly as hard as you’d think to transform it into your own ideal haven.

Welcome to the side yard. When it comes to creating a side-yard sanctuary, the only restriction is your imagination. Yes, really! Whatever you envision, there’s a way to make it work within the space you have. But with so many factors to consider (like function, storage, colors, and lighting), it may seem a tad overwhelming.

We reached out to design expert Corey Low Satti, owner of Corey Low Interiors, to make it all make sense. Here are her top suggestions for creating your side yard escape.

Start by prioritizing function

Wooden patio table set outdoors.
Credit: Getty Images / Franckreporter

Enhancing your small space with multi-functional furniture is an especially smart option if you want it to last for seasons to come.

A small space relies on being able to do double duty. That is, optimizing it for a few different purposes all at once.

“Oftentimes we'd like our outdoor spaces to be a tropical oasis that will accommodate everything from swimming to hosting,” says Satti. “But when you are limited on space it's important that you think through what you'll use the space for most and prioritize around that.”

You’ll also have to be realistic about how the space will be used on a daily basis, and then think about ways to make the functionality work for you in terms of ease of use. You may need to get a little creative.

“Before you invest in your side yard, think through where you can store pillows and cushions during the winter,” she continues. “If you leave them outside year round they won't last long, so prepare a place to store them once the season is over. In the same way, invest in covers for the furniture that will stay outside year round. You'll be glad next summer when your side yard is looking good and ready to go!”

Get crafty when it comes to seating

Summer evening terrace with candles, wine and lights.
Credit: Getty Images / Jakub Mazur

Multi-use furniture in this small space will enhance the overall look, without overcrowding it.

There’s nothing that overcrowds a small space more than too-big furniture. Satti says, “Pieces that are too large will make your little oasis feel cramped, crowded, and stressful.”

She suggests seeking out retailers that offer “apartment” lines of furniture that are made specifically to take up much less space. “Opt for these smaller pieces, as they will give you enough space to maintain a peaceful atmosphere that feels like an escape from the everyday.”

In terms of the kind of seating you should look for, choosing between a lounge/conversation set and a dining area may be difficult if you really want both but don’t think you have enough room. But Satti thinks you can and should have it all.

“You can do a dining table with benches that tuck under the table when you're not using them to give you more room to lounge and walk through the space,” she says. “Or, you can make a coffee table out of two stools in your lounge area that can easily convert to dining chairs when needed.”

It all goes back to functionality: When you’re looking to use one tiny area in a multitude of ways, you've got to think about how each piece you include can double (or triple!) as something else in another area. Think outdoor plant stands as side tables or a coffee table that opens up for extra storage.

Set the right mood, and temperature

A clay outdoor fire pit in back garden in cold autumn evening.
Credit: Getty Images / Kstphotography

Include items that allow you to enjoy your oasis all year long, not just when it's warm outdoors.

Depending on the time of year you plan to use your side yard retreat the most, you’ll need a few accoutrements that foster a more comfortable experience. As such, lighting is probably the biggest way to not only transform the look of a space but also prolongs how long you can use it.

“String lights are the best way to go,” offers Satti, “as they only require one outlet and can be used to light an entire backyard.”

If you don’t have an outdoor outlet available to you, there are still plenty of options to consider like battery powered lights or lanterns with flameless candles.

If, like Elsa, the cold never bothers you anyway—see what we did there—you may want to think about adding some heat sources to your outdoor space, too, so you can still enjoy it once fall and winter roll in. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this depending on your budget, including small fire pits, a Solo stove, chiminea, overhead heaters, or even a cozy heated blanket.

Embrace color

White pillow and pink blanket on a rattan chair standing in the garden of a luxurious house.
Credit: Getty Images / KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Leave those neutrals indoors, and add a pop of color to suit any decor style you're going for.

When decorating our indoor spaces, sometimes there’s a hesitation when it comes to vibrancy and pops of color, but this shouldn’t be a problem with an outdoor space. You’ll most likely use your side yard when the weather is nice, so “opt for pops of color that you may not include in your living room,” suggests Satti.

“If you continually gravitate towards one color in decorating, then you can stay with that color for your outdoor set, but include it in a much more saturated, vibrant hue outside.”

Start with your favorite color and think about all the hue options within it. For example, if you’re preferential to soft, pale blues then perhaps step out of your comfort zone with a tropical cerulean or classic navy for your outdoor space. Or, if you prefer pops of color in small doses, Satti suggests adding it with dinnerware. “There are lots of melamine options that are bright, beautiful, and outdoor friendly,” she says.

One of the best ways to add not only color, but texture, as well is a rug. If your side yard is sans grass then a rug is an even better solution. Rugs can also help to define a space and make it look much more intentional.

Satti says, “For sizing, bigger is better, but make sure you leave at least a one-foot border of space around the rug. Opt for a polypropylene fiber, as these are mold and mildew resistant, they maintain their color, and they're easy to clean. They're also widely available and incredibly affordable.”

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