“The Great Outdoors” truly lived up to that title during COVID-19. For well over a year, outside became the new inside: that safe space, that primary location. We were encouraged to bundle ourselves up year-round to shop, dine, work, and learn in the open air. The notion of an outdoor room became something many began to consider for the first time, realizing that even putting a chair or two on a postage stamp-sized yard instantly transformed it into something personal, unique, and safe for activities alone and shared. Here are some savvy city dwellers who transformed their backyards, porches, even the trash area into an urban oasis – and will inspire you to do the same.
“My house is in a public area with lots of passers-by so I try to fill the front with successive waves of bloom,” begins Anne Holland, a nonprofit board member, of her home in the Hope neighborhood. “When COVID started and everyone was feeling so bleak, I felt like we needed more.”
Ever inventive, Holland purchased inexpensive all-weather white nylon lanterns from a Chinese supplier and enlisted Robert Alan Matthews Gardens to modify them into functioning lights. LED bulbs were inserted and wired using a light sensor so the lanterns glow from dusk till dawn. “For a year I had pretty 18-inch balls of yellow, pink, and orange in my front trees. Then when vaccines became available, I decided to change the look to reflect the lightening of our spirits. It really does raise my spirits, and neighbors like to walk by to enjoy them. It feels like a party every night.”
During daylight, Holland’s home is known for its 45-foot lilac hedge, which she installed with nine different types, including pinks, whites, purples, and blues as a “green wall’’ to separate the property from her next door neighbor. Holland, who calls herself “an avid gardener but not an expert,” aims for seven months of blooms, from early daffodils to late dahlias. “I love gardening out front because it’s a chance to chat with neighbors and get my hands into the dirt.”
Kyra Braun, a dermatology physician’s assistant, can often be found with her golden retriever Sawyer on the porch of her second-floor apartment on College Hill. After taking residence a year ago with her roommate Molly, Braun’s father visited to build a custom couch and bar table. “Other than that, I find that the more plants the better,” says Braun, who plans to add a small herb garden and more pillows. “I do just about everything out here – from sunrise yoga to reading a good book on a Sunday afternoon – however, I’d say my favorite thing is hosting friends, grilling out, and enjoying some drinks!” As for the expansive view of the city below: “I feel grateful and always tempted to walk down the hill and join in the downtown fun for the evening! I’m currently planning a get-together with friends and family for July 4. The fireworks came last year as a surprise; the only fireworks I had seen in Providence were at India Point Park, so when we heard them outside and walked on the porch it was a welcome, beautiful shock!”
Jen Thum and James Grice have been busy at their Mount Hope property fashioning an oasis. Situated on a very steep hill, their backyard abuts the side and roof of a doctor’s office so the couple recently planted arborvitae, a coniferous tree, that will grow in to provide privacy. The pair has also cleverly designated various activity zones with distinct uses like dining, gardening, relaxing, and even playing croquet. “Some of it is still a work in progress,” Thum chuckles. “Highlights include our luxurious cat tunnel and cat tent for resident cats Neenee and Nunu, and a chandelier we built ourselves from driftwood found at Providence Flea to hang over the table on the patio. We’re also growing our first veggie garden ever this year and hoping to keep it alive.” While many endeavors have been DIY, they have called in the pros as well. “Stewart Martin at Providence Gardenworks taught us how to plant the veggie bed and consulted about composting and cutting some of the limbs off our trees,” says Thum, who also cites Evergreen Tree & Landscape Services for compost, Danny Rotondi from D.R. Stonework and Landscape for the new patio, and arborists Bartlett Tree Experts. “Our favorite things to do out here are read in the hammock, use the fire pit for s’mores, eat outside, and barbecue!”
“When we first moved into our home, our small backyard felt even smaller because there were so many overgrown and unhealthy plants that overcrowded the entire space,” explains Bryan Roberts, a creative agency founder and director. Partner Sascha Martin, sales and social media, agrees. “We worked really hard at trimming the plants and trees – and learning – like how English Ivy looks amazing but can actually cause a lot of damage to our house by growing into our very old foundation.” Martin adds, “After clearing out the overgrown plants, the yard felt huge! We now have a seating area for when we have friends over, a small space for a grill with a little green grass that we love to enjoy for after-work happy hour.” Furnishing for the outdoor space takes its cue from the couple’s love of warm tones. “We live in a bright yellow house and we have a mid-century modern style so we really leaned into the oak and walnut tones,” says Martin, who cites being four blocks from Hope Street as convenient for grabbing items for last-minute entertaining. “We love our geometric martini glasses and RI-shaped charcuterie board from Stock, and Olive del Mondo is our favorite place to grab funky infused vinegar and oils for dipping Seven Stars bread, of course.”
Brenna Franco saw potential in a patch of dirt where the trash cans belonged at the East Side apartment she rents with fiancé Brett Sullivan. “I cleaned it out, found a new home for the trash cans, and started with one small garden box for tomatoes and a few potted perennials.” Four years later that area is now home to many flowers, fruits, herbs, and vegetables. Franco, a nurse, enjoys her downtime working with Sullivan on their lot as much as possible. “This year we added a vertical garden and new string lights and love how it changes with the seasons. It feels like a charming European garden!” Over time, the space has evolved and there are now two custom garden boxes built by her father, brimming with perennials and rotating annuals. “In addition to some beautiful flowering plants we have a blackberry bush, Meyer lemon tree, herb garden, and various veggies all tucked into this tiny space! Even though we produce a lot of fruits and veggies from the garden, it is most often used as a quiet nook to relax and read a book or have a cocktail with friends. Our dog also loves to nap in the corners of the garden. Brett and I love how the plants create a kind of privacy screen and it feels like our hidden oasis!”