The Summer Garden for Outdoor Living

Little wonder that modern attitudes towards gardens and what they represent have evolved from traditional views over the last fifty years. Not so long ago, the garden was ‘an area’ intended to be enjoyed, easy to maintain, yet full of variety and ideally providing colour throughout the year. In fact apart from children running around playing, mowing the lawn and deciding how and when best to prune the fruit trees, gardens were considered more in visual terms, in other words within the garden space, form took precedent over any garden activity.  This traditional perspective has been dramatically overtaken partly because of the vast array of new garden products featuring innovative technologies but mainly by the dynamic changes in modern living and working habits.

Yes gardens have become smaller and people generally have less time for garden maintenance activities, but most will demand more and spend (both time and money) more in getting the outdoor space right for them and enjoying more time outdoors, whether it is alone or with family and friends.

No matter whether you consider your garden large or small, traditional or minimalist, it should not be seen as merely an asset to add value your home or property but more importantly as an asset that enhances your outdoor living lifestyle.

A place to sit

We probably spend more time in the garden sitting and eating than any other activity. So it is vital the layout of the outdoor space takes this important aspect into account. Invariably the sitting and eating activities take place on or the near the patio areas. Not long ago patios were constructed from poured concrete or even concrete flags. In more advanced gardens, crazy paving invariably broken pieces of natural stone were used. Today’s choice is vast including an extensive range of natural stone which includes bestsellers like Sandstone, Granite and Limestone to name but a few. Unquestionably Sandstone available in a wide range of sizes and colours is a top seller and the preferred choice by far of most people. Natural stone demanding little maintenance is still the preferred choice over other patio alternatives such as man made products and decking. Locating the patio in the sunniest part of the garden is obvious but you would be surprised to discover how frequently this prized location in the garden is occupied by the garden shed. Monitor the sun movements throughout the day to determine what is the best position for the patio. Most prefer sunny positions late afternoon or early evening but some might prefer dappled shade during midday. So choose a location for the patio where and when you’re most likely to use it most. Patios should be level so that you have no trip hazards at joints or patio chairs do not annoyingly rock each time you shift position. They should also have a slight slope or fall for rain to run off. A typical fall is 25mm in 1000mm (approx 1:40). Fall should not be confused with sloping sites which can be cleverly utilised to create split or different levels in the patio. In other words do not be too quick to level sloping ground instead seek new ideas to develop imaginative patio forms.  In larger sites it is not uncommon to find two or more patios, designed to take full advantage of the sun at specific times.

Plants please

Of all the elements that go to make up your perfect garden, plants after structure are the essential component. The choice of plants today is practically endless, whether your preference is evergreen or deciduous (shed leaf in autumn), lime haters or lime tolerant, 

prefer sunny or shade, dry or damp, open or sheltered conditions. Also how you use plants in the garden can yield specific effects on overall garden size and style. Some plants may be planted as sole specimens, i.e. the centre of attention in a low level bed or to provide a screening requirement. Others may be planted as informal i.e. natural groups or formally to create dramatic geometric patterns.

Ideally plants should be used in as naturalistic way possible so as to enhance the desired look whether it is to follow a gentle curve or sometimes affect the overall appearance. For example, trees and shrubs can be cleverly used to disguise a long narrow garden to make it appear broader in effect, conversely plants can also be used to lengthen broad gardens which are not very long by using the taller plants nearer the house and shorter further away to create a perspective effect that makes the garden appear longer.

Although plants may be used in a variety of ways, it is well worth considering the maintenance aspects before making final selection. There is little point in planting large varieties in confined spaces and despite repeated cutting and pruning neither plant nor gardener will ever be happy. Instead choose plants carefully, consider mature heights and spread not just what the label states ‘…in ten years…’ because plants continue to grow. Instead try to determine what is actual plant height and spread at maturity. Pick plants to suit the suit site’s soil, prevailing conditions and size. This way you will have plants that will flourish and require little or no cutting.

Borders can be straight but better to have gentle curves. Avoid intricate curves and above all pathways that dissect the lawn which will destroy the open aspect and make the garden appear smaller. Instead position pathway to oneside. Ideally borders with at least two or three planting lines look far more interesting. The backline representing usually the taller varieties are the all year round backbone with the middle and lower foreground lines providing seasonal impact. Beds should be at least 900 mm- 1,200 mm deep and to conceal structures like rotary lines or garden sheds might be larger than 2.000mm or more.

For added interest, try to use plants and shrubs with contrasting shapes, heights and colours all linked in a gentle flowing manner around the garden. More impact can be achieved by planting in groups and here think odd as best., i.e. plant in groups of 3,5,7,9 etc for effect. Group planting can be very effective to emphasise the curve nature of the border. Also better to allow at least 100mm-150mm clear space between front line plants and lawn edge, this are can be easily maintained and looks particularly attractive when edged with mini-chip bark mulch dressing. Alternative lawn edgings are available including brick, stone which are a very effective long-term solutions to defining lawn-bed boundary but also providing a useful (lawn must be at least 20mm above height of stone) mowing strip and standing area for any seasonal maintenance work.

Raising your spirits

Raised Beds are becoming a very popular feature for more gardens, not only do they provide added height and hence presence to particular planting arrangements but a great solution to creating soil conditions required for specific groups of plants not found in other parts of the garden. Here azaleas, rhododendrons, forest flames all with spectacular foliage and flower characteristics and are easy to grow so long as the soil is lime free soil. These soil conditions are easy to create in raised beds. Raised beds can be positioned against boundary walls or more prominently as island beds within paved areas. Raised beds may be constructed form brick, natural stone and a variety of timbers can also be used to create attractive enclosures for water features. Trailing bedding plants can be used to great effect in Raised Beds.

Watered Features

There are a wide range of types and sizes but nowadays people choice is influenced by the safety aspects and low maintenance requirements, hence the popularity of Reservoir features typically positioned on or near patio area where they are best enjoyed for both visual and the soothing sound effects of trickling water. In more contemporary gardens stainless steel columns are a popular choice. Irrespective of your style preference, water features add a new dimension to any garden. All that is required is careful attention to detailing, a thoughtful selection of plants, e.g. ferns, ornamental grasses combined with natural river cobblestones create superb compositions and very pleasing features to admire.

The meaning of Light

Lighting is really a must have in the garden. It can not only make an ordinary garden look spectacular revealing an aspect unseen during daylight, but come nightfall the silhouettes of trees and shrubs against textured walls take on a whole new meaning. Just as much as gardens can be visually admired for their interest during daylight, lighting offers a whole new dimension to the meaning of beauty in the garden albeit at nightime. There are many lighting effects to be considered including: spread lighting across access paths, uplighting to direct light up through the branches and trunks of trees or up the walls of buildings, spot lighting can be used to illuminate a statue or water feature and downlighting is typically used to illuminate steps.

Contained Treasures

Growing plants in containers whether it is seasonal summer planting and/or all year round planting is an important dimension to the planting aspects of gardens. Much easier and less costly to introduce to a garden, containers be they urns, planters or humble terracotta pots can be very cleverly used to add high drama and bold colour schemes to areas within the garden. Container planting also permits the growing of plants which might be too vigorous to grow in open ground because of lack of available space or other limitations. Bamboos are fantastic container plants so too are Japanese maples but require sheltered conditions which may not be available in open beds during winter months. Containers can be very useful mobile units to locate around patio to great effect. Try bringing fragrance (lavender, santolina, helichrysum or rosemary) nearer the patio. For added impact try and use three plant types per container, i.e. place tall specimen in centre, small compacts in corners and trailers between corners.

In summary

For some of us relaxing in the garden is nothing more than sitting out or swinging in the hammock, usually in the sun but perhaps increasingly in dappled shade. Whether alone or with family and friends, sitting or eating, dozing or entertaining, living outdoors is a major aspect of how we relax and sometimes let’s be honest, a popular place ‘to get away from it all.’ Today’s outdoor living spaces reflect our preferred ‘approach to interior living’ and hence the common link to bring the indoors out or take the garden in. Irrespective of how you express it, more and more people are demanding more from the outdoor living space and wish to integrate it more with the established ‘interior world’ both visually but also how and what activities take place outdoors. How we use the outdoor living space is increasingly becoming more important than how it looks. In other words today’s homeowners are demanding more functionality from the gardens, yes, you guessed it, form follows function, is the prevailing principle and the smarter approach to determining the outdoor living space.

Owen Chubb is Director of Owen Chubb Garden Landscapes Limited, an established and award winning landscaping company offering clients a complete landscaping service including Garden Design, Construction and Planting. A full member of the Association of Landscape Contractors of Ireland (ALCI), the only professional body for landscape contractors and proud winners in 2005 of the prestigious ALCI Award for BEST PRIVATE GARDEN (Over € 13,000 Category). Tel 087-206 128 / 01-492 0904

The Author is a professional garden designer and owner/manager of award winning Dublin based landscaping company: ‘Owen Chubb Garden Landscapes Limited’. The company has extensive experience of designing and constructing stunning gardens in a range of sizes and styles. Featuring natural paving (sandstone, limestone and granite) and mature planting, it’s attention to detail that has made it’s name and practical kno-how that has created many stunning compositions.



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