10 Ways to Turn Your Outdoor Space Into an Oasis

Transform a bare backyard or sun-baked rooftop into a retreat with inspiring ideas from Topiarius, an urban landscape firm.

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Photo By: Courtesy of Topiarius

Rooftop Retreat

This rooftop retreat, created by Topiarius, an urban landscape firm, sits atop the owner's garage. To conform to city codes, installers anchored the pergola in containers, rather than drilling into the structure. A long planter filled with Arborvitaes was clad with Azek, a material that resembles wood. "It's a great finishing material for outdoors," says Topiarius Co-Owner and Vice-President Sara Jenkins-Sutton, who adds that it's available to DIY-ers. "It has a nice, smooth surface for painting." The arborvitaes eventually died, she said, but "Junipers would do well for the same conical look. Container planting on a rooftop is a different beast than how plants behave in the ground. Chicago's freeze and thaw cycle is really tough on plants."

Retractable Shade

To shade a hot-spot, consider a retractable shade like the one on this pergola. It's made from Sunbrella, an outdoor fabric that helps shield against sun and sprinkles of rain. The designers at Topiarius cut huge Colocasia leaves and placed them in water to add a burst of bright green to the setting. The outdoor furniture is resin wicker.

Privacy Screens

Some homeowners need privacy from neighbors, or want to screen an unwelcome view. In this case, Topiarius designers created an outdoor entertainment and lounging area, and used horizontal slats, made from oiled Ipe, to block the sight of a back alley. Solid, white Plexiglas panels were also installed; Jenkins-Sutton says they were less expensive and easier to cut than glass. The painted cedar pergola has hidden heaters to provide warmth on chilly days. This space uses pedestal porcelain Evo pavers and features a red Ore fire pit attached to a gas line.

Grow a Living Wall

When these homeowners wanted to make separate living spaces in their backyard, Topiarius designers recycled bricks found on the property. The bricks were placed in a metal structure to create a gabion wall, which divides the outdoor rooms and helps anchor a post (which is also set in concrete) holding a shade sail. Ivy and other plants can be allowed to grow up the metal structure to form a green, living wall.

Space for Kids and Grown Ups

For this small, level backyard, which needed a play area for kids and a lounging spot for adults, Topiarius designers installed Astroturf. A bluestone patio (not shown) links the home to the deck, which is made from tung-oiled cedar. Old plants were replaced with a climbing hydrangea, flowering annuals, hostas, ornamental grasses and five hornbeams, which were set along the back wall. "They'll grow tall for privacy," says Jenkins-Sutton, "or they can be clipped for a hedge."

Paver Pedestal System

You may need to elevate your patio or deck pavers to keep the surface smooth and level. Topiarius designers used a pedestal system for these pavers, since the owners wanted a pergola, but city codes didn't permit drilling into a rooftop. The metal pergola had to be freestanding, says Jenkins-Sutton. "This one is built so that the legs go into 'sleeves,' and we used a metal base as a counterweight on the bottom." The base was then covered by bluestone pavers. "You could easily install this in a backyard with just a few changes. We also tucked LED striplights into the pergola for ambient lighting, so they're hidden."

Add Texture and Interest

To add visual interest to this rooftop garden, the designers at Topiarius built three containers and planted them with birch trees; a container on the right, under a retractable shade, holds a blue spruce. Cedar decking, posts and cladding on the containers, which feature uplights and drip irrigation systems, were allowed to weather for a gray, rustic look, says Jenkins-Sutton. The grasses provide texture and keep the space from looking too manicured. The rusty brown-orange furniture is from Brown Jordan.

Plant an Herb Wall

Gardeners who like to grill outside can attach pots of small herbs to a wooden wall like this one, created by Topiarius. Co-Owner Jenkins-Sutton says the owners put their herb wall in the only sunny spot in their yard, above a bed of roses, Reiger begonias and other flowers. This container system also keeps cilantro, dill, rosemary and other herbs handy for cooking in the kitchen.

Privacy and Parties

This space was designed for a homeowner who needed privacy and a place to entertain. Jenkins-Sutton says you can see that only a small, open area, behind the granite countertop, separates the owner from a neighbor, whose space starts at the railing. Topiarius installed pedestal, porcelain Evo pavers and built the cabinet with the stainless steel sink and refrigerator. The cabinet is Ipe; Azek cladding covers the planter holding the Mugo pine. The fuzzy pillows are from West Elm; they're not made for outside use, so the owner stores them away from the weather. Furniture is from Restoration Hardware.

Striking Colors

For this Chicago backyard, Topiarius used Italian porcelain Evo pavers, which Jenkins-Sutton says can take the cold. "They're on a sand base, similar to other patios." Red fiberglass containers, planted with Japanese tree lilacs, provide a pop of color. The fence was stained to match the windows and door to the owner's garage. "The client loved this aesthetic and the concept of clean lines," Jenkins-Sutton says. "She was willing to put in a little bit of color."