Patio perfection

Patio perfection

Accouterments turn it into an outdoor living room

Hang in there, Tucsonans. Autumn is just around the corner, and with it months of blissful, patio-perfect weather.

Ah, yes, the patio. As the weather cools, it's a good time to get reacquainted. The once humble patio is evolving into a kind of outdoor living room - and in Tucson, the Santa Catalina and the Rincon mountains, or simply the desert sky, serve as some of the world's greatest natural wallpaper.

"A lot of people talk about it as creating an outdoor living space," says Chris Niccum, owner of Sonoran Gardens, a Tucson-based landscaping and patio company. "People envision that as a patio, but it certainly can go much beyond that. It can have a roof. It can have a floor. We do lots of kitchens."

But if yours is begging for a makeover, it's best to come up with a game plan. Niccum says patio projects can range from simple improvements to luxurious outdoor playgrounds, but most people tend to drastically underestimate the price.

"It's a twofold thing. They need to be thinking of how they want to use the space and how much they're willing to spend," he says. "A lot of people come to us with a $50,000 wish list and a $5,000 budget. The biggest thing is that people don't really think about it. They're really excited, but it becomes a shock to them when we start talking about budgets."

Comprehensive backyard renovations are more likely to start at about $15,000 to $20,000, Niccum says, which usually includes an extended patio space, planting, irrigation and some low-voltage lighting.

But that work can be spaced out over a period of months or years to fit a budget if need be, Niccum says. It's important to stay flexible and build with the possibility of future extensions in mind. And there are a number of smaller touches homeowners can do to spruce up an outdoor space, such as creative accessorizing.

But no matter your budget, it's worth it to get outside and do some blue-sky thinking. Here are some ideas for building a classic Tucson patio on any budget.

Laying the Foundation

A patio starts with the floor, and in Tucson that's likely a durable, weather-resistant concrete, brick or stone surface, depending on the homeowner's tastes.

The most common types of patio materials are basic concrete, concrete pavers made out of formed concrete, and the most expensive option, flagstone, a sedimentary rock commonly quarried in Flagstaff that has a beautiful natural look. Textured and colored concrete can fill in as a cheaper substitute for luxe flagstone.

A concrete paver patio can cost as low as $7 or $8 a square foot. Flagstone is almost twice that. But even if a full-on patio replacement is too pricey, a good option is to expand the existing patio area to open up more space for seating, planters or other features. Brick is another option, although it's becoming more expensive, Niccum says.

The best-looking patios tend to be all of one material, but it's possible to pull off a good-looking extension with another material, say if you wanted to add a more expensive element. In that case, you can create a boundary between materials with a line of bricks or other stone.

As always, flexibility is the key.

"If it's designed correctly, you can add fire later, kitchen later, you can have all plants and stuff and still set up to add later," Niccum says. "It's called phasing the project."

Taking it Easy

Patio furniture has changed a lot in the past few decades, going from very basic designs and construction - it's meant to be used outdoors, after all - to elegant arrangements that compete with the finest indoor furniture, says Joanne Tudor, the owner of Tucson's House'n Garden.

Tudor's family has been in the patio business for more than a half-century. Her father opened House'n Garden in 1951, and today it's the oldest patio furniture store in Tucson, specializing in American-made products.

"The furniture now is absolutely as gorgeous as indoor furniture, except that it can hold up extremely well under the elements," she said.

Prices for a basic set of patio furniture vary widely. At House'n Garden, a table and four chairs starts at about $799 but can easily approach several thousand dollars.

An inexpensive option, and one that has remained popular for decades in the Old Pueblo, is wrought iron furniture with a metal diamond mesh for the seat and back. It can stand up to full sun and requires little to no maintenance.

Heavy wrought iron frames with deep cushioning are probably the next most popular pick and can be kept looking new for years with regular cleaning, usually with a steel wool brush to keep them from oxidizing. Synthetic wicker has a classic patio look, but it requires regular maintenance and needs to be kept in the shade.

Wood is likely the most expensive. In Tucson, wood patio furniture needs to be either teak or hardwood to stand up to the desert conditions, and it needs to be oiled or sanded on a regular basis.

"It definitely requires maintenance, but it looks beautiful," Tudor says.

One last tip from Tudor - for social gatherings, a high coffee table, meaning about 4 inches higher than a normal coffee table, is excellent for outdoor drinks and hors d'oeuvres or casual dining.

Keeping Cool

Shade is essential for any patio. This can be anything from a literal outdoor roof to a canopy provided by shade trees.

Tree planting is a natural, attractive option. Some popular desert-friendly trees recommended on the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association's Home and Garden Show website are Texas ebony, palo blanco and the Mexican bird of paradise, which sports beautiful yellow blooms. And with prime planting season in late August through early October, it's an excellent idea to consider adding shade to your yard.

And you may not even have to go to a nursery to buy a shade tree. For qualifying homeowners, Trees for Tucson provides shade trees for Tucson Electric Power Co. customers. For more information, go online to

For a fun, beach-going look, umbrellas can be a cheap and colorful accent. Attractive sets can be had for less than $100 in some cases.

Shade sails, made out of nylon sail rigging, are an emerging trend in Tucson. They provide sleek, modern-looking dependable shade and will be a conversation starter. The sails, however, generally have to be professionally installed, and prices can vary widely, depending on the sail's size and how it's mounted.

A few Quick Ideas

Here are five easy ways to spruce up any outdoor living space.

• Roll out the red carpet. Or any color you like. An attractive outdoor rug can liven up even a bland concrete patio area.

• Experiment with sound. Situate your patio so that it easily catches gentle breezes; they can add sound effects.

• Add some greenery. Pots and planters are cheap at any home store and can add natural color and walkways to an outdoor environment. Desert plants such as succulents and cacti are also easy to care for.

• Make it a menagerie. The Sonoran Desert is home to more than 100 species of birds, including colorful varieties such as hummingbirds and cardinals. They're also a great natural decoration. Make them do the work for you.

• Make it private. A simple wooden screen can create an intimate atmosphere by blocking off a busy street or adding another dimension to the backyard.

"The (outdoor) furniture now is absolutely as gorgeous as indoor furniture, except that it can hold up extremely well under the elements."

Joanne Tudor, owner of House'n Garden

Alex Dalenberg is a Tucson-based freelance writer. Email:

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