Can an outdoor room stop being a garden?


Actually, I never needed to be told that a garden could be an extension of one’s living space. Growing up in suburban-feeling Lockport, N.Y.—before this term came into being—late afternoon found the whole family out on the patio and in the yard. There were chairs, tables, plantings, a grill, a treehouse, and various outdoor games. It seems instinctive for domestic American humans to spend more time in their outdoor spaces when the weather permits—and to modify those spaces so that they contain more amenities.

While perusing the gardening media’s seasonal hot lists and seeing “outdoor room” for the past few years, I’m thinking: what’s so new about that? (Well, OK, the trend-predictors have to have something to talk about.)

It is true that the outdoor room concept is being taken to lengths my parents never would have imagined. More and more of the space is paved. There are firepits, fireplaces, chimineas, bars, hot tubs, and lots and lots of ornamental accents. Backyard grills are getting bigger and bigger, and much, much uglier. (The only grills that come close to being attractive are the old-fashioned charcoal-burning Webers.) For some homeowners, even the most gargantuan grill bristling with every possible bell and whistle still isn’t enough, so they’re installing entire kitchens outside instead. (As you see in the illustration above from the Woodburners Two company.)

Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time outside: sitting, eating, drinking, cooking, and socializing. But I have rooms inside. I want the outside to be outside, filled with dirt, plants, bugs, and the sounds of birds and cicadas, not the hum of my appliances. I want to be able to get to my plants without tripping over ten objets d’art. I consider our grill a necessary evil, so we have it hidden around the side of the garage, on a spot where nothing will grow. Sculpture and furniture have their place in a garden, to be sure—and I have both—but there is a fine line.

It is a struggle. Just as I fight clutter inside the house, I have to be careful not to have too many domestic objects or objects of any kind in my outdoor spaces. (Even too many container plantings can become distractions rather than enhancements.) If the otudoors stops looking like the outdoors, than it’s not much of a retreat anymore. Where do you draw the line?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Some days, I can’t stand to be in the kitchen at all. The last thing I want is to step outside into yet ANOTHER kitchen. I love the Weber grills, too. I think a lot of the outdoor “rooms” thing, people having the outdoor kitchen, hot tub, etc, is that there are plenty of people who like to be outside, would like to use their yard, but aren’t gardeners. Which is something I personally just don’t get 🙂 All I know is that if I were to move into a house that had one of those gargantuan patios with a gigantic outdoor kitchen and a fireplace, I’d be renting myself a jackhammer. What a waste of good gardening space! I’m just so damn untrendy 🙂

  2. Oh, I don’t know. If it takes furniture and appliances outdoors to get people to spend time there, so be it. I’m a big proponent of seating in the garden, and even bought a chimnea in the hopes of warming myself by an open fire(and have used maybe twice in 8 years). And I only gave up my hottub because it cost so damn much to maintain – good thing, too, with our current carbon-footprint consciousness and all. (There’s nothing green about a hottub.)

  3. You know, every time I see one of those all-in-one setups I think, ‘I so want one.’ I think it’s the (as my husband likes to call it) ‘thingness’ of it. I just really wish that marketers didn’t know how to push our buttons so well sometimes. I also wish we all weren’t so easily distracted by shinies (pronounced, shy-knees and meaning shiny new things.)

  4. I’ve no problem with people doing whatver they want out back. But like Colleen, I’d actually spend money to REMOVE these things (with the exception of a firesource of some type for cool evenings).

    Personally, I just don’t like the way new houses look and this carries over to the “new yards.” But that’s my choice and not prescriptive judgement for others. My biggest issue with these back yard rooms is one that IS NOT shown in the photo above: when I visit friends with large, beautiful (and expensive) new homes and these rigs out back, all I see in the back yard are the roofs of the neighbors. Roofs and feneces everywhere. Therefore, I always feel a shortage of green stuff which is not aided by faux stone kitchens and brushed aluminum appliances.

    But that’s just me. If I had a housefull of kids, I could think of nothing better than an outdoor dining room and kitchen to feed them all on those long, wonderfully dirty summer days. But I do not. And so my property will be gardens.

  5. I was highly amused to see several display gardens at the recent Seattle Garden Show featuring outdoor bathrooms! Not just showers, but toilets! Right next to the hot tub and the outdoor kitchen… Plus there was one display garden with an outdoor office which I thought was tempting but impractical given our moisture so much of the year.

    While the type of set-up above is too much for me, I’m with Susan – whatever it takes to get people outside!

  6. Interesting post especially given that so many people don’t even cook anymore! Two kitchens is a bit overwhelming to me but I can’t wait to put up the outside shower! Also, that is quite a picture with that stainless steel fireplace. It seems very uninviting. To each his own!

  7. Yeah, I don’t need another kitchen staring at me accusingly either. The whole point of a grill is that cooking outdoors is what the OTHER PERSON in the house does!

    I think that picture is clearly created through photoshop, which is what made it so fascinating to me. I could have done one myself, but it would have taken over an hour and maybe some cursing.

  8. As someone in the industry, I gotta tell you this has been around for quite awhile-the trend of the 5th room just outside the back door.

    We just spent considerable time on this subject at the last ANLA Mgmt. Clinic, where I gave a talk on this very subject.

    What is new and you bring good attention to is this trend being used in Zone 4,5, and 6 gardens where there is not year-round use.

    Believe me-this is big, big business and is part of every high-end design, literally every one I’ve done in the past 2-3 years.

    It’s just another room ‘in’ the house without the walls-add a roof and you can add the TV-no kidding.

    I see no end to this especially at the upper-ends of the market.

    This has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with gardens, and everything to do with doing a little chillin’ outside.

    Wow-this could have been a guest post!

  9. This subject hits a nerve with me, so here’s my own rant – what about all the impermeable area this creates in the yard, adding to the already horrific runoff problem we have here in the ‘burbs? I walk in the woods between my house and Wolf Trap Park (which contains a creek which is part, I think, of Wolf Run) every day and you would not believe how the runoff, trash, erosion and general destruction has increased over the 20+ years I’ve lived here. The region, especially Va., needs to get serious about limiting permissible impermeable area on each lot. Reference Anne Arundel County’s draconian (though inconsistently enforced) rules on same.

  10. I remember perusing some old post-WWII books on building masonry fireplaces, grills, and other patio facilities that had a rural, Western feel to them. I kind of liked the way it was handled — more like a campground out back instead of another kitchen. Stuff that needs plugging in? Not so much.

  11. Big houses on small lots with just enough
    room for a grill. Eat inside after
    cooking outside. That’s the trend in this
    Very little room for plants of any kind.
    Guess my neighborhood is not high-end.

    We still have a big lot with a small
    house and 5 garden areas.
    Front, back, two side yards and behind
    the garage. All garden getting wilder
    all the time.
    With enough space outdoor rooms are nice,
    not my style but I could dig a
    big fireplace.
    Didn’t we just read about people
    liking to have outdoors entertainment
    areas but hardly use them. To Sad.

    If you plant a few for the birds
    and the bees the rest is up to taste.
    And we already know about our taste now
    don’t we…

    For a bit of hope and amusement check

    Living in the back yard.

    Toads gone wild

  12. When inside your house where does the soul and heart beat of your home emanate
    from ?
    Where do friends and family members congregate to engage in lively conversation, share a snack after school or enjoy a glass of wine with some real one on one person to person time ?

    If you are like most people the answer is in your kitchen and extended family room.

    Why not embrace our family and friends in an out door comfortable setting surrounded by your garden ?

    Is if because some of you view the out door garden area as “dirty”, ( as previously mentioned in another posting below ? )

    I have been fortunate in my life to have travelled to many different countries and experience a wide variety of cultures.
    When thinking back upon my travels some of the most touching interpersonal relationships were forged sitting out doors around a table with bruschetta or tortillas or stuffed banana leaves roasting on an open fire.
    Young children would be calling for the adults attention as they performed acrobatic tricks into the adjacent swimming pool and husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends would take turns flipping burgers, whizzing cocktails in the bender and telling/ creating memorable stories.
    Some locations were fancy but the majority were simply outfitted with a few nice conveniences.

    Laughter would continue long into the warm evenings as the early daytime music turned from rowdy rock-n-roll to soothing smokey jazz.

    I love having friends come over to my back yard garden gathering place ( aka A Garden Room )
    Some may put a label on it and call it an outdoor kitchen or dining room .
    I don’t really care what people may call it , I’m just thankful that I can enjoy time out doors in a garden setting with my friends and family.

  13. As nicely worded as the design consultant’s patio brochure in the preceding comment is, I disagree with the whole ‘whatever it takes to get people outside’ theme.

    Like the huge RVs that roll into campground sites at Old Orchard Beach with about 5 feet between them, an ‘outdoor room’ negates the whole purpose of getting outdoors, which is to change the frame of reference: sight, sound, the feel of the elements, animals and insects, all the things a house is designed to exclude.

    If your outdoor experience is shaped by the same things you have inside the house—blenders whizzing, stereo running—what’s the point of going out?

    You can have a lovely outdoor meal in a suburban setting, I’ve discovered, just by taking your morning cereal out on the deck to sit in the sun and watch the birds. Maybe take some peanuts in the shell and throw to the squirrels too.

    I certainly don’t need a $50,000 kitchen setup for that.

  14. I had lovely outdoor gardens that brought beauty too all that use to come. The earth people, rested there bones and listened to the bugs and bees working their majic on all those wonderful flowering plants. Oh! How I miss those wonderful free spirted times in my gardens. To all Ron Ratigan

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