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From Spotlight: Expand Your Living Space Outdoors

How to Dream Big About Your Outdoor Space (But Keep It Real)

A firepit with a white bench with accent pillows
Image: A Beautiful Mess

House hunting? Envision the possibilities for backyards with these design ideas.

Contributed By

This article was contributed by Sarah Fogle, a DIYer, self-professed power tool addict, and home renovation blogger, who writes “The Ugly Duckling House.”

A funny thing happened this summer after leveling out the backyard. For the first time since moving into my house, I actually began to picture my dream backyard space. And the truth is, I have a long way to go.

A sketch of a landscaping plan on white notebook paper

For myself and plenty of other first-time homeowners, it seems to be a little easier to picture the future potential of interior spaces, like where the Christmas tree will go during the holidays, what hardwoods might look like instead of ugly carpet, etc. But if you’re anything like me, being able to see a yard’s potential just doesn’t come as easily. 

I think it’s mainly because where the interior typically has defined areas and specific functions, the yard often starts as more of a blank slate (or in my case, a mess that has to first be cleaned up before a blank slate is possible). As a result, I wound up constantly second-guessing my outdoor project plans, putting them off, and taking years longer than I probably should have to get started. 

Related: 5 Awesomely Easy Landscaping Projects

If I could go back in time, I would have started on my dream yard a lot sooner. But now that I’ve had the opportunity for some trial and error, I can now see what I was missing all along. The key to adding the wow factor for a beautiful backyard is actually quite simple: divide and conquer.

1. A Place for Storage

When I first bought my house, I had no idea how important the space in my one-car garage would be. Even though I do an annual cleanout, it’s just not enough space for renovation supplies, outdoor equipment, paint, power tools, and lumber. The items I need for the interior upgrades compete for storage space with the equipment to maintain a healthy lawn and garden. That can lead to a massive mess I’m constantly stepping over (and bumping my shin into).

Through years of organizing the interior spaces, I’ve learned a key lesson in home improvement: Make the space around you work for how you live your life

I know that sounds like strange and obvious advice, but it isn’t until you live in a space for a little while that you realize what your habits are. Many times, new homeowners, including myself, will work toward a design that is totally wrong for them. We focus on how it “should be” and neglect the reality of our everyday needs. 

If your aunt has a formal living room that never gets used, you’re plenty familiar with this concept. She’s basically paying for hundreds of square feet of underutilized space, heating and cooling it, and for what? A nice couch that the family never sits on?! 

This same lesson works for outdoor spaces: It’s about how the space gets used today, tomorrow, and a year from now. Have a place for gardening tools, the mower, etc., in an easy-to-reach and well-organized location. The existing space will be much more efficient. 

A white pegboard with tools in a garage
Image: The Ugly Duckling House

The garden improves by force of habit because you’ll be going out there more often, working in your garden more often, etc. Since I’ve used just about every possible square inch of my garage, my next big project will be building my own outdoor storage shed, ideal for gardening and related equipment. 

The design of the structure will be custom, but I’m taking heavy inspiration from fellow bloggers, like "Finding Silver Pennies." Rather than just serving as a dumping ground for extra stuff, this shed is more like an extension of the home’s design. I love the idea of adding trim, decorative hardware, and little garden boxes!

A blue outdoor shed with a whale weather vane & white table

2. Room for Entertaining

When I moved into my house, I knew one space would need an upgrade: the 8-by-10-foot slab leading out from my kitchen and into the backyard. Prepare yourself for a hideous photo in 3 . . . 2 . . .  1 . . .

A concrete slab outside a sliding door with a white chair
Image: The Ugly Duckling House

It’s my only true space for placing outdoor furniture at the moment, and even though it got a little bit of a makeover a few years ago (below), what I really want to do is expand this space for more guests and entertaining (just two seats aren't going to cut it!).

A wicker chair on a concrete slab with two blue pots
Image: The Ugly Duckling House

For a while, I thought that I might have to hire help to expand the patio or bust up the concrete, but that might not be necessary. Kelly from "View Along the Way" came up with a great DIY option for her slab-turned-wooden deck, which I think is genius.

Before: Like mine, it wasn’t much to look at:

A cracked concrete slab outside of a white door

After: No more stepping down onto discolored concrete:

A newly built wood deck outside of a red door
Image: View Along the Way

By building a new deck (or extension) over existing concrete, I have the option to expand the area as a whole. I’ll have to add some supports in expanded areas, but it beats having only 80 square feet of space for furniture. Guests won’t be crowded, and I’ll be more inclined to actually use this area rather than constantly avoiding it.

3. A Beautiful Garden

It’s hard to plan for a beautiful garden if you have a habit of killing indoor plants. If you too have a black thumb like I once did, take it from me: There’s hope! The secret is to pick plants that are either native to the area or to the natural climate you live in, which allows the plants you pick to thrive — even if they’re eventually neglected (ahem, guilty!). In the southeastern U.S., where I live, that means plants like hydrangeas, azaleas, and gardenias.

A blue hydrangea with green leaves
Image: The Ugly Duckling House

Local nurseries and home improvement stores often carry plenty of options that do well in your climate (and the less exotic choices are often the most affordable plants, too).

I’ve also found that raised garden beds have been the easiest to start with, since they help deter weeds and provide plenty of quality soil for growing. They can even help cover neighbor-neglected fences, like the one to the right of my property. There was nothing I could really do about a fence that I didn’t own, but I could try to dress it up from my side. 

Before: While I’m glad my neighborhood doesn’t have the added expense of an HOA, it does mean that neighbors have to work out problem areas amongst themselves. With a little creativity, I took a neglected fence and made it into something I liked.

An old, mossy wood fence with patchy grass
Image: The Ugly Duckling House

After: By adding some low-maintenance garden beds along one side of my yard, I created a spot that would eventually fill in with a living, flowering hedge.

A garden bed against a fence with brown mulch and plants
Image: The Ugly Duckling House

The plan is to later expand on this concept with the rest of the yard once the new deck and shed are in. These two additions will open the door for creating new gardening spaces next to each structure. I suppose I won’t get to call myself a black thumb for much longer!

4. Nighttime Lighting

I just love the idea of nighttime outdoor entertaining. Cozy seating, plenty of space for evening chatter, and the ambience of delicate lighting make for a breathtaking space. Stefanie from "Brooklyn Limestone" has a great example of how to separate zones in the yard using outdoor lights (below). This small patio area is surrounded by a series of string lights suspended above, which separates it from the hammock and dining area nearby.

An outdoor patio with a firepit at dusk

5. An Inviting Fire

Once the need-to-have things are in, it'll be time to build some furniture and create a fire pit area for people to sit around and enjoy the new yard. There are lots of DIY options out there, and since store-bought kits for fire pits tend to be on the pricey side, I’m planning to use inexpensive concrete blocks, similar to how "A Beautiful Mess" created their awesome s’mores fire pit.

A firepit with a white bench with accent pillows
Image: A Beautiful Mess

After years of working on the interior, one tends to lose a little momentum and inspiration to keep the DIY train moving along. But transitioning my thought process to these exterior improvements has given me a serious boost in energy to continue making changes and hang on to my home improvement mojo.

New homeowners: Don’t make my same mistake! Start working on your yard as a process long before you think you’ll need to.

Now that I know the true potential waiting in my backyard, I can focus on making these dream outdoor zones into a reality. With any luck, this will be the year for lots of outdoor entertaining in a brilliant new space.


Sarah Fogle's bio photo
Sarah Fogle

Sarah Fogle has been remodeling her 1980s home for nearly 6 years — usually without a helping hand. Her do-it-yourself tips, tutorials, and renovation realities are featured on her blog,, where she shares her passion for all things DIY. She has over 3 million followers on Pinterest.