Designer guide to … creating the perfect outdoor room for summer

At this time of year (when the weather allows) many of us want to spend much of our time outside.  With TV programmes such as Channel 4’s Inside Out Homes dedicated to linking the house with the garden it just underlines how important the space beyond the four walls of our house is and what an underused resource a garden can be.  To make that valuable space outside work well there are a number of things to consider.

Key to being comfortable outside (I think) is the creation of cosy spaces to sit in.  Whether using plants or structures such as walls, fences, or trellis screens to achieve this, there’s no doubt that the sense of feeling enclosed results in a more comfortable space to spend time.

Scampston

Tall plants at Scampston Walled Garden create a sheltered, cosy space for sitting and relaxing

On that theme, many of us are now overlooked by neighbours so planning screening along the boundaries or next to seating areas helps to create a sense of privacy.

pleached trees

Pleached trees are a brilliant tool to screen out neighbours without completely enclosing a space

Whilst it’s lovely to create enclosed spaces around a garden, there’s a balance between feeling cosy and feeling blocked in, so keeping views out of and through the garden are also something to bear in mind.

 

view

Taking out a section of hedge in this garden gave my clients a fantastic view of the South Downs to enjoy from their new terrace

When I go to visit potential clients I am often struck by the fact that most gardens have a paved area outside the back door, then some lawn and all the plants are arranged around the boundaries of the garden.  Bring them closer!  There’s nothing nicer than having plants flopping over walls and paving near the house to add colour, softness and scent.

Alton garden

Planting next to the house and terrace bring colour and seasonal interest to this Hampshire garden all year round

If plants are used to soften paths, there needs to be enough space to allow for that, so the paths should be built at a reasonable width (I’d say 900mm as a minimum without plants overhanging, but ideally I’d go much wider to allow enough space for 2 people to walk side by side comfortably).

plants on paths

The scale of entertaining spaces is very important – especially with the popularity of large outdoor sofas – so it’s important to ensure that paved areas are large enough to accommodate seating and tables and chairs.

sofas

Large furniture needs plenty of space

Permanent outdoor furniture is great!  It definitely encourages us to get into the garden more – even if just for a quick cuppa in the sun without the palaver of having to carry a seat outside specially.  So create spaces to leave seats and benches in key positions around the garden and I guarantee they will be used all year round, not just in summer.

If space allows, it’s a bonus to have areas around the garden to enjoy at different times of the day.  Evening is a key time for most of us to unwind and enjoy the late sun so I always try to design even just a small space for my clients to sit out at the end of the day.

evening sun

This circular seating area was built into the flower bed as it’s exactly where my clients can enjoy the late evening sun in summer

Whilst we tend to focus on sitting in the sun in the UK – with it being such a rare treat! – it’s also important to create spaces for shade.  And that may be something as simple as having a space under a tree to have lunch on a hot summer’s day.

 

shady tree

This tree seat provides somewhere to sit all year round and valuable shade in hot weather

I always encourage clients to include garden lighting in a new scheme – not just to create a lovely atmosphere when the sun has gone down, but to make it safe to navigate steps and paths around the garden.

 

lights

These subtle step lights built into the wall provide a safe route around the garden at night

As well as sofas, hot tubs, pizza ovens, firepits and even outdoor fireplaces, another recent trend is the addition of an outdoor kitchen to the garden.  Moving on from the simple built-in barbecue, many companies now offer something far more extravagant – all-singing all-dancing outdoor kitchens complete with fridge, work surfaces, gas barbecue, kitchen sink ….

Gaze Burvill outdoor kitchen

The A La Carte Linear outdoor kitchen by Gaze Burvill is a great example of how far we’ve moved on from a simple barbecue outside!

It’s definitely true that the Outdoor Room concept has come a long way, even in the last 10 years, and gone are the days for a lot of us being satisfied to cook a few sausages over charcoal and eat them from the comfort of a deckchair!!

 

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh, Gaze Burvill

5 essential … plants for a tropical look

Luckily for UK gardeners who fancy going for a tropical look, steamy tropical weather is not required to achieve it.  Dramatic and contrasting foliage is the key to creating an exotic look with a long season of interest and there are both sun and shade loving plants that fit the bill.  Here are a few of both.

Nothing does the hot tropical look better than Cannas, but despite their steamy looks they can be grown easily in any area of the UK provided they are given winter protection. Most Cannas grow to an average of 1.5m tall and have striking, architectural leaves and fiery flowers in hot reds, oranges, yellows and pinks.

canna leaf c.Firgrove Photographic

Cannas are extremely versatile plants and have a lot to recommend them in addition to their good looks, not least the fact that despite their height they are sturdy enough not to require any staking.  They also have a long flowering period, from late June to October, are happy on any soil as long as they get plenty of feed and will tolerate drought conditions as well as being happy in standing water.  Finally, Cannas will flourish in both sun and shade, but for best leaf and flower colour they should be grown in partial to full shade to prevent fading.

Canna c.Firgrove Photographic

There is a wide range of Cannas to choose from with leaf colours varying from plain green or deep red/purple through a range of striped colour combinations.  All are equally happy in the border or patio planters.  Canna ‘Durban’ [also now known as ‘Phasion’] is very popular owing to the dazzling effect created by its leaves which are variously striped in green, purple, orange and pink and topped by bright orange flowers.  I love it!
Growing tips: Cannas require minimal attention during the growing season, but they do need winter protection. Lift the rhizomes as soon as the first frosts blacken the leaves, pot up and keep just slightly moist in a frost free shed or greenhouse.  Never deadhead Cannas as new flower shoots emerge from the dead flower heads.
Curious fact: Cannas were originally grown in the Americas for food and the starchy rhizomes are still eaten in some parts of Bolivia and Colombia.

Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’ is a tall, elegant, grass which is very similar to the more widely known Miscanthus ‘Zebrinus’ (aka ‘Zebra Grass’), only this variety is more upright and harder to find!  Like Zebrinus, it has unusual creamy yellow bands on its leaves making it a really striking plant to grow [NB: these bands are temperature dependent and usually only appear after mid-summer]. Silky panicles of pale pink flowers appear in August to September turning to silvery seed heads that last well through winter.

Miscanthus strictus

Miscanthus Strictus grows up to 2m+ in height, making an excellent specimen plant and also looking very dramatic grown in groups towards the back of the border.  The pale stripes can suffer from scorch if grown in full sun so this grass is best grown in light shade where it makes a perfect backdrop for Cannas.
Growing tips: This is a fully hardy deciduous grass and should be cut back to the ground in late winter before new growth appears.

Fatsia Japonica is an oldie but goodie, and this hardy, handsome, tropical looking evergreen shrub continues to enjoy well-deserved popularity.

fatsia

The huge, glossy, palmate leaves provide instant architectural interest and contrast in any aspect from full sun to deep shade while in autumn exotic looking panicles of creamy white, spherical flowers are produced, often followed by round black fruits.

fatsia variegated

Other varieties of Fatsia include Fatsia japonica ‘Variegata’ (no surprises for guessing it has variegated leaves!) and a newer very attractive variety called Fatsia japonica ‘Spider’s Web’ which has unusual speckled white markings on the leaves.
Garden tips: Frost hardy and extremely easy to care for, Fatsia Japonica requires little or no pruning or attention of any kind once established.  Its only requirement is adequate space as it has a potential height and spread of 4m, although it can be kept happily to about half of this with regular pruning.

Another plant grown as much for its foliage as its flowers is Euphorbia Mellifera – the bright green leaves with their central white stripe contrast brilliantly with those of Fatsia Japonica.

Euphorbia mellifera

This magnificent Euphorbia has a naturally domed form (up to 2m high & wide) and makes a strikingly tropical statement in the border in full sun or partial shade.  The leaves are arranged in whorls around stiff stems that produce bronze tinted, honey scented flowers at their tips in spring (hence its common name of ‘honey spurge’).
Garden tips: Euphorbia Mellifera prefers a well-drained soil, will thrive best in a fairly sunny, sheltered spot and may require winter protection in colder areas.  Cut back faded flower stems in autumn.

Melianthus major is a plant with quite stunningly beautiful foliage that make it a really wonderful specimen plant for a sunny tropical planting.  The leaves emerge quite late in the spring, but are well worth waiting for: up to 50cm long, they are a lovely soft glaucous grey/green in colour with stunningly crisp serrations at the edges.

Melianthus major

In hot summers curious bronze red tubular flowers may appear between May and July, but it’s really the foliage that’s the star turn.  After the spring growth there’s a bit of a lull until late summer when the plant puts on another spurt and can reach a height of 1.5-2m.
Growing tips: Prefers a sunny aspect on reasonably fertile, well-drained soil and a good mulch of organic material such as well-rotted manure in spring .  Although it is a shrub, treat Melianthus major as a perennial for best results, cutting the stems back to two or three buds in spring to prevent it getting leggy.  It is not fully frost hardy and requires protection from frost with a dry straw or bracken mulch in late autumn.  If it does get knocked back by frost, don’t panic!  Chances are it will reappear in spring if the winter isn’t too harsh.

5 essential … evergreen shrubs to clothe a wall or fence

Many shrubs adapt very well to growing against walls and fences and, once trained in, are usually easier to manage than climbers which can quickly outgrow their allotted space.  Here are five evergreens that lend themselves very well to being wall-trained and between them provide seasonal interest throughout the year.

Ceanothus (or ‘Californian lilac’) make excellent candidates for growing against a sunny fence or wall as they benefit from the protection provided against cold, drying winds.  One of the most strikingly beautiful is Ceanothus ‘Concha’ which produces a dazzling display or intensely dark blue flowers for several weeks in May and June, perfectly offset by the small, glossy dark green leaves.

Ceanothus © Firgrove Photographic

The bushy growth provides excellent screening for fences and walls and a perfect backdrop for a sunny border.  Ceanothus perform best on fertile, well-drained soil and benefit from a good mulch of organic matter after pruning.  To keep in shape, trim side shoots back by one third after flowering.

Ceanothus ©Firgrove Photographic

Some shrubs are definitely shown off to best advantage when wall trained and Garrya eliptica ‘James Roof’ is one of these.  Throughout the year, its glossy, wavy edged, dark green leaves make an elegant foil to other flowering shrubs when it is planted at the back of a border, but make sure it is planted where it can be fully appreciated in winter when the long, silken tassels of silvery flowers that cover it from December to February make it a really eye-catching architectural feature.  It can grow to 4m x 4m and looks best when given generous room to spread.

Garrya elliptica ©RHS

Happy in sun or shade and on any reasonably fertile soil as long as it is well-drained, it simply requires pruning after flowering to remove any dead or straggly growth.  Top tip: plant deciduous clematis nearby and allow to scramble through the Garrya branches to provide summer colour.

Itea ilicifolia is also a tassel bearer, but its striking greenish white, vanilla scented catkins appear in mid-summer to early autumn. It will tolerate shade quite well, but prefers a south or west facing aspect where its shiny, holly-like foliage looks lovely throughout the year with new growth in spring beginning in beautiful shades of red.  Young plants in particular benefit from the protection of a warm fence or wall as they may be hard hit by cold, drying winds and require protection from frost in exposed areas.

Itea ©Firgrove Photographic

Plant in any fertile, well-drained soil and mulch around young plants in autumn.  Grows to 4m x 3m in height and spread, but can be pruned to size.

Osmanthus burkwoodii performs happily when grown against a wall or fence in sun or shade where its glossy, dark green leaves make a neat backdrop, but it is particularly useful for bringing light and interest to shady spots in April and May, when the highly scented, white, jasmine like flowers appear.

osmanthus burkwoodii ©Janet Bligh

It will cover an area of roughly 3m x 3m and is a very easy going plant being fully hardy, not fussy about soil type and requiring only light pruning with shears after flowering to maintain its shape.

Gardeners have had a long and very literally painful love/hate relationship with Pyracanthas, but when properly trained and pruned they make a wonderful architectural feature against a house or garden wall.  Pyracantha ‘Orange Glow’ has dense clusters of tiny white flowers in May which are followed by bright orange berries in autumn/winter that are a favourite of blackbirds and thrushes.

Pyracantha

It is very versatile, being fully hardy and happy on any reasonable soil and in any aspect apart from very dense shade (but the more sun, the more berries).  Height and spread: 2.5m x 2.5m.
Top tip: Prune in late summer shortening all side shoots that arise from the main framework and stopping just short of the clusters of berries (usually about two to three leaves from the base of the side shoot).  Wear thick gloves!

Top tip for all wall trained shrubs: the area next to a wall is usually very dry so plant shrubs at least 40cm from the base of the wall and make sure to prepare the soil well before planting.  Remove any rubble, incorporate plenty of well-rotted organic matter and water well to establish.

Picture credits: Janet Bligh, Firgrove Photographic, RHS

5 essential … plants to brighten a shady corner

Many people panic when faced with shady areas to plant and seem to think ‘nothing will grow in shade’.  SO not true!  It’s a fact that flowering interest is limited by shade (mainly to spring time), but by focusing on contrasting foliage colour and textures it’s possible to create a lovely scheme for shady areas.  Here are just some of the plants I rely on to brighten up gloomy borders.

Although it may not be top of the Most Exciting Plants list, Euonymus fortunei ‘Emerald Gaiety’ is completely invaluable in difficult areas of the garden (including dry shade) and brings light and texture to even the gloomiest corner.  Somewhat misleadingly named, its evergreen foliage is actually dark green with white margins and may flush to a deep rose pink in winter that looks beautiful next to deep pink Helleborus orientalis.   Happy in both full sun and shade, this tough and obliging shrub will grow in any reasonably well drained soil and requires no more care than a light clip if it gets out of shape.

Euonymus Emerald Gaiety

Grown against a fence or wall (where it will spread to roughly 2 metres), ‘Emerald Gaiety’ makes an excellent backdrop for other shrubs such as white flowered camellias, Fatsia Japonica or Choisya Ternata.  As a bush its low spreading form (about 80cm high by 1m wide) provides truly low maintenance groundcover.  Top tip: prune out any plain green shoots to the base as soon as they are spotted.

Hosta  ‘Francee’ is a vigorous variety that makes an elegantly striking specimen in a shady spot in the garden.  Its large heart-shaped, puckered leaves are olive green in colour with well-defined white margins that stand out in the shade and provide an interesting contrast in shape and texture to those of other shade lovers such as ferns. They retain their freshness well into September provided they are protected from slugs and snails.  In July and August, impressive spires of pale lavender flowers rise above the leaves.  Hostas are fully hardy and very tolerant of soil type as long as it is reasonably moist.
hosta ©Firgrove Photographic

As we all know, the big problem with Hostas are the dreaded slugs and snails which just can’t resist those luscious leaves. ‘Francee’s’ thick, puckered leaves make it more resistant to damage than some other varieties, but protection is still a must for it to look its best.  Applying a nematode treatment in spring helps ward off slugs or try a generous mulch of ‘Strulch’, a mineralised straw whose texture and iron content does seem to be effective in deterring both slugs and snails.  Top tip: thicker, lusher leaves will be produced if your Hosta gets a good feed so mulch well around the base in autumn with a 5-10cm deep layer of organic compost or leaf mould.

Always an oddity amongst the asters due to its love of shade and its distinctive form, Aster divaricatus, or the white wood anemone, has finally been found out and reclassified as Eurybia divaricatus.  Whatever it might be called, it remains one of the prettiest of all the shade-loving plants, its branching, dark red/black, wiry stems and evergreen olive leaves contrasting perfectly with the frothy sprays of dainty white flowers produced throughout summer and autumn.

Aster divaricatus  ©Firgrove Photographic

Once established this hardy perennial is tolerant of dry shade and reaches a height and spread of 60cm x 45cm.  Top tip: grow along the edge of a shady border amongst Bergenias where the white flowers will provide a change of texture and a splash of light towards the end of the season.

Hakonechloa macra Alboaurea is a small, slow spreading ornamental grass that forms tufted, emerald green hummocks (40cm high x 35cm across) and creates light and texture on the edges of a shady border.  It is native to Japan and planted en masse makes an eye catching carpet of bright green that does indeed lend a Japanese feel to planting groups.   Added interest and movement are provided by sprays of fine lime green flowers in July and August while the gracefully arching leaves gradually turn rich russet shades as autumn progresses.

Hakonechloa ©Firgrove Photographic

This grass makes a lovely soft edging to paths and steps and its clean, neat form makes it a good choice for formal patios and courtyards and contemporary, minimalist plantings.  It prefers a cool, moist position and will benefit from a humus rich mulch in autumn. Top tip: cut old foliage back to ground level in early spring before the new leaves appear.

In early spring large, heart shaped deep green and silver leaves are followed by bright blue, forget-me-not flowers, making Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’ one of the loveliest spring flowering perennials around.  It’s wonderful planted under deciduous trees and shrubs or front of border to create pools of light in shady borders or along a woodland path and looks especially effective intermixed with yellow Narcissi.

Brunnera ©Firgrove Photographic

For best performance, plant this hardy perennial in moist, humus rich soil.  Height and spread: 60cm x 45cm. Top tip: cut back any plain green leaves to the base as they appear.

 

Picture credits: Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic