All by itself, a simple canopy can turn an empty space outside into a "place." While trees might take years to grow, an expanse of cloth goes up in minutes, providing shade wherever you need it most. When the outdoor season ends -- or a storm whips in unexpectedly -- you can take it down, quick as a wink.
Unlike a pricey pergola or arbor, which demands a permanent surrender of ground, a canopy requires scant commitment or expense. For the most basic version, spend a few dollars on a drop cloth from a hardware store, and a few more on the supplies you will need to suspend it overhead: a grommet kit, tent poles, stout cord, and sturdy pegs. These ideas can be modified for other settings and styles.
You can sew a canopy yourself, or have one stitched by a seamstress or sailmaker. You'll need a few things from a hardware store, garden center, or camping-supply store to put up the fabric you choose. The way you erect the canopy depends on where you want it to be -- it can be suspended from poles, or stretched between a wall or roofline and poles.