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The Design Skeptic: Do We Really Need to Plug In Outdoors?

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The Design Skeptic: Do We Really Need to Plug In Outdoors?

October 2, 2018

(In her monthly column for the Wall Street Journal, Gardenista editor Michelle Slatalla tackles interior and exterior design challenges. In this installment, she wonders how important it really is to unplug in nature. Hear her out (and see the original in the Wall Street Journal).

Photograph by Mimi Giboin.
Above: Photograph by Mimi Giboin.

It’s very cold and lonely in the middle of the night in my backyard, where I am standing as I beg my eight-week-old puppy to empty his bladder so we can both go back to bed.

“Be a good boy,” I whisper-yell, trying not to wake the neighbors as I peer through the darkness toward the spot where I last saw a tiny, big-eared dog hop through the grass in pursuit of a leaf that needed a pouncing.

I wish I had something to do out here, like watch TV or listen to music or text a fuzzy photo of the puppy to my husband, who is asleep but if his phone buzzed might wake up and come out to relieve me until the dog relieves himself.

A burgeoning trend among Americans is to turn the backyard into the living room and, weirdly, I’m starting to see the point. Maybe it’s sleep deprivation, but a weatherproof TV is starting to sound good to me.

CE Pro, a trade magazine that covers the custom electronics industry, reported a 44 percent growth in outdoor installations last year as more people installed outdoor wi-fi hubs and ran underground cable to extend the reach of their indoor audio and visual equipment. There are lawn-embedded charging stations (which I could use right now, since my phone’s power level is at an ominously low 4 percent). There is even an intriguing, though ugly, stereo speaker shaped like a rock, which might look OK at the base of my rose bushes.

A 6.5-inch Nuvo AccentPlus\1 Outdoor Rock Speaker with a fixed tweeter is €470 at Sirkom.
Above: A 6.5-inch Nuvo AccentPlus1 Outdoor Rock Speaker with a fixed tweeter is €470 at Sirkom.

“Maybe we should investigate surround sound for the garden,” I said to my husband the next morning (and three more trips to the backyard later). “With the right infrastructure, we could have a wall-mount plasma flat screen.”

“Nice try,” he replied. “But you’re not getting me to take over your night shifts with a little CE sweet talk. Besides, the neighbors would complain about the light pollution.”

“We could put the TV under a pergola or something,” I said. “It’s boring out there—I’d rather be watching ‘Brockmire.’”

“Who are you?” he asked, but I could tell he was a tiny bit thrilled. He does love consumer electronics.

Weatherproof televisions customized for use in full sun, full shade, or even a snowstorm are manufactured by Sun Brite TV.
Above: Weatherproof televisions customized for use in full sun, full shade, or even a snowstorm are manufactured by Sun Brite TV.

It’s true that the woman my husband married believed that gardens are for gardening. I used to say that humans lose some of our nature when we give up on nature—and technology is a threat to all the things I love about being in nature (unplugging, listening to birdsong, growing things). Outdoors, the best audio is the wind rustling through the redwoods.

But the more I looked into it, the more I wondered if I had been a reactionary. The indoors-ification of the outdoors has been happening more or less consistently since the early days of civilization—with or without me. The ancient Greeks built open-air theaters where audiences were exposed to live plays and post-sundown breezes that likely made those who forgot to bring a sweater (or whatever they wore over their togas) wish they were home indoors.

Making it easier to do indoor activities outside is a major trend in garden design now, according to a 2018 American Society of Landscape Architects survey of 808 members who ranked the projects clients are clamoring for this year. “Flexible-use space for yoga class, movie night, etc.” and mobile charging stations were two outdoor amenities that made the top 10 list of items with highest consumer demand. Traditional backyard recreational centers such as swimming pools, tennis courts, and hammocks did not.

What the survey results are telling us, says Washington, D.C.-based landscape architect Jennifer Horn, is that “in the past, people felt like they just had to adapt to their landscapes and now are more interested in making their gardens adapt to their lifestyles.”

Custom yoga platforms designed by Ananda Woodworks have boards fastened by wooden pegs and are made of reclaimed and salvaged wood. For more information and pricing, see Ananda Woodworks.
Above: Custom yoga platforms designed by Ananda Woodworks have boards fastened by wooden pegs and are made of reclaimed and salvaged wood. For more information and pricing, see Ananda Woodworks.

So what could make life with a puppy more bearable in my backyard?

For one thing, a kitchen. Gone are the days of the humble outdoor grill. This year the Char-Broil Co., whose portable outdoor cookers stoked post-WWII America’s newfound ardor for backyard barbecues, has brought to market a build-your-own modular outdoor kitchen system you can customize to fit your space with a choice of two sizes of gas grills, stovetop burners, a refrigerator, running water, and a charging outlet for a mobile phone.

A Char-Broil Modular Outdoor Kitchen Entertainment Module &#8\2\20;boasts a fully functioning faucet and sink, removable insulated cooler and cutting board insert, in addition to a removable trash can and electrical outlet&#8\2\2\1; and enables you to plug in and charge a cell phone, notes the manufacturer; \$\1,\199.
Above: A Char-Broil Modular Outdoor Kitchen Entertainment Module “boasts a fully functioning faucet and sink, removable insulated cooler and cutting board insert, in addition to a removable trash can and electrical outlet” and enables you to plug in and charge a cell phone, notes the manufacturer; $1,199.

The idea behind the Char-Broil modular kitchen system, said product manager Robert Hawkins, is to give consumers all the choices available in a high-end, built-in outdoor kitchen—a new favorite among the architect-hiring set—for a more affordable price. “This is a DIY project, for consumers who maybe don’t have $10,000 to pay a contractor. You don’t need a plumber or an architect. You can add modules one at a time, seasonally, and run numerous extension cords to power them.”

Numerous extension cords? While the affordable price was a lure (for $599, the stovetop module has a rust-resistant burner and 65,000 BTUs), I hate extension cords. Even one is too many.

Maybe that stereo speaker shaped like a rock was the answer?

The Nuvo collection features a variety of outdoor stereo speakers from France-based manufacturer Legrand, which are covered in molded rubber meant to disguise them as small boulders. Sadly, however, Fritz Werder, a Legrand vice president and general manager, told me that they’re being phased out.

“They looked fake,” he said. “Industrial design is important.” He added that Legrand’s industrial designers are creating a new generation of stereo speakers to blend in better, mounted under the eaves of houses, matching a facade’s paint color, or sitting less conspicuously in flower beds.

“What are the rocks being replaced by?” I asked.

“Speakers that look like mulch,” he said.

It sounds promising. But maybe I am in the end just a reactionary. For now I think it might be faster and easier to teach my dog to heed nature’s call than to ask nature to watch “Brockmire” with me.

Are you ready to embrace Garden Tech and Smart Home solutions outdoors? Read more:

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