Saturday, April 19, 2014

Creating an outdoor space out of nothing - practically

Spring is here!  The time of year when we put the coats and sweaters in plastic storage containers and haul them up to the attic.  The time of year when we want to be outside all the time.  When we want to sit outside and watch the flowers bloom and the birds.

But what if you don't really have an outdoor space that is specifically designated for relaxing? What then?  If that's the case, (unless you live in an urban high rise) then it's time to get creative and make an outdoor space specifically designated for your enjoyment!

Let's look at some great ideas.

The picture below was snagged from Southern Living.  I include this shot because of the curtains.  If you live in an apartment and have a patio that isn't private or maybe you live in a house or duplex with a yard that's not private, this is the perfect way to gain privacy and even a little bit of shade.  Anyone who reads my blogs knows by now that I am a HUGE fan of fabric.  Fabric can transform any space....even an outdoor space.

To accomplish this look on a budget, all you need are some plumbing pipes and fabric.  I actually recommend PVC pipes because they don't rust, they aren't heavy and they aren't pricey.  All you have to do is get as many as you need, get the PVC connectors (I've included a shot of those as well.  They run about $2 each) and just thread your material onto the pipes and stick them as far into the ground as possible to give them stability and you have an amazing privacy screen that can be changed out on a whim if you find different fabric that you like.  You can also add whine chimes in between the curtain panels for that extra touch.

As for the fabric, of course you can buy the expensive indoor/outdoor fabric if your budget will allow. However, you can also buy cotton fabric that you can find online for under $5 a yard.  True it won't last as long or stay as pristine as the indoor/outdoor fabric but it should last for several months and by then you'll probably be ready for a change anyway.

Before you do any permanent changes to your outdoor space (if you're a renter) always get written approval from your landlord.  Also, find out from him/her what parts of  your changes are going to have to stay there when you move.  My rule of thumb is $500 per year in improvements to property that you don't own.  

That means I don't mind spending up to $500 a year improving my space and then leaving the improvements for the next tenant to enjoy.  Some folks might have a higher or lower number in mind.  However, you can do some pretty fantastic improvements to a rental for way under that number provided you take your time, do a lot of research, visit a lot of garage sales/junk shops and use a little bit of creativity.  In my mind it's far cheaper and convenient to improve my space than it is to move.

Have a limited amount of yard space but want a garden?  Look at the shot below for an awesome idea!

Cinder block patio garden!  The great things about this is (1) it takes up very little space and (2) if you are so inclined, you can take it with you when you move.  These blocks cost about $3 each, factor in the potting soil and the paint and you're probably out a total of $100 for the whole thing based on the proportions shown above.

Do you have a wooden or brick fence or wall next to your outdoor space that needs some color and life?  Try this:
Coffee can planters!  You can also use old paint cans as long as you clean them out really well.

There's a really nifty blog out there called "apartment therapy".  ( It is chock full of great ideas for sprucing up rentals.  Well worth a view.  Look at the transformation below.
The picture above looks pretty barren and not at all enticing.  I can't imagine wanting to spend any time in this space.  Now look at what the tenants did to this very same space:

What a transformation!!  BTW the concrete pavers can be done using a mold and some quick setting concrete for a fraction of the price of purchasing the already molded pavers.  Plus, you don't have to lug all these heavy pavers home.  Another added bonus of making your own pavers is that you can color the concrete to personalize it anyway you want.

Quikrete sells these molds at most hardware stores and they run anywhere from $20 up to $60 depending on how fancy or big you want them to be.  Below is a shot of one of them.
They're super easy to use.  All you have to do is level the ground where they're going to be set, put down the mold, fill it with mixed concrete, let it set and take off the mold.  Then it's on to the next one.  These are also reusable so it's really well worth the investment.

Just remember, anytime your design might kill the grass or impede its growth, you must get your landlords permission.  If you don't, bad things could happen when you move out and the landlord sees what you've done.  Now you and I think that this is a HUGE improvement over the barren wasteland that once was this side yard.  However, the landlord just might not be as design savvy.  There's just no accounting for folks taste - or lack thereof - so always always run your plans by your landlord in writing and get his approval in writing before you buy the first thing.

How about a nice firepit??  I mean who doesn't love a firepit with comfy chairs around it?  I use mine even in the summer months.  I go out late at night, fire it up and just enjoy sitting by it and watching the flames.  I even cook using mine.  I skewer meat and cook it over the fire.  YUM.

Of course, everyone wants the firepit pictured below don't they?  And you can certainly make one of these if you have the time, money and skill set.  But what if you either don't or just don't want to spend that much money on a firepit that has to stay put when you move?
Then I suggest a washtub firepit.  Now you can be modern in your approach or you can be more rustic. Meaning you can actually use the tub of a washing machine or one of the old galvanized tubs.  The actual washing machine tubs have perforations in the sides that really allow for the fire's glow to shine through as is shown in the picture below.

It also allows a fantastic flow of oxygen which can keep your fire going strong and big.  But if you can't find or don't want to fool with looking for the tub to an old washing machine, you can go for the more rustic look of a galvanized tub.  Below is a picture of what one looks like.

These aren't expensive.  All you will need is (a) the tub (b) 4 fire proof bricks, cinder blocks or other fire proof material to suit your budget and taste and (c) wood.  Now you can get fancier with this idea if you are so inclined and buy a grate to keep the wood off the bottom of the tub which will allow more oxygen to flow thus creating a better fire.  You can dig a hole (with landlord's permission),  set the tub in the hole about 3/4 of the way and then fill around the tub with crushed marble or pea gravel to really give it a more appealing look.  With mine, I cut a piece of plywood just large enough to completely cover the opening, then I took an old cabinet handle and attached it to the plywood which makes it easier to handle.  When my firepit isn't in use, I keep this cover on it to keep the rain out of it because I don't want to have to take it out of the hole, dump the water out and wait for it to dry every time I want to use it after a rain.  Also, it will rust over time and I want to prolong the life of it as long as possible. So far, mine has lasted nearly 5 years.

Now that we've got the privacy fence and the beautiful cinder block garden coupled with the coffee can planters and an amazing all we need is some furniture so we can sit outside and enjoy the fruits of our labors.

How about some cinder block furniture?  Yep, I said cinder block.

Bench and coffee table anyone?

Or what about a comfy sofa?

Or what about making an entire set of furniture out of cinder blocks?

You can get fancy with your cinder blocks and spray paint them or (like the photo above) stain wood and use it for caps on the tops of your cinder blocks to add that punch of elegance to it.

If you're going to have cinder block furniture you will need cushions.  Outdoor cushions can cost a ton of I never buy them.  I make my own.

First I visit my local thrift store and look for pillows, throw pillows that are the size and shape of what I need.  Sometimes I even find actual bench or sofa cushions there.  It doesn't matter what they look like.  All you are worried about is the size/shape.

Then I head to the dollar store to look for vinyl tablecloths.  These will cost anywhere from $1 each to $10 each but each tablecloth will make about 4 pillow covers or 2 bench seat covers.  WAY cheaper than buying the pre-made cushions.

Once I get home, I wrap the pillows "envelope" style with the flannel backing towards me. By wrapping it, I get one side that is seamless (this is the side that will be turned up towards the sky and will keep any rain from seeping through to the pillow inside.)  I fold the edges of the fabric a couple of times to make as water tight a seal as possible and then using an ordinary desk stapler, I staple the side openings.  Next I remove the pillow, turn the fabric so the vinyl side is showing, replace the pillow and (again) folding the opening I staple the top closed.  Put the pillow on your furniture and you're done!  If you make sure that the stapled opening is facing towards the bottom of the furniture, it will keep any rain from dripping into the pillow case and soaking the pillow inside.  My pillows last an entire season.  Once winter comes, I throw them out and when spring arrives, I make more.  They're so cheap and easy to make - it's totally worth it.

Everything I've mentioned above can be disassembled and taken with you when you move.  Also, nothing above will break the bank budget wise.  However, everything mentioned above will give you the private, comfortable and affordable outdoor space that everyone craves this time of the year.

Enjoy your space!


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  2. Luffa rapidly grows to cover a trellis, a shed, an arbour or a chicken pen. Make sure it's strong though because luffa is prolific fruiter and each one of those fully grown fruits is heavy. The quick growing vine is used to easily create a privacy screen along a fence too. It's great for screening ugly structures too. rod iron fence

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