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SPRING MEANS SPRUCING UP YOUR OUTDOOR LIVING SPACE

As skies turn scarlet and evenings smell of flowers and fruit-tree blossoms, it's time to return to our room outdoors.

Spring is patio and backyard season. Now is when you want to take a hard look at your outdoor living space and do all the improvements and additions to make this year the most enjoyable to date.The simple addition of one or two trees can make a dramatic difference.

"I'm a big tree person," said Phoenix landscape designer Mary Hoffmann. "When I'm working on a project, I try to strategically place canopy trees in patio spaces that are exposed to hot afternoon sun."

One of her favorite trees for this purpose is the Chilean mesquite because it grows fast, drops minimal small-leaf litter and has an attractive bark.

"They're also very trainable," Hoffmann said. "You can have them tucked real tight to a patio and literally live under them."

Large concrete pots plumbed right into a deck or even into the ground around the deck can be an effective way to divide neat little intimate spaces. They can also serve as transitional accent elements between indoors and outdoors.

"They need to be large enough so they don't look too spotty," Hoffmann said. "They should be 3 or 4 feet in diameter. Concrete is good because it can be painted an integral color and requires no external maintenance. Ceramic cracks and chips over time. Terra cotta literally dissolves."

Small trees or shrubs can be planted in plumbed pots.

A popular variation on the large pot accent is to place them around two or three benches if you have enough deck space. Many mail-order catalogs offer corner groupings of pots and benches in patio packages.

Landscape architect Peter Cure' said another popular motif for carrying the indoor theme outdoors is to extend indoor flooring to the patio deck.

"If you have a house with Spanish tile inside, you can use it outside on the patio," Cure' said. "Flagstone is also useful indoors and outdoors."

Cure' said a manmade paver known as ancient stone also can be used to duplicate the same grid pattern of floor coverings that can't be brought outside like New York white tile.

Patio furniture also goes a long way to personalizing an outdoor room. The choices are enormous. Depending on your budget, you can furnish a deck with Ottomans and fabric-covered chairs that practically look like indoor furniture, or go the thrifty route with plastic, weather-resistant chairs and tables.

"Personally, I like wrought iron," Hoffmann said. "It has a very rich look and holds up well."

Cure' said, "Love-seat rockers and flagstone-top coffee tables are nice. But you can easily spend $5,000 and up just doing a simple table and chairs, couch and a couple of side chairs."

Cure' said for his clients who don't want to spend that much on patio furniture, he often recommends furniture stores that carry nice stuff that's less expensive than designer outlets.

"Simple butterfly chairs and director chairs work, too, and run only about $20 a chair," Cure' said. "You get two to three years out of them before you have to start tuning them up."

Cure' said the most common mistake people make is not planning their patios wide enough to accommodate all the furniture they want to use.

"You need to design those spaces ahead of time," Cure' said.

Hoffmann said you might try perimeter seating if you don't have a lot of patio space for furniture. Something like banco seat walls can serve as a place to sit and also hold food trays. Banco seat walls are usually made of masonry and painted an adobe color.

"You can even put colorful cushions on them," Hoffmann said.

Night lighting adds another dimension to your patio room. And let's be honest, in the middle of summer, the night is usually the most pleasant part of the day. If you can see, you'll be even more drawn to the patio.

Lighting, like furniture, comes with many price tags. If you plan to light up the entire yard, you probably will be better off to invest in a middle-range, low-voltage line. Installed, expect to pay $85 a fixture plus $200 for a transformer per every dozen lights. For a medium-size back yard, $1,500 should do it.

"You can buy one of those $59 lighting kits . . . if you only plan on hooking up four lights," Cure' said.

Water features accomplish many things. A small fountain with running water can act as a sound barrier to street traffic. It also can be aesthetically pleasing just to sit back and listen to splashing water.

"There's also the cooling factor," said Kent Miller of the Groundskeeper, a landscaping firm in Tucson. "In the summer, watching or listening to a fountain can make you cooler. Also, if the water feature is close enough to your patio, a little breeze coming off the water can physically cool you as well."

Misters may serve the same purpose, but unless you invest in a system that operates off a compressor rather than your home water pressure, there tend to be clogging problems and you find yourself getting too wet. The compressor types with the fine nozzles and filtration systems can run around $2,000.

"I think ceiling fans cool you just as well as misters anyway," Cure' said.

In recent years, wildlife waterers have become popular in patio areas. This doesn't have to be an elaborate setup. Just a submersible Little Giant pump placed in a natural setting of rocks can attract an incredible number of birds in urban back yards.