IN YOUR DREAMS, you’ve got a backyard deck that rivals the rooftop bar at the W Hotel and a garden on par with the one Michelle Obama planted at the White House. But for most city dwellers, the reality is a piece-of-toast-sized balcony off a Shaw studio or a Petworth rowhouse patio with room for a sad, tiny tree that only Charlie Brown could love.

“People think they’ve got all this room,” says James DeLorbe, president of D.C. design firm DeLorbe, Manderlay & Wilde, Ltd. “They envision they’re going to have a table and four chairs, a conversation area, plants. They rush out and buy all these things, but when they get them in there, there’s no way to move.”

To optimize a dinky outdoor space, think realistically about the size of your balcony, patio, porch or front stoop, says DeLorbe. Just as important? Knowing how you want it to function. “I would have a conversation with the client about how they expect to use the space,” says Jason Claire, co-owner of D.C. home furnishings shop Vastu (1829 14th St. NW; 202-234-8344), which also offers design services. “Are they big into grilling and therefore eating outside? Or are they cocktail party people who need a high table to lean on?”

Choose furniture that won’t overwhelm a small space — bistro sets for alfresco dining, lounge chairs that fold up. Avoid cushions that need to be stored somewhere when it’s raining. (Even weather-proof fabrics like Sunbrella won’t withstand being outside constantly.) Keep things flexible by investing in wheeled platforms for plants or tables with leaves. And in a decidedly non-Versailles style garden, multitaskers are a must — as in footrests that also work as tables or seats, and plant stands that double as bars when entertaining.

And yes, you can throw a party, even in a plot with petite proportions. Just skip the five-course, gourmet feast. “Have an open house,” says Denise Gee, author of the upcoming book “Porch Parties” ($17, Chronicle Books). “That allows people to drop by at different times and keeps things interesting.” For the menu, Gee suggests serving a signature cocktail and finger foods that are easy to eat even if guests find themselves perched on the fire escape.

When adding the final touches to your cozy front porch or tiny back terrace, don’t go overboard. “Small spaces tend to be over-designed; people think they can do a lot more with them than they actually can,” says Derek Stearns, co-host of DIY Network‘s Rock Solid and Indoors Out series (Tues., 10 p.m.). “There’s nothing worse than when you walk into a great backyard and you see all these wind chimes and gnomes. That looks like ‘It’s a Small World‘ from Disney World. It’s better to keep it simple and to keep the space true to its function.”

Stearns likes accessorizing with plants, whether that’s a decorative dwarf tree in a corner or a pretty pot filled with cheap but colorful annuals like zinnias and petunias.

And an outdoor rug can help tie everything together. “When I see a rug with two chairs and a little couch, I feel like I’m in someone’s living room,” he says. “It can be the ugliest patio in the world, but no one’s looking at that, because it feels like a room.”

Need to decorate your little piece of the great outdoors? These space-saving beauties are big on style.

» Shed some light on things with Ikea‘s petite, weather-resistant solar-powered SOLIG table lamp ($20, Ikea stores) in red, white or black. Another colorful choice? The mod, metal BLANKO collection ($10-$40), with small-scale stools, chairs and round table poised for a spring soiree.

» Liven up a boring concrete slab with Frontgate‘s Serafina Outdoor Mosaic Area Rug. ($395 for 6′ round, $495 for 5′ by 8′)

» Don’t even have room for a flower pot? Blooms-in-a-Bag from Potting Shed Creations grow right in their own weensy pouch, no container needed. ($8-$13)

» Crate & Barrel‘s Alfresco Natural Cafe Dining Group includes a compact (35.5″ square) table and four chairs that stack for storage made from durable faux wood and aluminum. ($700)

Denise Gee’s upcoming book, “Porch Parties” ($17, Chronicle Books), fizzes with recipes for yummy drinks meant to be sipped alfresco. Kick back and enjoy this fruity concoction on a warm spring day.

» 4 cups 2-inch cubes watermelon
» 1 cup vodka, chilled
» 2 tbsp. honey
» Garnish: small watermelon wedges with rind (optional)

Serves 4

Freeze the watermelon chunks in a zip-top plastic bag until just frozen, about an hour. Remove from freezer and add to a blender. Pour in the vodka and honey. Process until blended, and pour into frosted cocktail or jelly glasses. Garnish, if desired.

Written by Express contributor Beth Luberecki
Photos by Clarkson Potter; courtesy Vastu