Ask Katie: Thoughts on an outdoor dining space

Q: I recently received a huge single plank table (probably from the late 1800’s) that would make a wonderful large outdoor dining table. I would like to construct some kind of outdoor eating space in my large yard, separate from the house, that includes some architectural elements to make it feel more permanent. Can you make any suggestions?

Katherine from Brookville, MD

A: What a dreamy project. Since your yard is large, evaluate a few possible locations for you outdoor dining space first. Is there a large tree that might provide shade or a feeling of semi-enclosure overhead? Is there a nearby outbuilding, fence, or stone wall that might help to define its borders? Is there a rock outcropping or other feature that might be incorporated into the space? Is there a particular view or approach to take into account?

Once you’ve identified the sweet spot for your dining space, you’ll want to establish a level floor plane to define the footprint of the outdoor dining space. It should be large enough to comfortably accommodate your table and chairs as well as circulation around the table and possibly space for additional seating and serving tables. I presume your table is rectangular, so it may make sense for the overall space to be rectangular too. A round table, on the other hand, might be well suited to a square space or something octagonal.

Depending on the level of permanence you desire and your budget, there are a variety of different flooring materials to consider. Building a masonry floor out of brick, bluestone, or flagstone, for example, will feel the most permanent and require a somewhat sizeable budget. For a little less permanence and less cash, a stone dust or pea stone floor area, edged with bricks or cobblestones may be the way to go. For even less permanence and less expense, try a mulch floor area. If you live near the seashore, crushed shells could be a fun solution. Whatever material you select, I suggest setting the floor flush with grade, or at least very close to grade, rather than a full step up. The space will be more appealing if it’s bound to the land rather than floating above it.

To create a sense of partial enclosure define a low sitting wall on one end or in the corners. Use stones or bricks or something much less permanent and lighter, like wood or iron benches. If border seating isn’t a priority, include low fencing or a hedge of privet, boxwood, or the like, to edge part of your room. As an alternative, decorative grasses, hosta, or lavender could create a soft, informal boundary. Visit an architectural salvage yard for interesting relics, like an old balustrade, ironwork, or columns that could be incorporated into a perimeter structure.

Of course, having something overhead to provide the comfort of an outdoor ceiling with some shade could be desirable. Build a pergola over the space to accommodate grape vines, wisteria, or climbing hydrangea that will inspire your diners while partially sheltering them. String lights or hang decorative paper lanterns from it on special occasions. When weather permits, line the inside with removable white mosquito netting; gather it at intermediate posts or leave it loose to blow in the breeze once you’re within. If a pergola over the whole space is out of your budget, introduce arched, entry-point, arbor gateways instead.

Bring indoor elements out to furnish and decorate it. Throw pillows in your favorite fabrics, beautiful table linens, lanterns, and beloved dinnerware will make it inviting. Remember to select easily portable items for the finishing touches so that they can be shuttled inside during inclement weather. Cover the table and chairs when rain threatens.

Choose materials and configurations that accommodate your budget and the level of permanence and enclosure that you desire. Remember to edit. Judiciously weigh what to include and make the most of the selected elements. Mainly, have fun with it. Think of it as playing house.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

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