Advice for the Invention of Your Outdoor Oasis

Notes on how to optimize your patio or terrace, in city or country and anywhere in-between.

HC&G/NYC&G: What sorts of things do you need to think about for a terrace or patio? 

DANIEL RICHARDS, founder and owner, Daniel Richards Design: Texture is really important, in both the city and the country. I always try to create a sensory experience for clients, keeping fragrance, visuals, and touch in mind. Are they on a 34th-floor terrace, or walking on a gravel path? The experience shouldn’t be the same. 

I imagine you need to consider the seasons, too. 

Yes, it’s just like the progression of flowers throughout the year. Right now, I’m thinking about fall, when foliage and grasses are so important, in addition to autumnal flowers, like Japanese anemones. For fragrance, I’ve been testing moonflowers on trellises: Their scent wafts over you when you’re outside having dinner. Little surprises like that are so important. You want your clients to say, “Wow, what smells so good?”

Outdoor Oasis - Japanese Anemone

Japanese anemones perform well on terraces and offer nice fall color. Photograph by Steve Friehon.

What is the starting point of an outdoor room?

I always begin with the bones, defining the perimeter with hedges or evergreens to give the structure a neat look, even in the snow—probably the truest test of a garden. Flowers are essentially a decorative element, which can change with the seasons. 

What about pots and containers? 

In both the city and the country, you need to think about the weight threshold and the possibility of extreme storms. In a condo or co-op, a planter needs to be heavy enough not to blow off a terrace, but not so heavy that it damages the building. I typically use powder-coated aluminum containers, which come in endless colors and finishes and are practically indestructible. Terra-cotta, on the other hand, tends to crack easily, and timber planters rot quickly. Some terra-cotta pots, like the hand-thrown ones from Atelier Vierkant in Belgium, are just heavy enough and longer-lasting.

What are the challenges of a terrace garden in an urban area? 

Keep in mind that most of a terrace, probably about 60 percent on average, is taken up by the hardscape, rather than the plantings. And logistical challenges include getting those plantings into place: You can use a crane for lower levels, but for terraces higher up, you need to figure out how to get a tree in an elevator. We often use birch trees, which can basically bend in half. Plus, they have an open canopy, so wind passes through them safely once they are planted.

Outdoor Oases - Birch Trees

Birch trees are more pliable options for tight urban spaces. Photograph by Joshua McHugh.

In addition to wind, how do you handle other environmental pressures? 

Intense sun and heat can quickly dry out plantings, so a good irrigation system is your best insurance. And you just can’t have a beautiful lawn on a large roof terrace—don’t even think about it. 

What about outdoor furniture choices? 

Look for flexible pieces that can comfortably accommodate anywhere from two people to a party of 20. A sectional sofa that can be configured in different ways allows you to fit the space as needed—and can likely be used again if you move to a new home. Good outdoor furniture can be expensive, but the quality is well worth it.