In this 2015 file photo, Katherine Anderson, a bartender at the Portland Harbor Hotel poses with a cocktail in the courtyard. Credit: Kathleen Pierce / BDN

This story was originally published in August 2020.

Whether you are enjoying a hangout with friends or just soaking in the sunshine, having an outdoor space in your home is great. The weather is cooling down, though, and time outside might be a bit uncomfortable if your toes are frostbitten.

Luckily, there are many ways to make an outdoor space enjoyable during the chilly fall and winter months. Here are some tips from Maine designers about how to make your outdoor space comfortable in the cold.

Site smartly

If you are starting an outdoor space from scratch, you have the opportunity to choose a location and design that will best take advantage of natural heat sources.

“The first thing you want to do is look at your site conditions,” said Kerry Lewis, a licensed landscape architect based in Cumberland. “Where is that sunny pocket late day or are you a morning person and you want to take your cup of coffee out? It really comes down to making sure that that sitting area is in a spot that will capture the light that you want.”

Gail Gross, an interior designer based in Brunswick, said that even if you don’t have any particular sunny spots, you should be able to find a nice covered location that will get you out of the wind.

“For those that are planning [a] deck or patio, we’ve sort of divided it into two priorities,” Gross said. “One is a sun space — where does the sun hit your property, especially the winter — and what kind of spaces do you have that are out of the wind. Ideally you can find a space that has both of those qualities. If not, [plan to be] flexible in both areas.”

Add heat

Heat is an obvious way to add comfort to a space in chilly weather. For outdoor spaces, one way to do so is to add a fire pit or outdoor fireplace. The first step is to check with your local fire code.

“Up in Maine, it’s generally not a problem [except] in some heavier populated city areas, they don’t allow them because of air quality issues not because of safety,” Lewis said.

Then, weigh whether you want a fire pit that is portable or permanent, and whether you want it to be wood-fired or gas. Also, consider how many people you want to be able to sit all around it.

Gross warned that many people who install fire pits professionally are booking up quickly, so be proactive. Also, know that the cost of installing a fire pit can range greatly.

“You can buy a nice portable one for a couple hundred bucks and put it on an existing patio, or if you’re building an entire patio space with a built in fire pit with stone or granite, you could spend anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple hundred thousand,” Lewis said.

You may even consider something dual-purpose. Gross suggested an outdoor pizza oven, particularly if you have young kids who you are worried about playing around open flames (bonus points if they love pizza, too).

“That radiates heat, too,” Gross said. “[A pizza oven] is playing double duty and protects you from the open flame.”

Another, less architectural way to add heat to your outdoor spaces is through commercial gas or electric patio heaters, like the ones they have at restaurants. Those come with their own challenges, though.

“They’re selling very quickly,” Gross said. “The most flexible are the stand alone freestanding [ones with] wheels so you can move them about [but] they’re unwieldy. I recommend getting a commercial quality [one because it’s] more balanced and a little hardier. You have to pre-plan to have a place to store it, [too].”

Set up windbreaks

Planting evergreen shrubs around your outdoor space will serve as a windbreak to prevent that prevailing wind.

“There are things that you can do to create a microclimate within those sitting areas,” Lewis said.

In Maine, Lewis said most of the winds are coming from the northwest in the winter, so you will want your greenery in that corner. Fences can beef up protection, she said, but most wind will be able to blow past even a 6-foot-tall barrier. Certain types of trees will work better as windbreak than others.

“Any kind of needled evergreen is going to be the best,” Lewis said. “They don’t drop their leaves like deciduous trees, and there are tons of shrubs in that 10 to 15 foot height that are going to give you a dense green.”

Lewis said that junipers and arborvitae are great choices for Maine. Yew also form a good windbreak, but they might attract deer. Broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendron and blue holly, on the other hand, are not good for windy conditions. Ultimately, though, your site conditions, like the soil on your property as well as the hardiness zone where you live, are going to determine which species are best for you.

Gross said you can also use a lean-to or shade sails in order to block the wind if you don’t have time to plant an arbor.

Close it in

Simply swapping in a screen or window on your outdoor space will help keep warmth in and wind out. If you are starting an outdoor space from scratch, Lewis said to make sure you have that architectural ability to extend the season.

If you enclose your porch, Gross said to make sure it is well-ventilated — even the draftiest porches can suffer from ventilation issues over time.

Purchase cozy furniture and accessories

There are small updates you can make to your outdoor space that will make it cozier, too.

“You can buy pillow covers that are more wintery, like a fleece or wool, to turn your summer things that you already have winter-ready or autumn-ready,” Gross said.

Lewis suggested keeping blankets and other cold weather accoutrements in a chest by your patio door so they are easy to grab and take out. Gross said to have all these things accessible for guests as well — including COVID-19-friendly items.

“We’ve put nice baskets together for supplies that can easily go in and out of the house [with] alcohol wipes and the [other] things that you need,” she said.

If you have a little more capital, you can purchase furniture that is a little cozier.

“Furniture with cushions feels warmer and cozier, something you can really sink into a bit,” Lewis said.

Gross said that there are certain things to keep in mind when purchasing outdoor furniture. For example, how movable it is if you want to relocate to a sunny spot. Also, how much maintenance do you have to put into it when the seasons change?

“Some people are picking things that will work both for heat and for wind, but you don’t want to leave them out getting snow-logged,” Gross said.

Preparing outdoor spaces for cold weather will look different for every homeowner, depending on the amount of time, money and ingenuity they have available to put into the project. Once you are enjoying time outdoors despite the chill in the air, the effort will feel worthwhile.