Why you should treat your garden like any other room: how to create a versatile outdoor space on a budget

Secondhand furniture, seasonal plants, and a bit of colour and creativity are all you need, according to one Dubai resident

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"Bring the outside in" is an oft-spouted piece of advice from interior designers and proud homeowners who seek to draw inspiration from nature within their properties. They do so by combining art pieces, floral arrangements and colour palettes that reflect the natural landscape to create a holistic sense of place.

Conversely, outdoor design schemes are increasingly becoming stylish and comfortable extensions of indoor spaces. Taking the inside out, as it were, creates open-air functional places for entertaining with a backdrop of flora and fauna.

Room for creativity

Few could have envisaged that so much of 2020 would be spent indoors. In the current climate, socialising with and entertaining friends and family takes on special poignancy, and is better done outdoors, as this more easily facilitates social distancing and the ventilation that helps to keep us Covid-safe.

The cooler months are also an ideal time to make the most of urban gardens or balcony spaces with creative furnishing and planting ideas.

Irishman Michael O'Riordan wanted to make his "outdoor room" an extension of his family's dining room. The Dubai resident drew inspiration from Pinterest to design a chic garden area with festoon lighting at his Mira villa home off Al Qudra Road.

We're in petunia season now, so hot, vibrant colours are introduced into the design with strong pinks and purples

"I wanted an outdoor space where we could enjoy a coffee, read a book and so on… my idea was to repurpose and plant up a chest of drawers, and treat this and other items with chalk paint for a unified look," says O'Riordan.

This is his first growing season in the community, where the garden had previously been laid with artificial grass, but nothing else. Mindful that rental living is sometimes transitory, he wanted to create something that had the potential to be "packed up and put on the back of a truck to move if needed", and he realised the entire project for under Dh2,500.

Budget garden furniture

Furniture was sourced from BuFaisal General Trading, a thrift store and brocante-style warehouse in Ajman stuffed with pre-loved items. From here, O’Riordan got wooden garden chairs, a chest of drawers, galvanised steel planters, a large mirror and a couple of metal garden obelisks, all for under Dh500.

Inexpensive chalk paint in soft grey, sold at Ace Hardware and Homesmith, was applied directly to the wood to upcycle the chest of drawers, chairs and other items to create a unified look.

Plants picked for the season

The perimeter borders of O'Riordan's garden are set with white stones and inter-planted with bougainvillaea, oleander and a variety trailing plants, along with pennisetum or fountain grass which doesn't require much water, is inexpensive and creates a lush but low-maintenance backdrop for everything else.

For plants, O’Riordan went to Al Warsan and some of the small plant markets around Jumeirah.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , December 19 – 2020 :- Michael O'Riordan converted wrought iron chair into flower pot stand at his villa in Al Reem, Mira 4 in Dubai. He bought some furniture items from junk shop and some from his friends and repainted and placed outside his villa and in the garden. ( Pawan Singh / The National ) For Lifestyle/Online/Instagram.

“We’re in petunia season now, so hot, vibrant colours are introduced into the design with strong pinks and purples. Once that opportunity is finished, I’ll move on to something else,” says O’Riordan.

He advises looking at what municipalities are planting at roundabouts and in community beds to judge what does well and what to incorporate into seasonal schemes once the weather gets hotter.

Vinca is a good option for warmer months, although with care some existing plants can be cut back or placed into shade so they can last the summer. As so much of the garden is portable, it ensures things can be moved around as needed when it gets hotter.

The green-fingered O'Riordan has enjoyed some success taking cuttings, too, cultivating a number of lantana plants from a larger specimen he found locally. Consequently, with a little planning, your garden can be a mass of colour all year round.

One with nature

An attractive outdoor space doesn’t necessarily require a massive garden, either. Local Facebook group Balcony Garden provides plenty of inspiration on how to make the most of small spaces or balconies, showing that limited size is no bar to designing with plants.

It's well documented that being outdoors and connecting with nature – even if it's only to nurture a few tomato plants and geraniums – enhances well-being. Add to that clever design and a little plant know-how and, for a relatively small investment, you can make your sliver of outdoor space as stylish as your home's interior.