June 16, 2011

Party hardy

How to profit from the outdoor entertaining trend
By Susan Hirshorn

As the outdoor living trend continues its meteoric rise, the comforts of indoor entertaining are spilling out onto the patio - cozy sofas, dining furniture, hearths and appliances. Outdoor rooms are extending the season and putting a new spin on entertaining.

The outdoor barbeque grill has become a food preparation station, complete with refrigerator, sink, and cabinets to keep everything tidy.
The trend has created new business opportunities for landscapers, agrees Lorraine Mennen, owner of Pathways to Perennials, a 27-year-old design-build firm in Kettleby, Ont. A veteran at creating outdoor rooms, Mennen expanded her business 13 years ago to include a boutique garden centre that offers high-end outdoor furniture, accessories and art. "Everything we sell in our store is what we anticipate putting into somebody's job," she says.

Of course, the client's style of entertaining will determine your approach to the job, Mennen adds. "Are they a large family who brings adults and children together every weekend? If so, they'll need something more casual than the client who entertains primarily for business or for elite groups."Above all, entertaining in the garden should be hassle-free. "Think lazy. Think ready to go. That way people will use the garden to its utmost," says Mennen.

Go with the flow
First consider how guests will access the garden. From the front yard, through the side, to get to the back? Or are they coming out of the house and downstairs to the back? "In any case, you don't want guests ducking under tree branches or having things scratch their arms or clothing as they walk through," Mennen warns. "You have to make your entry points easy to access as well as attractive."

The retractable roof on this conservatory provides four season enjoyment.
Although Mennen's specialty is perennials, she warns that plant material shouldn't overwhelm a garden that is intended for entertaining. "On a small lot, be careful of trees. "Let's not plant a big red maple in a small yard and then in five years have it block out the sun entirely. For small properties, a serviceberry tree might be a better choice."

Plants should also be used strategically around seating areas. "For small get-togethers with four to six people, plants will provide a sense of intimacy and help to muffle the sound of voices," Mennen says. "But large gatherings of, say, 20 or 25 people call for a more open plan. You don't want to enclose a 10- by 10-foot space and then make people walk through something to get to another 10- by 10-foot space, because then communication would be cut off."

Consider the neighbours
On the other hand, too much communica-tion might have the neighbours up in arms, so plan for sound barriers where needed — around the property's perimeter, swimming pool and main dining area.

"If you need privacy and want to discourage mosquitoes, use pyramidal oak — which keeps its leaves all winter — instead of pyramidal cedar," is Mennen's advice. If you go for solid fencing, a tongue-in-groove fence is better at blocking sound than a fence with visible gaps, adds Mark Bradley, co-owner of The Beach Gardener, a design-build firm in Toronto.

Custom-sized umbrellas and awnings offer shade from the sun for all guests and are alternatives to permanent structures.
Place noisier water features where sound is likely to enter or escape. The sound of a babbling brook, for example, helps to camouflage the sound of voices.

If the client wants outdoor stereo speakers, position them so that sound travels towards the house and try to avoid placement near the neighbour's property.

Ensure stability underfoot
Safety should always be one of the first considerations. This is especially true for homeowners who entertain frequently because the more people who use the garden, the greater the chance of slips and falls.

Says Bradley, "We try not to use wood decking at all in high traffic areas, but if we must we prefer to use Brazilian ipe, as opposed to cedar, because ipe has the highest density rating of any lumber and it's very low in maintenance."

Concrete is becoming popular for high traffic projects because of its durability, slip-resistance, seamlessness (a boon to high-heel wearers) and versatility. Concrete can be shaped into any pattern to complement the home's architectural features or to create outdoor focal points. It can be lightly smoothed or heavily brushed, surfaced with attractive pebbles, swirled or scored, tinted or painted, patterned or moulded to resemble another material.

"We definitely use different variations of concrete, whether it be stamped or exposed aggregate," says Bradley. "It's a durable product — there's no doubt — but we do find it's a little more temperamental in terms of preparation during the construction phase. If concrete cracks then you're left with a real issue, whereas with stone or unit paving, if there's movement for whatever reason, it's much easier to rectify the problem afterward," he explains. "For high traffic areas we like square cut natural stone. We do very tight joints if we're laying it without mortar. Or, if we're laying it on a concrete foundation we use mortar between the joints and we can blend the jointing so that it's a very smooth surface, almost like concrete."

Add comfort and convenience
Custom cushions on outdoor seating provide comfort for guests, and new innovations in mildew and stain resistant fabrics, including the first waterproof leather, ensure your outdoor furniture will continue to look good.
Homeowners typically have preferred activities that they want to build their outdoor entertaining around. Dining, gathering around an outdoor fireplace, pool and spa parties top the list. "We even have a client who put a skating rink in his yard," Bradley says. With the advent of outdoor televisions, some homeowners are likely to celebrate World Cup soccer (if not the Stanley Cup) in their yards.

Whatever the activity, think about what might be needed to make the experience more comfortable and convenient. Here are some ideas: outdoor grills, warmers, sinks, refrigerators and cabinets to keep everything close at hand for cooks and diners alike. With free-standing and built-in models, the possibilities for design are endless. Look for features that withstand the elements and corrosion, such as heavy-duty stainless steel construction and drawers with interior gutters that keep moisture out.

Pool houses or cabanas will keep the party outdoors by eliminating the need for guests to go inside to change, shower and use the toilet. "When we design and build custom cabanas they often have a spa-like feel," says Bradley. "Nowadays we're installing things like steam showers and saunas whereas before the cabana was used solely as a change house and for storage."

Sturdy and comfortable seating will reduce the need to replace outdoor furniture year after year. Built-in seating or seat walls can supplement garden furniture for large groups and keep the garden from looking cluttered. Furniture made of teak, cast iron or powder-coated aluminum is long-lasting and easy to maintain.

For cushions that last, consider having them custom upholstered with Acqua, the world's first waterproof upholstery leather developed by Spinneybeck, of Branford, Conn. Suitable for outdoor residential and commercial use, this supple cowhide resists sun fading, mildew and staining by suntan oils and chlorinated water, according to Laura Noe, the firm's spokesperson.

All-weather roofing covering cooking and entertainment areas offers an alternative to enclosed patios and solariums. Recent innovations include the retractable roof or the incorporation of specialized acrylic in custom-built arbours, gazebos and other outdoor structures.

The traditional cabana, used as a change house and for storage, now houses steam showers and saunas.
Large-scale sun protection isn't restricted to awnings, tents or clusters of table umbrellas. For a dramatic, contemporary look consider a shade sail, or for traditional elegance, group guests under a customized, party-sized umbrella.

Outdoor heaters can extend outdoor entertaining all year round in projects that don't include an outdoor fireplace. Usually seen on restaurant patios, they are also available for home use. Heaters are available for portable, stationary and hanging applications. Powered with propane or natural gas, they can provide warmth over a 20-foot circle, or about 325 square feet.

Automate wherever possible. "Have the water feature on a timer," suggests Mennen. For ambient lighting, she sells an automated patio umbrella that is already stringed with light. It has two remotes that control the lighting and the up-and-down movement of the umbrella — one for inside of the house and one that attaches to the umbrella.

"As much as you can, suggest ways for the homeowner to plan for things in advance," Mennen says. Then they'll enjoy their parties instead of running back and forth. And possibly their guests will never want to go home™             

Susan Hirshorn is a frequently-published freelance writer for business, professional and consumer audiences. She can be reached at www.susanhirshorn.com

As seen in Landscape Trades: January 2007