I’ve always loved cozy outdoor spaces. So when we bought our house, I quickly set my sites on our small, ugly, sloped side-yard and declared to my husband Brian that I found the perfect spot for a comfy little patio.
He was unimpressed by my vision.
When we moved into our house 4 years ago, the side yard was a useless mess.
There was a very ugly patch of yard that had no apparent redeeming quality. It was on a slope, rocky, and overgrown with all kinds of weeds and roots. On top of that, it led right into my neighbor’s driveway. Plus it was an eye sore and offered zero by way of privacy. Basically, it was a throw-away space.
Here is what that “throw-away” space looks like now:
Brian declared it a dead space, but I always had a vision that it could be a really nice entertaining area. (This “vision” was reinforced by the hundreds of man-hours I logged on Pinterest, looking at similarly-sized small side yard spaces that were super cozy)!
Brian did not share my zest for Pinterest or my confidence in the space, but I was determined to turn it into something.
And when I’m determined to do something with a space, watch out! (You don’t really need to watch out – just my family. They need to watch out because GAME ON I DARE YOU TO STOP MY DESIGN DREAMS!)
(For an idea of just how crazy I can get when I have a design project in mind, this “Home Reveal” post should give you the gist of what levels I’ll go to).
This is an old view of the side of the house:
Impressive, eh? So quaint!
First we dealt with this monster shrub situation, because I wanted to use the space as part of the patio area and also I didn’t want to be eaten alive by a bush.
The spot where the giant shrub was removed is to the side of a cute screened-in porch. Our property line hugs tight to the house, so I knew the forthcoming patio would be quite narrow in the area where the screened-in porch juts out. But I also knew that it was just wide enough for a long table, and that I could create a dining “nook”.
Here’s a “Post-Giant Bush” shot:
Note: During the course of our renovations we removed a dilapidated old deck off the back of the house and put on an addition (the photo above is with the addition). The square footage in the side yard stayed the same, but I wanted to mention the renovation in case any before/after photos seemed confusing!
And here’s an “After we put in the Pea Gravel Patio and all my Pinterest dreams came true” shot:
What would have been entirely wasted space is now a cozy nook to enjoy a meal with the kids. (The checkered table cloth and string lights really add to the whole “cafe” feeling!) A wait staff would add even more to this feeling, but I don’t really have the means for that.
You can get these tablecloths in different sizes and shapes. The quality is excellent, even after repeated washings.
High quality string lights are one of the essential elements to creating a patio that feels cozy and inviting at night.
I want to add a light fixture hanging over the table, but I haven’t gotten that far yet!
Indoor/Outdoor Connection is Key With a Small Side Yard
I know from experience that outdoor areas need a good connection to the main house in order to get maximum use.
At our old house we had a nice entertaining area, but it didn’t have a good connection to the house. It was just a short walk across the yard, but it didn’t get much use.
We didn’t want to repeat that mistake, so we had to get creative. As it stood we had no direct connection from the inside of the house to the new patio.
So, we removed a window and put a glass door in its place in order to provide direct access from the kitchen to the patio. Stairs now lead directly off the house into the patio.
Now it’s super convenient to move from the kitchen to the grill, and much easier to entertain with a smooth flow between inside and outside spaces.
Always think about flow and connection!
Narrow Spaces Can Work Great to Make a Useable, Comfortable Small Side Yard
This space is 14′ x 21′ in the main seating area, and another 6’x12′ in the “nook” for the table. There is also a little section where the stairs lead into the patio, and we’re able to fit an old table and a grill there. It’s not an expansive space by any means.
Ironically, it was because of the small size of the side yard that I was actually able to see pretty easily that the area could be designed like a room, just outdoors.
Leveling and Enclosing The Space is Key
As long as the ground was level and enclosed, I knew we could make it work.
We did have the side yard leveled and we put in a small retaining wall and a fence. Our house is on a hill! Hopefully you won’t need to take those steps, but even if you do, the result is well worth it!
Think of Your Outside Spaces The Way You Think of Your Inside Spaces
Whatever space you’re working with, you can design a layout for your exterior in much the same way you would design an interior room. The key is to mentally section off an outdoor area and create “zones” for how you want it to be used.
You can then choose your furniture and “layer” the space with design elements that compliment the function of the space, just like you would layer decorative elements indoors (plants, patio umbrellas, throw pillows, blankets, lighting, etc.).
Not all surfaces need to be shiny and new – rugged, aged wood and chipping paint look perfectly at place in lots of outdoor settings.
I wanted to incorporate a few key things into the patio design: a fire pit with Adirondack chairs, a grill, and a dining table for sure. Space for additional seating was also important to me, since I like to have people over.
I was able to host a small baby shower in the side yard, and as you can see I had no trouble fitting a super long table for the guests!
Remember, this is a small area – but guess what? It now seats SEVENTEEN PEOPLE! Yup. That’s a lot. And you could have many more people standing and mingling.
I think a lot of people overlook the small outdoor spaces they have readily available, not even recognizing the potential to make a really nice, inviting area to enjoy!
I knew that I wanted a fire pit as a feature in the patio. Fire pits are so cozy! I love the smell of the fire and the crackling sound on a cool night. What’s better than that?!
We opted for a moveable fire pit versus a permanent structure, and I’m glad we did. I’ve already moved the fire pit several times – to make way for a small table for appetizers, and to host a brunch. When it’s time for a cozy fire, just move the fire pit right back into its place!
Nothing completes a fire pit like some nice Adirondack chairs.
My Godmother got me two beautiful Adirondack chairs that I had been wanting for a long time for my 40th birthday. I love the look of wooden Adirondack chairs in particular, but one issue with a lot of wooden Adirondacks is that they’re bulky to store during the winter. The Plant Theatre Adirondack Chairs that we have are foldable, which is a huge plus.
This chair has a beautiful, smooth finish, and the wood is a gorgeous brown. I love that it folds up for easy winter storage!
This winter I’ll just tuck them away in the basement, which will protect them from the elements and make sure that they stay in nice shape for years to come.
The chairs are beautiful and I’m really happy with the chair cushion I got, as well as the folding hardwood foot stool. Nothing beats the look of Adirondack chairs, but a cushion goes a long way if you’re looking for something you can really snuggle into.
I love these farmhouse blue and white striped throw pillow covers as an alternative to the full seat cushions – they have zippers so they’re easy to clean.
When you’re setting up your seating areas make sure to have some small side tables on hand. You don’t want your guests to have to look around for a place to set their drinks down!
Pea Gravel Patio
We decided to use pea gravel as the ground surface for a few reasons.
First, it’s way cheaper than doing a stone patio, or decking.
Second, it’s quick. We hired someone to level the area and put in a fabric liner and 4 inches of pea gravel, and the project took only a few days (in our case that included time to build a retaining wall. Adding the pea gravel patio alone was a one day project).
Finally, we chose pea gravel because it’s such a pleasant surface! It makes a little crunching sound under your feet as you walk on it, which feels very vacation-y to me. I love it and I’m super happy we went this route.
Bonus: a year later we still don’t have any weeds whatsoever.
(Note: you can walk on pea gravel barefoot, but it’s not soft like sand. I prefer to have flip-flops on if I’m going to be out there for long).
Enclosing the Space
To make the patio feel private and comfortable, I knew it needed to be enclosed. Obviously. Otherwise we would be eating in my neighbor’s driveway. Once we had the yard leveled, we had a very small retaining wall built, and added some privacy fencing. I also like that the fence makes it easy to run string lighting!
We also added a wooden arbor to clearly mark the side patio off from the rest of the yard.
We’re partway through what is proving to be an epically slow staining project, so don’t mind the two-toned fence.
I couldn’t be happier with the way this space turned out. It’s small enough to feel intimate for a few people, but it’s surprisingly able to accommodate large groups with a few simple furniture rearrangements.
Plus, it’s really cozy out there at night!
If you have a smaller yard and you have any spaces that seem wasted, I really encourage you to think long and hard about what you might be able to turn the space into! There are so many possibilities for even very small areas. With a little thought and effort, you can add so much comfortable living space for your family.
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