Creating outdoor living spaces in the landscape

Story and Photos by Garry V. McDonald

Chances are if you grew up in the South before the days of now-ubiquitous air conditioning, the yard was as much a living space as the dining room or family den. I can remember homes with screened sleeping porches, which, alas, we never had. Even at my own abode, with all the modern conveniences, my patio is the center of summer evenings – at least until mosquitos tune up and ruin the restful idyll. Creating garden rooms is a way to make full use of the landscape even if the area is small and doesn’t include grand verandas and vistas. 

This garden is in a space that would otherwise be just a dreary entranceway.

The idea of designing garden rooms isn’t anything new. In fact, the Greeks, to some extent, but particularly the Romans, designed open spaces around columned porches called “peristyles” and courtyard gardens called “peristylium.” There was often a water fountain, fishpond, or piece of sculpture in the center with geometric beds containing flowers, herbs, or medicinal plants. Benches were also a common feature under the porches. These gardens faced inward from the crowded streets to discourage the hoi polloi from observing family life. It was not only the grand villas that had garden courtyards. Excavations at Pompeii revealed that even modest homes had scaled-down peristylium. 

If space is limited, use a chiminea to provide warmth and a focal point.

Directly descended from the peristyles were “cloister gardens,” which were a part of monasteries or medieval castles. These were usually walled enclosures, similar to the peristyles. However, these spaces were designed for seclusion, not only for the pious contemplation of this life and the afterlife, but as physical protection from malefactors – imaged or real – that lurked in the dark forests and along the highways of the medieval world. 

Fire pits, such as this one I built for a friend, can provide the focal point for an outdoor room as well as a cozy spot for conversation.

Later, the garden designs of the Renaissance and onward shifted dramatically from inward looking to outward.

Garden room design was taken to a new level with the rise of the Arts and Crafts garden movement during the late 19th to early 20th centuries, especially in Europe, but also in the United States. Rather than a single outdoor space designated as a garden, a series of gardens were linked together, just as rooms in a house. The designs of the illustrious Gertrude Jekyll in the 1890s, along with Lawrence Johnston at Hidcote in the early 1900s, and Sissinghurst Castle designed by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson in the 1930s, were models of horticultural garden rooms. In the United States, Beatrix Farrand designed Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., as a series of interconnecting terraces and gardens.

For more modest garden rooms, boxwood or yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) can be effectively used to divide large areas.

Garden rooms can be quiet, intimate spaces providing an escape, at least temporarily, from the modern world, a cozy nook to read a book, or if you’re feeling nostalgic, a romantic spot woo a significant other. Like any room, designing an outdoor room is about organizing space and deciding how it will be “decorated.” However, designing outdoor rooms differs from interior design in that the space is never static – plants grow and age. As a practical matter, garden rooms can block noise, unsightly distractions, and moderate windy or drafty wind tunnels that usually occur when homes are very close together, as in my neighborhood. 

Pergolas can define spaces and provide support for favorite climbing plants, such as these roses.

If the space is small, but has a patio or porch that adjoins a back or side yard, that is the ideal place to begin. The traditional front porch, a distinctly American concept by the way, being open to the public by nature and design, is more difficult to use as a private space. 

Brick or stone, pavement, or elevated wooden decks can be used to define an outdoor space. Adding a pergola or other overhead structure not only adds a feeling of coziness, but can also provide support for favorite vines or a place to suspend choice plants. My pergola assemblage usually contains ‘Alice du Pont’ mandevilla (Mandevilla x amabilis ‘Alice du Pont’) or Mexican flame vine with the impossible name of Pseudogynoxus chenopodioides and various staghorn ferns (Platycerium bifurcatum) or whatever else strikes my fancy from year to year. Because of my tropical soul, the area beneath the pergola is a plant-geek paradise of rotating containers of favorite plants such as Key lime (Citrus x aurantiifolia), orange jasmine (Murraya paniculata), Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac), and frangipani (Plumeria rubra), and is usually heavy on scents. Also included are weird things, like a seed-raised baobab (Adansonia digitata) and a myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) I picked up somewhere along the way. 

While a bit grand for most landscapes, beech (Fagus spp.) or other dense plants, can be used as effective windbreaks or screens.

Screening is an important aspect of creating garden rooms. The plants used for screening obviously depend on the site and space available, but evergreens usually fit the bill to block wind, light, noise, or other distractions. For smaller spaces, boxwood (Buxus spp.) allowed to reach heights of 10 feet or more can be kept reasonably in bounds as far as width. An upright yew, such as Hick’s (Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’), works well and can tolerate shade. English laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) – not to be confused with the native cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana), which can be invasive – is a dense, upright evergreen with the added bonus of flowers in late spring. It can also tolerate shade. For larger areas, Thuja ‘Green Giant’ is a dense, upright, pyramidal evergreen that tolerates full sun and looks good when closely spaced. 

Clipped evergreen hedges create living walls with archways providing access to different garden rooms.

Hopefully not likely to burn the house down, fire pits, outdoor fireplaces, or even humble chimineas create intimate atmospheres on chilly evenings. An outdoor area enclosed by greenery and centered around a fire pit is a wonderful space to entertain guest or just relax. 

Swimming pools are usually required by law to be surrounded by fencing for safety reasons, offering a ready-made space. Enhance the area by creating a garden room with the pool as the central feature. Dense plantings used to define the space can be coupled with seasonal plants, such as banana (Musa spp.), and large containers of summer annuals to transform an area into a summertime resort. 

Unclipped evergreens, such as these Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), can be grouped together to block unsightly views, noise, or lights at night.

Long skinny side spaces, usually between houses and usually where air-conditioning units are found, can make interesting “pass-through gardens,” particularly if the area is mostly shady and has a flagstone path and is planted with ferns, Hosta, or other shade-loving plants. 

The beauty of creating garden rooms is that they can relate to the others or be completely different styles, as long as it is surrounded by a wall of green.

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