Concrete garden?
August 19, 2013 5:07 PM   Subscribe

How do I beautify a concrete "garden" space without relying on my green thumb?

This is Mrs. Rustcellar. Rustcellar and I just moved to a place in Brooklyn that has a nice outdoor space out back. It's all concrete, maybe 10x10 or so, with a raised steel porch/landing next to it. I'd love to beautify the space to entice us to spend more time out there, but the truth is I am a plant killer. Are there other ways to turn this into an urban garden? We laughed about a St. Francis birdbath (um i grew up with one of those) but after that we were out of ideas. Maybe we could put a table and chairs down there, but how to make it lovely? A rock garden? A climbing vine? Suggestions for VERY elementary gardeners welcome. Like can I transplant some of the bamboo from our current yard to make a bamboo covered wall in this new space? The space is slightly sunken in between the surrounding buildings, so light exposure is a factor.

We're renting so alterations should be limited to things our very charming landlords would appreciate.
posted by rustcellar to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Outdoor art? For example, colorful bottles (of varying heights and styles), attractive stones, or decorative wrought iron and/or copper pieces. Things like these, when hung or placed around the patio area, can add some interest. I'd certainly put a small outdoor table and chairs out there because people don't tend to spend time in places they can't sit comfortably.

Start off with just a couple of things that you can find for a relatively small investment of time and money and then build on them over time. Turning it into a long project will make it feel more like your space, which will, in turn, lead you to spend more time there.

Don't have too specific of an end in mind. Rather, let each piece you find (in hardware stores initially and then in junk shops and salvage centers as you get deeper and deeper into it) build on one another until it develops it's own character. Eventually, you might find something like an old chest that you think looks way cooler than the table you got initially and then it becomes a centerpiece that surprises you by screaming out for the companionship of a weird little hobnob you find by accident on day while you're walking by some place on vacation. Then, once you've seen the two items together, you're likely to find something that goes well with them to replace the thing the hobnob clashed with.

TL;DR: Turn the act of filling the space into a creative hobby; it's an endless scavenger hunt that doesn't come with a list.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 5:29 PM on August 19, 2013

Copper wind sculpture or maybe a small fountain.
posted by JujuB at 5:42 PM on August 19, 2013

Tiz the season for outdoor area rugs to be on clearance. One of these over your concrete pad with some seating, a few plants (like your bamboo) in containers and a recirculating wall fountain would go a long way to making the space like a little outdoor room.
posted by jamaro at 6:01 PM on August 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think making a pleasant outdoor space requires comfy seating, pleasing colors, shade and night lighting.

This would be a good time to buy patio furniture from big box stores, because anything they still have will be on sale. However, you can also make do with whatever you already own that can withstand the outdoors a bit - beach furniture, older chairs, etc. A minimal investment would be getting new outdoor cushions for found metal or wooden chairs.

For color, plants are definitely a good way to go, but if you're moving for September 1, you're not going to get much going for the remainder of this year. BUT you can likely buy some pre-planted hanging planters or urns of fushia or whatever that would add color without cost. There a definitely also some late season planters that will give you color well into the fall - usually sold las "fall mums," I believe.

You might as well try transplanting some of the bamboo - what do you have to lose? Just be warned it can often be quite invasive or spreading, so containers might be better than the ground.

Fake plants may also have a place in your urban space. I think used abundantly, and relatively far from your eye so you won't be reminded of their fake ness, they ca work very well. In fact, I think the camo netting does that well.

I think The Luxury, a restaurant I visited in San Antonio did a good job making their space colourful without many plants. The link has photos. They used camouflage netting, Mexican banners, Nepalese prayer cloths to create shade and bring in color. You could make your own banner using fabric or find them premade.

You could use temporary paints to create a mural on a wall.

For lighting, candles in pretty glass bottles offer daytime colour and nighttime light. Outdoor Christmas lights are always viable.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 6:12 PM on August 19, 2013

It would help if you could post a picture.

You need shade and light, texture and pattern, color, sound, and scent.

I'd suggest some type of shade over part of your space--maybe a small free-standing pavilion or fix a three-sided sail with eye-bolts if you have a corner? A bit of shade would also be nice in the heat. Another way to play with light would be a wall sculpture made of these, or a mirror, or garden ornament--even a potted plant placed on a piece of scrap mirror. Add a fountain or small pond and you have three sources for play of light and one for sound. There's also stained or art glass.

A second source for sound would be wind chimes. There are all sorts of sounds from chimes if you don't care for your typical chiming. Deep Asian bell tones, wood chimes with a tiny clack, small bells, etc. Even an aeolian harp is a possibility.

Texture and pattern could come from your sun shade, an outdoor rug or hanging and your seating cushions. I saw these glass stones on a metal tray set out on the patio table at a party--colorful, and guests rearranged the stones to make patterns while talking.

If your walls are basic concrete block, you can use hangings, lattice from the hardware store (better for growing vines, also) or make your own. My SIL re-purposed old bamboo roll up blinds in her small Portland garden to hide the block. Instantly gave a different effect. Or you could find an inexpensive thrift store folding screen.

You have to have some green, otherwise it's just sterile space. Two or three large pots make all the difference in an outdoor living area. I love scented Pelargoniums, and have overwintered mine for years.

Flowers are beautiful, but herbs are hardy, useful and wonderfully scented. A pot of basil is amazing. Mint is a lovely dark green. Most small pot herbs will overwinter indoors, and if you have enough shelter, the perennials might do well outside in a bigger pot.

Candles and bottles as mentioned above, can be eye-catching.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:37 PM on August 19, 2013

Please post a photo! There's tons of great resources on the web to give you ideas for this. Try browsing on - look in Rooms - Outdoor - Patio and you should see something that inspires you. It sounds like light might be an issue, so adding some cool candles and string lights would look great, and how about a mirror to multiply the light and add some interest? Some cheap outdoor wood floor tiles (I think ikea sells packs of them) to create a seating area and add warmer tones and some texture to the concrete. Some hardy potted plants to add greenery and soften the lines - give the bamboo a try, but keep it in a pot.

Slightly more adventurous but awesome - a hanging wall planter if you have a huge concrete wall expanse you want to soften. Maybe fill it with herbs?
posted by Joh at 9:42 PM on August 19, 2013

Plant some mint and rosemary! Cilantro is hard to grow, you have to remove blossoms from basil, parsley needs a lot of sun, and sage and thyme are slow growing, but mint and rosemary are herbs for lazy people. Oregano is for slightly less lazy people.

Mint: Water, hopefully once or twice a week, more if it's really hot or the plant is new. Doubles in size every week or two when it's young, as long as it gets some sun. Plant it in a container or you will be very sad when it overtakes everything else. Fresh mint tea, on your patio! Mojitos, without going to the store! The more you cut off, the more it grows! Comes in a bunch of varieties: normal mint, peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint: buy whatever you think smells the best.

Rosemary: Water at least once a week when it's young, but when it's established, you can basically ignore it. I live in California where it doesn't rain for 6 months out of the year, and the rosemary bush in my backyard just keeps growing, even though we never water it and it's in the shade.
posted by asphericalcow at 12:24 AM on August 20, 2013

As a person who has lived in a series of apartments with balconies, and/or terraces, patios and courtyards, and faced this situation many times for varying sizes of spaces, my recommendation for your space would be to try to start with one large potted tree, if at all possible. Don't think of yourself as being bad or good at gardening, think of yourself as keeping this one single plant alive, because it makes a huge difference to have an appropriately sized green focal point. For example, here is a little terrace space off my bedroom (it's nearly as long as your space, and about half the width; a little taller tree would be even better there, but this one, which is about 6', started as only about 3-4 ft tall because we couldn't afford a larger version at that point).

The one tree you see there pretty much makes the space. The rest is a table (we made, with an existing base) and ragtag chairs we picked up one by one off the street with some colorful cushions. We have a flowering plant on the table, but anything colorful could go there. We have a lamp and some short jars for tea candles, and I've also put solar powered fairy lights on the trees (there's another tree on the right, out of the picture), so it's very pleasant at night without turning on the harsh outdoor light, and it's really minimal in terms of any sort of cost, design or effort, except for the tree, which we had to have delivered.

If you decide to try a large plant/tree/shrub, you'll want something hardy and suited to the climate and able to thrive in a pot, so if you can afford it, I'd get some professional input. This place, for example, will deliver, in a pot, and will be able to tell you what will work in the space with minimal caretaking (I can't vouche for them, just a Googly example).

If you later wanted to try adding a few other smaller things, I recommend looking around to see what seems to grow organically or easily in your area, and try to get those sorts of plants. Tradescantia pallida (images), for example, will grow pretty much anywhere in a pot, grows easily from cuttings you just stick in soil, grows very quickly, adds some color, takes an absolute minimum of care, and looks pretty as long as you don't let them completely dry out (and even then, just cut back the ugly, leggy bits and water 'em, and they'll bounce back quickly).

So, I talked mainly about plants, but if it's possible to post a pic of your space, that can help with more ideas. I love the idea of an outdoor carpet, especially if the space is mostly a monotone concrete with walls sort of thing? and you could possibly paint a wall, or add some bamboo "fencing" (it can just be decorative). This person hung up cool colorful rugs to help make a visually lush space. (You might find a few more ideas in Apartment Therapy's Outdoor Space category.)

It's a nice size for being able to add a lot of visual bang for the buck with a few well-selected items. Definitely put a table and chairs, even if it's a couple of comfy chairs and just a tiny little table for holding your chilling-on-the-patio cocktails!
posted by taz at 4:36 AM on August 20, 2013

Wood goes well with concrete and you can get some ideas for wood planters here. There are plenty of plants you can use in the planters that are very easy to take care of. Some good ideas ^^
posted by JJ86 at 5:43 AM on August 20, 2013

Oh! Here's a plucked-from-the-web example of what I mean about the larger tree/plant thing: before and after (obviously, quite different from your space, but about the same size, maybe), versus a space where there are more plants, but the visual payoff is a lot less because they are all more or less the same low-ish height, so it looks more cluttered than lush, and with a lot more care and gardening effort required.
posted by taz at 6:07 AM on August 20, 2013

I have artificial turf down in my concrete courtyard and honestly, it looks way better than the neighbors' yard which looks like a dank alley. It gives it a lush green feeling, is also low maintenance and you can sit or lie on the ground if you choose.

Mine is a high quality one that has little brown flecks in it that make it look very realistic. While it is better if you glue it down, there are also ones that come in tiles that would be easy to put down and pull up (mind you, I have just had gas pipe contractors in my yard today and it seems it does pull up reasonably easy from concrete.

After you put it in, anything else is a bonus and will make it look great - some potted plants, table and chairs.. I love lying on my grass and watching the clouds drift by.
posted by AnnaRat at 6:46 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great ideas so far! Here are pictures of the space.
posted by rustcellar at 7:44 AM on August 20, 2013

That's a really cute space with lots of potential! Since its so tall, I think you could make it a really lush little nook with either tall plants in planters or wall-hanging planters like "woolly pockets" (those are $$$, but I'm sure there's cheaper versions) and not need to change the concrete floor. String some lights across, add some mirrors, a water feature and a nice table and chairs and you can have an awesome city escape.

Do you also have the space under the stairs? That could be a cute nook to sit when its raining, if you add a little bench seat?
posted by Joh at 9:04 AM on August 20, 2013

Response by poster: Joh, unfortunately there's only 3 or 4 feet of clearance under the raised metal area, but good idea!
posted by rustcellar at 9:55 AM on August 20, 2013

Here's a seriously, seriously bad photoshop of the kind of thing you might do (with apologies for mistakes of scale, and for just plopping things sloppily in there, but I didn't have time to make it nice, so I just went for "here's the general idea." I didn't bother to try to make the tables and chairs appear as if they were behind the rails so it could be more visible what they are supposed to generally look like, and for the rug, it's not meant to be cut off that way, it's just that I couldn't find an image of the round, colorful, circles-in-circles thing I had in mind that showed the whole rug).

This would be a painted concrete or fake grass-type carpet base with a large outdoor rug (round or semi-circle, since everything else is so square/right angles) on top; one large (as large as possible/reasonable) tree or plant, and one a little smaller, with a small round wooden table and two or three mod-wicker-type chairs, preferably with rounded contours, again because of the severe square/right angles of the space.

And if the walls are very imposing-tall, you might want to paint a fake "bannister rail" at an appropriate height on one of them, maybe with a different shade underneath (whitewash effect on the darker wall here).

Again, sorry for the rushed, ugly photoshop treatment
posted by taz at 11:46 AM on August 20, 2013

This is great fun. Obviously, you need two potted plants or items of interest on the raised metal area, one in the corner by the door, the other in the corner by the steps--that will give you lots of room for ingress/egress. You can hang something beautiful on the one rail such as a decorative plate, and drape a rug or eye-catching item over the railing on the opposite side. I can't tell for sure, but over the right-hand railing it looks like you have a spot you could put pots (maybe your herbs, as it looks to get more light) and some other decorative items. A pot of the vine you mentioned would work well there also, Even if it's just morning glories that you seed, they would drape and twine on the railing.

Obviously the excellent corner in front of the sewer pipe is absolutely begging for a pot of your bamboo. The 3-4 foot area under the metal walkway is perfect for your water feature, a sculpture, and a couple pots of shade-loving plants to add interest yet be out of your way. Having a big thrift shop mirror on the wall in the back would give the illusion of more space and greenery, as well as reflecting light for your plants.

I'm guessing the lowered area to the left is concrete steps going down, or is it a place for more plants? The contrast of the painted and unpainted wall is great. Is the wall on the left white also? The white walls would be great for something painted on, but my feeling is to leave them white with no decoration just for a more spacious feeling. The unpainted wall is ideal background for your wall sculptures and a mirror.

There's really no place for a wind chime or other hanging object unless you hang it from the edge of the metal floor or put up a bracket. You probably don't get much wind there, but a gentle 'ting' once in a while would be pleasant (can you tell I love chimes?)

You could paint a colorful faux rug with 'fringes' right on the floor. One quart of concrete paint would get you a no-maintenance visual feature that could match a color in your chair cushions. A table and 2 chairs, and you're gold.

Some of what you do here will depend on your style. I tend to favor lots to look at and plenty of green. My water feature would be in a big ceramic pot with papyrus and a couple of goldfish, and a small fountain (the fish could come inside or have a tank heater in winter.) With the white walls, the bamboo, and the little hidden area under the stairs, I immediately thought of a somewhat oriental style. (I love this little monk.) You could go Mexican theme colors, or just eclectic to fit your mood. I like lots, you may be minimalist.

Depending on how much maintenance you want to do with regard to watering, etc. you may only want to start with your bamboo and two other plants. I love to overwinter perennials and keep them going for years, but certainly purchasing a couple inexpensive annuals that you can discard in the late fall is less work.

Post pictures and let us know what you decide!
posted by BlueHorse at 2:17 PM on August 20, 2013

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