Originally Published on July 21, 2022. Last Updated on April 25, 2023.
More often than not, I find that homeowners have a difficult time designing smaller outdoor spaces. From petite patios and apartment balconies to small backyards, these spaces come in a variety of different sizes and shapes. Whether you feel that you have limited space or plenty of it, you can create a functional area with the tips and ideas below. But first, let’s talk about how I was able to transform my own small space into an alfresco oasis that my whole family can enjoy.
My Backyard Makeover
As you can see, the space I had to work with is small, open, and undesirable with the eyesore of an air conditioner unit. The task before me was to know what I had to work around, determine the style I wanted, and prioritize my goals for this space.
I ran into several issues. How did I even want to use this space? How could I make it feel larger, upscale, and exciting to be in? I found that I had to work around a basement window well cover, air conditioner, and the stairs and deck leading out from the home. Since the grass is a shared space, I was working with a tiny yard that’s basically nonexistent.
The vision for my space was to create somewhere I could relax while my little one plays, barbecue with family, and enjoy the weather. The space is too small for us to have different entertaining zones, so I found that I needed furniture with multifunctional purposes.
I also wanted it to be cozy, warm, and inviting. I wanted to emphasize the natural beauty of the neighborhood landscape while staying true to my modern-transitional style.
I determined that creating one larger seating area would check my first few boxes—family-friendly relaxation, room for a barbecue, and comfortable enough to enjoy the fresh air. I went with a set that could fit two to five people.
To create visual separation, I added string lighting along the edge of my patio. I hung the lights at 7 feet to expand the height and width—and make the whole patio feel cozy when illuminated.
However, I still needed to tackle the multifunctionality aspect. I was able to do so with a few DIY projects:
- I purchased a file cabinet, coated it with rust-resistant primer, and finished up with stone textured paint for a concrete look. I then designed a removable top that’s stained to match the air conditioner cover. This now acts as an end table, extra storage, and base to hang up string lights.
- I created a well-ventilated air conditioner cover so that it was camouflaged but still able to function properly. I added four posts and created a modern pattern with the cedar wood slats. The air conditioner cover blocks the unit and acts as an end table for drinks.
- In addition to the file cabinet, I added string lighting posts with planters below. This accomplished two goals—the planters created a beautiful grounding effect while drawing your eye up to the string lights. I had them stretch along the largest side of my patio, which creates the illusion a space is wider than it actually is.
- To make use of my vertical space, I opted to design a wall garden. This could be done with flowers, succulents, or anything you want to use your green thumb for. I chose to hang them in a staggered pattern to give more visual height.
Finally, to achieve my modern-transitional look, I focused on blacks, whites, creams, cedar accents, and pops of greenery for color. This styling lets every element have its moment while simultaneously working together to create a homey feel.
If you’re ready to start making the most out of your own small-scale backyard or patio, the following tips will help guide you through the process.
1. Determine How You Will Use It
Will this space be for gardening, outdoor cooking, or just lounging? Once you decide what’s important to you, your patio will take shape. Of course, always consider square footage when adding anything to your patio, small yard, or garden area.
Here are some ideas for how you could use your outdoor space:
- From casual meals to happy hours, outdoor bar seating provides space to entertain. Make sure to find a table (or mount a countertop) that’s about 42” high for optimal comfort and to leverage vertical space.
- Love to have friends over? Create a conversation area with a loveseat and two chairs or seating around a fire pit.
- A dining set is also great for family card games.
- Exercising and outdoor games like cornhole create entertainment for all. Incorporate a game area for guests that can quickly be rearranged for you and your family to get in a quick 30 min HITT workout.
- Add chaise loungers for sunbathing to create the best space for relaxing and working on your summer tan.
- If you’re an avid reader, the same loungers you would use for sunbathing can be reimagined for a reading area.
2. Create a Focal Point with Multifunctional Pieces
Once you have chosen the purpose for your backyard, you will want to create a focal point with furniture. You can even have multiple focal points if you’d like and space permits. It’s possible to have seating, cooking, and storage all in one area without it feeling cramped. This can be done with furniture that has dual uses.
First things first—don’t forget to measure the space to better understand the size you’re working with. In addition, remember this doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. We’re just working toward a beautiful view. Here’s what you should keep in mind when creating a concept for your space:
- Extra storage for cushions and decor allows for optimization of your space during unfavorable weather. Look for furniture that provides this option.
- Wall gardens with edible plants such as herbs can provide that perfect touch to your culinary adventures. I love adding items that can bring brightness to the space and bring my dishes to life!
- String lights pull double duty in adding warmth and extra lighting. I love to purchase lighting with mini solar panels that charge during the day. (It’s always a bonus when you can save some money!)
- Barbecue areas with ample shelving and seating make for a great conversation space where the cook can also interact with guests.
- A dining area with comfortable furniture can be used for both lounging and eating.
- A fire pit is a great way to bring people together, whether you want to make s’mores with the kids or have a glass of wine to relax.
- Water features instantly make your space feel peaceful. Just like a beautiful babbling brook, the sound brings comfort. A small pond also provides a serene ambiance.
- A small garden could also include tall and or tropical plants. Adding greenery can liven up the space by adding color, visual texture, and privacy.
3. Draw the Eye Up and Out
When dealing with a small outdoor space, height and width are your best friends. Drawing the eye up and out visually tricks the mind into seeing a space that’s larger than it is. First, consider the tallest items in your space currently. That could be trees, fences, or windows. For me, it’s fences and the outdoor entrances connected to our small deck. These features can be enhanced by adding string lighting, wall plants, shade structures, and even wall art.
Next, you’ll want to visually expand the width. While this might sound like something so obvious, there may be ways that you haven’t heard of. For example, adding string lights along the widest points will create an illusion of more space.
More Solutions for Small Spaces
Here are some budget-friendly ways to make your backyard look and feel bigger:
- Outdoor lighting (torches or fire pit)
- Posts with planters below to hang string lights
- Oversized umbrella
- Vertical garden or trellis
- Columnar evergreens or tall native plants
- Plants with large leaves
- Smart storage
Remember that camouflaging anything blocking your line of sight will create better curb appeal. To achieve this, you could try a:
- DIY air conditioner screen
- DIY storage end table
Good news—there are so many different ways to make your small patio feel well-designed and provide the illusion of additional square footage.
Remember to leave room to move around your space, which will also make it feel larger than it is. It’s important that people feel they have enough elbow room to relax. Try using furniture with narrow silhouettes.
If you’re a parent of young kids who need a play area, make sure to include small-space-friendly activities. Options include sensory bins that can go on the tabletops or mini gardens just for them.
The sky’s the limit—your space is really only limited by what you can imagine. Spend time creating a plan and knowing what you want. The rest will fall into place.
Happy creating from your designer next door!
Meet The Author
I’m a mother of one, wife to my best friend, and I have a bachelor’s degree in Interior Design. With over eight years of experience, I have a passion for restoration, DIY/design, and healthy living. In design school, I took a furniture-making class and built two walnut nightstands that I can now call heirloom pieces for my family. I had the itch to create, but my husband and I didn’t own a home for many years. Limited by our apartment size, I couldn’t create my dream space. It was then I started budget- and apartment-friendly DIY. Now, we own our home, and I can’t stop! I love creating a space to call home, an oasis for our little family. The best part about having a design background is that I’m fearless with creative decisions. And I love making mistakes. How else can we learn, grow, and become better? So come be uncomfortable with me! Let us fearlessly do things we’ve never done before—together.
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