Monthly Archives: March 2015

Decorating tips for a small balcony

Small houses and apartments are great, but they don't always offer us the most outdoor entertaining (and relaxing) space. Balconies aren't necessarily inferior to backyards, though – they're cute, functional and easy to decorate if you know what you're doing. With the right outdoor furniture and accessories, you can create the most intimate and cozy balcony ever. Need a few tips to get you started? 

Divide and conquer

Small spaces need a little more structure than larger ones, as you really have to maximize each square foot. The best way to do this? Take a look at your balcony and create a few zones. If you're working with a long and narrow space, try using one side for comfy seating and the other for dining. If it's shorter and more squared off, try combining both. 

Find its function

What do you primarily do on your balcony? Do you spend time reading with a great book and a glass of wine? Or do you frequently find yourself eating at the patio dining table with friends? Your layout should be determined by what you actually do. Think of it like a formal living room – if you're not going to spend time on the balcony, what's the point of decorating? 

Do not disturb

Want to spend time with friends outside but don't want your neighbors watching your every move? Invest in a privacy screen on one or both sides of the balcony. The higher walls create a more intimate space while creating the illusion that the space outside your building is all yours. 

Don't ditch your green thumb

You might not be able to grow a full-sized garden on a smaller patio, but that doesn't mean you can't keep any plants. Many people hang flowers on their balcony rails, while others use container gardens to add a little life to their space. You can grow fresh herbs, succulents, vertical gardens and more – the key is simply thinking of small vessels to keep all your plants in. 

Think multi-functional 

The smallest of balconies pose one major challenge: Offering both seating and dining space. In situations like this, you can opt for furniture with multiple functions. Outdoor sofas and coffee tables can be the main dining table when you have outdoor placemats and dinnerware, while bistro tables with throws and seat cushions are just as good for reading and relaxing as they are for eating. 

Keep it cozy 

On that note, making your balcony cozy is crucial toward its functionality. If yours is covered, try adding a few throws in the mix, plus plenty of pillows (and comfy sofa cushions). Smaller areas are inherently more intimate, and the more you play this up, the happier you'll be having a little balcony. 

One important thing about decorating any outdoor space? It's not number the square feet you have, but the friends and family you fill them with. Late-night glasses of wine with friends on the balcony will be just as memorable as dinner on the patio. 

Pulling your outdoor furniture out of storage for spring

As the weather warms up and we get more daylight, you might be thinking ahead to all the outdoor parties you'll host and they days you'll spend relaxing in your yard. In the time between now and the first day of spring, you can get your outdoor furniture sets ready for use. That way, you can get to lounging, dining outside and relaxing on your porch right away. With chirping birds, cozy sunshine and outdoor fun in mind, here are tips for preparing your furniture pieces:

Inspect each piece
If you carefully cleaned and stored your outdoor dining sets and sofas, they'll likely be in good shape come spring. However, you should always inspect your pieces anyway, just in case. Remove the outdoor furniture covers, then look for blemishes such as loose screws, rust, chipped paint or stained cushions. Most of these things can be fixed rather easily.

If you spot a loose screw, simply tighten it. For stained cushions, first try to spot clean using mild detergent, warm water and a washcloth. If the stain persists, purchase furniture cleaner and use that to scrub the spot. Cushion covers that are stained beyond repair can be replaced – you can buy just the fabric so you don't have to pay for a totally new cushion.

Rinse off
Once you're satisfied that your outdoor furniture is in good condition, rinse it off outside. This will help get rid of any dirt or dust that collected during the winter. Either leave the pieces to dry in the sun, or wipe them down with a cloth. While the pieces do resist moisture, keeping them dry will help them stay in great condition.

Get your patio ready
Even if you and your furniture are ready for spring, your patio may not be. Once snow is melted, rinse off your deck or patio to clear dirt. Then you can arrange your furniture pieces. Since it's a new season, you have the freedom to try a different arrangement in your yard. Maybe instead of having chairs on one side of the deck and your outdoor sectional on another, you can combine them to create a living room-like seating area. Get creative with how you place your furniture – because your deck was clear for the winter, you have a blank slate! Also, you may want to add planters and pots to decorate your patio. 

With spring right on the heels of winter, now is the perfect time to break out your furniture. 

Get the basics on basil for your herb garden

Nothing quite replicates the taste of fresh basil. This herb, commonly used in Italian cooking, can be presented as the centerpiece of meal in a pesto sauce or as a subtle complement to a spaghetti dish. Whatever the occasion, basil can be used in your  backyard herb garden among your outdoor seating arrangements. Small planter boxes can easily be arranged around the sides of your decorative backyard furniture in order to give you the option to pluck basil  whenever you want to.

The where, when and how of planting basil
One thing you should keep in mind when working with basil is that it should be planted after the danger of frost is gone. You will know best about when frost may settle in to your local area, but keep an eye on weather patterns to be sure nothing unseasonable is coming up in the first months of spring. 

You have two options when starting new basil plants. Most garden centers will sell basil transplants designed to be used in cooking, but other options are available. If you want anything other than the more common types of basil, you'll need to grow from seed. These should start indoors with very sparing amounts of water – the seedlings  are easily drowned.

Basil maintenance
Once basil plants begin producing leaves, you should find ways to incorporate them into your dinners. You want to continually be cutting back and pruning your plant. Otherwise, it is possible for it to wind up losing flavor. If your basil starts flowering it will drastically reduce the amount of enjoyment you get out of your plant, so keep that from happening and you'll be fine.

Basil doesn't need to be used just for eating, either. Flowering varieties of basil and its purple-hued variants provide a wonderful additions of color to any flower garden. If you are interested in creating an edible garden alongside your outdoor recreational area, basil will help to fit just the spot for you.

Outdoor areas that are used for fun don't have to just be places for your outdoor seating arrangements. Building  a small, sustainable herb garden lets you really interact with your outdoor spaces. This way your back yard can just be more than just a place to put extra furniture – it can be a bona fide extension of your home. That kind of opportunity should be seized when you can.

Choosing an accent color for your backyard decor

Spring has just about arrived, so you're probably sick of the dreary colors of winter. Now that snow is melting and the days are getting longer, you don't want to look at stale tones. Instead, you're probably itching for some bright shades. And who can blame you? If you have outdoor furniture sets or are planning on redecorating your patio, you can apply your longing for spring colors to the space. Instead of going with just one hue, why not try incorporating an accent color? This little pop will help your outdoor spaces look all the more interesting. Here are tips for creating the perfect color pair:

Grays are easiest
Yeah, we know you're tired of gray thanks to winter, but just hear us out. Grayed versions of colors are the easiest to pair with an accent. That could mean stone blue or grayed red – really, any color can come in a grayer version. You don't actually have to use gray, just a hue that has it. The duller quality of a grayed color goes great with a saturated tone. It's more difficult to end up with an odd pairing if you go this route. Of course, if you're up for the challenge, you can stray from gray. 

Use the color wheel
The color wheel is a huge asset when designing your outdoor spaces, and you don't have to have an art background to understand it. All you really have to know is the principle of complements. Complementary colors are those that are exactly opposite on the wheel. This includes blue and orange, yellow and purple, and red and green. Of course, the color wheel has various versions of each shade, so the opposite might be slightly different – think yellow-green and violet-red. 

When picking an accent color, first locate your base on the wheel. For example, if you're mainly using blue, pinpoint it. Then, pick a color close to the complement. In this case, you can seek colors that are near orange. Blue and orange together could be too much, but what about blue and yellow or red? Try various combinations using colors that are close to your base's complement.

Check your options
Your outdoor furniture sets might limit you in terms of outdoor color scheme. For instance, if your outdoor sectionals have pale green cushions, you might pick an accent color of blue or violet. Start by seeing what you already have and how you can spruce it up. 

Use the combination at least three times
Once you've decided on a color pairing, you can implement it in your yard. Make sure you show off the combination at least three times, or it may not look like you planned it. You can have your base color on your furniture cushions and pair it with an accent pillow. Then, put candle holders on your outdoor dining set to further show off your scheme. Finally, implement it in your choice of lighting fixtures, vases, etc. Get creative when using the scheme outdoors.

Tips for outdoor grilling during the winter months

A hankering for some charred meat or grilled veggies in the middle of winter can really put a damper on your mood if you're unable to satiate that craving. Since not everyone has the good fortune to live in an area that's warm year round, some pesky snowflakes or frozen slush shouldn't matter too much when it comes time to start dinner. Whether your outdoor dining set has been safely packed away for months or has been strategically covered and buried under a mountain of snow, getting into the backyard to fire up the grill can warm up even the coldest of days.

Here are some useful tips for outdoor grilling during the long, cold winter months: 

Keeping warm
No matter how long you plan on spending outside to grill, be sure to always dress the part. Beware of low-hanging scarves, straps or belts that might dangle too close to the grill and catch fire. An outdoor fire pit can assist in keeping you warm, but getting that lit and going can take longer than getting the grill going. Also, remember that the days are much shorter in the winter months, so try to take advantage of the diminished hours of warmer sunlight, if at all possible, and be sure to have your food prepped in advanced in order to avoid trying to season it in the dark while you're wearing mittens.

Grill maintenance
After sufficiently bundling up, the next step is to ensure that you clear all the snow off the grill. Yes, the grill will get very hot and will likely melt away the snow eventually, but time is of the essence, so getting the grill warmed up right away means you can get back into the warmth of your home much more quickly. Although some hardcore charcoal barbecuers consider gas grills sacrilegious to the process, these appliances are the optimal choice for the winter. These require much less prep than a charcoal grill so that you don't spending an hour freezing out in the elements, but instead have more time in the house to enjoy your delicious, flame-kissed food. Make sure to keep the grill no closer than 10 feet to the house for safety purposes, but be careful in placing it too far away or else you're likely to spend more time outside in the cold than necessary.

The fire
Perhaps the single most important aspect of the grilling experience is the actual fire. If you're using a gas grill, make sure the lines are clear and not frozen, since a frozen line is more susceptible to cracking. It takes a bit longer for the grill to warm up to an appropriate temperature, so having a thermometer handy is a good idea. If the grill's flame is more of a yellowish color than the standard blue flame, check the lines for blockage in the air inlets or try adjusting the burners. 

Grilling
Despite cooking on a open flame, the coldness can still affect the food being cooked, so it's wise to keep the grill lid closed while cooking in order to trap the heat inside. Space has a tendency to be much more limited in the winter, but by keeping a portable accent table close at hand, you can hold all your necessary grilling utensils without having to leave them lying around in any snow mounds.

Don't let the cold or the snow dissuade you from enjoying the deliciousness a freshly-grilled meal can provide. Who knows? You might start liking it even more than you originally thought, which means it might be time to start pulling out the outdoor furniture a little earlier than usual.

Create the perfect backyard setting for stargazing

If you're having trouble trying to figure what to do to spruce up your backyard in order to heighten an everyday experience like unwinding in your patio chair, then a backyard observatory can open your world to the billions of stars that make up the night sky. Nowadays, thanks to advancements in technology, amateur stargazers need not rely on extravagant telescopes the size of buildings to enjoy the brilliance of the stars. Inexpensive telescopes and regular binoculars can easily provide a glimpse of the heavens that will you leave breathless and amazed.

Here's a rundown on how to transform your backyard patio from an everyday lounge into an astronomer's paradise:

Get a star guide
Once you've picked out the viewing device that works best for you – whether it's an extremely large telescope or a simple pair of children's binoculars – be sure to pick up a star guide so you know the best places in the sky to focus in on. Many smartphones have apps that use GPS to point you in the right direction, or you can head down to your local bookstore or library to find books on stargazing. Depending on the season, you'll need to position your telescope in different locations and angles to see the vast variety of stars. Since you'll need to be flexible, outdoor sectional sofas make a great choice for easily arranging and re-arranging your furniture to get the best possible placement and setup for your telescope's view of a particular star or constellation.

Reduce light pollution
Light can definitely be a nuisance as it obstructs our line of sight for distant stars. Even an amateur stargazer will want to dim or turn off any superfluous lights to get rid of as much light pollution as possible. Since most people live in urban areas nowadays, that's tough to manage. If you happen to live in an urban area that has a perpetual glow, try to use a telescope with a bigger lens in order to capture more starlight.

A solid patio umbrella can block out unwanted light. In case you're able to get your yard completely dark and are unable to see, head-mounted illumination can light up your sight and keep your hands free to manipulate your telescope or hold onto your star guide.

If setting up and storing an industrial-grade telescope is too much of a hassle, you can always relax in your patio lounger and use simple binoculars to marvel at the stars.

And while standing on a deck chair to try and get closer to the sky sounds like a wise decision, it's a much better idea to simply invite over friends and family to sit back on your lovely patio furniture as you reveal to your guests the wonders hidden in the night sky.

Choosing the right water feature for your backyard patio

Once you've set up your outdoor lounge with the patio furniture or dining set that best reflects your particular style, it's time to add a water feature. There are a variety of options for adding a water feature that you can choose from, so it's best to carefully weigh your choices and consider your desired environment before making a final decision. Whereas a birdbath or pond can create a peaceful and reflective environment for mediation, yoga or simply contemplating your day, a fountain or waterfall adds a dynamic sense of movement and sound that helps drown out the busy world beyond the yard.

Below are some aquatic options to help provide the calming qualities or soothing sounds of water in your backyard:

Birdbath
A birdbath invites birds of all colors and stripes to rest their weary wings and splash around for a bit. If you're particularly fond of birdwatching, installing a place for the birds to bathe themselves is the right choice for you. Not only do birdbaths allow for unique wildlife sights, but having the birds chirping away can add a beautiful melodic feature to your backyard patio.

Pond
From simple ponds dug by hand to more elaborately landscaped ones with fish and lily pads, an in-ground water feature provides a tranquil escape for reflection or introspection. No matter the size of the pond, consider accentuating it with plants and flowers of your choosing. Relaxing in your hammock next to your backyard pond can make for an exceptionally relaxing Sunday afternoon.

Fountain
Several types of outdoor fountains exist that you can neatly display in your backyard. Bubbling fountains push water up through a hole in the basin that then silently retreats back down into the basin from which it came. A spilling fountain spouts water that drops directly into the basin. And jet-style fountains utilize pressurized water that shoots out of and then back into a basin. Combinations of these different types of fountains also exist. Not only do fountains come with a variety of water-manipulation methods, but they also come in all sorts of styles too, such as classical, modern or rustic. Be sure to choose one that best matches your patio furniture collection.

Waterfall
If the fountain isn't enough flowing water for you, upgrade it to a waterfall. These create a more prominent water flow and can truly transform your backyard into a foreign and exotic place. You can choose between a formal or informal waterfall too. A formal waterfall uses straight lines and well-carved features, while an informal waterfall looks like something you'd find in nature. When combined with a pond, the two water features can make for an absolutely stunning landscape.

By strategically placing your comfy patio chairs or loungers near your water feature, you can enjoy the tranquility or gentle lapping sounds these unique backyard accessories provide. But always be sure to consult landscaping or construction professionals if you plan on installing a waterfall or a larger pond, as these features will require technical expertise.

How to identify poison ivy

Spring is landscaping season, which means you'll be spending quality time with your gardening gloves soon. Planting a fresh haul of flowers is an exciting start to the season, but there's one plant that we always fail to spot while we're elbows deep in soil: poison ivy. We've all heard the adage "Leaves of three, let it be," but this has proven to be almost hilarious advice – many plants produced three-pronged leaves. Luckily, there are far easier (and more definitive) ways to distinguish poison ivy from just another green plant. Here's what you need to know:

Blame it on urushiol

Urushiol is the oily resin that makes you break out in an itchy rash when you come in contact with poison ivy. It's not contagious, but it does transfer incredibly easily from plant to skin (and even onto pet fur), so spreading the stuff all over your body isn't difficult to do.

It doesn't always look the same

Just to make detecting poison ivy even more difficult, this unfortunate weed looks different depending on the season and the age of the plant. The edges of the leaves can be jagged or smooth, while the size of the leaf varies greatly. Poison ivy will be red and orange in the fall and the spring and bright green during the summer. In short, poison ivy leaves tell you nothing unless you're a skilled botanist and have spent hours pouring over the all its different variations. This plant does have one consistency, though: It will always have three leaves, even if it isn't the only plant to do so.

It sometimes has tiny flowers or berries

If you can't always count on the leaves to expose the menacing plant, you'll have to look elsewhere. One summertime giveaway is the growth of tiny green flowers that cluster near the base of the leaves. In the fall, poison ivy will have tiny white berries that birds and deer like to munch on, which explains how poison ivy seems to grow everywhere. 

It's always on the edge of something

Poison ivy likes to be in partial sunlight in areas that people have at least partially developed. That's why it's frequently found along fence lines and roadways. When you find yourself along the perimeter of something, watch your step. We'd also recommend you avoid putting any outdoor furniture in this area, just in case.

The roots can be hairy

When an older poison ivy plant grows near trees, it will sometimes extend thin aerial roots and clamp them to the trunk. At first glance, it may seem like these roots belong to the tree itself, but they're a dead giveaway that a rash-in-the-making is lurking nearby. 

Hopefully, this helps make landscaping nothing but a pleasant experience this year. When in doubt, we always stick to one simple piece of advice: If it looks like it might be poison ivy, it's best to stay far away. 

The pros of building a natural swimming pool

A new pool is an awesome addition to any yard, but it can be a little anxiety-inducing. We totally understand – it's an expensive project, and it's not an easy one to reverse. That being said, adding a new swimming pool to the backyard is incredibly exciting – for you, for the kids, and for all your friends. There's a pool option you may not have considered, though: a natural one. Eco friendly and easy to maintain, they've been popular in Europe since the '80s, but they're just becoming popular here in the U.S. They rely entirely on a biological pump that filters through the water and incorporate a gorgeous spread of wetland plants. Many people are on the fence about them, though. Aren't they dirty? Won't they be time-consuming to maintain? The answer to both is no – and here's why. 

How do they stay clean?

Natural pools are able to stay clean using plants and sand filters instead of chemicals like chlorine. The benefits are abundant: They're healthier for your skin, hair and nails, and there's no risk of ingesting the toxic chemicals. Instead, regeneration zones are set up around the perimeter and then filled with a variety of plants and a bed of gravel, which oxygenate the pool and support all kinds of good bacteria. Generally speaking, a specialist will choose a mix of plants for you. 

In the middle of the natural pool is the swimming zone, which is far deeper than the regeneration zone. Usually these pools will have skimmers and UV light filters to help keep the water even cleaner, and they never technically need to be drained. 

One major concern for people building natural pools: Animals. While it is true that small creatures like frogs and bugs will inhabit the wetland plants in the regenerative zone, they don't enter the swimming area at all – and better yet, they eat up all those pesky mosquitos. 

What do they look like? 

These kinds of pools can look like anything you want – a standard backyard pool, a pond, or a sand-lined beach. It all depends on the size, shape and style of your backyard. They can be rendered in any size you like, meaning you can still build one if you have a smaller yard. One thing to keep in mind, though: Natural pools are larger than their traditional counterparts due to the regeneration zones.

The nature of these pools means that you can also choose any basin material you like as well. When you think "natural pool," you may think of a muddy bottom, but it certainly doesn't have to be. You can build your pool out of the exact same material as you would if you were building a traditional pool. 

How much do they cost? 

Natural pools are similarly priced to traditional pools. Think of it like this: What you lose in chemical costs you make up for in plant costs. You'll have to keep up the water garden and add new plants in every once in awhile, but maintenance times are pretty similar as well. 

These pools get bad rap, but there are so many benefits. When you're weighing the pros and cons of natural versus traditional, there's just one thing to keep in mind: It's a pool, not a pond. Your outdoor furniture will look just as great situated next to it, though. 

13 reasons to make time for family dinner

If there's one tradition that truly brings a family together, it's eating dinner. Countless studies have proven that clans that dine together each night have stronger bonds and healthier bodies, but in truth, the benefits go far beyond that. We eat less healthy when we eat out, and eating together is a way to unify the family every day. Need a few more reasons to embrace dinner with the fam?

  1. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, students who do not eat at home with their parents are more likely to be truant in school. 
  2. Families who eat together are less likely to be overweight. 
  3. Eating family dinner teaches your kids to clean up after themselves (if you put them on dish duty, that is).
  4. It also teaches them how to cook!
  5. Eating at home is significantly less expensive than going out to eat or picking up takeout every night. 
  6. Everyone gets the opportunity to stop working.
  7. You can better assess and address your kids' and spouse's mood changes.
  8. Eating healthier foods builds good habits. 
  9. It makes each member of the family feel more like he or she belongs.
  10. It gives you an opportunity to catch up with each other. 
  11. You can celebrate other cultures through food. 
  12. Cooking (and eating!) relieves stress. 
  13. It makes everyone more accountable, which carries over into other areas of life (like report cards). 

While any room in the house will do, we've always felt there was something particularly relaxing and enjoyable about eating together outside. Now that the weather is warming up, it's time to bust out the patio dining table and fire up the grill! Not only will your reap the benefits of eating together as a family, but you'll also get all the physical and mental health benefits of fresh air. If you've got an outdoor kitchen, you can even prepare the entire meal outside as a family and host a cocktail/mocktail happy hour. You'll be the coolest – and smartest – parents around.