12 Tips for Making the Most of Your Outdoor Space

Matt James gives advice on transforming your outdoor space.

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Host Matt James has reworked the gardens of British green (and brown) thumbs on The City Gardener. In HGTV's Urban Outsiders, he helps American gardeners conquer their design dilemmas.

Want to transform your outdoor space but don't know where to start? Regardless of where you are — city or suburbia — the design challenges are the same. Urban Outsiders host Matt James offers some tips:

  • First things first — just get started. It can be overwhelming to just get out there and do it, says James. "There are several television shows, like Urban Outsiders, that make over an entire garden from start to finish in just 30 minutes. The point of these shows is to serve as an inspiration to you to get started on your garden and give you ideas on what you can do."

  • Examine your outdoor space carefully. Sit in different spots at various times during the day. Learn the details of your space. Discover which areas get shade or sun and where is it damp or dry. "Ask yourself questions like 'What existing plants are worth saving?' or 'What kind of view do I want to have from my kitchen window?'," James suggests. "This process can take as long as you want — several hours, days, months or even years. It's important to take the time to think carefully instead of just diving in without a plan."

  • Do your research. "It's so easy to go to the do-it-yourself store, see a plant that looks really interesting and buy it on an impulse. The plant may be totally inappropriate for the area where you want to put it. This can be a costly mistake." Instead, before making any plant purchases, find out which plants would do well in your garden's environment. Go to several garden centers and check out the variety of plant material they have available. Make a list of the plants that are interesting to you, and research them on your own.

  • Go to your local garden center, extension office or garden club meeting, and get advice from a specialist or other gardeners. Also, talk with other gardeners, especially your neighbors. They may likely be experiencing the same problems in their garden as you are. Think about it — they have similar soil, light and other microclimate conditions. Plus, they want you to have success and try the right plants. Not only will you learn something, but you'll get friendlier with your neighbors, too.

  • Start out simple. It's easy to just get out there and start planting without it having any relationship with the house. Matt suggests to begin with a simple layout, like a courtyard design, of basic foundation plantings. As you become more enthusiastic about gardening or have more money to get plants along the way, keep making additions to the garden.

  • The garden should tie in very closely with the house, so they feel almost as one. This part can be difficult to accomplish. For example, if you have a brownstone house and prefer the Japanese-garden style, this combination might seem out of place. Instead, pick out certain elements, like a simple lantern or bubbling fountain, to emphasize, rather than taking on the whole thing. Replicate house proportions and colors to the garden. For instance, the look of an oversized door could be repeated in the garden with the size of picnic table on the patio or the blue accent colors on the shutters can be supported with like-colored perennial or annual flowers. Draw lines from the house and extend them through the garden with the use of plant material.

  • Put as much money as you can into your hardscape initially.If you like flagstone paving, invest in getting the flagstone installed first thing and buy smaller plants. It's easier to work with the hardscape once it's installed than to add it piecemeal in several projects over a longer period of time. You can always buy more and bigger plants next year.

  • Keep seating in mind. "Every living garden is an extension of the indoor space. All too often there's not enough seating in a garden to be able to sit down and truly enjoy it." Consider all the spots where you think you might like to sit so you can experience the results of your hard work.

  • Plant evergreens, such as holly, boxwood, evergreen viburnum, bay and conifers. "All too often gardeners focus on color, but that can be fleeting. Evergreens are the mainstay, or the backbone, of the garden. They're the foil for the showier plants in the front." Although evergreens can certainly offer a variety of colorful foliage, fruit and flowers, they also help hide unsightly things within a garden.

  • Use container gardens. "I'm a big fan of containers. They're great for beginners and urban gardeners. You don't have to start out grand but instead you can start out simply." Containers can be used as focal points, to experiment with plant and color combinations, and for instant impact in the garden.

  • Keep up with garden maintenance. "Gardens are evolving things. Forty percent of the work with a garden is building it, while 60 percent is the annual upkeep." Go slow with it in the beginning if you're still learning about the time and maintenance involved with the upkeep of your garden.

  • Be patient. "Plants will die on you. I've lost numerous plants on my balcony," James says. "You can be the best gardener in the world and still have it happen." Losing plants happens to everybody; just try something else.

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