10 Budget-Friendly Ideas for Creating an Outdoor Oasis

tips outdoor oasis tips outdoor oasis

I am not what you would call “a person who enjoys summer;” I’m blindingly pale and mosquitoes really love me. But as the temperature rises, my friends and family are always eager to spend lots of time outside, so in addition to setting up a kid-friendly cool-off zone (a sprinkler and water table on a patch of yard I try to keep free of dog poop), I’ve tried to make our outdoor space more comfortable for adults (namely: me).

Over the last few years I’ve made a handful of small changes that have turned what was once an awkward deck and muddy thoroughfare into an open-air extension of our home. In fact, it’s so pleasant that with enough citronella and a cartoonishly large hat, I can almost get excited about sipping cocktails on the patio in July and August. Here are my top 10 tips for turning any outdoor space into an oasis, no matter your square footage or budget.

Set the mood with string lights.

String lights are the quickest and easiest way to make your outdoor space feel more inviting. I love them so much, half of my electric bill probably goes to all the lights I’ve strung up. They’re on sensors so they come on when it gets dark, and stepping outside at night feels magical and romantic even when the lawn is overgrown and the paint on the house is chipping. And if you don’t want to be an energy-hogging jerk like me (or don’t have exterior outlets), you can get solar ones.

Make your space more private.

Block nosy neighbors — or conceal a less-than-beautiful view — with some sort of privacy panel. It’s easy to hang a shade panel or a set of outdoor curtains by attaching curtain wire to your house or garage. If you have a little more to spend, you could line your deck rails with a roll of bamboo fencing or turn your space into a secret garden by transforming your fence into a lush green wall with these privacy panels that look like real hedges. (Quick brag: look at the divider I built.)

Create a seating zone…

Obviously, you need somewhere to sit while you sip your fancy boozy lemonade under the string lights. If a new patio set isn’t in the budget, you can toss Turkish towels over lawn chairs (they’re actually beautifully fringed 100% cotton and look more like trendy blankets than towels), pick up an outdoor loveseat at IKEA for less than $100, or even use cinder blocks and a couple of wooden garden posts (the hardware store will cut them to length for you) to create a low DIY bench. You can position a bench against the house and add an outdoor cushion and some bold throw pillows for a cozy almost-couch. Complete the setup with a weather-resistant side table or two.

…And an eating zone.

If you don’t have an outdoor dining table, disguise a folding table with a pretty, weather-resistant tablecloth or even an old sheet. You can use twine to tie the corners to the table legs so it won’t blow away. As for seating, if you have any of those metal bistro chairs that were everywhere a decade ago, the hold up really well outside. And be sure to make every dinner under the stars (or, ahem, string lights) feel like a real occasion with dedicated outdoor dishes that won’t break if they get knocked over.

Add plants (real and fake).

It might seem a little extra to add plants to your outdoor space, especially if you have a yard that’s surrounded by trees, but plants will instantly cozy up a deck or patio just like they will an indoor space. In the late spring, I move a bunch of my indoor plants outside and also stock up on small Boston fern from my local hardware store; as long as I water them regularly, they get big and lush by mid-summer. My other secret? Fake plants! I like to use the artificial stuff as a sort of filler: Ivy on a trellis that’s covering cable boxes on the outside of the house and fake shrubs in flower boxes around the perimeter of a seating area to help define the space without having to hire a gardener.

Tie the room together with an outdoor rug.

Wait, what room? Well, I’m glad you asked. Because if you already have a patio or deck, throw down a weather-resistant rug to make your outdoor space feel like an outdoor living space. Just call it “the summering room” or something.

Get a sprayer nozzle for your hose.

There are three things I need to keep my outdoor space looking nice: 1) an old broom I use exclusively for the deck and patio, 2) a cheap leaf blower that makes seasonal cleanup an actual breeze, and 3) a sprayer nozzle for the hose. This thing costs less than $10 and makes it super easy for me to keep my (real) plants alive and my outdoor area clean. Bird poop on the chair? Put on the “jet” setting and whoosh, it’s gone! Mystery bug on my lemon tree? Byeee! And because it has a little clip that allows for continuous water flow, I’ve even used the mist feature to keep guests cool on an unbearably hot night.

Stand furniture on solid ground.

A patio isn’t a must-have. If you don’t have one, rocks and gravel are an affordable alternative to building a deck or pouring a concrete slab. Some people even build entire decks by connecting a bunch of shipping pallets. If you have a level patch of yard, you can make a temporary patio out of these IKEA decking tiles that are technically meant to go on top of another solid surface (but who’s gonna stop you from doing it your way?). And as long as your yard isn’t super squishy, there’s no reason you can’t put your furniture right in the grass.

Put on some tunes.

Are you even hanging outside in the summer if you’re not blasting the season’s hottest pop songs? We live in the future so it’s easier than ever to get good sound quality outdoors. If you have a smart speaker, you can take it outside (just remember to take it back in when you’re done) but this little waterproof bluetooth speaker is a less risky option and it doesn’t require wifi or an electrical outlet.

Keep the bugs away. 

Even the most amazing outdoor vibe is ruined when you’re being eaten alive by mosquitoes or swarmed by flies. Keep Mother Nature’s most annoying creations out of your oasis with products that actually work. When it comes to citronella, I find incense is more effective than candles (especially because I’m already getting that ambient glow from my string lights) but a powerful fan will help to keep mosquitoes away from your veins and flies away from your food. And don’t forget to check your space for any standing water (think flower pots, kiddie pools, toys, etc.) because you don’t want to inadvertently create a breeding ground for more bugs.

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Emily Farris lives in Kansas City, MO with her burly husband, toddler son, and two rowdy rescue mutts. She's written for Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, and The Cut. When not busy cleaning up somebody's pee, she's posting about drinks and home decor on Instagram @thatemilyfarris.