5 Tips to Create an Outdoor Space

Renovate your backyard (and terrace!) to entertain, garden, or just kick back and relax

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K.V. Harper’s backyard

A private backyard or rooftop lounging space is hard to come by in the city. When you live in an apartment building, you’re more likely to end up with outdoor areas that are shared with other tenants—or a petite private terrace, if you’re lucky. What passes for a “yard” in the city is much smaller than what you’d find in the suburbs. If you do have one, what do you do with it? To find out, we spoke to a handful of Sweeten general contractors, a landscape designer, and a horticulturist, to get the scoop on how to create your personal patch of paradise.

Consider how you want to use your outdoor space and plan with that purpose

Santi, the Sweeten general contractor who transformed K.V.’s backyard, shared the following advice with us: “Just like any other project around the house, I would recommend taking some time to decide what your goal is”—and whether you’ll be using the space primarily for dining, grilling, gardening, or play. Jonathan, a Sweeten landscape designer, adds, “Decide what you want to prioritize: functionality or ornamentation. If there are kids involved, that will be a determining factor.”

After turning her attention to her brownstone’s backyard, K.V. knew she wanted to use the space to host friends and barbecues. She took inspiration from gardens in Mexico and Brazil, leaning toward a more tropical atmosphere. Building a tall cedar fence to provide privacy was also a must-have.

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Nate and Michelle’s rooftop

Nate and Michelle’s wanted their rooftop to double as a “bonus room” for hanging out, which meant it had to have comfortable seating and plants to make it feel cozy. Creating a visual barrier along the perimeter was important since the rooftop felt exposed, as well as incorporating a fire pit for chilly, late-summer nights.

Be flexible when it comes to choosing materials

K.V. had her heart set on bluestone to create a walkway to the elevated patio in her backyard. “She had a budget she didn’t want to go over,” Santi said. “She asked us to price bluestone, but it was a little too high, so we looked for other materials.” He added, “Homeowners should always price projects with different materials [because] changing the materials doesn’t mean changing the final goal or look of the design.”

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In a surprise twist, they were able to find some bluestone buried under the dirt in the yard and repurposed it for the walkway. The rest of the design was completed with gravel and pavers. The moral of the story is that while your budget will play a hand in determining what you can do, the outcome can still meet your goals.

Add some greenery to introduce color and texture or enhance privacy

We asked Justin, a horticulturist at Costa Farms, to fill us in on how to choose the right plants. “The first and most important thing is to get a realistic sense of your area’s growing conditions, including sun, moisture, and exposure to wind, and then pick plants that like or at least tolerate what your space has to offer,” he says. “If you want to grow a shade-loving plant in a spot that gets blazing sun all day, for example, you’re asking for trouble.”

For those sunny spots, Justin recommends heat-loving tropical plants such as hibiscus, mandevilla, and allamanda. In shady areas, birds of paradise and majesty palm are perfect for adding drama, while croton and colorful aglaonema provide a pop of color. If you find yourself leaning toward plants that won’t survive a New York winter, just keep them in a pot so you can bring them inside when temperatures drop.

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Nate and Michelle turned to landscaping to soften their space. Their landscape designer proposed lavender and feather reed grass, which were used to frame the seating area, and a Japanese Maple tree. Justin also suggests other tall plants, like arborvitae, columnar juniper, and yew to achieve a sense of privacy.

In K.V.’s yard, Santi filled in the spotty grass with fresh sod to transform the lawn into a thick green carpet. He also added a row of mulch along one wall for a small but manageable garden. Potted plants fill out the patio and walkway, providing color and texture.

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(Clockwise from left to right): Angelonia Archangel, Mandevilla, Ipomoea Spotlight Red (also known as sweet potato vine), Lantana Bandana Cherry. Photos: Costa Farms. 

Don’t have a green thumb? Choose low-maintenance plants and automated irrigation

“New Yorkers like it low maintenance. They want to step into a three-season oasis, with automated irrigation in the morning, flowering shrubs basking all day, and accent lights illuminating trees and fences at night,” said Jonathan. If you find yourself unlucky in plant-love, Justin has some advice. “Coleus is a fun choice that thrives in sun or shade and has delightful, dramatically colored foliage you can enjoy from spring to frost,” he said.

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Deck designed by Sweeten landscape designer Jonathan

“Similarly, consider sweet potato vine: it spills down over the side of a planter, creating an elegant look, grows as a groundcover, or can be trained to grow up a trellis or other structure” Justin continued. “Torenia, also called wishbone flower, is another option you can grow in sun or shade.” And if watering is your biggest concern, he advises planting mandevilla, lantana, angelonia, purslane, and evolvulus.

Begin researching your outdoor space during the off-season

“Start planning and working in the off-season,” says Jonathan, the landscape designer. “If you are planning green space, try to have your team in place by the New Year, as most good gardeners are heavily booked by April.” In addition to giving yourself enough time to properly plan, make sure that you find an experienced team. For those not ready to plant or are just building up toward a green thumb, use the warm seasons to look around for inspiration and get a game plan set during the winter season.

With an outdoor space, there’s a lot more to consider, like drainage of excess water. “Your general contractor should have an in-depth understanding of how bulk water will be managed and how your plans will impact the neighbors. If you’re working on a roof, make sure you have access points for clearing roof drains,” said Jonathan.

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Outdoor spaces designed by Sweeten landscape designer Jonathan

Your team will also have to haul all of the materials to wherever your outdoor space is located. Sean, a Sweeten general contractor, tells us, “Hauling roof deck lumber, soil, sod and plant matter up through service elevators can be costly and time-consuming.” What’s the alternative? He suggests exploring the potential of booming materials to the roof by crane. “Your contractor has partnerships with local greenhouses and lumber yards and can make arrangements to move materials from the street to your garden more quickly and efficiently and cost-effectively than schlepping them through the service entrance and up the elevators,” Sean said.

And finally, make sure you have the necessary approvals or that your team can handle getting them when needed. “Most exterior improvements will require an alteration agreement and approval from the building’s architect, and many will require filing with the city,” Sean said. “If you live in a landmarked building, special regulations will apply. Make sure your team can get you the necessary approvals.”

So when you’re ready to tackle your outdoor spot, give yourself plenty of time to prepare, decide on how you want to use the space, and don’t forget to add a splash of green. “A well-planned deck or garden can greatly increase the value of a property, sometimes approaching the value provided by a renovation of interior space,” says Sean. That sounds good to us!

Our guide to building a deck will help you create the perfect setup for those summer barbecues.

Refer your renovating friends to Sweeten and you’ll both receive a $250 Visa gift card when they sign a contract with a Sweeten general contractor.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.