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Fun ideas for small patios—according to design experts

Enjoying the great outdoors with city living in mind

A young adult and their dog enjoys a moment together outside on an apartment balcony. Credit: Getty Images / AleksanderNakic

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When you have a small space, every square inch matters. And, if that area is your link to enjoying the outdoors on your own turf, that can be challenging.

From where to put your drinks to how to ignore your nearby neighbors, little urban patios can push back on simple elements that get a shoulder shrug from larger spaces.

We asked design experts for their ideas on handling a small backyard with style. If you have limited square footage and unlimited enthusiasm for the outdoors, heed their advice to turn your petite patio into a big thrill.

Design with furniture and accents of varying heights

Incorporating different heights within your design allows your eye to move through the space on different planes. The result? It may make it feel bigger.

Blythe Yost, landscape architect and co-founder of online landscape design company Tilly, explains, “Think about creating a space where various sized items work together. If you have a bar-height table, incorporating lower planters will add an additional dimension.”

Conversely tall, narrow planters (like a floor vase draw the eyes up, so they call for lower lounge-type seating for an enclosed, layered feel.

Trick your eye by using rugs

This eye-catching rug is available in both circular and rectangular shapes.
Credit: Wayfair

This eye-catching rug is available in both circular and rectangular shapes.

Adding an outdoor rug to your patio can ground the space, pulling it all together for a visual punch.

Samantha Hodges, director of digital marketing at Rugs.com, says, “A rug is a great way to define an outdoor area and make it look spacious even if it isn’t.”

Go bold with a large-scale print like a floral or lattice design for a spacious, brighter feel.

“A large pattern tricks the eye and will expand the space, making it feel bigger than it truly is,” says Hodges.

Rug size also counts when you want to make a small space grow. “Choose a rug that almost fills the space you’re decorating,” she suggests. “Most people think a small space calls for a small rug, but that makes the room appear disjointed.”

Pops of color foster a bigger-than vibe

Whether it’s rugs, pillows, or furniture, color is key to making a patio feel larger than it is.

Hodges continues, “Use a lighter color such as white, tan, or gray to reflect more light and not feel as heavy as a dark color.” You can also connect the space to the great outdoors by pulling in Mother Nature’s palette, such as sky blue or sunny yellow.

Use tropical plants to create a garden vibe

A person waters their home garden on a balcony.
Credit: Getty Images / ibnjaafar

Add some greenery to your view with plants.

There’s one standout for any urban oasis—green.

Katie Davis, interior decorator with Spruce Design in NYC, says, “If you live in an urban setting, chances are you're not lucky enough to score a beautiful park view from your balcony. So, load up your outdoor space with a few plants. If they have to be fake, we won't tell.”

Experts at Costa Farms suggest opting for tropical hibiscus and mandevilla, two plants big on flower power and tropical flair that don’t tend to burn out as annuals can. Or, try adding more whimsy (and less upkeep) with succulents in planters.

Fabricate space and privacy by taking plants vertical

Various plants are displayed in vertical arrangements on terraces and balconies.
Credit: Getty Images / TeamDAF / draganab / K_Thalhofer

Gardening vertically won't eliminate much square footage.

Your small patio might not have a large footprint, but if you build up, the sky’s the limit.

Port Washington, New York-based interior designer Courtney Sempliner says, “I love the idea of gardening vertically by creating a DIY green wall to increase the amount of overall greenery without losing any square footage. You can also employ hanging planters such as a Vanda basket or use plant boxes on your railing.”

Oftentimes, small patios and yards come with too-close-for-comfort neighbors. In this situation, vertical plants come to the rescue, offering some privacy.

Yost notes that bamboo, vines, and pots overflowing with ornamental grasses as options. “There are also some great DIY vertical planters that can lend privacy and are very space efficient.”

Dual purpose décor adds conveniences

A white couch sits on a balcony surrounded by plants.
Credit: Getty Images / in4mal

Find items that offer comfort and purpose.

Instead of squeezing every patio element available to a larger space into your small one, cut your wish list in half and design with décor that can pull double duty.

Sempliner says, “Focus on using pieces with a dual purpose, such as a storage ottoman for housing gardening tools and providing extra outdoor seating.”

Davis agrees. “Whether it's a bench or table, find pieces that flip open and double as storage. This keeps your limited floor space feeling spacious.”

Although hiding all-natural citronella candles and yoga mats when not in use is appreciated, asking items to multi-task in function takes it even further.

For example, the a fire pit can double as a backyard grill transforming your gathering from hangout to cook out in a minute.

Another ingenious two-for-one item is a smart coffee table that also includes mood lighting.

Improvise clever conveniences

A small patio is also the perfect place for clever conveniences. If you have a nook, use it. Think of tucking away a sleek mini fridge to avoid the cumbersome nature of a drink cooler.

Or, tap into the benefits of a large outdoor bar set with a piece that has a much smaller footprint, like a compact cocktail maker. In the same vein, a wheeled bar cart that you can store elsewhere when not entertaining is a convenience-based space saver.

You can also up your game (and your price tag) with a beverage center that includes a refrigerator compartment for cans, bottles and ice, as well as conveniences like a pop-out cutting area.

String lights for cozy ambiance

String lights hang outside.
Credit: Getty Images / ronstik

Create an intimate ambiance with string lights.

Whether you want an industrial look or tiny twinkles, flipping the switch (or app—some may be controlled by your smartphone) on lights creates a world of difference. And, this is the one time having a small patio is a big asset.

Davis says, “Creating your own low-lit ambiance can make your small patio feel like a charming, intimate bistro.”

Yost suggests using string lighting around the perimeter of the patio for a welcoming effect, or by the patio access door. “If the patio is covered, flush-mounted can lights or a dramatic pendant light are good ways to be able to use the patio for a more extended period of time.”

Mason jar string lights can add a gentle rustic touch, while this modern café lighting harness solar power. Or, get tropical with flamingos.

You can also go for a more global vibe with handcrafted lanterns from India that are ready for tealights and garden parties.

Tailor seating to your needs

A group of friends gather on a rooftop terrace.
Credit: Getty Images / JulieanneBirch

Share your space with friends.

No matter their size, patios are meant to be shared with friends. Greg Voorhis, executive design director at Sunbrella, says, “Just because square footage is smaller, doesn’t mean you can’t have a restorative patio that allows you to enjoy nature and spend quality time with others.”

Along with friends, comes the need for a place to sit. When furnishing a smaller area, choose a size-conscious patio set with at least two petite chairs alongside a real table or a drink table. These can range from fancy to functional.

Voorhis continues, “For the biggest impact increase the comfort factor with pillows, add high functioning furniture pieces for comfortable seating, and explore bold colors to make your space even more joyful. [These] will make your small outdoor area more like another room in your home and a true place for respite.”

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