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We’ve been leaning hard on our outdoor rooms this year, transforming them into alfresco offices and home gyms, pandemic gardens, and gathering spots for socially distant dinners. But what will happen when the weather turns cold? We asked Alexis Sutton, the Denver-based COO and co-founder of Tilly—an online platform that delivers affordable, custom, professionally-designed landscape plans to homeowners nationwide—if hibernation is a must. Her answer: No way! Here, she shares Tilly’s best practices for making porches, patios, and decks more useful for more of the year.
Consider the elements. If you’re designing a new space from scratch, the first and most important step is to consider the natural elements (sun, wind) and whether they’re working for or against you, Sutton says. “In Colorado, the afternoon sun can be a source of intense heat in summer, but that warmth can be used to your benefit in the winter, so make sure you’re not totally blocking it.” One approach is to site an outdoor room for maximum solar exposure year-round, then mitigate the summer sun with pergolas, shade sails, vertical green walls, and/or deciduous trees. “In the winter, those trees will lose their leaves, allowing the sun to come through,” Sutton says, “but in spring and summer, they’ll fill out and provide a source of shade.”
Another element that could work against you—especially in winter along the Front Range—is wind (hello, 65 mph gusts!). “We definitely get those days when it’s just a lot,” Sutton says, “which is why it’s so important to make smart decisions about siting a seating area or fire pit.” To help mitigate the gusts, consider adding barriers, from manmade walls to screens of dense shrubs (think: peashrub, lilac, sumac, buffaloberry, mountain mahogany, privet, cotoneaster, or willow) or evergreen trees, including spruces (Tilly designers like red-tipped Norway spruce and Fat Albert Colorado blue spruce), and junipers (Skyrocket juniper is great for tight spaces).
Minimize maintenance. A growing number of homeowners are asking Tilly’s landscape designers for more decks and hardscaping in place of lawns. “Part of this comes from people looking to reduce the amount of lawn in general, because it’s so water-intensive, which is definitely a concern here in Colorado,” Sutton says. “But also, in winter, it’s just so much easier to shovel off a hardscape than a muddy or frozen yard. We do get those really nice warm winter days here, so you can really take advantage of a hard, dry space.” Most natural hard materials (think: concrete, woods, natural stones, and metal) weather well, according to Tilly’s designers, as do composite decking materials, which can be more costly up front, but more low-maintenance in the long run.
Light it up. As the days get shorter, thoughtful landscape lighting can extend your enjoyment of outdoor spaces by hours—and can be easy to incorporate into an existing space. Tilly’s designers recommend considering fixtures in these four categories:
- Path lights along walkways or a bed edge. The rule here is less is more. Try to use fewer, larger fixtures and, when possible, place them in planting beds rather than in the lawn, where they can be run over by the lawnmower. And beware of the runway look, which results from too many little lights placed in a row.
- Uplights. Use these to highlight your home’s architectural features as well as evergreen shrubs and trees.
- Moonlighting. This technique is the opposite of uplighting and is great for properties with large trees. Fixtures are placed in the trees and shine down on pathways and lawns, creating a soft, natural glow.
- Step lighting. When set into walls or steps, these fixtures illuminate the area below, which can be especially helpful on rainy or snowy nights.
- String lights. There’s no easier way to set the mood in an outdoor room. “I put up string lights for a party about a year and a half ago and never took them down,” Sutton says. “They’re on a timer set for 8 p.m., and every time they go on, they make me happy.”
Get cozy. “Depending on what happens with this ski season, a lot of Coloradans may find themselves missing the après-ski scene,” Sutton says, “but you can bring that après experience into your yard with fire pits (check local codes before choosing yours!) and hot tubs. We’re seeing a ton of demand for built-in space heaters to cozy things up, and I’ve even heard of folks putting up projector screens for movie nights and football games outside. It’s all about getting creative about how you can get some of those experiences without leaving your home.”
Keep your green thumb going. “Not everyone is super-excited by evergreen plants, but in winter, they’re a really nice way to add texture, privacy, and a natural windbreak to an outdoor space,” Sutton says. Tilly’s designers favor Cornus shrubs (such as the Arctic Fire dogwood), which have brilliant-red stems; winterberry for its lovely branching structure and red clusters of berries; ornamental grasses, which add movement, height, and texture to a winter garden; and evergreens from genuses Buxus, Juniperus, Pinus, and Picea, which provide a welcome hint of green during the winter months.
If you’re itching to get your hands dirty, doing a bit of indoor gardening during the cold-weather months can help you get a jump on the next season. “Almost everyone is asking for a vegetable garden in their landscape plans these days,” Sutton says, “and starting to seed next year’s garden is a great way to bring that experience indoors.”