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The backyard makes a comeback
The backyard makes a comeback

Stay-cation. Holi-stay. Sit-about. Home-trip. Call it what you will, but more people will be spending more time at home this summer than probably any other time in the near future.

A February Zogby International poll found that 40 percent of Americans, apprehensive over the economy, are limiting or canceling their vacation plans. Instead, experts say, they will be making use of that most traditional of American spaces: the backyard - albeit a souped-up, 2009-version of the backyard.

The days of a simple kettle grill and umbrella-topped table sitting on a square of paving stones is going the way of lawn darts. These days, more and more backyards are seeing multiple cooking devices, accessories that broaden menus light years beyond burgers, furniture that looks like it should be in your living room, dedicated electrical and plumbing, greenery that both affords privacy and helps moderate poor weather, and an array of light and heating systems that extend grilling time well beyond noon on summer weekends.

"We have all been conditioned to think that the barbecue should sit on wheels and everything should fit within a 4-foot square space," says Jamie Durie, host of "HGTV Showdown," horticulturalist, landscape designer and founder of Sydney, Australia-based PATIO Landscape Architecture & Design. "[Patio design] has moved on by leaps and bounds. Technology has advanced to the point . . . that commercial fridges, cooktops and everything traditionally found only inside the house can now be integrated into exterior spaces."

The center of the patio is still, of course, the grill, but not just any grill. Any barbecuer worth his tongs these days must have a grill with infrared burners. The technology generates heat in excess of 900 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to a typical gas grill at 600-650 degrees, so it seals in flavor, providing juicier steaks and chops.

"One of the quests for grilling's Holy Grail is, â€óHow do I get a steakhouse char at home?' Infrared burners go a long way to giving you that," says Steven Raichlan, grill connoisseur, author and host of "Barbecue University" on PBS.

Infrared burners, formerly only available on high-end $2,500-plus grills, can now be had from manufacturers like Columbus, Ga.-based Char-Broil LLC on models ranging from $500 and $1,000. And infrared isn't the only change to outdoor cooking.

"Multiple grill ownership is another trend," says Raichlan.

Just like a kitchen has an oven, a cooktop, a microwave and possibly other cooking devices, homeowners are finding that they want flexibility in outdoor meal preparation.

"They might use the gas grill for convenience grilling on weeknights, and the charcoal grill and the smoker on the weekend," says Raichlan.

Home smoking in general is growing much more common thanks to easier-to-use backyard models equipped with thermostats from companies like Horizon Smoker Co., Perry, Okla.

But it's not just multiple cookers that are upping a backyard's appliance count. Durie says most of his work these days incorporates entire outdoor kitchens, which can include everything from refrigerators and wine coolers to dishwashers and cabinetry.

"It's the hottest trend in home entertaining," he says. "On the one hand, the recession hampers things, but on the other, eating outdoors at home more often is a great antidote to dining at restaurants."

And an outdoor kitchen needn't be budget-busting. Several companies, including Coventry, R.I.-based Simply Outdoorz, sell outdoor modules so you can build the space as income allows.

Not everything is big-budget and high-tech, either. Dozens of modest accessories are pushing people to expand their grilling horizons: Onward Manufacturing Co.'s GrillPro Wing Rack promotes even cooking of wings, thighs and drumsticks; Grill Innovations' Grill Oven Plate turns a grill into a convection oven for baking; charcoal packed in self-lighting chimney packs make grill start-up a snap; and silicone basting brushes don't shed bristles, clean up easily and last a long time.

None of the equipment will provide much benefit, however, unless you have the setting in which to utilize it. Durie says the key to the perfect patio is "creating a greater connection to your garden and getting you to fall in love with your own backyard again via creature comforts."

"There's no excuse for not using your backyard more," he says. "A lot of clients are staying put, nesting and improving their own homes. It's the greatest investment you can make for you and your family."

Durie and others offer a variety of ideas for homeowners interested in rekindling their backyard love affair.

1) Start with the grill

"Clearly [the grill] is the base of an outdoor kitchen or outdoor room," says Deidra Darsa, public relations director for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. Research what grill best suits your cooking needs in terms of burners, controls and size. "People are not just grilling meat anymore - they're cooking pizzas, vegetables . . . you can do a whole meal from appetizer to dessert."

2) Watch the wind

"Create a space that has insulation from wind," says Durie. "Sometimes changing levels to get a sunken effect provides more protection from wind; or use garden walls and plants that surround those outdoor spaces to give yourself protection or a microclimate, if you like." The right plantings can "extend living time for two months in outdoor space."

3) Warm it up

"People can have a lovely outdoor resort in their own backyard with firepits or outdoor fireplaces," says Darsa. An outdoor pizza oven becomes not just a cooking tool but a warming device. Some homeowners are even installing underfloor heating outside.

4) Light the night

Grill lights - standard on some high-end models - lighted tongs or properly positioned yard lights extend the grilling day and compensate for shadows. Lights are an essential but often neglected element in proper barbecuing, says Raichlan.

5) Furnish for comfort

The grill may be the centerpiece, but a patio needs outdoor seating areas for dining and conversation, with a nice flow so people can get around. Companies like Summer Classics, Montevallo, Ala., are producing an increasingly broader array of furniture that looks like it came right out of the house. Even rugs and throw pillows are finding their way to outside rooms.

6) Think green

Use Forest Stewardship Council stamped lumber and solar panels to offset electrical demand from lights, underfloor heating or outdoor sockets.

7) Be adventurous

The American grill has simultaneously globalized and rediscovered its own roots, says Raichlan. Today, people are grilling everything from Indian tandoori to Jamaican jerk to Korean kalbi kui, coupled with a traditional regional American barbecue.

"Ten years ago, brisket and pulled pork shoulder were pretty much specialties only of Texas and North Carolina, and rarely made at home. Today, the whole country has embraced them," says Raichlan.

8) Accessorize. Accessorize. Accessorize.

The industry has spawned a vast array of accessories to help people become more adventurous with the types of meals they're preparing outside.

"Every year something comes to the mainstream. Popper racks [racks made to roast stuffed jalapenos] are the buzzy new thing this year," says Raichlan.

9) Consider the investment

"If you spend between 5 and 7 percent of the value of home, you will never overcapitalize," says Durie. "A lot of real estate brokers are using outdoor spaces to market properties . . . saying, â€óImagine being out there entertaining friends and family, sitting around the dinner table and enjoying yourself.'"

10) Take it slow

Tackle a project in stages over the period of a couple seasons, says Durie. "Then come next summer, you'll be living outside more than you ever did."

11) Become a benchwarmer

Furnishing your outdoor space should be one of your largest investments. Placing furniture in your garden encourages you to use it more, says Judy Nauseef, president of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.

"A bench can be the focal point - you can arrange an entire garden around it, even in the front yard," she says.

-By Mirielle Cailles

© CTW Features


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