After a dreary Ohio winter, most of us can’t wait to get some sunshine. Fortunately, average temperatures in the Miami Valley sit in the 60s from March to May and from September to October.

“We call these early spring and late fall days the shoulder seasons,” says Dave Swearingen, landscape architect for Dayton’s The Site Group. “If you plan it right, your outdoor spaces will work for you almost all year long.”

While the thermometer starts creeping higher during the shoulder season months, a fireplace or fire pit can provide a focal point as well as a source of warmth during these transitional evenings. A fireplace can also be used to screen the patio area from the neighbors or a less than desirable view.

“A fire pit provides 360 degrees of gathering space,” says Swearingen. “Many people like the idea of burning wood as part of the experience.” There are also gas models that can be enjoyed with less regular maintenance.

Planters are another important element and Swearingen recommends that foliage maintenance should be part of the plan from the start.

“If you’re a true gardener, you will enjoy taking care of plants,” he says. “Other people are golfers or have a boat and don’t want to do this upkeep.”

When drawing up an outdoor space, Swearingen strives to create key conversational nooks that will bring together three or four people at a time. He adds that many homeowners are motivated by a special occasion like a graduation or retirement party to create an outside entertaining area.

“They usually start out by thinking they need a big slab of patio,” Swearingen explains. “I like to use the approach of 10-foot diameter circles. In one circle you can place a table and chairs or a living room suite. Four circles would be an efficient use of space for eight to 12 people, (providing) flexibility but not too much space. You don’t want to feel like you’re sitting in a parking lot.”

There are three typical separate spaces created within a well-planned outdoor living space—one for grilling and serving, another for eating and a third for lounging—that all require their own 10-foot circles. From a simple grill to a fully built-in outdoor kitchen, the cooking space is a big part of the enjoyment and can be accentuated by fixtures like a counter with stool seating.

The Site Group worked on the Dayton area Whaley family’s back patio area and anchored their outdoor living space with a fireplace. The Whaleys chose a Round Grove gas fireplace, which The Site Group surrounded with stone for a natural looking hearth and chimney.

When you define part of the space with a pergola as the Whaley family did, it helps to bridge interior design elements with the outdoors.

“Inside your home you might have variations in ceiling height,” says Swearingen. “For example, a 12-foot entryway and nine feet in the dining room. This adds interest and helps to define the area. We do the same thing for your outdoor rooms.”

A pergola is not really for shade, though, and in the hottest months an awning or even a roofed area works better, he advises.