Sweet Retreat

By / Magazine / April 23rd, 2013 / 2

Re-imagine your yard as an outdoor oasis. Perfect for parties, or an intimate evening for two.

A weekend trip to Buffalo, New York changed the way I view my humble backyard. Last summer I toured 30 private gardens, part of the National Garden Festival, the largest free garden walk in the United States. The festival, held annually from late June to late July, beautifies the revitalized urban centre. No two are alike. Hidden in the corner of one yard, pink and purple perennial borders framed a textured stone patio, with room for two oversized teak loungers. Flowing water features, found art, concrete sculptures, meandering pea gravel paths and a wooden pergola contributed to the whimsical feel. A second garden featured three outdoor areas: a romantic koi pond encircled by native grasses filled the front section of the yard, while a formal dining area and a covered, torch-lit tiki bar were ready-made for outdoor entertaining.

Leaving my yard in Toronto bare was no longer an option. The blooms in Buffalo inspired me to create an inviting, private outdoor retreat. The tired plot of tomatoes and ancient grouping of pink and red roses had to go. Being a neophyte gardener, and lacking expertise in home décor, I knew I’d need help. So I talked to two Canadian interior designers and a landscape architect to unearth the trends in outdoor design for summer 2013. I like to entertain outdoors and wanted a space that could do double duty for a simple weekend party for 50 and a secluded Sunday brunch for two. To round out my entertaining plan, I sought out an easy to prepare menu. Chef Brayden Kozak, co-owner of The Three Boars Eatery in Edmonton, obliged with winning party fare to enjoy outside with friends and family.

You too can create an outdoor oasis with the right furniture, accessories and decorating details. Small accessories and a pleasing colour palate prepare the space for an intimate gathering or big shindig. Landscape design and furniture placement can foster quiet conversation or lively discussion. Think of your yard as a canvas ready for covering. Make the most of top trends for summer 2013.

bring the indoors outside

A key trend over the last few years has involved extending the indoors outside to broaden living and entertaining space. Jenny Moon, of Jenny Moon Design in Toronto, explains that people are staying home more and are making the investment to create “a private escape or beautify their backyard.” Landscape architect Janet Rosenberg, principal and founder of Janet Rosenberg and Studio, cites global warming as a reason for the popularity of outdoor living spaces. “I think that in some ways our summers are much more enjoyable,” she says. Rosenberg also points to improvements in the type of outdoor furniture available. “When I started designing, we couldn’t even find decent benches to put in people’s yards. Availability of club chairs, chaise lounges and canopies has really made a difference in how people have been able to relax in their backyards.”

There are many ways to connect the inside of the house to the outside. As Moon explains,In general people want to have a nice relationship from the indoors to the outdoors and create a seamless extension.” Moon advises using the “same design sensibility” by repeating similar elements such as colour and furniture style, and bringing some of the natural material from the backyard indoors. A kitchen with two French doors that open out to the yard and a stone floor that carries right through creates a nice flow.

comfort and convenience

To make the most of their outdoor space, people are installing the same amenities and conveniences that they have indoors such as stoves, lighting, mirrors and artwork. Moon finds that “more and more people are looking to create a whole, independent, self-sufficient area and are putting in built-in grills complete with prepping cooking areas, bars, a lot of water features and stone patio fireplaces.” According to Rosenberg, people are adding elements that allow them to extend the season and to use their backyards differently.

sophisticated neutrals

In terms of colour, sophisticated neutrals are going to be big. According to Moon, neutrals will cover a broader range such as grey green and grey blue, and will be richer in tones or hues. “Very strong or bold hints of colour such as oranges, yellows and teals are going to be really, really popular,” she says. Geele Soroka, principal at Sublime Interior Design in Vancouver suggests a very strong ‘Bali theme’ for relaxed outdoor living relying on soft neutral colours with colour coming from “the floral or the accent pieces.”

urban gardens and energy efficiency

Conservation of energy throughout the home is a popular theme. Also popular is the idea of urban gardens. Rosenberg remarks that, “people are very interested in the notion of urban agriculture and growing some of their own vegetables and herbs. Herbs are easy to grow in containers, and enhance flavour.” Greenery planted directly on top of roofs, terraces and garages reduces storm water run-off and can create a beautiful view, she says.

form follows function

When creating your signature space there are many decisions to make. Will you use pea gravel or flagstone flooring? Teak or wicker furniture? Perennial or annual borders? Four factors to consider are function, size, design style and focus. How do you want to use your outdoor space? Do you have kids and dogs and need a play area? Are you planning a pool? Do you throw a lot of outdoor parties or prefer tea for two? Are you into urban agriculture and need a plot to grow your vegetables and herbs? Do you like to read the Saturday paper in a secluded area?

A second factor to consider is size. Will you go with one space to meet all of your needs or can you divide it into separate spots? Moon explains that, “if limited by size, you may want to create a more multifunctional area where you have a bit more flexibility and can move furniture around according to how you want to use the space at that moment.” Your preferred style for the inside of your home, whether contemporary, traditional or formal, can be carried outside by adding furniture and accessories in a similar style.

When developing a design for the outdoors, it’s important to start with a focal point. Moon recommends “creating a point of interest that anchors everything else in the space such as a water feature, a fire pit, a stone fireplace, or a set of four lounging chairs in a more intimate group of seating.” A focal point highlights special features in your yard.

getting the party started

The date for your warm-weather party is set and your outdoor space primed. You are ready to roll, but still have a few things to consider. How will you set the mood? Where and how will you arrange the furniture? Will you define separate seating areas? How will you personalize the space and add special touches? Creating the right atmosphere for guests is easy with music, candles and lighting. According to Moon, “lighting is a great way to create mood.” Bright lighting encourages more activity and lively conversation. Lower ambient-type lighting with candles or light torches creates a more intimate mood.

Furniture placement can also impact interaction in the space. A setting with two to four lounge chairs, grouped around a coffee table and an area rug, encourages quiet dialogue. Additional privacy can be achieved using hedges, tall perennial borders or perforated or slat screens as walls. A formal dining space with a large table is conducive to lively conversation and interaction. Soroka recommends placing two large sectionals facing each other with two big cocktail tables. Sectionals encourage people to sit next to and interact with each other.

Soften brick walls with durable wall art or hanging mirrors. Decorative pillows in your favourite colours add a distinctive touch. You can also use accessories such as patterned plates, glasses, napkins, vases and tablecloths or an antique washtub to fill with ice and drinks. Moon likes her spaces very minimal with a neutral palate, and injects some of her own personality with blue and white flowers. She places blue and white floral arrangements on side tables and coffee tables outdoors, and brings similar arrangements indoors.

entertaining with ease

Enhance the outdoor eating experience with easy sipping beverages made in advance. A pitcher of mojitos, sangria or Long Island iced tea quickly quenches thirst on a hot evening. Finger foods served at room temperature such as pita bread, vegetables and dips are simple to prepare and won’t land in partygoer’s laps. Assigning a friend to take over the barbecue allows the chef to mingle among the crowd.

Chef Brayden Kozak put together a crowd-pleasing party menu to be eaten outdoors. “A backyard barbecue wouldn’t be complete without chicken wings for everyone to snack on. I like to marinate mine in garlic, cilantro, olive oil, lemon juice and a splash of fish sauce. Grilled or roasted in the oven, they’re going to be fantastic,” he says. Kozak is also keen on bone-in beef rib roast, to “feed an army of friends and family.” He suggests rubbing the meat down with extra virgin olive oil blended with garlic and fresh herbs (thyme, parsley, rosemary), and roasting it on the barbecue at a low heat until it reaches an internal temperature of 125˚F, letting it rest for 20 minutes and then diving in.

As for side dishes, Kozak is “really loving grain salads right now. Pearled barley salad with pickled shallot, tomatoes and arugula, lightly dressed with lemon juice and olive oil and finished with an aged hard cheese.” To end the meal, Kozak declares, “You can’t go wrong with a citrus curd pie topped with meringue. Lemon is classic; grapefruit is amazing and tastes like Creamsicles.”

For optimal imbibing, Kozak favours Amaros, an Italian herbal liqueur with a bittersweet flavour. “We’re really hooked on Amaros, and [are] seeing quite a few pop up in our favourite restaurants. Amaro and soda would be insanely refreshing on a hot summer day.” Kozak also recommends a Negroni or beer. “I’m a sucker for a good pale ale or hoppy IPA.”

You now have all of the important elements for the perfect backyard bash, a lively atmosphere, comfortable seating, signature details reflecting your individual style and a delicious make-ahead menu. It’s time to sit back, relax and enjoy.


Merle Rosenstein is a freelance travel, food and beverage writer in Toronto with a passion for purple and a yen for the open road. She is also staff writer for Vancouver-based Canadian Traveller magazine with published articles in wherecanada.ca, AOL Travel Canada, Edible Toronto and TAPs magazine. You can catch up with Merle on Twitter and at www.newfreelancewriter.wordpress.com.

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