Garden Beat / Your lovable, livable outdoor family room...

Where beauty and comfort meet

Photo by kc kratt


Books have been written, and money made, on the concept of garden rooms. Since Sissinghurst in England, where tall clipped hedges enclosed tiny theme gardens, the idea of garden rooms has appealed. We humans like to feel cozy. We like pretty, enclosed spaces. We sometimes seek privacy and quiet to close out the world. Many of us feel happy just opening the door to a room filled with plants and sunshine. 


In Buffalo, the garden room concept has been taken way beyond what Vita Sackville-West planned at Sissinghurst. On Garden Walk Buffalo or other tours, you’ll see real rooms—and not just as metaphors. Instead of gardens merely divided by hedges that suggest rooms, Buffalo gardens have everything that an inside living room comprises; you’ll see furniture and lighting, places to dine or imbibe, mirrors, entertainment centers, fire pits, and clear evidence that adults and/or children spend time there. Compared to most indoor living rooms, the outdoor living room has only one difference: it is surrounded, embellished, or defined by plants—lots of plants. 


If you want a garden you can actually live in, where you can spend memorable hours during the warm months, you’ll need to do some planning. It takes more than a nice garden with a couple of benches.


What do you want from this room?

Long before plant shopping and turning over soil, you need to decide how you’ll use the outdoor living room. If meals—or parties, or reading, or play areas, or watching birds, or hosting garden walks—are important, you will plan the space differently. This is easiest when you start from scratch—a rare thing in a backyard—but even if the place is half designed, or if you have to accept some relatively permanent elements (a garage, wall, tree, driveway), envision it as a blank space. Mark with chalk, rope, cardboard, or pretend furnishings what you want in your room. The rest will follow.


Design the walls 

The walls may be fixed—side of the house, garage, fence line—but don’t let them limit your imagination. Walls of buildings can be painted, lighted, strung with nets, dotted with birdhouses or plants, or act as backdrops for espaliers. Fences are opportunities for vines, hay racks, hanging baskets, or painting. At the Philadelphia Flower Show this year, a designer showed ugly chain link fences woven with plastic threads in pretty patterns. 


Photo by kc kratt

Garden rooms can be created for large and small spaces, as seen in these retreats, located in Tonawanda and Allentown, respectively. 


Direct the traffic

Just because people have always walked, for example, by the left side of the garage to the back deck doesn’t mean that is—or needs to remain—the best way. Look at the space you will have, and reimagine the traffic pattern. A path could come from the other side of the house, bypass the deck, and lead to the new gazebo. It could meander along gently curved flower beds to a quiet seating area. It could lead guests around a fountain or pool that sets the mood for their visit. If you have garden tourists coming through, an ideal route for traffic might lead them in one side, through the best viewing areas, and out another.


Plan for plants

Plan the shape and size of garden beds before the place is cluttered with furniture, grills, swingsets and hardscape elements; this is a garden room after all. Don’t assume traditional placement—you know it well: the three-foot bed all around the outside of the yard, a two-foot bed around the edge of the deck or patio. Those could be right, but think through other options: a path might work between an interesting fence (hung with window boxes) and a mixed border several feet out into the yard. Try moving the beds out. The best place for a garden bed is often out in the middle of the yard, sometimes where the sunshine is. Consider an island, and make it larger than your first inclination. Instead of thinking three-by-ten feet, think ten-by-twenty-five feet and include a stunning small specimen tree, dramatic fountain, huge urn, or cluster of grasses. If you do want garden beds to border the deck or fence, make them wider and longer than Grandma’s or the former tenants’.


A professional landscape architect or garden designer can help you see your space with new eyes, and they know about structures and materials as well as plants. You can do a lot of reinventing of the space by thinking “bigger” and “out farther.” Space planning precedes plant shopping.


Figure out the furniture

For better or worse—too often worse—when someone takes a quick look at your yard, the first thing they see, and what they remember, is the furniture. You may have lived with it so long that you don’t see it anymore; look at it now. Is it your taste, style, preferred color, and proportionate to the size of the garden? Do you have enough furniture for enjoying this space as a true living space? Do the pieces have consistency, and do they suit the architecture and hardscape, or are they hodge-podge? No matter the plant choices, a common flaw in garden rooms is that the furnishings don’t have any identifiable style or connection. The companion flaw: putting furniture pieces together near the house. Why not place them out there, around the room, where you view the garden? 



Decorate your room

Once you have walls, paths, and furniture in an indoor room (plus plants in the outdoor one), you add art. For collectors, art placement may precede other design aspects; for most people, art tends to creep in. As with the furniture, garden art shouldn’t be haphazard and disconnected; choose a style or theme, and stick with it. Whether its Victorian wrought iron and china tea cups, rustic wood carvings and log benches, or contemporary steel sculptures of dinosaurs or human torsos, be consistent. 


The container collection is also a strong element in garden décor, but also not always thought through. One blue pot, mixed terra cotta, white plastic, and tropical patterned ceramics don’t necessarily make an eye-pleasing combination. Style consistency counts here, too, as well as a connection with the plants you’re using; this doesn’t have to mean same color, same size pots scattered here and there. At flower and trade shows this season, many contemporary designers have featured clusters of planters, often black or white, in several heights and widths. The plants typically differ—tall bananas rising from the four-foot planter and succulents draping from the short one—but the strong lines or colors of the pots pull it together. 


As they do with furniture, many gardeners fail to take advantage of the excitement that containers can offer in the farthest reaches. They put them on the deck or doorstep, but why not put a huge urn at the end of the path, or place a pair of tall colored containers as sentries flanking the steps to the pergola? With containers, think bigger, think repetition, and form groups—and put them out in the room. 


Don't forget to look for the unexpected art and décor you'll see this summer on garden tours and walks: umbrellas, mirrors, picture frames, and broken architectural remnants. Art is what you find, what you see, and what you make it.


Every July, on the last two-day weekend (this year, July 29–30), WNY offers the largest garden tourism event in the country, as well as open garden days, garden walks in many towns on many weekends, and motor coach tours. On all these, you will see rooms. Imagine your own, steal the ideas, and make a backyard living room for real living. The gardeners hope you will.


Sally Cunningham is a gardener, garden consultant at Lockwood’s Greenhouses, author, speaker, tour director for AAA/Great Garden Travel, and local chair for the August 2017 Association of Garden Communicators (GWA) conference, which will bring hundreds of writers and photographers to see Buffalo’s garden rooms. 


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