Your outdoor space should be your sanctuary: a chill spot for relaxing with a book, enjoying a glass of wine, or hosting a barbecue with friends.
But even if you scored your dream balcony or a sprawling backyard, there are ways your outdoor oasis could actually be stressing you out. This is not only a potential bummer, but also a wasted opportunity: Research shows that more time outdoors can have a therapeutic effect—if you’re doing it right.
“Outdoor living is shifting from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘need to have’ for our overall health and well-being,” says Joe Raboine, director of residential hardscapes with Belgard.
With that in mind, we talked with outdoor design experts to learn about the most common stressors in our outdoor spaces and to gather tips on how you can take your own open-air hangout from gloomy to glorious.
1. Poor lighting
We already know that spending too much time surrounded by artificial lights in the office can be detrimental for mental health. But even outdoor spaces require some planning to create optimum, stress-free lighting situations.
“Designers, whether homeowners or professional, should take note of the area and determine where the sun will be throughout the day [and] how to light it effectively in the evening,” Raboine says.
To control and block direct sunlight, options range from statement-making structures (think pavilions and trellises) to more simple, low-budget solutions (sun umbrella).
After dusk, Raboine suggests using a combination of low-voltage and decorative lighting to improve visibility without harsh fluorescents. Incorporate string cafe lights, Malibu lights, or even candles to cast a soft glow that’s functional, customizable, and beautiful.
2. Lack of privacy
Depending on where you live, your outdoor space might not feel like a relaxed place to decompress, especially if it butts up against your neighbors’ space.
“For privacy, fences, plantings, and vertical gardens are all options that help,” Raboine says.
If you have a balcony, put up a trellis or another prefab privacy wall. Bonus: This can also be a great way to add some greenery to your limited outdoor space.
In a large yard, you could opt for a fence (particularly if you have a dog). If you prefer a more natural solution, plant bushes, shrubs, or trees to improve privacy without putting up a literal wall between you and your neighbors.
Mosquitoes, flies, gnats, ticks, moths—these critters can cause major headaches when we’re trying to relax outdoors. Just try to enjoy a margarita with a fly hovering at the top of the glass and a mosquito taking a bite of your arm.
But insects can be more than just a minor nuisance, explains Paul Miller, director of the Tick and Mosquito Project.
“Mosquitoes and ticks are not just annoyances, but are also potential health risks,” Miller says. “We all know about the Zika virus because it made headlines, but mosquitoes carry many other diseases, too.”
To keep creepy-crawlies at bay, Miller suggests relocating your patio away from long grasses, where insects thrive; using warm, soft outdoor bulbs in light fixtures to avoid attracting bugs; and if possible, opting for a screened-in seating area.
If a screened-in porch isn’t an option, stock up on budget-friendly standbys like citronella candles and basil plants to ward off mosquitoes.
4. Dysfunctional foliage
Plants are having a moment, especially among millennials. And while quality time in green spaces can help decrease stress, it’s also possible to have too much of a good thing.
If you were overzealous during your spring plant haul, you may have wound up with an overcrowded, difficult-to-maintain garden that adds another cumbersome chore to your to-do list. In gardens, sometimes less is more.
“Planting small and spacing for a plant’s full size translate into greater design integrity, less maintenance, and healthier plants,” says Cassy Aoyagi, board member of the U.S. Green Building Council’s L.A. chapter and president of FormLA Landscaping.
To further avoid adding stress to your life, plant perennials that will grow back year after year. Annuals, while pretty, tend to require lots of chemicals and extra work to maintain, and you get to enjoy them for only one season, Aoyagi points out.
Trees, on the other hand, are always worth preserving, Aoyagi says (unless they’ve become sick or hazardous).
“Trees reduce our stress. Tree canopy keeps us cool, too,” Aoyagi says. “Removing trees or severe trimming that eviscerates the natural shape are great missteps.”
5. Oversize lawns
A big backyard might sound like a centerpiece of the American dream, but wide-open spaces that lack a purpose can become a greater source of stress than relaxation. If your acreage is more scenic than functional, your maintenance to-do list can feel never-ending.
“Mowing, blowing, tree trimming all produce a great deal of noise and air pollution, and sprinkler systems can be annoying,” Aoyagi says.
She suggests reworking large lawns to feature outdoor rooms, vegetable and herb gardens, or trails. Dedicating a corner of a large yard to box planters for herbs and vegetables is an easy weekend project that will yield delicious results while also cutting back on the time you’ll spend mowing the grass.
Reworking your lawn doesn’t have to happen overnight. By making small changes over time, you’ll start to notice the stress melt away as your lawn becomes more functional and less of a burden.
“When we get to experience the difference, it is nothing shy of magic,” Aoyagi says.