By Katherine Sorrell
Longer days and (fingers crossed) lots of sunshine mean it’s time to head out to the garden. However large or small your outside space, some careful planning will ensure that it is flexible enough for playing games, entertaining or simply putting your feet up and relaxing, writes Katherine Sorrell.
The days of formal, look-but-don’t-touch gardens, with manicured lawns and ranks of ordered flowers in borders are – most would say thankfully – long gone. Today’s gardens are more like an outdoor room, used for playing, cooking, socialising and resting; in other words, they are multifunctional spaces that look good but also work hard for every member of the family.
It sounds wonderful, but if your garden is in need of an update, just how do you go about achieving this magical blend of practical and pretty? The secret, of course, is in the planning. Look at the bigger picture first. How will you use the space and what do you want from it? To begin with, sketch a plan of your garden on graph paper, and gather samples of the materials you intend to use – such as slate, willow or terracotta – to ensure that they co-ordinate. If in doubt, consider consulting a professional, whose training and experience means they will undoubtedly come up with practical solutions and inspirational ideas you would never have thought of yourself.
In a large garden, the ideal layout includes separate areas for dining, relaxing and playing – perhaps with a ‘secret’ children’s area at the far end, including structures such as a swing, trampoline, climbing frame or tepee. A peaceful area away from both the house and the kids would be the ideal spot for a hammock or a deck chair – perhaps near some scented flowers or under a tree for shade. And the dining area is best set closest to the house, with space nearby for a barbecue or perhaps even an outdoor kitchen.
Consider changes in levels – they add interest to a garden and are easier to deal with than slopes – but if you are carrying a tray out from the house, it’s best to avoid lots of steps between the door and the dining table. Flooring is key, too, dramatically affecting both how your garden looks and also how it feels underfoot. Will you choose stone slabs, gravel, bricks, decking, wood chips or perhaps tiles that complement the flooring in your kitchen for an inside-outside look? Just like indoors, where different types of flooring can differentiate, say, a kitchen from a dining room, your choice of garden flooring can signal a change from one area to another. It is also a question of practicality and cost: specify a few stone slabs for the dining area, for example, and save money with woodchips in the children’s play area.
Verticals are just as important, providing privacy, screening and dividing, adding visual interest and offering places for climbers to grow. Think about fences (dull ones can be changed fairly easily, or painted a bright colour for va va voom), hedges, walls, arches, arbours and pergolas – a simple metal archway over a path, for example, entwined with fragrant honeysuckle, would make a lovely focal point, while a small wooden pergola can provide a link between two different areas of the garden as well as offering a shaded spot in which to sit.
Finally, furniture. Take the indoors outside with waterproof upholstery, outdoor sofas and all-weather rattan, choosing designs and colourways that link with the whole space. You can even accessorise outdoor sofas with scatter cushions and interior throws or blankets for when it gets chilly. Meanwhile, if space is restricted, opt for folding furniture and play equipment that can be put away when necessary, or consider building seating into your hard landscaping – an extra-wide low wall makes a great bench seat, for example, and you can even build in hinged storage for cushions.
Armed with some basic design principles, the time is right to start planning your stunning summer garden. Before you know it, you’ll be enjoying the sunshine day after day (we live in hope). And who knows, your efforts may also provide a long-term return. Creating more useable space outdoors is far more economical than a new basement or roof conversion, and turning outdoor space into an extra outdoor room may even add value to your property.