Ideas to help you spring into outdoor entertaining season

Tips from landscape-design experts

landscaped yard image
For this historic Evanston gem, Greenwise designed a series of outdoor rooms to create an intimate setting for dining, entertaining, and conversation. In this patio space, Tardiva, Limelight, Endless Summer, and Quickfire Hydrangea are repeated to create rhythm in the landscape. (Photo courtesy of Greenwise.)

Over the past year, as COVID-19 pushed gatherings outdoors, people saw their backyards, patios, and garages with fresh eyes. In the fall, friends of ours even put their sukkah to work well past Sukkot to provide an outdoor shelter for our kids to gather and hang out.  

Diane Stern Smith, landscape designer and owner of The Perennial Professionals in Northbrook, described the impact of the recent surge in outdoor entertaining. "This has been the biggest year for the landscaping industry in a very long time. Everybody is in their backyards," she said. "They're using their backyards as family rooms." 

As spring brings better weather, time spent outside will only increase, and the design and comfort of outdoor spaces, large and small, will matter more than ever. So, I asked some outdoor landscape and design experts for advice on how to make outside spaces an extension of your home.  

"A lot of people are not going on vacation, and so they're taking that money and making their outdoor space more desirable for themselves," said Heather Lough, Landscape Designer and Design Team Coordinator at Greenwise in Evanston. 

For inspiration, the experts say to begin by thinking about the function of your space. "It starts with how you see yourself using it," Smith said.  

Whether you're finally ready to improve the curb appeal of your front yard or considering a splurge on a swimming pool, you should assess how you plan to use your outdoor space and make a wish list. 

Lough described her clients' top priorities these days. "Trees, shade structures, privacy between your neighbors," are the primary focus, she said. "We are getting a lot of requests for updated outdoor living spaces-somewhere they can set up to eat outside or an outdoor living area with a sofa and chairs."  

Interest in outdoor recreation options, like backyard sport courts and swimming pools, is also on the rise, as people look to bring the fun home. "With the pandemic and people stuck at home, they are looking to have swimming pools installed," said Lynsey Ori, Operations Manager at Rosebrook Pools in Libertyville. "Pools can be used for entertaining, exercise, or even a place to zen out." 

No matter what elements your design plan includes, the experts say, don't forget the scenery. "Once you have a place to sit or have a place to sit under, you want something pretty to look at," Smith said. "Plants make the rest of the space inviting." 

Smith encourages clients to consider multi-seasonal plantings to help extend the beauty of outdoor spaces. "We try to plant a symphony, so something is always blooming," Smith said. "From spring to fall, different things are blooming, so there is always color in your yard."  

When choosing what to plant, the experts suggest keeping sustainability in mind to safeguard the outdoor environment you're enjoying so much. "There are different ways to be sustainable and lighten your footprint," Lough said. "Maybe you're not using native plants, but you're using plants that won't require a ton of fertilizer, so they're more friendly. Or you're not putting in annuals because they have to be redone every year and require a ton of water."   

While Lough points out, "improving your landscaping tends to come in right after kitchens and bathrooms in terms of return on investment when you sell your home," some people may want to try making smaller, budget-friendly enhancements outside on their own.  

From portable fire pits to prefab pergolas, options abound for homeowners who like a do-it-yourself project. "If you have a lot of road noise, get a small water feature," Lough suggested. "Some basic lighting, even the bistro lights that are really trendy right now, add some evening ambiance so that you can extend your day into evening. And a small portable fireplace can be added for warmth and a place to gather safely." 

Leslie Hill Hirschfeld is a freelance writer living in the northern suburbs of Chicago.   


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