How to Divide Your Outdoor Living Space

outdoor oasis

The Spruce / Sydney Brown 

Why stay cooped up inside when you can extend the livable portion of your property by creating outdoor living spaces? It certainly isn't difficult to build "rooms" in the backyard, but it does take an appreciation for the divide and conquer approach.

We take it for granted that our houses are divided into rooms, but the concept of having similar outdoor living spaces can offer equal enjoyment. The biggest obstacle standing in most people's way is that it just doesn't occur to them to divide up a yard so as to maximize their enjoyment of it. Not consciously, at least. Yet the more conscious we become of outdoor living spaces, the more we can tailor them to suit our needs.

Design Considerations

Part of the beauty behind the concept of separate rooms in a house is that each unit is unique unto itself. Consequently, you can install a component in the kitchen that looks great there, without worrying that it would look out of place if viewed from the bedroom. The same is true for outdoor living spaces.

Having separate outdoor living spaces allows you to create mini-landscape designs (each somewhat different from the rest) for each of them. Not that you shouldn't still strive for unity across your landscape design, as a whole. But the more successful you are in physically separating one outdoor living space from another, the more flexibility you have to diversify without creating a hodgepodge.

For instance, you may wish to include a storage bin for towels in the pool area. Such an element would be functional and would look fine there. But the problem is, you might not wish to view it from another part of the yard dedicated, say, to meditating in naturalistic surroundings. The answer: Screen off the pool area with a tall hedge or fence, effectively creating a room separate from the rest of the yard.

Setting the Mood With Color

Just as you can paint or wallpaper an indoor room using a color scheme unique to that room, so you can use color to make individualized statements for each of your outdoor living spaces. But here, instead of paint or wallpaper, you determine your color scheme when you select the plants you'll be using for the area.

Proper application of color theory in landscape design can even influence mood and perception. For instance, the flower colors you employ for a relaxing nook intended for meditation would be different from the colors used for play areas. You can also make small spaces seem larger (and vice versa) depending on the colors you use.

The Building Blocks

Think of the structural components of outdoor living spaces in terms of their counterparts in indoor rooms: floor, walls, and ceiling. Only, for outdoor living spaces, the term structural is used metaphorically. This means there's a lot less to worry about. Taking out a "wall" because you don't like your initial choice won't cause the "ceiling" to come crashing down on your head!

Think of the materials you need to assemble the floor, wall, or ceiling of an outdoor living space as the building blocks. Here are some examples:

For floors:

For walls:

For ceilings:

  • Arbors and pergolas
  • The canopies of shade trees
  • Decorative canvas canopies
  • Awnings
  • Lawn umbrellas

You have a lot of leeway in your use of these building blocks. For example, the building blocks for a wall (hedges, fences, etc.) are interchangeable parts that you can mix and match, depending on your needs, budget, and personality. Hedges may form two of your four walls, fencing the other two. If complete screening isn't required, you can also define outdoor living spaces with lower vertical elements that may be more attractive or functional—think raised beds, container gardens, and furniture.

A so-called ceiling is optional for many outdoor living spaces, although it does create an added sense of enclosure that you may crave. Ceilings are necessary only for areas where staying dry and cool is a must.

By default, all projected outdoor living spaces already have floors. The only question is whether the current floor does the best job of meeting your needs. For example, maintenance is always a consideration, and you may decide, upon further reflection, that a grassy area you've been treading upon for years isn't worth the upkeep (mowing).

You need only look to the intended function of outdoor rooms to determine the building blocks needed to compose them. Keep both aesthetic and function in mind when setting up such spaces. But in areas dedicated to physical activity, if you have to choose between the two, focus on function. Never compromise on safety. You can make up for compromises in aesthetic later, when you accessorize your newly-created space.

a deck serving the function of a "floor"
The Spruce / Sydney Brown  

Outdoor Room Examples

Pool Areas

Let's begin with outdoor rooms whose main function is to house a swimming pool. Landscaping around swimming pools presents specific challenges regarding safety, maintenance, and privacy. You don't want people slipping on anything, you don't want to spend all your time cleaning up debris, and you don't want the neighbors peering in at you. In selecting a wall to enclose the area (which may also be mandatory, depending on your area's rules and regulations), all of these considerations come into play.

A strong argument can be made, then, for having a fence serve as the wall around a pool, rather than a hedge or a lattice screen. A tightly constructed fence will do the best job of screening out prying eyes. And because it has no leaves or needles to shed, there's nothing to slip on and nothing to clean up.

Floors in pool areas must be slip-resistant. Ceilings usually aren't necessary: You're going to get wet anyway, and sunbathing and swimming go hand-in-hand.

Meditation Areas

For meditation gardens, some of the concerns are the same, some different. Privacy is still very much an issue (since secluded settings are more relaxing than open settings), as is maintenance. But safety goes on a back burner. Here, reflection, not physical activity, takes center stage. Aesthetic considerations, consequently, will carry greater weight.

Most people find plants more relaxing than hardscape, so consider planting hedges to form the walls of such outdoor rooms. If you don't want to wait for hedges to get tall enough to afford privacy, install lattice screens, instead. To satisfy your requirement for plants and provide further privacy, train vine plants to grow up the lattice. Climbing hydrangeas are perennial vines and an excellent choice for shady areas. You have more choices in the sun, including that ever-popular annual, the morning glory.

For a floor, consider a combination of natural materials. You want something interesting to gaze at, something with distinct textures: Imagine a rustic flagstone patio, with scotch moss planted in the cracks between the stones—or creeping thyme, if you enjoy landscaping with fragrant plants.

In meditation gardens, a ceiling may come in quite handy. Here, you'll have to choose between aesthetic and functionality. A vine-covered arbor may be more inspiring to gaze up at than a lawn umbrella, but the latter will keep you—and the books you may be reading—dry. If you'd like something more solid than an umbrella, consider installing a pergola and covering it with fiberglass.

But water shouldn't be banned entirely from contemplative outdoor rooms. If there's any place in our yards for accessories such as garden fountains and waterfalls, surely it's here! There's nothing like the soothing sound of bubbling water to put us into a reflective mood.

Given their individualized purpose, meditation gardens in particular are outdoor spaces that cry out for accessories. Curios and pieces of yard art can serve as focal points here. Any objects that have special meaning for you are potential extras that you might wish to incorporate, as long as they can stand up to the elements.

Play Areas

If you have kids who enjoy baseball, football, soccer, or just plain running around, set aside a special outdoor room just for them. You can't beat a grass floor for these activities. While a ceiling won't be necessary, walls are a must. You don't want errant tosses rolling into the street or wiping out those flowers you just planted in another portion of the yard. A solid fence will probably best serve the role of wall here, something that will easily stop a ball. Hedges are less effective, because balls either get through them or get lodged within them. By having to repeatedly dislodge balls stuck in a hedge, kids may end up wrecking the hedge.

Add-ons and Accessories

Outdoor patio furniture sets and similar accessories are utilized in many types of outdoor spaces, especially those designed for dining. For many people, the place for dining alfresco is either the patio or the deck, sometimes used in conjunction with outdoor kitchens. Fortunately, a wide variety of patio and deck accessories are now available to enhance the experience of dining outdoors.

Why limit the time you spend in your outdoor spaces to the summertime? Even for Northern climes, accessories are available that can extend your enjoyment of the yard into other times of the year. Outdoor fireplaces, electric heaters, and gas heaters are accessories that will keep you warm through late fall and allow you to resume your pursuits in early spring. Outdoor lighting is another great extender, permitting you to enjoy your outdoor spaces under the stars.

outdoor dining space
The Spruce / Sydney Brown