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How to keep spending time outside even when it gets bitterly cold

We’re going to want to spend as much time outdoors as we can this fall and winter. Here, a landscape designer shares how to get our gardens and patios ready for the cold months ahead.

How to keep spending time outside even when it gets bitterly cold
[Photo: FluxFactory/Getty Images]

As the days get crisper and the leaves turn shades of gold, I’ve started to panic. Living through a pandemic in the summertime has been stressful and strange, but at least my family and I were able to safely spend time outdoors. We planted our first crop of vegetables on our deck; we worked on an outdoor table for a change of scenery; we invited friends over for socially distant dinners on our porch. Health experts point out that the coronavirus spreads more easily indoors than outdoors. It’ll be harder to enjoy these simple pleasures when the cold weather arrives and we can no longer spend most of our time outside.

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Not so fast, says Heather Trilling, a landscape designer who has spent her career creating beautiful, functional outdoor spaces. According to Trilling, it doesn’t take much to make gardens, decks, and other outdoor spots more comfortable in chilly weather. “You can make even the smallest outdoor space magical,” she says. “Now is the time to prepare for the colder months.” Here are Trilling’s tips for getting outdoor spaces ready for frigid weather.

[Photo: West Elm]

Identify what you want (and what you can reasonably do)

Before you begin, Trilling says, sit down with your family and discuss what you are trying to achieve with your outdoor space. In the past, it may have been sufficient to have a beautiful patio for entertaining, but with the pandemic, you may be trying to get some work done outside or homeschool your kids out there. “Some people are looking for a Zen-like oasis during this stressful time, but other people might be looking to be productive,” she says. “It’s good to get everyone’s input. You can then carve out different spaces for different needs, or make the spaces multifunctional.”

Next, assess what you’re working with. This is an opportunity to see your outdoor space with new eyes. You might have a small corner of your yard or deck that you weren’t using before but that could accommodate a small table for working. A covered porch could work well as an outdoor home office, or you could put a chalkboard there when you’re teaching your children. Consider what you can do with even the muddiest, least-attractive outdoor space. “It’s inexpensive to put down some gravel, but it will instantly turn the space into one you can use,” Trilling says.

Finally, as the seasons change and the leaves start falling, you can start to think about how to tidy things up so the space feels inviting. Many people aren’t used to raking leaves, but Trilling says that during the fall months, you might want to make it a regular habit, so that the space feels clean and ready to use. To make things easier, you can invest in a leaf blower or a soap attachment to your hose that you can use to power wash your outdoor furniture. When you get the first chill, you should begin clearing out your annual plants and preparing your garden to lie fallow until next year.

Stay warm, whatever the season

How will you keep things warm when the weather begins to cool down? Trilling says to start simply by loading up on blankets. You’ll want ones that are sturdy and easy to launder, like this corded throw blanket ($60) or this cotton knit blanket ($80) from West Elm. They’ll keep you cozy during those transitional months before the mercury really drops. Trilling recommends putting a large wicker basket by the door, like this handwoven one ($119) from West Elm, so you can grab what you need as you head outside. Alternatively, you can use an outdoor blanket like Rumpl ($99), which is made from polyester and can be left outside.

[Photo: West Elm]
Once it gets colder, you’ll need to think about setting up a proper heater. Trilling suggests using the kind of outdoor heaters that restaurants use on their patios. (Home Depot sells a stainless steel one for $150.) One of these can heat 200 square feet, which is perfect for a socially distant dinner or inviting people over to hang out.

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You can also go with a fire pit, which creates more of a relaxing, campfire feel for when you’re spending time with friends or family. Direct-to-consumer brands like Yardbird sell a range of fire pits that open out into tables, making them useful throughout the year. You can get them delivered to your door, allowing you to skip a trip to the store. (Unfortunately, all of  Yardbird’s models are sold out at the time of this writing.) There are also plenty of portable firepits on the market, including the Biolite Smokeless Fire Pit and the Primus Kamoto OpenFire Pit, which you can use at home, but also take to a friends’ house or camping.

[Photo: Crate and Barrel]

Light the way 

As the days get shorter, you’ll want to create more light in your outdoor space. If you’re lucky enough to have electrical plugs on your deck, you have many options; if not, Trilling says it is relatively easy for an electrician to set some up. If your garden is far away from your house, you can subtly connect your lights to a power source using a range of outdoor wires and extension cords. Trilling says you can’t go wrong with string lights, such as these Crate and Barrel globes ($34.95), which can easily be hung from a pergola or hooks attached to the house. “They’re celebratory, and can really create a mood,” she says. If you happen to be far away from a light source, you can opt for an LED light with a rechargeable battery. Crate and Barrel’s Carrie Lamp ($179.95) lasts 10 hours on a single charge and is designed to handle outdoor elements.

[Photo: Outer]

Think of your outdoor space as another room in your house

Given that we’ll be homebound for the next few months, it makes sense to think of our outdoor space as an additional room or, if we’re lucky, several rooms in our house. The cozier it is, the more likely you’ll gravitate toward it for meals and relaxation. Textiles can help make your yard or garden feel like part of the home, and throw pillows are an easy place to start. West Elm has a large collection of outdoor pillows that are soft to the touch but made of fabrics that are waterproof, so you can leave them outside. These large striated pillows ($40) or simple stripe pillows ($49.50) come in chic fall colors and are perfect for curling up with a book.

An outdoor rug is another way to make an open-air space feel cozy. Many brands make rugs that look like cloth but are actually hard-wearing plastic, so they can be kept outside all year long. The sofa brand Outer recently launched a collection of outdoor rugs made from recycled water bottles, with prices starting at $475.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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