How to take over an established garden

Over grown garden near Scotch Corner
Over grown garden near Scotch Corner

Most people when they buy a new house find they are taking over an existing garden and this will present certain challenges; you have, after all, bought their house not their tastes. It is therefore inevitable not everything in the garden you are going to like and/or want. It is reasonable to assume on first moving in that the garden will not be your most pressing concern, so we need to start by prioritising. The first thing to consider is what is the time of year, mid-winter little is happening in the garden but in the height of summer any lawn will be growing fast so you are going to need to cut it once a week and if there is a pond it needs to be kept topped up and any filter maintained. The rest of the garden should survive all right with the exception of any plants in a greenhouse. If its summer and you’re pushed for time the easiest thing to do is to take them out of the greenhouse, up them with any other plants in pots and keep them watered.

The next stage is to have a really good look around your new garden; you should have plenty of opportunities to do this while escaping the paint fumes. What do you like, dislike or simply don’t understand. Look where gets the sun and when, are you over looked and to what extent; most gardens will be overlooked by some bedroom windows but in practice people spend little time looking out of their bedroom windows – so they are not as much of a problem as a kitchen or sitting room window. While you’re at it consider which plants you like and how much space large plants are occupying, but don’t be too quick to condemn; that large bush could be there to hide an eyesore.

One of the problems with plants is that you are not really aware of them growing; they kind of do it sneakily behind you back, so you just don’t notice how big they are getting. This is where the new home owner’s fresh pair of eyes comes as a big advantage. Have a good dig, metaphorically speaking, in the back of borders; you could be surprised what you find. If nothing else, you may well find a lot of underused space. While you’re at it take a good look at the trees in the garden because if these need attention now is the time to do it.

Are the trees appropriate for the garden? Are they going to, or have they got, too big for the garden? If you have large mature trees in the garden do they need a professional to look them over to check they are safe? If the trees need any major work it will both create a lot of upheaval and dramatically change the garden so it’s best to get it done as soon as is practical. Beware there are many very good professional arboriculturist (tree surgeons) but sadly there are also a lot of butchers out there. So check they have a proper formal training, carry appropriate insurance, get more than one written quotation and remember if a price sounds too cheap, and tree work isn’t, be suspicious! One common tree problem is people buy Christmas trees with the roots on and then come the New Year can’t bring them to throw away a living tree they’ve spent the holidays keeping alive. Then comes the problem of what to do with it, so it gets planted in a corner of the garden. This all sounds nice and remarkably quite a few of these Christmas leftovers survive, looking quite nice tucked in the border. The problem is the type of trees sold as Christmas trees are the type that grow quickly into big trees, which makes sense if you’re trying to produce trees that are sellable at the best price. You can probably see where this is going, they sit quietly at the back of the border growing! These are not a good choice for a domestic garden. People get attached to trees. So you soon end up with what is in effect a large and growing arboreal pet in the garden. I’m afraid the only realistic solution is to remove it before it gets any more of a problem, or more expensive to remove.

Having got a rough idea of what you’ve inherited sit down with a pencil and plenty of paper, draw on the boundaries and the house, and anything you want to keep. Don’t worry about being too accurate, just get your thoughts down on and try different ideas out. There may well be a number of things you decide you would like to keep, some of them it may turn out are not practical to keep, and others you just don’t like. Don’t be afraid to change your mind; paper’s cheap, so try out different ideas.

While trying out ideas a few things to consider are:

  • Do you need space for parking?
  • What storage are you going to need?
  • Do you want to grow fruit or vegetables?
    • They need space and a sunny position.
    • They take time.
  • Are you going to sit out?
    • Ideally a patio should be a minimum of 5 metres by 4 metres if you are going to put a table and chairs on it.
    • It needs a sunny position.
    • If not near the house it needs good access between the two.
  • People rarely allow sufficient depth for borders – if space is limited wall shrubs and climbers may be a better option.
  • Many large shrubs will come away if cut hard back.
  • Have you the space and time for lawn?
  • Do you want a greenhouse?

 

Start with the things you feel are most important and place them, letting the other things fall in around them. You will undoubtedly have to compromise so it’s better to do so about the less important things.

Don’ be afraid to play about with ideas and take your time to decide what you want to keep, what has to go and what just need cutting back. Once you feel happy with your ideas be bold and start taking out what you don’t want. Once you start you will most likely make new discoveries and your plans will have to be adapted, but you will end up with YOUR garden.

How to create a low maintenance garden

Over many years of designing and creating gardens the most frequent request I have received is for a “low maintenance” garden. I have never been asked for a high maintenance one! This is usually followed something along the lines of “so we want most of it just lawn”. The real problem is that people muddle up low maintenance with simple maintenance. Low maintenance is about limiting the time and effort need to keep the garden looking good where as simple maintenance is all about following a mower around and avoiding those strange things in the borders with long funny names! The thing is low maintenance isn’t difficult and just needs a little thought and a lot less back ache.

What needs the most work!

Of all the aspects of a garden the traditional lawn is the most demanding in time and effort, nothing else requires this much the weekly attention all summer. A good contender for this top spot is also the vegetable garden but the people who put this much effort in to growing vegetables do so because they want to and aren’t looking for a low maintenance solution, otherwise they would not do it. The next suspect is annual bedding but this has largely fallen out of fashion at least in part because of the time and cost involved. Now annual bedded is really seen well done outside of municipal planting where it’s in often very well done. In private gardens, sadly, normally annual bedding mean a few lonely alyssum and aubrietia dotted sparsely along the edge of borders. The final culprit is bare soil; they say nature abhors a vacuum and gardens are no exception to this.

What needs less work

First off all gardens need some looking after, the trick is to balance what you want, what you have the time and resources for and what you need. At some point you will have to compromise as with all things in life. Obviously paving requires very little looking after but a concrete yard is going to look rather boring, so the temptation is going to add pots of plants but these need more caring for than plants in borders. Borders are often looked on as for more work than a lawn but for any given area they require far less time and effort than a lawn. I believe people are really just scared off because garden articles are full of all the things they say you need to do and knowing which plant to do what to. YOU CAN IGNORE THE VAST MAJORITY OF THIS IF YOU WISH, THE PLANTS WILL STILL GROW! Yes you might get less flowers or the foliage may not be as dramatic, but you will be a lot less intimidated by the idea of borders. Why then you ask do gardening books and magazine articles list all these things you are meant to do at specific times? Partly it’s because they are enthusiasts, often with a great deal of specialist knowledge, who want the plants at their very best. Another reason I fear is it’s about filling copy. If our expected to produce x number of words every day/week/month you are not going to last long if all you put is “Sit back and enjoy your garden”!

 

How to make a low maintenance garden

 

  1. Get rid or reduce the amount of the lawn
  2. Avoid bedding
  3. Use paving and gravel
  4. Start off without any perennial weeds
  5. Use borders and make them big enough for the plants
  6. Chose easy plants

 

  1. Get rid or reduce the amount of the lawn

In a small garden this is more practical than in a large one, also if you have children the practically of family life may mean this is not desirable. In a small garden that doesn’t have to double up as somewhere for the children to play then extending the borders and replacing the remaining lawn with paving, gravel and or bark is going to reduce the work needed. In larger gardens you are going to need to use grass as the alternatives are going to look very hard. Large area can be managed in easier ways though. Not all the grass needs to be cut short, cutting paths through the area and letting the rest grow long can look very effective. At some point the long grass is going to have to be cut but instead of cutting all the grass every week you just need a smaller mower to cut the paths each week and then hire in a bigger machine in autumn to cut it down and then a day disposing off the cut grass, which will be a lot less than the amount of grass you would have to dispose of if you were cutting it each week. If you hire in a 65 cm wide flail mower two of you should be able to do half an acre in a day.

  1. Avoid bedding

The problem with bedding is it needs replacing every year and leaves you with a bare area to do something with from autumn to spring. Also to be effective you need a lot which is a lot of work and expense. That said nothing gives such a rich display of flowers, even if it is rather out of fashion. If you do what a splash of summer colour use a few pots filled with plenty of plants so there is no room for weeds.

  1. Using paving and gravel

Though at first this may seem hard and drab there is a vast choice of materials which can be mixed to break up the appearance. The simplest way to break up a paved area is by mixing the sizes of paving used, for more contract a second type of paving can be added either a random blocks or in some form of pattern. Areas of gravel or chipping are cheaper and if there is only going to be people occasionally walking over the area the chippings can simply be laid over a porous membrane once the ground has been cleared of all the weeds and levelled. These area can be broken up with cobbles and boulders so long as they don’t get in the way of people walking across the area. Gravel has the added advantage that plants can be grown through it with the gravel or chippings forming a weed suppressing surface. Both paving and gravel can also be broken up with the odd container of plants. The trick being striking a balance between variety and messy; if in doubt less is better.

  1. Start off without any perennial weeds

You cannot stop the annual weed blowing into the garden but these are easily controlled; perennial weeds with an established root system are a lot harder, especially among garden plants. No matter how hard you try you will invariably leave a little bit of the roots left when you dig them up. This is sufficient for the plant to re-grow and soon the weed is back. Even if you cover them they will simply grow through or round the covering. The solution is to get rid of these before you start, a glyphosate based weedkiller is by far the most effective (make sure it isn’t a residual weedkiller). This way all you have to do is create conditions that are unsuitable for weed seeds to germinate. Four things are need for seeds to germinate and establish; light, moisture, air and a growing medium. Therefore shading by plants, a surface which dies out and the absence of something to grow in is going to inhibit any weeds becoming established.

  1. Use borders and make them big enough for the plants

Containers like plant pots will only support a plant for so long before it outgrows it and needs regular watering if the plant is not going to die from lack of water. This is true regardless of how big the container is. Planting them in borders is easier and watering, once they are established, is far less critical. The biggest mistake people make is to make the borders too small with the result that the plant quickly out grows the space it has. The plant then has to be replaced or continually cut back in an attempt to make it fit the space. This just makes more work.

  1. Chose easy plants

Most of the plants you find for sale in garden centres are there because they are easy and reliable. This does mean there is a tendency to see the same plants in every garden centre. Before you go out to buy your plants check a few basic things, how much space is available for the plant, how much light is it going to get and is the soil acidic ( if in doubt assume not) and bare these things in mind as you walk around the garden centre looking at the plants and reading there labels. If in doubt ask a member of staff. If the staff are no help walk out. Good nurseries and garden centres rely on employing staff that are enthusiastic about plants and they will be only too happy to spend a little time sharing their knowledge.

How to design a drive

With drives, probably more than any other thing in gardens, the most important thing is it actually functions as it is intended. No matter how nice it may look, if it does work as a drive it is a waste of money. As ever there has to be some compromises, for example: you may what a turning circle in your drive but they need an awful lot of space. To start with you need to decide how many vehicles you are going to what to park on the drive and do you need to be able to pull onto the drive, turn around and then drive back out. You also need to consider how often individual vehicles will be needed, ideally you are not going to want to be constantly moving vehicles around just to get one particular one out. Last but not least you need to consider access to garages and house doors and how much of your garden you want to make into the drive.

Now look at what space you’ve got. An average car needs a space of 2.4 metres by 4.8 metres to park on and this doesn’t include space for manoeuvring it. Make a sketch and some vehicle sized pieces of card and try moving them about on the sketch, allowing for how they are going to swing out when turning. At this point you are going to have to make some compromises so consider what is important. Once you feel comfortable with the layout of your drive mark it out in the garden as you plan to have it and actually try it out. It is far easier to change now than later. To help I’ve includes some dimensions that may be helpful at the end.

You are almost ready to construct your drive but before you start checking the cost of materials it is important to consider if planning permission is needed. The pressure for off road parking has led to more and more gardens being paved over and while this does get cars off the sides of roads it means the rain that would soak into the front gardens now runs off them. The amount of rainwater running off a car parking space in a front garden may not seem much but once this is multiplied up for a town, never mind a city, it amounts to a lot of additional water going into drains and ditches. In response to this the government decided to bring in planning controls to cover non-porous paving in front gardens. What this boils down to is that any water that falls onto you drive you need to get rid of on your property and not down the drains. In many cases this can be as simple as providing adequate areas of borders for the water to soak into naturally, but where this is not an option either a permeable surface has to be used or the water has to be collected into drains and lead to a soak away where it can then seep away into the soil. Further details can be found on the government’s planning portal here. Planning rules are complex and special rules can apply in many situations so a 5 minute phone call to your local planning office at this point can save a great deal of trouble later. Whatever you do don’t try to emulate the Ostrich!

Drive surfaces

No drive surface is perfect and they all have their strengths and weaknesses so you have to decide which compromise is going to work for you.

Block paving

Block Paving
Block paving laid in a pattern using different colours

Pros:

  • Easily forms curved shapes
  • Adapts well to changing slopes
  • Sections can be taken up and re-laid to gain access to buried services
  • Vast range of finishes
  • Some designs are now permeable.

Cons:

  • Not suitable for poorly drained ground. The sand bedding course must be well drained and at least 600 mm above the water table.
  • The edges must be well retrained
  • Prone to sink where car wheels continually run
  • The more ornate finishes can be expensive.

Flags

Pros:

  • Can be very cost effective

Cons:

  • Only the 50mm thick flags are suitable

Grass concrete composite

(Concrete blocks with grass growing through gaps mounded in them)

Pro:

  • Simplify the job of getting rid of surface water

Cons:

  • The grass will not withstand heavy use
  • The grass will not survive under vehicles park continuously over it
  • Take time to establish
  • If the grass cover breaks down it will quickly become muddy.

Gravel

Pros:

  • Adapts to any shape
  • Cheap
  • Self-draining

Cons:

  • Only suitable for relatively level areas
  • Weeds quickly establish in the areas that aren’t been driven over
  • Moves about
  • Cannot be laid onto a hard surface such as existing concrete

Hardcore

Pros:

  • Cheap

Cons:

  • Easily eroded by water running down it
  • Not all hardcore is suitable

 

Pattern Impressed concrete

Pros:

  • Weed free
  • Large range of finishes available

Cons:

  • Must be laid by a good specialist contractor
  • With use the parts receiving concentrated wheel traffic start to fade
  • Very difficult to repair successfully

 Plain concrete

Pros:

  • Weed free
  • Relatively cheap

Cons:

  • Unattractive appearance
  • Needs to be well constructed if it is to last
  • Difficult to repair

Pointed setts

Granite setts
Pointed granite setts

Pros:

  • Combination of small paving units set in pointing makes an attractive finish
  • Adapts to complex shapes
  • Suitable for slopes

Cons:

  • Very expensive
  • Requires a lot of skill to lay

Resin bonded aggregates

Pro:

  • Less prone to move about than gravel
  • Available in a range of attractive finishes

Cons:

  • Not suitable where it is likely to become contaminated with mud
  • More expensive than plain gravel

Tarmac

Pro:

  • Adapts to complex shapes and slopes
  • A good compromise between cost and length of service
  • Well suited to large drives and heavily used ones
  • Available in a range of colours

Cons:

  • Has to be laid by a good specialist contractor
  • Colours only available subject to suitable plant near by

 

Drive dimensions.

These are for guidance only and should be checked before being used.

  • Local regulations and restrictions may apply and you should check before starting any work.
  • The drive entrance should only be at the verge crossing.
    • The verge crossing will have lowered curbs for the vehicles to get onto the road.
    • New or changed verge crossings will normally require permission from the council highways and planning departments.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed to special specifications.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed by approved contractors.
  • Ideally a drive should be 3.2 metres wide (or 2.6 metres if there is a separate footpath).
  • If you are putting gates on a drive opening onto a busy drive you may have to set them back 5 metres from the edge of the highway to allow a vehicle to pull safely off the road before needing the gates opening.
  • Check you can see clearly from the car driving seat when you pull out of the driveway.
  • Any water on the drive must not drain onto the highway, but must be disposed of on site.
  • Long drives need special considerations.
    • Bends need to be wider to allow vehicles to turn.
    • Oil delivery vehicles may only have 30 metre long delivery hoses.
    • Oil delivery vehicles are typically 7.2 metres long by 2.6 metres wide and weigh 18 tonnes.
    • LPG delivery vehicles need to get to within 25 metres of the fill valve.
    • The fire brigade need to get their vehicles to within 45 metres of the house.
Model Drive
Model Drive
Model drive turning circle
Model drive turning circle

Drive design

With drives, probably more than any other thing in gardens, the most important thing is it actually functions as the drive. No mater how nice it may look if it does work as a drive it is a waste of money. As ever there has to be some compromises, you may what a turning circle in your drive but they need an awful lot of space. First you need to decide how many vehicles you are going to what to park on the drive and do you need to be able to pull onto the drive, turn around and then drive back out. You also need to consider the order the vehicles will be needed, ideally you are not going to want to be constantly moving vehicles around just to get one particular one out. Last but not least you need to consider access to garages and house doors and how much of your garden you what to make into the drive.

Sandstone block paving at Winchester
Sandstone block paving at Winchester

Now look at what space you’ve got. An average car needs a space of 2.4 metres by 4.8 metres to park on and this doesn’t include space for manoeuvring it. Make a sketch and some vehicle sized pieces of card and try moving them about on the sketch, allowing for how they are going to swing out when turning. At this point you are going to have to make some compromises so consider what is important. Once you feel comfortable with the layout of your drive mark it out in the garden as you plant to have it and actually try it out. It is far easier to change now than later.

Cobble drive
Cobble drive

You are almost ready to construct your drive but before you start checking the cost of materials it is important to consider if planning permission is needed. The pressure for off road parking has lead to more and more gardens being paved over and while this does get cars off the sides of roads it means the rain that would soak into the front gardens now runs off. In response to this the government decided to bring in planning controls to cover non-porous paving in front gardens. Further details can be found on the government’s planning portal here. Planning rules are complex and special rules can apply in many situations so a 5 minute phone call to you local planning office at this point can save a great deal of trouble later. What ever you do don’t try to emulate the Ostrich!

. Planning rules are complex and special rules can apply in many situations so a 5 minute phone call to you local planning office at this point can save a great deal of trouble later. What ever you do don’t try to emulate the Ostrich!

Paving materials

 

The trick when designing your patio is to make it blend into the surrounds while adding to them. To do this you are free to use every trick in the book. You can use materials which contrast with their surrounding or complement them but care should be taken when trying to match materials as a bad match can be the worst scenario. Nor should you restrict yourself to just one material as mixing in an additional material is a very good way to break up areas of paving and differentiation between different areas. Just don’t over do it!

Below I’ve put together a table of most of the paving/drive materials currently available, the list though is not exhaustive. The cost column is really only to give a very broad indication of the relative expense involved in using different ones The exact cost would depend on many factors including site conditions and how much if any of the work was undertaken on a DIY basis.

Paving Materials 

Material Cost Advantages Disadvantages
Bark Low
  • Low cost
  • Flexible
  • Soft
  • Water permeable
  • Tends to spread about
  • Needs edging
Gravel Low
  • Low cost
  • Flexible
  • Comes in a very wide variety of colours and shapes
  • Water permeable
  • Tends to move about
  • Needs edging
  • If to soft it will quickly disintegrate
  • Only suitable for level areas
Plain concrete flags Low to medium
  • Low cost
  • Readily available
  • Provides a smooth surface
  • Does not need pointing
  • Good under sheds and for utility areas
  • Visually unattractive
  • Very heavy
Coloured concrete flags Low to medium
  • Low Cost
  • Readily available
  • Provides a smooth surface
  • Do not need pointing
  • Visually unattractive
  • Very heavy
  • Colours fade – particularly reds
Buget riven flags Low to medium
  • Low cost
  • More attractive than plain flags
  • Do not need pointing
  • Not as attractive as the more expense flags
  • Limited range of colours and sizes
  • Poor finish
  • Limited range of patterns
Premium riven flags Medium
  • Very wide range to choose from
  • Large range of flags shapes and sizes
  • Can be as expensive as imported flags
  • Care needed to ensure they are laid with the correct fall
  • Limited life
Imported stone flags Medium
  • Almost limitless life
  • Very hard wearing
  • Cost is equivalent to/or less than premium manmade flags
  • Needs a diamond blade to cut them
  • Brittle so hard to work
Block paving Medium to high
  • Very wide range of colours and patterns
  • Very hard wearing
  • Small size makes them very flexible
  • Must be securely edged
  • Red ones fade
  • Large areas can look like parking even if its not
  • Cannot be cleaned by pressure washing
  • The surface must be 600mm above the watertable
Stone setts High
  • Hard to very hard wearing
  • Small size makes them very flexible
  • Difficult to lay
  • Need a very solid base
  • Expensive
  • Need to be pointed
New sandstone flags High
  • Almost limitless life
  • Natural product
  • Very attractive
  • Heavy
  • Expensive
  • Requires skill to be laid well
Reclaimed sandstone flags Very high
  • Almost limitless life
  • Laid well are very attractive
  • Particularly prone to becoming slippery
  • Very heavy
  • Very expensive
  • Require skill to lay them well
Mosaics High to very high
  • Can look very attractive
  • Unusual
  • Requires a lot of skill
Sandstone crazy paving Medium
  • Flexible
  • A cost effective alternative to sandstone flags
  • Needs skill to lay it well
  • Can be hard to source
Tarmac High
  • Makes an excellent hardwearing surface
  • Smooth
  • Flexible
  • Comes in a range of colours
  • Requires specialist skills to lay
  • Only practical if sufficiently large area
  • Must have a secure edging
  • Limited range of colours
  • Not very attractive
Cobble paving High
  • Can look very good in the correct setting
  • Hard to source good warn cobbles
  • Very uneven surface
  • Prone to being slippery
  • Requires a lot of skill to lay it well
Decking Medium
  • Can be laid in a range of patterns
  • Comes in a range of finishes
  • Very good for levelling sloping sites
  • Flexible
  • Prone to being slippery
  • Limited life
  • Requires more maintenance
  • Needs to be lifted off the ground
  • Any decking surface over 300mm above the ground level requires permission from your local authority
Concrete slab Medium
  • Smooth
  • Can be textured
  • Laid well it is very durable
  • Capable of supporting heavy loads
  • Very good for utility areas
  • Requires skill to lay
  • Large areas require good access
  • Difficult to make good if it is damaged
Pattern impressed concrete Medium
  • Visually much better than plain concrete
  • Is only a surface treatment so prone to surface damage
  • Very difficult to make good if damaged
  • The colour will wear away where car wheels repeatedly run over it
Brick High
  • Small units allow flexible designs
  • Small thier small sizes makes trhem good for small areas
  • Bricks must be carefully chosen because of the risk of frost damage
  • Skill required to lay
Reinforced grass Medium
  • Provides a visually “soft” appearance
  • Water permeable
  • Only really suitable for car parking or intensely used footpaths

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.

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.