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yard & garden, part 6: decorating the patio

08.06 making our house a vacation destination

click to see the full photo galleryWhen we first saw the house for the first time, the people looking at the house just before us remarked on coming out that the house had no backyard. All they saw was its dark and overgrown backyard, with a slope that didn't leave any space for sitting outside anywhere.

That's not what I saw. I was struck by a vision of the old European courtyard gardens I'd seen traveling in Italy and France and England. Time and time again, I encountered these lovely little outdoor spaces tucked into some of the most unlikely places, spaces that were barely big enough to hold a tiny table and two chairs; a space that others might've used for storing trash cans was transformed with nothing more than a few pots of bright flowers, some lights, a quaint patio set, and maybe a small sculpture or wrought iron architectural piece hung on the wall. And I knew instantly that we could use that same kind of inspirational ingenuity to turn the house's challenging backyard into our very own outdoor getaway.

It'll take some time to finish transforming it into that initial vision -- eventually, those slopes above the retaining wall will be filled in with native ferns and ground covers and flowering shrubs -- but now that the structural changes are finally done, the preliminary version of our European courtyard finally appeared late this summer. (I say "late this summer" thanks to Target.com, which I won't be linking here because HATE!)

We started pretty plain, but we approached it as a blank canvas for all kinds of possibilities. And once it was all dressed up and pulled together, it started to resemble that early vision. We used old terracotta pots we'd accumulated over the years and just filled them with annuals we got on sale. We didn't have to spend very much money and they gave us an instant impact without a lot of effort. We had a small table and chair that were freebies from the bakery where Sal used to work --the table is missing a slat on the top (we'll fix that eventually) and one of the chairs was stolen, so the bakery owner was going to pitch it. Sal brought it home instead and we use it for extra serving space. The wine barrels were also free from a local winery; they were glad to have us take them off their hands. We were planning to use them for rainwater collection -- and probably still will -- but for the time being, they're another serving surface and provide instant character.

I had a few outdoor decorations that I've bought at seasonal clearance sales over the years or been given as gifts -- a couple of stone angels, a coy fish that Sal is particularly fond of, three architectural stars to hang on the back fence, and a decorative stepping stone with a sun and moon pattern that I also hung on the back fence. For nighttime lighting, we strung some white lights through the trees that overhang the patio (which unfortunately doesn't photograph well). The retaining wall provides a nice ledge for candles, as well, and it was a good way to use odd, half-used candles we've accumulated. Thanks to the gravel, our patio was also quite forgiving and versatile for the various parties* we threw this summer. A quick once-over with the blower or a good raking and the patio is as good as new.

*(But to truly appreciate the awesomeness of our backyard, you really have to read about those parties. The tease: we took our patio from plain to a small outdoor restaurant in Rome and then to a marketplace in Instanbul in the course of ten days. See it to believe it, people...we throw some pretty kick-ass parties.)

click to see full photo gallery