On the hottest days of summer my husband and I gravitate to a pair of comfortably worn Adirondack chairs in our "secret garden"—a cozy backyard spot under the shelter of two linden trees. What draws us into that part of the garden? What makes one seating area more inviting than another?
People are drawn to and congregate in the open spaces of a garden. As garden-maker, you decide where to place these areas and how to furnish them; think of it as a road map you lay out for visitors: Come this way. Have a seat. Relax.
By thinking about how the different parts of your garden and seating areas will be used and by how many people, including how they'll be furnished, you'll be able to create living areas that work for you over time. Whether you're starting from scratch, have inherited a square slab of concrete off the back side of your house, or are starting over with seating areas that got plunked unimaginatively here and there in the leftover bits of your garden, the result will be a useful, inviting space that functions as an outdoor extension of your home.
① Set Boundaries to Define Your Seating Area
The size and amount of privacy provided in an outdoor seating area signals how a space will ultimately be used: keep it small and intimate for a secluded retreat; or go large and open for social affairs. Boundaries are what establish this framework for your seating area. Space permitting, you'll want to have large and small scale seating areas, since odds are that you'll find use for both.
One of the easiest and most cost-effective methods of establishing boundaries is to take advantage of existing structures, such as your home or garage, to define the perimeters of a seating area. Or you can create boundaries using plants or built elements such as fences, arbors, trellises, or screens.
For larger properties, you can employ a number of boundaries. However, in small spaces, you'll only be able to choose one or two to implement, so they'll need to pull their weight. Make them aesthetically pleasing and functional. For especially small seating areas, try free-standing screens or trellises that define living areas and create privacy while taking up little room.
Not only are boundaries necessary for establishing the size and purpose of a space, but they're also efficient at hiding unwanted views, framing desirable views, and adding character to a space, ultimately creating comfortable and inviting places for people.
For those living on lots adjoining tall neighboring homes, boundaries can provide much needed privacy from above. You can easily create privacy by simply adding a strategically-placed umbrella. For a more permanent, inviting means of privacy, try a pergola that can later be draped with vines. A few purposely-placed trees or large shrubs will also do the job once they've matured a bit. The overhead canopy provided by a tree or pergola can also work to bring a seating area down to a comfortable scale. Wait until after you've installed all of your hardscaping (including the next step: flooring), however, to incorporate these planted boundaries.
② Choose Flooring that Suits Your Space and Your Budget
Once you've decided on a size and general boundaries for your seating area, you're ready to install hardscaping, including one of the most important elements: flooring.
When selecting materials for the floor of a seating area, there are many options to choose from: stone, brick, pavers, concrete, and gravel, to name a few. In terms of making your selections, let your intended use and your budget be your guides.
When setting a budget for materials, I encourage clients to put their hardscape dollars into their most lived-in areas. I'm a fan of using stone whenever possible because it feels natural and, if properly installed, provides a wobble-proof surface for furnishings. However, it's often on the higher end of the cost continuum. Concrete is a great alternative to stone. It is typically less expensive per square foot (sometimes costing less than pavers), easily adapts to irregular shapes, and lends itself to creative designs and finishes.
Gravel is probably the cheapest flooring option. It may not seem that appealing, but you can easily dress up your gravel patio by including crisp edges to define the area. Steel edging, pavers, or brick set on edge are a couple of ways to establish clean lines while adding visual interest. Avoid using gravel directly outside of entry points to the home, however, since it can easily get tracked inside. With gravel, as with stone, you'll likely have to weed out seedlings that blow in and germinate in the cracks, but this is typically an easy chore.
Though one flooring material can do the job, you don't have to limit yourself. A mix of materials can be effective in reinforcing your underlying design concept. Although, you'll want to use materials wisely so as not to create a chaotic feel. Small gardens, especially, need a streamlined palette of textures and materials. For instance, using brick to edge a flagstone or concrete patio can be an effective combination of materials that lend unity to your design.
Before making your final selections for flooring, always consider its eventual use and likely furnishings. Furniture with slender feet, like that of metal chairs, requires paving with more tightly-spaced joints for stability. Traction is also important. Brick, as well as concrete and stone, can be slippery when wet or mossy.
Make your final decision based not only on your style and budget, but also on the practicality of the materials in your living space. Then, get busy installing it.
③ Softening Hard Edges Invites the Garden In
Once you've set boundaries and installed functional flooring, you might find that these built elements need to be softened or de-emphasized to lessen the contrast between hardscape and garden surroundings. It's important, however, to only soften and not eliminate the underlying lines of boundaries and flooring; their presence ensures a seating area that feels organized and purposeful.
One method of softening hard lines and edges is to begin incorporating any planted boundaries that you decided on in the first phase. Even though these plants were chosen previously, waiting until this point to plant them allows for the possibility of changes in your hardscaping plans during construction. When incorporating these plant screens, even where space is constrained, resist the tendency toward a long, straight, narrow border lining the edge of your seating area. They're almost always too narrow to accommodate the plants you want to use for screening, not to mention the plants you want for eye-appeal. Instead, enlarge the depth of your beds by bumping out sections using angular shapes or generous curves (see photo tk) in strategically located areas, especially where you need big plants to go. For people in small spaces and urban settings, this allowance for enlarged beds can be an important tool for creating softness.
For challenging, narrow areas within the border where you simply don't have any room to play with, there are ways to create softness without taking up a lot of space. Plants can be trained against fences and walls to create living green walls). Similarly, using plants with narrow upright growth habits, such as 'Sky Pencil' Japanese holly (Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil', USDA Hardiness Zones 5-7) can create a living, soft division of space without requiring a lot of room.
Another way to liven up stark walls and fences, especially at the narrow points within the border, is by creating an illusion of expanded space. I install faux windows, their panes replaced with mirrors to reflect the surrounding green space. If a seating area abuts a wall with a window, you can use windowbox plantings to soften the space, changing the plants to reflect the seasons. Also, try accessorizing with decorative container combinations that add color, texture, and movement while softening the edges and corners of patios and vertical edges of fences and walls. All of these elements act as natural décor, transforming a simple seating area into a cozy, inviting, outdoor living space.
One of the most gratifying things I hear from clients who have undergone a garden transformation that includes more functional seating areas is that they feel as if their house got bigger and that they're using their outside spaces more than ever before. Operation al fresco accomplished.
Most Importantly—Take Time to Relax and Enjoy
A version of this article originally appeared in Fine Gardening Magazine.