Expert Tips to Make the Most of Your Small Backyard

We asked designers and party planners about how you can use furniture, accessories, lighting, and plants to make your outdoor space seem larger than it really is.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
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Outdoor entertaining season is in full swing with picnics, barbecues, and backyard gatherings at the top of everyone’s weekend plans. If you’re hosting, you’ll want to make sure your backyard is looking stylish, feeling comfortable, and ready to handle a crowd—even if it’s a small one. For those with small outdoor spaces, maximizing your backyard is necessary—whether you’re having people over or just using it for yourself and your housemates. Because even a small square of grass, patio, or deck can be put to good use if it’s properly maintained and decorated.

“For outdoor spaces of any size, we always love to create a cozy, stay-here-forever environment by bringing the indoors out,” say Talia Roberts and Lindsay Resnick, founders of Parties Under the Palms, an event planning company that focuses on outdoor events in Delray Beach, Florida. “Think large area rugs, comfortable seating, soft lighting, fun pillows in different textures and colors, and potted plants.”

Painting is an easy way to trick the eye. “If you have a small outdoor space and want to visually make it appear larger, paint the walls and ceiling the same color,” says Amy Studebaker of Amy Studebaker Design, an interior design firm in St. Louis. “We work on quite a few outdoor spaces that have one wall or might be covered with a loggia, veranda, etc., and painting makes a big difference.”

Joe Moller of Joe Moller Events, Inc. in Los Angeles (who has planned everything from George Clinton’s 80th birthday party to VIP beauty events) says he always tells private home clients to design their space based on how they plan to use and enjoy it. “I always ask, what is the maximum number of people you envision hosting at one time, and start the design process using that target.”

Keep reading for more advice, tips, and product recommendations from outdoor design experts that will help take your backyard from mini meh to magnificent.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Select Your Seating Carefully

With a small space, it’s important to be extra thoughtful about seating. “To optimize any outdoor space, think about using seating to define the space,” says Moller. “Single seats like Adirondack chairs are cute, but require more of them to seat people compared to a modular outdoor sofa.”

He recommends a modular sectional outdoor sofa, which can be purchased in separate pieces depending on how large your space is and how many people you’d like to seat. Roberts and Resnick add, “The key to maximizing a small space is finding furniture that’s the right size. You don’t want to overwhelm a tiny patio with pieces that are way too large.” This five-piece mid-century modern set includes two corner chairs and three armless seats that can be arranged however you like. The removable and machine washable cushion covers are also UV resistant.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Table Talk

When choosing a table—dining, coffee, or side—think about what kind of gatherings you’ll be holding and how you plan to use the space privately, too. “I use the term ‘smiles per mile’ to help determine if a piece is necessary, non-essential, or optional based on how they want to use their outdoor space,” says Moller.

This expandable table allows for multiple sizes, depending on how many people you’re hosting, while still ensuring it doesn’t take up too much space. And the reclining chairs can be used to lounge away from the table as well. Best of all, it’s made from durable acacia wood, which stands up well to weather. Add cushions to the chairs for ultimate comfort.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Lighting Highlights Details

Lighting is key, even outdoors. Our experts recommended gentle lighting for evenings outdoors. “Soft lighting in your outdoor space will really add a touch of magic and allow you to enjoy the ambiance long after dark. There are so many options here—from string lights to outdoor lanterns to hanging pendants,” say Roberts and Resnick. “We are also huge fans of the large umbrellas with solar lighting underneath—game changer!”

String lights are an easy way to lend a little magic to your yard. No outlet? No problem: there are plenty of options for battery powered LED lights with remotes, say Roberts and Resnick. They use these globe string lights for their pop-up beach picnics, which have eight different light settings.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Tie Everything Together with a Rug

All of our experts agree that the right indoor/outdoor rug ties a backyard space together and can make it appear larger. Studebaker suggests a green rug. “Consider utilizing a rug to help anchor your area. The green pulls from outdoor elements, such as grasses and leaves, and will allow your eye to keep moving from your cozy space to the outdoors beyond,” she says. Roberts and Resnick add that “rugs are our go-to way to really level up an outdoor space. You want to create the same look and feel that you would for your living room, using the same pieces and layering techniques. There are so many rugs options to choose from, but when in doubt choose a neutral or simple color/pattern, in a polypropylene blend for the easiest cleaning and highest longevity.” They particularly love this graphic patterned rug.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Layer Textures and Patterns with Accessories

When you choose decorative elements for your outdoor space, think of it in the same way you would for an interior space, says Studebaker. “When adding furniture, accessories, potted plants, lighting, and even hanging a mirror or decorative object on the wall, you are creating places for your eyes to explore,” she says. “The more you get to explore, the more details and depth are created in your space—suddenly, you have now visually doubled your area.”

Throw pillows are an easy way to add some oomph. “Pillows add depth and texture to your space, and allow you to have some fun with your decor without spending a fortune. The possibilities are endless, depending on the style and vibe you are going for,” say Roberts and Resnick. Studebaker recommends these tasseled floral ones made from UV- and water-resistant Sunbrella canvas, so they won’t fade or show wear and tear when left outside.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Potted Plants for Added Greenery and Style

“Potted plants can also create a ‘backyard’ feeling and are an easy item to add to corner spots that will really make a difference aesthetically,” say Roberts and Resnick. “We love fiddle leaf figs and palms.”

Studebaker says that the pot can be just as important as the plant inside it. Adding detail wherever possible brings in touches that make a space feel special, like the scalloping on these flower pots, which create an elevated feel.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Candles Create a Vibe

Some well-placed candles can give a soft glow to your setup, without focusing on the fact that it might be small. “Buy the largest candles your budget allows for and use them on the coffee table or main table as sexy lighting after sunset,” suggests Moller. Robert and Resnick agree, adding, “Large hurricanes instantly elevate any space and will allow you to enjoy that beautiful soft candlelit glow even on super windy days. We love to mix and match clear glass hurricanes with vintage, boho, and coastal styles.”

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Throw Some Shade

If you don’t have a covered patio, umbrellas are perfect for lending a shady area to keep cool. Plus, adding an umbrella brings an additional unexpected layer above your natural eyesight line, says Studebaker.

Roberts and Resnick love umbrellas in neutral colors with fringe, like this eyelet one that tilts, to give that “on-vacation-every-day feeling.”

Devorah Lev-Tov is a Thrillist contributor.
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