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.


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.



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.


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.



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


Designer guide to …. choosing paving stone for your garden

I have a number of garden design plans which are nearing completion at the moment and we’re getting to the tricky subject of paving choices. It really is one of the hardest decisions to make in the design and build of a new garden as there are so many factors to take into consideration, and it needs serious thought as the costs involved can be substantial. And unfortunately the choice isn’t getting easier as every year the major paving suppliers come up with new products to add to the mix! So if you’re bemused and bewildered by the choices on offer, here’s a simple checklist of things to consider before you decide what materials you choose:

What’s your style?
Is your house traditional or contemporary in style? Do you want your paving material to fit the style of the house or are you happy to contrast old and new?
If your house is very traditional and built in brick or stone, the obvious choice for paving is to go with brick and the same local stone or an all rounder such as Yorkstone which seems to work in pretty much any situation. If you’ve got a very contemporary house you may prefer something with a cleaner sharper look, maybe slate or granite, or a sawn sandstone.

sawn edged paving, chelsea flower show

Crisp clean lines for a contemporary look. Chelsea Flower Show

But you don’t have to be a slave to tradition and just do what’s expected, in fact modern materials can look fantastic next to traditional buildings and vice versa, but it’s something that needs to be thought out carefully. (And if you’re thinking long term – possibly about selling your house in the not-too-distant future – I’d advise you not to get too wacky in your choices. You could put potential buyers off).

Think about colour and its effect
Are you paving in a bright sunny part of the garden or is shade an issue? Think about colours of the stone you are choosing, not only to get the right tones to complement any nearby buildings and existing hard landscaping, but also in terms of the effect the stone will have on making a space brighter or not. A lighter coloured stone can really lift a gloomy space but with that choice comes the problem of keeping the stone clean.  You could consider sealing light-coloured paving to reduce the chance of staining (this can be done in advance by stone merchants, but there is of course an additional cost involved).

Are you concerned about where your stone is coming from?
You may also like to check that your supplier is sourcing their stone ethically – some of the stone currently on the market is unbelievably cheap, and certainly in the past concerns have been raised about the safety of some of the overseas quarries supplying stone. You may be aware that Indian Sandstone has become hugely popular in the UK over the last 10 or so years – and that popularity is based largely on price. Despite the fact it’s travelled so far to get to the UK, much of it is now cheaper than local stone or precast slabs. There’s no denying it can be a very good cost-effective alternative for the more expensive stones such as Yorkstone, however it can vary hugely in quality and also in colour (a real case of you get what you pay for).

Indian sandstone, stone merchants

Indian sandstone can vary enormously in colour & markings

And be aware that within one colour range you could be supplied with stone with tones of pink, beige, orange, grey …. I always advise my clients if at all possible to go to a stone merchants where you can see the paving laid out en masse to get a clear idea of the colours and textures you are likely to end up with. It doesn’t always look like it does in the brochure!  And look at it in dry and wet weather to get the full picture.

What about your budget?
Budget is often the deciding factor when it comes down to it, but it’s aso important to take into account the cost of laying the stone you choose. Many natural stones are supplied in varying thicknesses, and it’s a lot harder and more time-consuming for a landscaper to lay an area of paving if all the stones are of different thicknesses. Reclaimed Yorkstone in particular can be a nightmare as it can vary massively in this regard. It also weighs a ton which makes laying it a very slow and costly process.

Yorkstone paving

Yorkstone paving isn’t a budget stone but it looks fantastic.

You can pay a higher price to buy new stone that has been cut to a uniform thickness, or you could consider using pre-cast or reconstituted slabs. Some of the ‘fake’ products on offer these days really are pretty impressive in terms of mimicking natural stone, and they can be a better solution if for example you like the look of sandstone but don’t like the wild colour variations.

Concrete paving stone with brick detailing

Concrete paving stone with brick detailing

Of course there are many other very attractive natural stones to choose from apart from sandstone – limestone, quartzite, granite, slate, Purbeck stone and Travertine to name a few. The key is to do your homework and make sure you know where the stone originates from and (very importantly in the UK) that it can cope with freezing weather.

Where is the paving being used?
If it’s being laid in an area that gets little sun and it will be covered in algae by the end of winter that’s okay if you don’t need to walk on it. But for pedestrian areas you don’t want stone underfoot that will be really slippery and slimey when it gets wet (and the same goes for decking which can be lethal when wet). You also need to think about the surface finish of the stone you choose – a riven finish is great for a traditional look, but this uneven surface on sandstone and Yorkstone can be seriously dangerous when wet – as can a very smooth surface.

Sawn edged Yorkstone with a smooth finish

Sawn edged Yorkstone with a smooth finish

Consider opting for stone with a shotsawn, bush hammered or tooled finish on the surface which would solve the problem (you can specify this by getting the stone directly from a quarry).  In recent years we’ve seen Porcelain tiles being introduced to the landscaping market.  It’s great for a clean crisp look and is marketed as being easy to clean and slip-resistant.

Jetwashing will get rid of the algae and do a lot to keep paving clean but it can also damage mortar joints, so you could consider laying paving with clean edges which can be ‘butt-jointed’ (ie no mortar joints between the slabs).

A cost effective alternative to stone slabs is loose stone (gravel, shingle, chippings etc.). If you want to use a space for outdoor dining for example, gravel is best avoided where you will be putting your furniture as it will be difficult to move the chairs easily. And do avoid laying gravel right next to the lawn (always use a mowing edge like a strip of brickwork) or you could have stones flying through your windows next time you cut the grass!

Gravel next to seating area laid with sandstone setts

Gravel next to seating area laid with sandstone setts

Also choose a stone of a reasonable size that won’t be carried in to the house on your shoes, or kicked about all over the garden (or used as a toilet by next door’s cat!). Avoid the big stones (reminiscent of Brighton Beach) as they are a nightmare to walk on, and ideally go for flatter stones for any pedestrian areas, as they move less and create an easy surface to walk on and use wheelbarrows etc.

What about drainage?
One big advantage of choosing gravel surfacing is that you won’t need to worry about rainwater draining away as you might with a large surface area of paving. And this could be something to bear in mind particularly if you are planning to create or increase the size of a driveway in your front garden. It is now a requirement to gain planning permission for any new area of impermeable driveway over 5 square metres in size (unless it drains to a permeable area), so if you don’t want to use block pavers or porous asphalt, gravel would be a good option.

There are 3 major stone companies who supply stone merchants nationally in the UK, so if you don’t have a local quarry who can supply what you want, it’s worth taking a look at their websites to get a feel for the variety of paving products available.  Check out Marshalls, Bradstone and Stonemarket.

You’ll soon realise that paving is a big subject (and I haven’t even mentioned alternatives to stone such as bricks, setts, cobbles, block pavers, sealed gravels, timber….)  and it may not be the most exciting subject in the world (!), but if you’re planning some new hard landscaping in your garden it’s important to spend some time thinking really hard about what you are looking to achieve.  If you don’t, you could risk making an expensive mistake by choosing materials which are completely unsuitable for your needs.

Horatio’s Garden – fantastic garden, fantastic cause

On a gloomy, chilly afternoon recently I headed off to Salisbury to visit a garden I have been keen to see for ages.  Tucked away in the grounds of Salisbury Hospital, between Car Park 8 and Car Park 10, is the wonderful Horatio’s Garden.  Built for patients of the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre at the hospital, the garden is named after Horatio Chapple who volunteered at the centre and recognised the desperate need for an outdoor space for patients (who can be at the hospital for as long as 12 months).  Horatio was tragically killed aged just 17, but the garden is a fantastic memorial to him and to his efforts at creating a beautiful garden for patients and their families to enjoy.


Horatio's Garden

The garden was designed by Cleve West (a stalwart of the Chelsea Flower Show and an inspirational British garden designer).  It opened in 2012 and has won many awards, and deservedly so in my opinion.

The key features of the garden are the curving spine-like dry stone walls which run through the garden – some complete, and some broken.  These walls double as seats too, creating a low-key sociable space.

Curving walls

The ground has been levelled and surfaced in resin-bonded aggregate which provides a smooth porous surface – very practical for patients in wheelchairs.  There are intimate seating areas, and shade provided by parasols, with a large open central area which is ideal for patients and families to gather for events.

Open space

Water falling into a long stone rill creates a calming sound, and the enormous rusted steel archway tunnels are planted with Wisteria and apple trees.

Water rill

A summer house in the corner offers more shade and a quiet space to enjoy views through the garden.

The planting is very soft and airy, predominantly herbaceous and ornamental grasses, with views through the beds to other areas of the garden.


Trees such as Amelanchier and Birches are scattered through the planting areas too.  The garden is enclosed with hedging making it feel like it’s a world away from the hospital environment.  But it’s not just a space for quiet contemplation – this garden is used regularly for social and artistic events, and fund-raising activities.  It is very much a space for enjoyment, as well as a place for patients and visitors to find some peace and quiet.

An additional area with a greenhouse and specially-designed planters and potting spaces mean that the patients can also get involved in growing plants for the garden and to raise funds.

potting table

This summer there were six fantastic Oak sculptures in the garden, on loan from the artist Johnny Woodford.  Up to 4 metres in height and reminiscent of the form of a spine, they fitted into the garden brilliantly.

Johnny Woodford

With studies showing that a hospital patient’s well-being was improved when they had a room facing trees, you can imagine what a huge difference being able to get outside into such a beautiful calm space must make to the patients in Salisbury.  In fact this garden has been such a success that there is to be another Horatio’s Garden at the Scottish National Spinal Injuries Unit in Glasgow – this time to be designed by James Alexander-Sinclair.  And following Glasgow will be another garden at Stoke Mandeville Hospital which will be designed by Joe Swift.

As someone who can’t sit still or bear to be cooped up inside for any length of time, I can’t really imagine what the patients at these spinal units are going through. And that’s why I think Horatio’s Garden is such a fantastic cause.  If you’d like to learn more about (and support) the charity, then click here.  The Salisbury garden is open to the public occasionally and details can be found on the website.


Picture credits:  Janet Bligh

Designing shade into the garden

Shady bench.JPG

When I’m designing gardens, possibly the most important factor to take into account before drawing up a plan is to work out which are the sunniest parts of my clients’ gardens, because that is usually where the entertaining areas go – whether for dining or just sitting outside.  With our totally unpredictably climate we do tend to want to focus on sitting in the sun as it’s such a novelty!  But sometimes (just sometimes!) it can be uncomfortably hot and that’s when it becomes important to find some shade.  So instead of simply having to drag furniture to a shady corner to escape the sun, it’s always good to plan in at least one area of the garden for spending time in the shade.

There are many options to consider – some more permanent than others – and here are just a few ideas.

timber pergola
Structures such as pergolas are invaluable – whether free-standing or built next to a house or garden wall.  They can be planted with evergreen climbers for maximum shade, or with deciduous climbers (such as golden Hop or vines) for good coverage in summer, but with leaves falling in autumn they won’t be too shady over winter.


Pratic Tecnic Sail awning with a very solid support system

Shade sails are a relatively new concept for creating shade outside.  They offer a more contemporary alternative to structures like pergolas, but they do need to be planned in properly with really good foundations for the structural supports.  On a windy day the sails need to be safe and secure.  They are ideal for warmer climates where shade is needed on a constant basis, but the sails are generally not that easy to take up & down (so not ideal for ad hoc use), and obviously careful thought needs to be given to exactly where the shade is required before any support posts are set into the ground.

Cantilevered Parasol
Parasol design has evolved too – no longer limited to sticking a parasol in the centre of a table (and then having to constantly move seats along with the sun!), there are now some very stylish (and large) cantilevered parasols on the market which offer much more flexibility.

Bury Court

A very stylish open frame pavilion at Bury Court in Hampshire

Garden buildings or pavilions (or whatever you want to call them!) can come in any design, shape or size with as much coverage or shelter as required.

ENCOMPASS Reverse 21

A retractable sail awning makes this contemporary pergola very useable – whatever the weather

Slatted sides and roofs will give dappled shade, or a solid roof can be used to give complete shade (and shelter from the rain too!).

Timber arbor.JPG
Seating with added shade is always an option – for example a simple timber arbour with in-built bench, or a swing seat with a canopy shade.

Cacoon swings

These Cacoon hanging chairs come in a variety of colours and sizes

There are some really fun hanging chairs (or tents) available which can be hung from a tree or from a frame.  These are a great way to get out of the sun, as well as fantastic place for a siesta or for kids to use as a den.

Parasol trees

Parasol lime trees at the Chelsea Flower Show

And let’s not forget trees – so often an underused design resource!  Whether you opt to buy a ready-formed parasol-shaped tree, put a tree seat around the trunk of an existing tree, or simply move your table & chairs under the canopy, they are invaluable when you want to escape the heat.

Tree seat

And in my opinion there’s nothing to beat lying on the grass reading a book in the dappled shade of a tree on a hot summer’s day.  Heaven!

Willow shade.JPG

Picture credits : Janet Bligh & Encompass Furniture