Creating a Little Outdoor Haven Right at Home

I dream of renovating the entire outdoor space at our Portland, Maine home. I imagine a designer set of extremely comfortable patio furniture with black foundations, teal-colored cushions, and throw pillows with vibrantly colored red lobsters stenciled on. This fancy stuff will be housed under the new roof covering our private back deck and will look out upon a neatly landscaped patio and yard beyond. The lawn will always be perfectly mowed and the weeds will be regularly plucked by my landscape artist Bernard. He will work his green thumb all inside of my fertile yard, tanned and muscular back glistening in the hot summer sun. After an afternoon “helping” Bernard, my husband and I will cook in our outdoor kitchen while drinking jalapeno-infused margaritas with friends. On hotter days we’ll have catered parties with passed hors d’oeuvres and a party-specific cocktail.

… Ah, to dream. This dream will likely stay a dream for another decade or so. I married a composer after all and I’m an educator and the reality is we just don’t have the cash to make things like this happen. I will continue flipping through the pages of The Best of Fine Gardening: Outdoor Ideas & Solutions magazine or Pottery Barn catalogs and longing for fancy things.

But I can still make things nice with what I have. So, let me tell you a little backstory about how I was inspired to create a cozy outdoor space in my own yard on a tight budget.

Several years ago we bid on a one a week’s stay at a vacation home Down East. It was donated to a school auction and for a few hundred dollars we stole it. Located in Castine, Maine, the house was set back from the Bagaduce River by a quarter mile walk down a charming wooded path. The smell on that Down East trek through a forest to the water’s edge is uniquely intoxicating. The mix of salt, moss, decomposing downed trees, and new growth blend together into a distinct aroma that is heavenly. The treasured path led to weathered chunks of granite lining the rustic beach, including one flat boulder that was large enough to have a picnic on. The rugged beach wasn’t appropriate for swimming but did hold many delightful discoveries—special smooth rocks, tide pools to explore, and perfect shells.

Even though the walk to the water was short, and we relished our trips down to the beach, we still spent vast amounts of time sitting on the screened porch with no water view at all. Maybe it was because my kids were young but sitting on that porch was my favorite part of that vacation. We ate dinner at a plastic table, we drank our morning coffee in the rocking chairs, we set up worlds with the set of Playmobile toys on the weathered wood floor, and Hans and I challenged each other to games of Rummy night after night by candlelight. The screened-in porch was approximately six-feet wide and about 30-feet long and looked out over a lawn that sloped down to the woods which shielded the view of the water. People who know me well, know that I love being close to the water but this trip made it clear to me that I also love the simple pleasure of sitting outside on a porch, especially porches with rocking chairs.

When we returned home, fully rested and recharged, I looked at my own front porch and knew that I could make some changes to create a place I wanted to spend more time. I moved the recycling bin back to the garage, cleaned the junk that had accumulated through the winter and spring, and scrubbed the walls, railings, and floor.

I couldn’t afford to buy a fancy set of outdoor furniture or even to buy a simple rocking chair so I went “shopping” in my basement. I swept the cobwebs aside and went down to see what could be used. I was delighted to rediscover a rocking chair I sat in while nursing my son all those years ago and an orphaned foot stool.

Now mind you, the rocking chair and its cushion were indoor items.  I repurposed them as outdoor furniture and trusted that the roof on the porch would protect them from most weather conditions. I didn’t find a table so I purchased a simple folding teak table for $15 at The Christmas Tree Shop.

This porch renovation brought some vacation-like evenings to workdays. Hans and I could continue to drink wine while playing Rummy by candlelight. Delightful!

Recently the porch has slipped back into chaos. Someone put the recycling bin there again, the bucket of ice melt remained even though winter is long gone, and kids’ clutter has spewed outside after taking over the inside of our home. Last weekend I decided to clean it. My daughter who couldn’t find a friend to play with was easily convinced to help me scrub the furniture. Bubbles, warm water, and hoses equal great fun after all! We cleared the porch completely, scrubbed away the pollen, and rinsed away the dirt. We swept the leaves and dust and even scrubbed the walls that somehow get really dirty. We put away the stuff that didn’t belong and placed back the things that did. Here are some before, during, and after shots. Two neighborhood boys joined in the fun. The Tom Sawyer effect totally worked.  Although they weren’t scrubbing for a reward, I treated them to popsicles to celebrate their efforts.

I spend most of my time at home, and I can’t get away to beautiful outdoor spots as much as I would like. I work here. And on the weekends or during vacation it’s next to impossible to pull my composer husband out of his studio. So if I want to maximize my outdoor time (and I do), I need to make my home the most desirable outdoor spot around. Making my outdoor spaces as comfortable as possible on a limited budget is worth every cent of effort I put into it.

I’m still not going to stop dreaming about what I want to buy… but until then, this is quite satisfactory.












Time to go out and enjoy another cup of coffee in my rocking chair that is as strong today as it was when I lovingly nursed my son in it.  And just maybe, get in another candle lit evening game of Rummy with my sweet husband before it gets too cold.