In July, with the rising of the Dog Star, Sirius, the warm and humid days invite us outside to catch a wisp of breeze and enjoy the birds and flowers. In the same way that Americans are nesting in their homes as never before, we’re also spending a lot of time in our gardens, and a huge industry has sprung up to furnish us with the trimmings.


When our ancestors built their homes, they usually attached a porch or verandah and they considered the planting of shade trees a very important part of the overall design. Upstairs they used screened porches for sleeping in summer and for airing bedding. Kitchen and side porches were a way of getting out of a hot kitchen to a cool spot to shell peas or snap beans. Big drippy pitchers of lemonade or iced tea and a plate of cookies made for many a dreamy afternoon. Now in our pared down houses, we seek the amenities of the past and substitute decks for verandahs and hope our slender trees will give us half the shade of ancient oaks.

Right now, I’m trying to figure out how we can have less grass to mow. To keep our guests happy we need only a space for croquet and a badminton court. All of the rest can go into hosta and ivy as far as I’m concerned, with a few annuals and perennials spotted here and there for color. For the average deck-lawn-stockade fence arrangement, a similar solution could be considered or a variety of outdoor "rooms" created to add interest. Start with a sundial or birdbath. Surround with a bag or two of wood chips. Plant a circle of flowers…add a hedge. Dig a shallow hole for a little pool and edge it with a collection of rocks. Before long, you have a "room" of your own or one to share with friends. It’s a beginning without investing big bucks and it isn’t permanent. As you read and learn more, you can embellish or move the whole thing to another part of the garden.

If you have a deck and it covers a walkout basement slider, you might want to pave the area below and extend it out to make another level for entertaining. Or, if you screen in under the deck, you’ve added another room to the house! If your deck lacks privacy, think about building a framework for an arbor. Inexpensive 4×8 lattice panels can be attached or vines can be trained to provide you with the shade you wish. Wisteria grows quickly and the flowers are wonderful, but it does shed little leaves all summer. Trumpet vine is not as dense, it keeps it’s leaves, and hummingbirds adore it. I’ve just planted late-blooming clematis to shade my kitchen window and that could work well. These vines are all deciduous – they lose their leaves in the fall – and you’ll have the warming sunshine back in your house on cold winter days.

The one disadvantage to vines is that the rain comes through. If you want a dry protected place, you should consider an awning. Awnings come in all sizes, from table umbrellas to the little tents one sees at craft fairs, and all the way up to wedding size. One of the most charming I’ve ever seen was on a "secret garden" tour. The canvas was the same French grey of the house trim and it covered the entire back terrace. The top edge was scalloped, the sides could be rolled up, and the front panels gathered and tied to supports. The fun part was that the whole interior was lined in watermelon pink!

More in keeping with the average budget is a simple flat awning supported on poles in the ground. There are now awnings that are retractable and can be motorized to roll up for winter or bad storms. An average deck awning is around $1500 with the motor costing about $500 or so. This is a possible solution to our problem; we have a small greenhouse that takes up a key area between two sliding doors which prohibits a screened porch, but I think we could wedge in an awning over the patio. And the shade would keep the bricks from radiating heat into the house.

There’s always been something rather primitive about living out of doors. Aside from our ancestors’ need to grow herbs for healing and food preparation, the formalizing of the garden is centuries old. The English and French raised gardening to a high art form and some of the more delightful outdoor rooms have been in the form of a "folly" – a garden house meant for either parties or meditation or both. These garden houses were flamboyant and wildly eccentric. Books about follies make amusing and delightful summer reading. There are kits for making gazebos and belvederes that could be the basis for building your own folly.

Arbors, awnings, follies. Any of these would be great for the "Sirius" part of the summer – just don’t forget to put out a water dish for the dog.

Credit: Renovate with Tommy Mac