A patio to eat out on

As foreign travel has increased, so has our appreciation of the continental lifestyle; and with it the idea that the garden can be an extension of the home. This has lead to an increase in the appeal of eating out on a garden patio. In itself the idea of eating a meal out in the garden is not a new one but it is only relatively recently that the patio has become an expected part of the garden. For its size it is the most expensive part of the garden and so some careful thought is need before you start to build one.

Reclaimed sandstone flag patio
Reclaimed sandstone flag patio

The first consideration has to be where to locate the patio within the garden and with the British climate it needs to be in as sunny a part as possible. The idea of shade from the hot summer sun is very appealing but in the UK you need to make the most of any sunshine. To sit out and eat you need somewhere that is very warm. To settle down and eat a meal means sitting in the same place for possibly an hour or more – cool will soon start to feel cold. Shady areas, that never get the benefit of the full sun, stay cold in the warmest of weather and so don’t get warm enough to sit for any length of time. If it gets too warm, and in a sunny sheltered garden this can easily happen, you can use large garden umbrellas to provide controllable shade. These have the advantage that they can be put up or down and move as needed; something which is not possible with other sources of garden shade.

Once you’ve found a suitable spot you have to consider the size and shape of your patio. You have to consider not just the space needed for a table and chairs but also people sitting at the table and moving around it. In practice this means ideally you need an area at least 4 metres by 5 metres. This may seem a lot but from experience I would strongly advise you to treat this as a minimum and only make the patio smaller if your garden is actually smaller than 5m x 4m. It may well worry you that the patio is going to dominate the garden; but in this case make the patio the feature of the garden. The other thing is the shape and so long as you ensure there is a 4m x 5m rectangle within the shape you can let your imagination take its reign. A plain rectangle can be visually rather boring and often too rigid. The easiest way is to unevenly extend some of the edges of the patio out to break up the straight edges. Do not be tempted to try to break up the paving with plant filled gaps. These soil filled gaps will invariably end up under table and chair legs which promptly sink into them – you will soon be out with some paving and mortar to fill them in.

Imported stone flag patio
Imported stone flag patio

Finally you have to choose a paving material to make the patio out of. To work the material needs to have a reasonably surface, be solid (loose materials like gravel never really work) and be sufficiently durable both to survive the weather and the movement of the people and furniture over it. That a side, there is a vast range of materials to chose from both natural and manmade.

Hydrangea aspera


Hydrangea aspera
Hydrangea aspera

The rough leaved Hydrangea is one of the less commonly grown examples of this important genus in our gardens, but makes an excellent addition to the garden. The large velvety leaves provide an attractive display all summer covering this medium sized bush. And come June and July this is topped with dark lilac “lacecap” flowers. As is typical of Hydrangeas Hydrangea aspera D.Don is easily grown and need a shady location, making it ideal in front of a north facing wall or fence, or in the shade from trees. It is a very variable species and some people have questioned its hardiness but I have seen it grown successfully all over the UK. That said it probably benefits from some protection, particularly from strong winds which would damage the leaves, though this protection could easily be provided by the fences around most gardens or by a woodland aspect.

Hydrangea aspera flower
Hydrangea aspera flower

An oriental species it is found growing wild in the Himalayas, West and central China,Taiwan and Myanmar (Burma). It was first described by the Scottish botanist David Don in his 1825 flora of Nepal, placing it in Linnaeus’s genus Hydrangea L. In gardens it is often represented by Hydrangea aspera D.Don ‘Macrophylla’ a sterile selection with large leaves and flowers.

The variability of Hydrangea aspera D.Don, probably due in part to its wide geographical distribution, has lead to a degree of confusion regarding the different subspecies, cultivars, etc. The RHS database lists about 38 different entries under Hydrangea aspera D.Don including several subspecies. I it is doubtful how many of these are valid as the International Plant Names Index (IPNI) does not recognise any valid subspecies of H. aspera,raising them to the level of species.

Hydrangea aspera foliage
Hydrangea aspera foliage

Why do they keep changing plant names?

“That’s right!” shouted Vroomfondel, “we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”   

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The argument often made for using scientific plant names is that it provides consistency. If you ask for Alchemilla mollis that is what you’ll get. The problem is you keep finding different people referring to the same plant with different names. The exact opposite of what is wanted and causing confusion and irritation to many gardeners – what we want is clear stable names with no grey areas. Unfortunately “grey areas” are hard wired into the system of naming livings thing.

Wild scottish heather
Wild Scottish heather

The names of all living things, plants, animals, bacteria, politicians (possibly), etc are an attempt by mankind to order the world around us. To look at the state of things that may not seem to obvious a human obsessions but our history is littered with mans attempt to bring order and explanation to the world around him. To this end biologists try to group things in collections of related examples. This lead to plants and animals being divided into separate kingdoms and these were further divided and subdivided so like species were grouped into genera and like genera into families and so on. As this was going on it became clear that the range of species around us had changed over time, or evolved, and so it made sense to reflect these ancestral links in the arrangement of species, etc.

This hit two major stumbling blocks. The first and most obvious was the lack of

Sempervivum cultivar
Sempervivum cultivar

information about these ancestral forms. The vast, vast, VAST majority of species are extinct and lost forever. It needs a very unlikely set of circumstances for a plant or animal to be preserved as a fossil and even then the amount of detail preserved is still very limited. The other problem was how species evolve themselves. Initially it was believed that species were distinct with clear boundaries of some sort separating different species. Then came; Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Few people cannot have heard of Darwin but Wallace deserves his share of the credit for the theory of evolution Darwin explained in his book “The Origin of Species”. What the 50 year old Darwin wrote about was a bloody life and death struggle between all living things. This was the driving force behind the gradual change from one form into a new one. No longer were species entirely separate entities but a snap shot on their evolutionary journey.

So we find ourselves in a situation where it is impossible to have a clear definition of what a species is and nearly all the information we need to arrange the extant species in their places in the evolutionary map is lost for ever. I can best describe the situation thus: imagine you photograph everyone walking down you local high street one Saturday, lay all the pictures out and with only the pictures to go on try and work out not only who is related to who but how closely. I can guarantee you will disagree with who ever you are working with and have to frequently change your mind.

Now for the next question – why don’t we end up changing plant names more often?

Sitting out in the garden

Traditional garden bench at Pine Lodge Gardens
Traditional garden bench at Pine Lodge Gardens

One of the most popular pastimes in gardens is sitting out enjoying any warm weather the British climate affords us. At its simplest this could be just relaxing on a lawn, but soon you will be looking for something a little more comfortable. With this comes the decision – where to put the seat. A light wooden bench can simply be stood on the lawn and moved around as needed. This has the advantage that when it comes to cutting the grass it’s a relatively simple task just to move the bench to one side out of the way.  More substantial seating, or when you want to make a feature of the seat, a permanent base is needed to stand the seat on.

The first consideration when deciding where to put your seat is what is you going to use it for? Are you looking for a shady place to read a book, some where to sunbath or a dinning area? By now you should be getting to know your garden and the shade changes during the day and the year. Take a chair into the garden – any one will do – and try sitting in some likely spots. The world looks different when you drop your line of sight by 2 feet. Does it still feel like a good place to sit? Are you over looked (or overlooking)? Can you till see the view you were hoping to admire? Lots of questions I know but it’s easy to modify your ideas at this stage.

Once a suitable place has been found; the next things to consider are what style of seat and what you are you going to stand it on. The actual choice of style is largely a personal choice and most styles can look perfectly good in most settings; either by complementing or contrasting with its surroundings.  The range of different seats is vast but a few pointers are worth considering.

Garden bench built from railway sleepers
Garden bench built from railway sleepers
  • You get what you pay for. The better made the seat the more expensive it is going to be.
  • Hardwood is more durable but of course costs more.
  • Both wood and metal seats both need regular painting to maintain them.
  • Seats don’t have to be bought. Some very effective seats are homemade.
  • Garden seats can soon become hard and uncomfortable so do you need cushions?
  • Single seats never look very inviting in the garden; so generally stick to benches or use groups of two or more single seats.
  • A garden seat does can be made from all sorts of different materials.
  • A seat doesn’t need to be a conventional chair or bench – be imaginative!

    Sculptured garden bench at the Hillier Gardens
    Sculptured garden bench at the Hillier Gardens

When it comes to what you stand the seat on the choice is simpler. You can stand it one the soil or lawn; but the legs will tend to sink into the ground, and not evenly, so you will have to keep repositioning it. Also constant contact with the damp soil is likely to encourage rotting or rusting of the base of the legs. Bark has similar problems unless it is laid over a firm base, if just a porous membrane is laid under the bark the seat legs will tend to puncture it. Gravel has similar problems to bark and it also needs an edging to stop the gravel spreading about. That aside both can make a good base for a seat that is not being moved around as it is in use. The last choice is paving in its various forms and this is the most expensive. If the seating is going to be around a table, with chairs moving about as people sit and get up from the table, then a smooth solid surface is the only practical choice.


These are catalysts which drive and control all the processes in living things. These are proteins just like muscle and hair and work as a result of their complex structure. Catalysts are something which causes a chemical reaction to occur but remain unchanged by the reaction so that it can repeatedly act on the same reaction.

Organic matter

This is the part of the soil which is made up from partly decomposed plant material or material which can beaded to soil to increase the amount of soil organic matter. It is very important as a reserve of nutrients and in the structure of the soil. Typical sources include peat, compost, farmyard manure and leaf mould. Except for peat soils, mixing additional organic matter into a soil will improve it.


Originally this was something which served as an organ and with time was adopted by chemists to refer to carbon based compounds. As a result of living things being carbon based it extended to which living things and material which resulted from living things; hence organic matter.

The latter half of the 20th century saw the word adopted by the anti-chemical movement to mean something produced without the use of manmade chemicals.

What to put in the garden

By now we’ve got the garden under control and we can take time to consider what we are going to do with it in the longer term. I can’t give a list of what to put in as every garden is different as are its owner’s needs.  What actually goes into the garden is going to be determined by the garden and the use you are going to put it to. It is inevitable some compromises will have to be made; so it’s worth considering who is going to use the garden and for what. Once you feel clear about this, comes the problem of fitting it into the space you have available. Only a very luck few space for all the demands that we will place on a garden. In addition to the size your ideas have to allow for nature of the garden and how your needs are going to change with time. Most commonly people remain in the same house 10 to 20 years and a lot can change in that time.

The Slave Garden at Pine Lodge Garden
The Slave Garden at Pine Lodge Garden

To start off make two lists, one of the characteristics of your garden and the second of what you what to be able to do in your garden, both now and in the future. In the first list you need things such as its rough size, its shape *, whether it faces north, south east or west**, is it fairly level or does it slope, is it shaded by buildings and trees, which parts get the sun and when***, is it sheltered, where are the inspection chamber/manhole covers, where are any existing things you want to keep, What is the soil like, …

The second list needs to contain things such as do you intend to eat out in the garden****, what a pond or other waterfeature, are you going to put play equipment in the garden now or in the future, are you going to need a washing line or rotary dryer, are you planning to grow your own fruit and vegetables, what areas are you going to need access to, what car parking/additional car parking do you need now or in the future, do you need a clear area of lawn to kick a ball about on, do you want to grow a particular type of plant,…


* Most people assume their gardens are rectangular, but in practice they never are and in practice are generally along way from being a rectangular.

** In the UK satellite television dishes point roughly due south.

*** In the summer the sun is much higher in the sky, but never directly over head, so things like buildings and trees will cast much less shade.

**** As a general rule, ideally, you need a paved area at least 4 metres by 5 metres for a modest garden table and chairs.

The Concise British Flora in Colour by W. Keble Martin

William Keble Martin was an amateur botanist in the must noble tradition of amateurs. That is to say he was not employed as one but was every bit as skilled and dedicated as any “professional” botanists. He was formally trained as a botanist but instead of following this path chose to be ordained and spent his entire working life working as a parish priest.

Throughout his life though he maintained his keen interest in botany and over a period of over sixty years studied and drew over 1400 native British plants in exquisite detail. It was not until he was 88 years old was this collection first published. These days the work of botanical illustrators is over looked, having been pushed aside by the ease, speed and ultimately cost of photography. The draw back of this is that a photograph can only ever be one example of a plant on a particular occasion, but plants are far more viable than this. The blunt tool of the camera can never isolate and capture the spirit or soul of a plant in the way a skilled artist can. Therefore the simple skilled illustrations in this book gives the reader a far clearer understanding of what a plant actually looks like than a “modern” glossy book ever can. I don’t know what lead Rev. Martin t to paint all these plants but I very much doubt anyone will try to repeat his work partly because he has already done it and partly because as he working away, colour photography was evolving from a laboratory experiment into mainstream use.

What he left us was though a remarkable tool for identifying British plants. Some of the names have moved on but still the modern alternative can readily be found by cross referencing with new publications. Sadly this book is no longer in print but can be found ridiculously cheap on the second-hand book market. . In a perfect world a publisher would take these illustrations and re-publisher them with up-to-date names but I don’t imagine the economics of the book world would make this a practical proposition.