Second Nature

Outdoor rooms push the boundaries and take full advantage of the season.

biota Landscape Design + Build
Photo by Brandon Stengel

If braving cold weather defines Minnesotans, so does savoring every last drop of warm weather. When temperatures go up, we head to the trails, the parks, and the lakes. But the trend that’s really heating up is heading to our own backyard—along with a growing investment in landscaped outdoor rooms.

“We’ve been seeing this for a while in warmer parts of the country, but it’s finally becoming more common in colder climates,” says Steve Modrow, a design principal at biota Landscape Design + Build.

From pimped-out pool houses to tucked away patios, outdoor rooms are a smart way to utilize the square footage that’s already available on your lot, instead of purchasing a more spacious home, bumping out for a pricey remodel, or buying a cabin.

“People are saying, ‘Let’s carve out a place to get away from the normal routine that’s not far from home,’” says designer Tim Johnson with Southview Design.

“There is something so magical about being surrounded by nature, especially when life is so hectic,” says Heather Grossmann, a designer at Mom’s Landscaping & Design.

The outdoor living room trend is really about enjoying all your favorite amenities—fireplaces, beds, refrigerators, TVs—outside, with a beautiful leafy landscape as a backdrop. Here the experts weigh in with tips and practical advice for extending your home—be it grand, small, urban, or suburban—to the great outdoors.

What to Plant
Many factors need to be considered before planting around hardscapes: soil type, amount of sunlight, exposure to winds, mature plant size and watering requirements, and, of course, aesthetics. Modrow suggests softening the hardscape edges where they meet the house and the lawn by employing smaller plants that need to be seen up close to be enjoyed. Container plants are another great way to go, since you can change them out for the season, pack them with colorful annuals, and move them around when you need to access certain areas or rearrange for a party.

Urban Sanctuary

Steve Modrow with biota Landscape Design + Build carved out this zen outdoor sanctuary on an urban corner lot. The owners wanted it to be low maintenance and look good through the seasons. A black stained fence with horizontal slats lines the perimeter, and serves as a sleek privacy screen. Modrow implemented a mix of materials—a low stone wall that can be used for extra seating, stained wood decking, concrete patio squares and pavers, and pea gravel—to help delineate rooms within a room. The built-in wood bench has a hinged lid with storage underneath for extra cushions and outdoor gear, and the owners gather here with their friends around a plumbed gas firebowl that can be turned on and off at a whim. The team chose hardy plants including evergreen shrubs, low-lying boxwood, and pachysandra groundcover to keep everything easy to care for.

Traffic Flow

“Especially with kids and pets, you want to ensure you have a direct path from the house to the yard,” says Modrow, whether that’s a formal walkway or stones set in grass or simply an open space between furniture arrangements.

0514_secondnature_p01.jpgPhoto by Steve Silverman

Poolside Plants
Grossmann suggests achillea, stachys, perovskia, and calamagrostis.

“It’s important to have an overall landscape design before the pool gets installed,” says Grossmann.

“You want to be aware of sun and shade patterns so that it’s sunny where you’re swimming but there’s an adjacent shady spot by the pool to cool off.”

Poolhouse Retreat

In pursuit of a swimming pool surrounded by areas to entertain and relax, this homeowner hired Heather Grossmann of Mom’s Landscaping & Design to pull off a luxe resort-like arrangement. The sunken pool is offset from the rest of the multi-level landscape to make it feel more secluded. Lush walkways filled with elevated planting beds surround the space with greenery and colorful plants, including purple May Night salvia and pink Firewitch dianthus. The pool house mimics the architecture of the home and has two pergolas flanking either side for lounging under filtered light. Grossmann came up with the idea to hang a large swinging bed from one side for napping and reading.


“People often think they want to push their outdoor room into a corner of the lot, but you actually want it next to your interior spaces so it’s right at your fingertips,” says Johnson.

“That way if you need to grab food or use the bathroom, the interior-exterior relationship is more functional.”

Northwoods Oasis

The focal point of this outdoor living room, designed by Tim Johnson with Southview Design, is a wood-burning stone fireplace with flanking pillars and a unique semi-circular pergola to provide a bit of shade. Since the homeowners like to entertain, Johnson positioned the den close to a nearby outdoor kitchen so guests could dine by the fire. Given the home’s timber lodge style, Johnson chose plantings such as Aspen trees, native perennials, and ornamental spruce. Planters placed directly on the patio are changed out for the season with annuals.

Johnson also designed this covered poolside room, where the family can sit out in the rain and still enjoy their backyard. The massive rugged roof is made of Douglas fir covered with thin steel over the top, with a cultured stone fireplace facing the pool and set with low voltage light, which gives it an ambient glow for night swimming and parties.