In Like A Lion...

It's March and, while there happens to be 7 inches of snow in my backyard, it is still time to start thinking about what is lurking under that blinding blanket of white. I guarantee you, it's not pretty. I am one of those people who are great at giving advice but not so great at following it myself. So I have a literal pile of uncovered furniture on my patio, along with cushions, pillows, half empty terra cotta pots, plant stands, and an assortment of outdoor flummery. And it's all dirty. Every inch of it.

Once the snow melts (please let it be soon) I will have quite a chore on my hands –first of all, those cushions that have been rained, snowed, and pooed on by a staggering variety of backyard birds will need to be cleaned. Most of today's modern outdoor fabrics can be washed without risk; check for a label with cleaning instructions. If you have acrylic, polyester or vinyl cushions and they are removable, chances are you can toss them in the washing machine. One good indicator that you are able to do this is the existence of zippers. No cushions are made to be put in their entirety in the wash, so don't try it. If your cushion covers don't unzip, make a solution of dish washing soap and water and use a sponge or cloth to remove spots. Thankfully, I can unzip the cushions and wash mine; it's always a good idea to use the gentle cycle and mild soap. DO NOT DRY your cushion covers! Air dry them until they are damp and them put them back on. You'll find it's easier to reassemble the cushions before the covers are completely dry.

I also have some “sling" furniture; these seats are easy to take care of with mild soap and water, a sponge or soft brush, and the garden hose.

If me saying “mild soap and water" is too vague for you, dishwashing liquid works well; a quarter cup in a gallon of warm water. If the dishwashing liquid just isn't cutting it, try adding some oxi-bleach; 2 tablespoons should do it.

And speaking of bleach, if you notice mildew stains on any of your furniture, you may be able to use some chlorine bleach to treat them; check the furniture label or look at the manufacturer's cleaning instructions on-line. You could also test an inconspicuous spot to make sure there is no fading or running of color. Dilute the bleach one part to ten parts water; rinse it off completely.

The aluminum frames of all my furniture will need to be wiped down. Whether you have metal, wood or plastic furniture, you basically want to follow the same plan: brush off any dirt or debris, wash the surface of the furniture with a mild solution of soap and water and rinse it off with the hose. You may be tempted to cut to the chase and get out the power-washer; don't do it! All you have to do is make contact with one little spot that is chipped or blistered and the next thing you know you've “cleaned" off half the finish!

FYI, some recommend power-washing teak to return it to its pristine golden color but this can create cracks in the wood and cause problems down the line. It's best to use teak cleaner or soap and water; you can use a sponge that has been designed to scrub non-stick cookware to avoid damaging the wood. If all else fails, you can also sand the wood with a very fine paper.

Once everything is clean, you may decide the winter was a little harsher on your furniture than you realized. Most furniture, even plastic, can be painted if necessary. There are spray paint formulas and/or primers for nearly every type of material. The manufacturer of your patio furniture may sell touch-up paint if you just need to take care of a few spots.

If you own steel or wrought iron furniture, make sure you take care of those “few spots" asap; both steel and wrought iron make for some excellent outdoor furniture because it is so heavy and hard-wearing. However, if the paint has chipped or peeled down to the metal, it is really important that you get it covered up before it begins to rust. If you already have a little rust, simply sand it off and paint.

Oh, yeah – wicker. I have that too. All-weather or synthetic wicker is simple; it's the same old story – mild soap and water, hose it off and you are done. “Real" wicker furniture; rattan or other natural materials, will respond well to regular wood furniture cleaner. If there is dust or dirt in the crevices, try a can of air or your vacuum cleaner on reverse to blow it out. For both natural and synthetic wicker; if you notice any unraveling, tuck it back in; if you leave it loose it will continue to unravel and that will make it difficult to repair.

Now the furniture's clean; what's next? If you have a paver patio like me, keep that hose out and give it a good sweep and wash. This is the time you can have fun with the power washer as well. A wood deck might need repairs; check for loose boards, rusty or popped out nails. If your deck is unpainted, you will need to treat it for mold with bleach or a product made for this purpose. After you have it spic and span, time to add a stain or paint to protect the wood from that hot sun and summer showers.

If you are feeling really motivated, take a look in the shed or garage. Sort through those busted bats and balls, ripped nets and smashed badminton birdies and get rid of what's broken or doesn't get used. Get organized and prepared for that summer storm of toys and tools by adding shelving or an outdoor storage chest.

Now that everything is clean and organized, think about jazzing it all up with some new pillows, an outdoor rug or other accessory items. Patio lights (I have some star shaped hanging lanterns that I love) are great for atmosphere. Virtually anything you use indoors for decorating can be used outside; there are outdoor versions of sectionals, daybeds, poof and ottomans, occasional tables, even tables lamps and wall art that is designed to be weatherproof. There are candle holders and chandeliers, outdoor entertainment centers and serving carts. This is a good time to think about what you were missing last spring and summer. Were you wishing for a cantilevered umbrella for those hot summer days? A firepit on cool evenings? Need a new gas grill or barbeque utensils? With a little planning and some elbow grease, you can make your outdoor area as warm, interesting and inviting as your indoors.

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