I fell in love with porches decades ago, playing with my cousins in the rain on their front porch in the tiny Midwestern U.S. town where my dad—and I—were born.
I was a suburban Texas kid by that time, and the whole experience was exotic and wonderful. I was outside, but inside. We didn’t have to worry about messing up the house. And we could play undisturbed—the grown-ups were safely indoors.
My passion for porches was frustrated through many years and many addresses. Then, my husband and I bought our first home, in the Beach. The house was a solid little thing, with—wait for it—a cool, if plain, front porch. Our next Beach home was larger, with an even better front porch (which certainly was a big plus for me).
Pretty, friendly and practical, too.
Around here, a house looks kinda naked without a front porch. Bare. Fortress-like. Unwelcoming. Porches are pretty. Even run-down ones have tons of character. They’re friendly, a place that’s both open and private, where you can be as sociable as you want to be, chatting with neighbours and people passing by.
They’re also practical: an additional room in summer, often in spring and fall, and even—sometimes—in winter. How do porches work? Let me count the ways: As outdoor breakfast and dining rooms; as play rooms and pirate ships; As potting sheds for garden addicts; as smoking rooms; as retreats for reading/writing, away from the household buzz; as tree houses for adults, if they’re raised high enough above street-level; as winter sunrooms, if they’re glass-enclosed; and as quiet night-time thinking spots.
Porch do’s and don’ts
Such hardworking spaces deserve some special thought. Porches should definitely be in proportion to the house. A big, beautiful house with a little, mingy porch is a sad thing. So are big, hefty houses fronted by porches with spindly, turned posts and rails—at least in our neighbourhood. Most Beach homes are plain and practical; beware of adding gingerbread trim to them.
And please, no fake wrought-iron, unless circumstances force you into it. (I do realize the economy stinks.) Repeat after me: We are not New Orleans, Looziana. Even if we do have a cool jazz fest where people crowd the streets.
Fat wooden columns, alone or on brick piers (porch talk for the half-height bases that columns sit on) are the thing. Brick columns are also fine, depending on the age of the house. Wrap the porch with wood or brick balustrades (porch talk for those rail-things) to suit your house’s age and style. Renovators may balk, but stick to your porch-y principles as long as your wallet can stand it. Porches are worth the investment.
Dressing the porch
Prettying-up your porch is the fun part. Even if the structure and design aren’t the greatest, you can add lots of things to make your porch a terrific space.
Furniture—Go with traditional wicker/rattan, new outdoor dining sets or cottagey painted wood. Shabby chic tables and chairs are fine, too, but no old car seats, please.
Curtains and shades—Curtains are charming, but hard to care for. They can also cut off summer’s lake breezes. A weather-proof banner or living vine could be a better choice for shade and privacy. If your porch is open to cold winter winds and snow, consider hanging a canvas shade on the north side that you can roll up in better weather.
Rugs and cushions—These must be weatherproof. No soggy, mouldy fabric underfoot, please. Faux oriental carpets look plush; rag rugs are folksy. Colourful cotton chair cushions are OK if you don’t mind yanking them indoors when rain threatens.
Ornaments—What’s a porch without container plants? Place them where you can enjoy them, not just for street display. Add wreaths, plaques and sculpture to your porch, too, if you want. Just be aware that there are a few evil people in the world who might make off with your treasures. (This means YOU, rocking chair thief.)
If you haven’t experienced the pleasure of porches yet, get out there and try it for a while. Bring your knitting, your paper, your laptop, your lunch. Summer’s too short to miss this opportunity to join the fun.
Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer