A deck or patio can be a plain, flat outdoor expanse or an inviting retreat as comfortable and attractive as any room indoors. All you need is a spot of shade, a dash of color and a comfy place to sit back and relax.
Landscape architect James van Sweden of Washington-based Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, likes decks that are as silvery as driftwood set off by groupings of pots and plants. He advises using odd numbers of pots -- three, five or nine of them -- in an assortment of heights and sizes.
Instead of a single pot in each corner, put three in one corner, two in another, and fill them with plants like ornamental grasses or white lantana that will stand up to summer heat.
Big pots give the most bang for the buck. Plus they hold more moisture, so you don't have to water as often. But before you go super-size, he cautions, ask a builder or engineer how much weight your deck can take. Use two or three inches of gravel per pot and lighten the soil with vermiculite. Then be sure to water at least every other day.
Bethesda, Md., designer Marjory Segal of the Well-Furnished Garden & Home likes to add interest to the floor of an outdoor space. On a deck, she says, stencil a stylized border around the perimeter with heavy-duty marine paint or set boards on a diagonal. On a patio, create a parquet effect using brick or stone in a diamond or herringbone pattern.
And forget potted topiaries: They don't give shade. Plant a holly or a small fir tree instead for year-round greenery.
As for furniture, she says the less clutter the better: maybe just a pair of comfortable chairs or cushioned chaises. For easy care, slip-cover cushions in washable terry cloth. But stay away from dark colors like navy or chocolate brown: ''Dark colors absorb the heat and you'll have a hot seat.''
Washington designer Joseph Paul Davis looks for stylish and affordable outdoor furnishings. He likes the slatted, French-style Tambora chairs and chaises from Pier 1 Imports. ''They come with good-looking canvas cushions in a natural color,'' he says. An octagonal or square canvas market umbrella is a must. He likes Pier 1's model in natural. For color, he adds throw pillows in bright solids.
He also recommends using a round table in the rectangular space but moved off to one side rather than plunked in the middle, to downplay the boxy shape. And for a tablecloth, go for a Polynesian-pattern runner, ''a Provencal print square or my favorite -- a green and white picnic check.''
To further soften a rectangular area, Davis puts big pots in the corners, planted with ornamental grasses or tropical flowers. And he clusters more pots at the corners of built-in benches. He recommends the faux terra-cotta pots made of light, durable polystyrene embossed with garlands: ''You can't tell they're plastic unless you knock on them.''
Interior designer Marilyn Poling of Interior Impressions in Bethesda, Md., likes the contrast of white furniture against wood decks or stone patios. She recommends all-weather wicker, Brown Jordan's contemporary ''Quantum'' line and Martha Stewart's outdoor furniture collections at Kmart.
Try putting a colorful market umbrella in a separate stand, not stuck in the center of a table, she says. Then you can still get shade even if you're not sitting around the table. (And you won't have to cut a hole in the middle of your tablecloth.)
And what about the grill? ''It's part of life, just like TV,'' Poling says. ''You can spend a fortune trying to hide it. My advice is, leave it out and live with it.''
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.