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  • Writer's picturePat Browne

Reinvent your outdoor space – Style ideas from your neighbours

Is it too early to start planning for our outdoor spaces? I hope not. I’m already dreaming about socializing in our outdoor spaces; of early mornings listening to the birds sing; of evenings, drink in hand, watching the sun set. All of these things are possible because we are lucky enough to have outdoor spaces.

As we conduct more activities outside for safety reasons, it stands to reason that we want our outdoor areas to provide a space for retreat and socialization. But if we have had challenges designing our small urban spaces inside, our little backyard areas can offer a whole new set of challenges. In this neighbourhood, most of us are dealing with approximately 200 sq ft. of space. How we use this, reflects our needs and desires.

What are the elements of a special space?

Shade is probably one of the first elements we need to think about. Shade can mean greenery; but it can also be an umbrella, gazebo or pergola. Take a look at your space and decide what works best for you. After a cold winter I always find it a bit of a shock how fast we change from freezing temps to really hot days.

Deciding what you want to do with your outdoor space will require you to examine what you want to do. If you are into lounging and conversational spaces, then an outdoor living room may be what you want. If you are looking for alfresco dining, then an outdoor dining room is in order.

Privacy and fencing: We’ll get into gazebos and how they can add privacy to our urban spaces, but we also need to think about fencing. On average, a well built and maintained fence will last between 15 to 20 years with proper care. This means that many of the fences in our neighbourhood are almost ready for replacement. When planning your fence, make sure the posts are set properly and deep enough to accommodate our freeze-thaw cycle.

Once the fence is set, we can think of ways to soften their appearance. You can make a fence visually recede by planting a vine over it. Boston ivy will grow quickly and cover both sides of the fence in a matter of one, maybe two, seasons. Other flowering vines may take a little longer to mature but they will provide beauty and fragrance throughout the outdoor season.

Secret gardens to emulate: Flowers and plants bring so much beauty and always makes a space inviting. However, sunlight and space for planting may be a challenge in our tight outdoor areas. So how do you add the needed touch of greenery to our small urban spaces? Depending on the surface of your garden space, greenery can come in the form of a plethora of potted plants, or if you have planned your patio to include some garden space, planted trees can grow to provide much needed shade and privacy. Pots near the backdoor also provide a great opportunity to plant herbs and even vegetables. In fact, you can transform every little space that isn’t being used on your back patio into a gardening opportunity.

Before and after photos show you how plants can change everything

Mixing faux with real: Just like the high-low concept with interior decorating, your outside room can be put together with a similar concept – real plants and faux plants. In our case, a solid topped gazebo meant that sunlight (absolutely required for growing plants) was interrupted along our fence line. To compensate, we incorporated a row of faux grasses. The good news, they don’t change and always look great. The bad news, good faux plants are expensive (inexpensive ones always seem to look like plastic). You have to think about amortizing the cost of the faux plants over their lifetime to make them seem worthwhile. By combining faux plants with a wall of green ivy, we’ve created an amazing outdoor dining room that gets used daily all summer long.

Outdoor living rooms you’ll never want to leave

For the ultimate hang-out spot, consider comfortable seating a la an outdoor living room. You don’t have to pack your patio with furniture to create an outdoor room the whole family will want to hang out in. Add a sectional, a pile of pillows, a drinks table and something durable underfoot and you’re good to go. If you are going to go for soft cushions, then a storage box may be in order to provide a place to tuck the pillows away during inclement weather.

Underfoot: depending on your tastes, your patio area can be done with decking, patio stones, a cement pad or decorative interlock. Topping it all can be a super durable outdoor carpet. An outdoor carpet helps define the space (just like a rug will do indoors).

Firepits: fire adds warmth and beauty to an outdoor space, however in Toronto there are very specific rules on what you can have as an outdoor fire pit.

From the site (go to for more information):

Gas Fire Pits that are designed to operate with propane or natural gas and are intended for outdoor use only, not for food preparation, are deemed "approved" under the Toronto Fire Code provided they are supervised at all times and operated in accordance with manufacturer's instructions in a safe manner and in a location away from combustibles.

Chimineas or outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, bonfires, sky lanterns etc., are considered open air burning and are therefore not permitted. Failure to comply with open air burning regulations is an offense for which a person can be charged under the Fire Code. That includes fire bowls and pits, bonfires, outdoor fireplaces, sky lanterns, chimineas, incinerators, burn drums — essentially anything that's fueled by wood.

Stylish & functional outdoor dining rooms

Make lifelong memories and enjoy family time in the fresh air this summer with a comfortable outdoor dining area everyone can enjoy.

The elements of an outdoor dining space include:

Shade: to make the most of your outdoor dining space you will require shade. Since space is a premium, in this case I would recommend some form of umbrella, gazebo or pergola. An umbrella-topped table (the simplest solution) provides a perfect spot for hosting meals, playing board games or relaxing with a glass of wine.

Mood lighting: at night, a string of bistro lights and some supplementary solar lights will cast an enchanting glow across your dining space. The right shade and lighting can turn our little gardens into romantic hang-out spots.

Privacy: This is where I highly recommend a gazebo covering. Our garden terraces are in amongst tall houses that look down upon each other. To create a sense of privacy, a gazebo with either a hard top or canvas covering protects you from prying eyes.

Water feature: a simple electric recirculating water fountain will add much needed white noise to your outdoor space. No plumbing required, all you need is an electrical outlet and a wall to hang it on. Whether its Amazon, Wayfair or Home Depot, there are water features for every budget and style. New solar styles even eliminate the need for an electrical outlet.

Urban Condo Living

Keep it on the balcony: If you don’t have room for a full-blown rooftop or backyard garden, your balcony is a great alternative. A few pots of flowers and a rocking chair can make a small space feel like your own secret garden.

Go vertical: trade floor space for wall space. Lush vertical gardens are more popular now than ever. There are lots of systems now to help you plan your space. Check out any major big-box hardware store for ideas or try for these ideas.

Other thoughts: our summers are often really hot. I found adding a small portable fan to the outdoor space had added benefits. It circulates the air, so things feel cooler, but it also made bugs scarce.

Mosquitoes might be one of the most annoying pests of the summer. These buzzing, relentless, blood-sucking insects seem to home in on you wherever you go, ruining countless outdoor activities.

Does a Fan Actually Work?

The short answer is yes, fans can actually work to help deter mosquitoes. According to research, the speed of the fan can help deter mosquitoes, which are naturally weak fliers. Another reason for the fan’s effectiveness is the fact that it disperses carbon dioxide and other chemical cues and odors that mosquitoes use to locate hosts for feeding.

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Mar 21, 2021

We are getting our deck done this year. Does anyone have a contact or referral? pls share!


Pat Browne
Pat Browne
Mar 18, 2021

We spend all evening outside all summer long. We only move inside when it's too cold to stay - usually around October.


Mar 17, 2021

Love all the Pictures and the ideas for our small space backyards. How do you deal with all the chunky raccoons and speedy little rats that are around these last few years? We find that by 7 PM we are quickly dashing inside and then spend the rest of the evening listening and hearing the raccoons roam around, tip things over and fight... we also see lots of RATS rrun down the top of the fence line from one end of the townhouse row to the other!

Mar 18, 2021
Replying to

Yes the rats really made their appearance last year! When we called for pest control...they noted they'd be called for the area by several home owners! The pest control couldn't do much (highlighted that bird feeders are the BIGGEST draw for the rats). Their hypotosis was that the digging on eglinton and the closed restaurants were encouraging the rats from their usual homes. They are also noticeable in the abandoned apartment across from us. I'm sorry to hear you see them too - but also relieved it's not just us!

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