Local experts share tips for creating ideal outdoor entertaining spots

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published June 5, 2013

Nothing says summer like a good old-fashioned backyard barbecue. And when it comes to entertaining alfresco, Michiganders know how to do it right.

Backyard landscaping is a priority for many homeowners, but the design for patios and decks can be even more important for families that enjoy hosting summer guests. From pretty plants to elegant pavers, outdoor spaces can be made party-perfect with a few unique landscape and hardscape elements.

Roger Smith, president of Quality Brick Paving, in Sterling Heights, said he’s seen plenty of homeowners in metro Detroit spending extra bucks on their backyards to build entertainment areas that make a statement.

“Right now, we’re working on a project on a lake out here in Chelsea, and we’re doing a little kitchen area (on the patio),” said Smith. “It’s becoming more popular, and people are digging a little deeper to get these things.”

Smith said that outdoor amenities are limited only by a customer’s imagination, noting that his brick-paving company has installed everything from fire pits and water sculptures to full outdoor kitchens and even brick pizza ovens. Larger items, of course, don’t come cheap, he said, but lesser design elements can add a little pizzazz without draining your summertime budget.

“The little water ‘Colorfalls’ are pretty cool. They light up at night (with) an LED strip in the back, and they change colors. Or you can put in sitting walls, with seating all around the side,” he said.

But before homeowners begin to think about the extras, they’ve got to be sure their patio basics are in order. Smith advised that while multilevel patios and decks are popular, they’re not ideal for entertaining.

“One level is more user-friendly, and try to put it closer to the ground,” he said, noting that a good outdoor designer can help create the perfect space for a family’s unique needs. “If you have a good design or a great design and a good contractor, the possibilities are endless. But, for every one great installer, there’s a handful of bad ones.”

Choosing a good and reliable designer will not only help you create a backyard that’s aesthetically pleasing, but one that will also last for many summers to come. According to Paul Phillips, owner of Details Carpentry and Remodeling in Rochester Hills, a good builder can give you a quality base and give you tips on how to stretch the life of your party space.

“Have builders use screws, not nails, when building a deck,” said Phillips of wooden decks, in an email. “Brand new decks should get just a sealer … (then) wait for one year after building a deck to stain.”

In the years following the installation of a new wooden deck, Phillips said it’s OK to stain the deck on your own, but be sure to clean the deck well to be sure the grains are opened, and the stain can fully penetrate the wood. Darker stains will hold up better against the sun’s UV rays, and household paint should be avoided on outdoor surfaces. When the summer fun is over, wooden decks should be shoveled throughout the winter to protect against cold-weather damage.

Wooden decks and stone pavers can create a great hard space, but it’s just not outdoor entertaining without some lush landscaping. Ben Weaver, landscape architect with James C. Scott and Associates, in Bloomfield Hills, said that his clients usually look for which plants are the most impressive — without an impressive amount of work — for their backyard party areas.

“No. 1 is low maintenance. People want the look but don’t have the time for a rigorous maintenance schedule. Second is they want something that’s showy and attractive.”

Weaver said that when designing a client’s entertaining space, he often uses ornamental grasses and other easy-to-care-for plants, as well as flowering plants that don’t require a skilled green thumb.

“Shrub roses are typically not a lot of work. Really, all you have to do is deadhead them when the blooms are spent and some pruning in the fall or early spring,” he said. “Then, we might mix in various perennials, and maybe some evergreens, for four-season interest. It all depends on what the client is looking for.”

Tall hedges or trenches can be used for privacy, he added, though people looking to create the perfect party patio usually aren’t in the market to keep to themselves. He said homeowners that like to entertain are typically in the market for something that will wow their guests — and they’ll spend a little extra for the added style.

“It’s getting a little more popular,” he said. “People are still hanging on to their money, but at the same time, they’re willing to spend a little more to get what they want. They’ll call us looking to do more stuff around their home, rather than investing in a new home.”