Living in a city means that space is at a premium. If you're lucky enough to have access to outdoor space, whether it's on a roof, fire escape, deck or patio, you should take some time and figure out how to make the space work for you. Not everyone gets to have a tiny, urban oasis at their disposal, and the potential is limitless. Patios are precious.
1. Clean it up, and see what you're working with
Are there dead bushes, empty pots, trash, leaves, abandoned building materials or a busted dining set cluttering your space? The first step is to put in some good old fashioned elbow grease. Grab a broom, trash bag and roll up your proverbial sleeves. If it's dead (and not just sleeping for winter) pull it up. Your green bin works great for dead plants, branches and leaves. Sweep loose dirt off patios and decks. Gather those old beer cans and recycle. Get your space down to its bare bones.
For me, this meant spending a Sunday afternoon last year pulling up dead mini trees (they'd been dead so long they looked like Halloween decorations) and sweeping up a million tiny leaves from a bunch of dead Boxwood hedges. These plants had been dead well over a year, and no one had done anything to them or the surrounding area for at least two years prior. I wish I had an actual before photo, but the idea of ripping out the dead plants came to me in the moment and wasn't really planned out. (I'd been working on our small deck and had just planted some little plants and was sweeping up the fallen dirt when something snapped and I just couldn't take all the dead plants anymore!) In our building, we have a ground floor level patio that is communal space for the whole building. Apart from the dead plants, a gas grill and an old (but not cool/vintage) patio set, the only other items downstairs were some discarded wood pallets and some mosquitoes. After a few hours, the patio wasn't transformed, but at least I had a clear picture of what I was working with!
2. Plan your space
What do you want to do outside? Who will use it? When will it be used? Is it communal? What kind of light does it get? Are there any existing materials you can use? In the end, what's your goal?
Since our patio is communal with the whole building, I didn't want to invest a lot of money into it. Instead, I was more than willing to use my time and hard work to achieve what I was going for. Instead of getting a new, cute patio set or outdoor furniture, I chose to keep the existing table and chairs. I re-used the planters and started watering two of the plants that were still alive. Clean and functional became my goal. For plants, I spent about $20 at a local nursery on two Hydrangeas and some soil. I could have spent more on larger plants, but knew they'd get bigger with time. It's been a year, and they're getting giant! Hydrangeas were a good choice because they like partial shade, good air flow, and love SF's climate. I water them once a week in the summer (they need about 1" of water per week), and they're quite happy. Think about your space, and don't be afraid to ask questions at a nursery or hardware store!
3. Have patience!
Plants don't grow over night, and you'll save money if you don't start out with huge ones. Take the time to experiment and find out what works best for you. Just like designing a home or apartment, don't rush in and buy everything at once. Wait until something really speaks to you. Just because something is cheap or is super trendy, doesn't mean it's right for your space.
I waited a full year before ordering new cushions for the dining chairs. I wanted something very affordable since they'd be outside all the time and would be shared by our neighbors. I also didn't want to commit. The cushions that were on the chairs were sort of gross, but were functional. Take the time to find your own style. What plants do you like? How much time do you want to spend maintaining your space? Is there an overall aesthetic you'd like to cultivate?
Even though I started working on the patio about a year ago, it's still a work in progress. I've been slowly creating a container garden on our deck for the last few years, and that too is still a work in progress. Each year the plants change, and I get better at it. I've learned what works and what doesn't. I've learned that our deck has a strange and unique atmosphere that is only sunny a few hours a day, but gets hot and stays warm. It's sheltered from the wind, but gets lots of bright, indirect light. Trial and error is sometimes the best teacher. Be patient. I've ordered new cushions and can't wait til the arrive! Cheers!