Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Of all the pandemic purchases I’ve made so far, the propane patio heater was the most optimistic.
My husband and I bought it in late September hoping that this eight-foot tall object would provide the fuel to keep our anemic social life running through the winter. But like pretty much everything these days, it didn’t get off to a good start. For nearly a month, the stainless-steel tower stood cold and alone in our backyard, shrouded in a sad vinyl blanket, waiting for the rain to stop and the skies to clear.
Outdoor enthusiasts will tell you that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Following that logic, the same should hold true for backyard furniture — with the right décor, my guests and I could be toasty warm regardless of how far the mercury falls. But there’s a difference between bundling up to hike in the rain, and just sitting in it. Who wants to be outside staring at a soggy yard, even if you’re under a patio heater?
And yet, many Americans are trying to find ways to turn an increasingly uncomfortable destination into a welcoming one. They don’t have much choice. With Covid-19 cases spiraling, we are facing the very real possibility that the holidays will be spent alone, unless we can find a way to celebrate them outdoors.
Many homeowners are continuing to pump money into their backyards, even as the days get shorter and colder. Landscape designers say that 2020 has been an extraordinarily busy year, with clients calling well into the fall requesting upgrades to their decks and patios. They want warming options like fire pits, heated cushions for their furniture and chimineas, which are free-standing outdoor fireplaces. They are also looking for protection from the elements, like pergolas and sails, and better lighting so they can see each other in the dark.
“It’s the busiest year I’ve ever had,” said Jan Johnsen, a landscape designer and author of the forthcoming book “Floratopia.” “People have rediscovered their backyards because of Covid.”
Searches on Pinterest for “outdoor winter party” were up threefold in October 2020 from last October, and searches for “outdoor fire pit designs” were up ninefold. At Wayfair, demand for outdoor furniture and décor is up this year, with sales of such items peaking in September.
Yardzen, an online landscape designer, says inquiries are still coming in from clients living in colder climates. “Regardless of region, with the impact of Covid, all of our clients are wanting to utilize their outdoor spaces,” said Kevin Lenhart, the design director at Yardzen. “They want a place where they can gather with friends.”
A smokeless fire pit and a string of fairy lights might look awesome, but they can’t erase the reality that you’re sitting outside on a blustery night. There’s a reason we tend to spend our winters indoors. The recent weeks of gloomy weather left me wondering if that was why I’d had no trouble finding a patio heater in a year when everything else has seemed to sell out the week before I decide to buy it.
I asked Linda Åkeson McGurk, who lives in Sweden and wrote “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather,” a book about how to raise children who relish the outdoors, whether it was possible to comfortably use our backyards year-round.
“Obviously, you can’t be outside for as long during the cold months, but if you dress properly, you can be outside for long periods of time, even in the winter,” she said, adding that we can look for ways to be active outdoors with guests. “It helps if you’re moving a round; it’s a little harder if you’re sitting with a glass of wine.”
Ms. McGurk, is a proponent of friluftsliv, a Scandinavian concept (pronounced FREE-loofts-liv) that calls for embracing the outdoors year round. To move a holiday like Thanksgiving outside, we need to adjust our expectations. We may not be able to serve a full turkey dinner with all the fixings, but we could certainly enjoy food together around a fire. Ms. McGurk suggests wearing thermal underwear, pulling out some throw blankets and serving hot items like stew or hot cocoa. “This could be an opportunity to create some new traditions,” she said. “Try an unconventional Thanksgiving meal outside, maybe give thanks to nature.”
Marissa Lovell, 27, a freelance writer in Boise, Idaho, adjusted her expectations to make Halloween happen. She spent the summer worrying that her favorite holiday would be canceled. By early September, she and her boyfriend, Brian Downs, 26, a trail builder, had already decorated the inside of their 700-square-foot house for the holiday with seasonal dishware and spooky artwork on the walls. By early October, they had set gravestones in the front yard and a giant spider on the roof. “We feel about Halloween the way other people feel about Christmas,” she said.
Knowing they could not bring guests indoors, they decided to invite 10 friends to their backyard instead. With the temperature forecast to hit 36 degrees, Ms. Lovell set out piles of blankets for people to use if they felt a chill. She ordered pizzas and made seats out of wood pallets that she covered with cushions, arranging them around her stone firepit. She told guests to dress in costume, but to choose them wisely. “It’s not the time to be a Playboy bunny,” said Ms. Lovell, who dressed as the devil with a vintage red robe atop a red bodysuit. (Mr. Downs was a werewolf.) The last guests left after midnight.
The night “was better than I hoped,” said Ms. Lovell, who normally would have gone to a Halloween concert. “It was a bright spot of 2020.”
If we’ve learned anything from the summer spent outdoors, it’s that our social lives are more weather dependent than ever. But as we head into the winter months, Scott Haas, the author of “Why Be Happy? The Japanese Way of Acceptance,” suggests that rather than look at a raw, dreary day as a source of disappointment, we should embrace the moment and pay attention to how the mist falls on the trees. “You have to adjust to the situation,” he said.
And if we want to see each other on days when the weather won’t cooperate, we’re going to have to put on enough layers to make it happen. “Either we’re going to say, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be stuck inside all winter,’ or we do something different,” Mr. Haas said.
Last weekend, the skies cleared for the first time in weeks and I invited two friends over to try out my new patio heater. I made spiked hot chocolate and set out heavy blankets on the Adirondack chairs I’d positioned six feet apart. It felt a little strange — kind of like camping, but with my house in full view.
We lasted until almost midnight, even as the temperature fell into the low 30s. Was it the most comfortable setting for entertaining? No. But the hot chocolate was delicious, the patio heater blazed red, and the night almost felt normal. Surprised that I didn’t feel the cold, I savored the precious hours with friends I hadn’t been able to see in weeks.