Demystifying garden rooms

Story and Photos by LeeAnn Barton

What defines a room? Is it four walls and a door or the contents? Maybe it is the room’s purpose or the fact that it is only a portion of the whole living space. All of these speak to what a room is – garden rooms are no different.

Oklahoma Botanical Garden in Stillwater offers many garden rooms to sit a rest a spell. A trellis, walkways, and low shrubs enclose this nook.

“Garden room” is a modern term for an ancient practice. Be it a space for meditation in an Eastern garden, a boxwood maze on an English estate, or a backyard dining area in suburban America, the only thing new about garden rooms is the name. 

The mere thought of creating a garden room is enough to send many DIY landscapers into frenzy, but it need not be so. Looking at two traits – purpose and definition – will demystify the garden room. You may, in fact, find one has been in your backyard all along and just needs a little refreshing!

Straight, formal lines combined with rounded and freeform shrubbery lends interest to this area where the homeowners come to rest.

First consider that a room is a portion of house; likewise, a garden room is a portion of your outdoor living area. Determining a room’s function will determine the contents of the room. Game rooms, studies, home offices, and bedrooms are all are furnished for specific purposes. Similarly, designing garden rooms begins with answering the question, “What will its use be?” Will the space you create be for dining, meditation, reading, or play? 

This gardener’s favorite place to relax, with a bench and a birdbath, is tucked behind a weeping mulberry (Morus spp., cvs.)

In a home, walls define rooms, but there are other features that accomplish the same thing: bars, half walls, islands, furniture – such as a bookshelf– can even act as a “wall” or used to delineate spaces. A garden room can also have “walls.” A trellis, hedgerow, or other planting can be used to “enclose” a space. One wall may offer shelter blocking wind, intrusive sounds or neighbors. Another may direct and focus your view to a nearby pond or bird feeder. A dense hedge with a veiled entrance can make your room more private. 

The lines of this Cushing home (attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright) create a perfect marriage between home and patio life.

Outdoor rooms should be safe. Steps need to be stable and steady, fire pits should be installed away from overhanging branches, etc. I always advise bringing in the professionals if electricity or water is required, especially when it is not near a safe outlet or existing faucet. 

The intricate paver “floor” and circular seating speak of this room’s former glory. Plan to keep your rooms looking sharp!

Allow for flexibility – few things in a garden are rigid and nearly everything changes with the seasons. Know which season(s) the room will be used the most. Weatherize and winterize things such as benches, tables, fountains, and flooring. 

A little planning goes a long way toward creating and maintaining pleasant rooms for outdoor living. Your options are limited only by your imagination and the size of your yard!




A room for relaxation: Do you enjoy sitting on soft grass or a bench with bare feet in soft sand? Each of us have unique ways of relaxing. Do you find fragrance and the soft hum of busy bees peaceful? Consider what lowers your blood pressure. Include a comfortable chair or bench and somewhere to set a cool drink, book, or potted plant. A hammock is excellent for napping; just be sure it isn’t under trees that shed a lot of leaf litter and/or seeds and of course, away from street noise. 

Space for Meditation: This requires solitude and quiet. A soft, level surface of grass or sand will accommodate yoga mats. The sound of a trickling fountain or other water feature and fragrant plants calm the senses. 

Playroom: This can be anything from a space for horseshoes and badminton to a sandbox and trampoline for the children. For young children, ensure a good line of sight for safety. Avoid poisonous or thorny/prickly plants as well as those with high water needs. Use grasses and ground covers that can withstand foot traffic and are relatively low maintenance – yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides) are drought- resistant and easy to maintain.

Outdoor dining area: Must-haves include a weatherproof table and chairs and a barbeque or grill. Plan for a flat space near the cooking area and a wastebasket for convenience. Flagstone or pavers beneath the dining area resist hot ashes and avoid mowing headaches. Be careful when planting near barbeques, grills, and fire pits. Plants in those areas must be able to tolerate radiated and reflected heat – potted succulents or Mediterranean herbs are good choices.

If shade is desired, it could be the form of a vine-covered arbor or bright overhead sail. Avoid vines with heavy fragrance as well as those with sweet nectar that attracts bees and ants. 

If you plan on using your room after dark, position lighting up and away from the seating, not only to avoid bright glares but to draw insects away from your guests.

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