Style in a small outdoor space

In this undated publicity photo provided by Brian Patrick Flynn, a tiny patio appears much larger as the designer Brian Patrick Flynn decorates it with the same grey and purple color scheme as the adjacent living room, to create the sense that the patio appears like an extension of the larger room and vice versa, when looking out into each room from the connected two spaces. (AP Photo/Brian Patrick Flynn,

Design magazines and home decorating catalogs tend to feature sprawling backyards with big wooden decks and room for everything from decorative fountains to artificial ponds.

But few of us have that much outdoor space.

Still, with a few strategic choices, you can create something truly special out of even the smallest yard or porch, says Los Angeles-based designer Brian Patrick Flynn.

He and two other design experts, small-space specialist Kyle Schuneman and landscape designer Chris Lambton, offer their advice:

“With a small outdoor space, I really like to think double duty,” says Schuneman, author of “The First Apartment Book: Cool Design for Small Spaces” (Potter Style, 2012). Look for seating that has hidden storage space inside and tall planters that add privacy.

And choose items that can be moved easily, such as lightweight flowerpots or planters on wheels, says Lambton, host of the gardening design series “Going Yard” on HGTV.

If planters are lightweight or on wheels, you can move them to get proper sunlight at different times of day and rearrange them if you’re entertaining guests. And, Lambton says, they can be moved inside when colder weather arrives.

“The easiest way to make small outdoor spaces appear smaller is to fill them with lots of pieces,” says Flynn, founder of the design website decor

“Instead, go big with sectionals, or flank perfectly square or rectangular areas with identical love seats or sofas. This not only maximizes the seating potential, but it also keeps the space from becoming too busy or even chopped up. In my outdoor living room, I used a U-shaped outdoor sectional which seats up to seven comfortably.”

All three designers say your choice of plants is important when space is limited.

Choose plants with a purpose: “Lavender’s great,” Lambton says, because it’s attractive, easy to grow and deters bugs. Marigolds also will help keep insects away.

Lambton also suggests putting up a trellis as a privacy wall and planting it with colorful wisteria or climbing hydrangea. Or choose a tall holly or cypress plant in a large planter. Flynn suggests using potted grasses, which are “low maintenance and, as they grow, they create a full wall of privacy.”

If you love plants but have minimal space, add a wall-mounted garden filled with succulent plants to one wall, says Schuneman. He also suggests using narrow planters to create “long, narrow, raised flower beds that go the length of the space.” They provide room for plants to grow, while also creating a ledge that’s “great for coffee cups or a casual lunch,” he says.

“I usually paint concrete slabs (on the floor) a bold color or an accent color carried out from an adjacent room,” Flynn says. “This helps the patio feel like an extension when you look out to it through a door. On the flip side, when seated out in the patio looking inward, the consistent use of color flowing inside and outside makes the patio itself feel much more open.”

Flynn also suggests using outdoor curtains for a burst of color, and to block an unattractive view or hide items like electrical boxes and storage bins. Or, he says, order a basic trellis from an online retailer like, then “paint it a bold color and use it to instantly make an outdoor space feel more roomlike.”

And for a burst of natural color, Lambton suggests adding a small, tabletop fire pit for a golden glow at night.

“Most people don’t think of using art outside, but it can be done, especially in a DIY manner,” Flynn says. “My favorite trick is to use tent canvas and stretch it across a DIY frame made from pressure-treated lumber, and add some gesso to the surface for texture.”

Once you’ve created your canvas, he says, “pick up some exterior latex paint, then get as abstract as you want to play with color shape and texture. Once the art is dry, add a sealer to protect it from moisture, then hang it up to create a focal point, and/or add another layer of privacy.”