Creating cozy outdoor garden rooms in your landscape
Story and Photos by Brenda Lynn
For those of us who love the outdoors, gardens expand our living space and are an essential part of our home. Creating garden rooms expands options for entertaining, relaxing, and even exercising. A cozy garden room can be coaxed from the smallest balcony, or drawn into a broader landscape. Multiple rooms, connected by paths, water features, and transitional greenery lend themselves to a variety of uses.
Just as each room in our house has a specific purpose, garden rooms can fulfill any number of possibilities. A bench in a shady corner, hidden from sight, is a respite from summer heat or a from a long day’s work. Birds and other wildlife will flock to protected spaces as well, providing a musical backdrop and fully wireless entertainment. While grand vistas are inspirational, sometimes we crave the simplicity and comfort of an enclosed space – to be alone, or with others of our choosing.
A sense of privacy is key to freely enjoying homey, outdoor spaces. A patio with a grill, table, and chairs is functional on the most basic level; but to make it a space that draws people out and entices them to stay takes some tweaking. A dining area surrounded by deciduous trees in summer and evergreens in winter ensures protection from summer heat, as well as neighbors’ prying eyes (unless, of course, the neighbors are invited to the party!). In smaller yards, a privacy screen or tall hedge defines borders. Perhaps the deck or patio is in an open area, but leads to cozy quarters beyond. Strategically placed pergolas provide both privacy and direction when they lead to a defined garden room or sacred outdoor space.
Consider sunlight when designing a garden room. When will you use the room? If the area receives full sun in the morning, and you enjoy breakfast outdoors, perhaps a small table and chair surrounded by colorful blooms would suit the space. A water feature is especially enticing in a sunny spot. The relaxing sound of flowing water, or the sight of lily pads floating in a small pond, add greatly to the atmosphere of a cozy space. A larger water feature will require professional assistance and possibly electrical wiring. However, a simple birdbath or small fountain connected to an outdoor outlet are simple to install and care for. Water not only calms the senses, but also provides essential sustenance for wildlife, which in turn enhances our own experience.
If you love sun in the morning, but crave shade in the afternoon, plant midsized trees that will block the sun at its peak. Sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana), Korean spice viburnum (V. carlesii), fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), and American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) are all excellent for this purpose. Surround the area with containers of varying sizes but with the same design and color. Bright annuals that tolerate summer heat work well in pots. Native grasses also love sun and will fill in space between the pots. There are many to choose from, but for starters, try little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), purpletop (Verbena bonariensis), Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). Choose easy-care perennials, such as Baptisia, Coreopsis, turtlehead (Chelone spp.), and Liatris to complement the grasses.
Paths are essential for consistency and a sense of intimacy in a garden. They transform planting areas into interconnected rooms while directing visitors where to step and where to explore. The material used for the path can determine the feel of the areas it connects. Stone, wood mulch, pine needles, and gravel are all excellent materials for creating paths. Though stone looks terrific anywhere, it fits particularly well in formal landscapes, connecting a patio comprised of pavers or flagstone to other areas of the garden. Stone also works well connecting garden rooms where gravel is used to define planting beds, such as a circular herb garden or sundial set amidst trimmed boxwood (Buxus spp.). Pine needles or other natural mulch work well in woodland settings and raised-bed vegetable gardens.
GROW ABOVE AND BEYOND
A rooftop garden is exceptionally fun when planted above a cozy garden shed or playhouse. An architect or landscape designer may be necessary to help determine the maximum weight the structure can support. Drought-tolerant plants are the best options for rooftop gardens, decreasing the amount of watering necessary. Creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum), Sedum, and Euphorbia are drought tolerant, love sun, and will flower periodically throughout the season. For shadier spots, use mosses Epimedium, or wild ginger (Asarum canadense). They spread easily, but will remain contained on a rooftop. Fill in gaps with annuals, and enjoy knowing that no space is wasted.