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Anna Williams
Function and materials are among the key decisions that must be made before installing a patio.

Nowhere are fantasies about the good life fulfilled as effortlessly as on a patio. Poised in the seductive realm between the comfort of civilization and the sensory splendor of the natural world, it is a haven from workaday concerns. Scenes played out there, whether a quiet breakfast for two or a lavish, friend-filled bash underneath the stars, can give ordinary life the feel of a vacation.

It has been true for centuries. The forerunners of modern patios date to ancient Rome. In recent decades, patios have undergone significant evolution. To the average 1950s American family, a patio meant a postage-stamp patch of concrete with a picnic table and a grill. Nowadays, these spaces are being outfitted with everything from hot tubs to fireplaces to full kitchens.

Of course, such luxuries aren't required. But it's important to think through the project before breaking ground because beyond the pleasure principle, patios serve a second purpose: enhancing the appearance of your property and home. Planning these exterior spaces demands the same careful consideration given to interior projects.

Deciding on a function will help you determine the size of the patio and its proximity to your home. For example, a patio for entertaining should be near the kitchen and spacious enough to hold a dining table; one intended for solitary pursuits and contemplation can be smaller and more remote. Study your landscape to pick a level site that maximizes views and receives the desired amount of sunlight or shade. Think about scale, too. The patio should be proportional to your house and yard, neither overpowering them nor getting lost in the shadows.

The next decision is arguably the most important: choosing the surface. Your outdoor floor should reflect the architecture of your home and the surrounding grounds. In addition, it needs to fit your budget and be able to withstand the extremes of your climate. Popular options include flagstone, composite decking, Belgian block, cobblestone, gravel, concrete paver, brick and stamped concrete.

Flagstone comes in irregular shapes, which form a puzzle-like pattern, or squared, for a more symmetrical look. Its textured surface provides traction.

If you're thinking of installing a wooden deck, consider composite decking, a synthetic blend of recycled plastic and natural fiber that resembles wood but won't rot or need replacing like the real thing. The boards come in brown, gray and other muted tones, but they can also be stained or painted. If you really want wood, choose durable cedar or teak that has been reclaimed or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. That way you know it was harvested in a sustainable manner.

New and reclaimed Belgian block and cobblestone are classic building materials that are extremely durable and quite expensive. Given the cost, they are often used sparingly as a decorative treatment.

Loose gravel can be put down on its own or with other materials. The free-draining material is suited to any climate, but periodic replenishing may be necessary. The pale stones of pea gravel add brightness and definition to a shady area.

Concrete paver is economical and long lasting, and can be made to resemble natural stone, Belgian block or antique brick. New or reclaimed, brick delivers a traditional look and can be used to create a variety of decorative patterns, including radial, herringbone and basket weave. If allowed to grow moss, surfaces can become slippery when wet.

Early spring is an ideal time to install a patio. Frozen ground will have thawed in most places, but lawns and plant life yet to return won't get trampled. You can do the work yourself or hire a landscape contractor. Either way, your patio will probably be installed using one of two methods: permanently mortared in place with concrete (in which case the surface must be pitched slightly to prevent rainwater from pooling) or dry-set in a bed of compacted sand. Mortarless installations drain freely, and they expand and contract during freeze-and-thaw cycles, so they perform better in very wet or cold climates.

Once the surface is down, accessorize. When adding furniture, create a cohesive look by replacing glass tabletops with slabs that match the pavers below. (Have a stonecutter craft them to fit within a table's metal frame.) Consider plantings as well. Indeed, patios double as gardens. Grow specimens in pretty pots or in the encircling ground to beautify the space. Pick up the colors of pillows by using plants with colorful foliage, such as coleus, and placing them in containers with colorful glazes. The loose fill between stones creates the perfect home for aromatic creeping thyme, where it will release its scent when stepped on. As with indoor settings, the way you decorate your patio will coax you and your guests into distinct moods.

That may be a lot to think about. But once your patio is finished, it will provide years of pleasure without asking for much in return — except that you get out there and use it.

Questions should be addressed to Ask Martha, care of Letters Department, Martha Stewart Living, 11 W. 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. Questions may also be sent by electronic mail to: [email protected] Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually. For more information on the topics covered in the Ask Martha column, visit www.marthastewart.com.

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