Creating & Remodeling Outdoor Rooms

By now, I’m sure you’re familiar with the term “garden rooms.”  This is simply a way of dividing the home landscape into a series of outdoor living spaces. Although these areas, or “rooms,” may serve distinctly different purposes, there needs to be a “flow” between these spaces, along with gentle transitions.  You may decide upon a unifying theme, such as country informality or classically formal; however, the delightful fact remains that it needn’t be just one thing or the other.  It is entirely appropriate to indulge yourself by pursuing several favorite design schemes, within the landscape, and garden rooms make it possible.

As with any landscape project, and maybe more so with this one, it’s important to start with a plan.  Consult with the family, before putting pen to paper, so everyone has a “say” in the proposed use, arrangement and style of the various rooms.  Play or sports areas, swimming pools, garden ponds, decks and patios are some of the manmade features that either exist, or are in the planning stages.  The same is true for vegetable plots, backyard orchards, dedicated rose beds and butterfly gardens.  These, too, may be features already present, or still in the talking/planning stage.

Existing hardscaping (walks, walls, arbors, etc.) may be something you work around, “tweak” to fit the “new look” or change completely.  Lastly, natural features, like areas of ledge, protected wetlands or a magnificent stand of hardwood trees, are “givens” that will greatly effect the overall plan.  With other “givens,” there may be a bit more flexibility.  While shade cast by buildings is a permanent feature, shade from your own trees is a more fluid thing... removing lower limbs and/or judicious thinning, can result in much-needed direct sun or, perhaps, lighter shade.

Topography, or the “lay of the land,” is pretty basic. “It is what it is,” with certain exceptions... we can effect change by terracing hillsides, digging down to accommodate garden ponds or adding soil to ledge crevices, for the cultivation of suitable rock garden plants.  Soil type is another somewhat flexible “given.”  Clay or sandy soils can can be improved and sometimes varied enough, with additives (compost, peat, gypsum or sand, depending on soil type), to support desired plants.

Few of us are fortunate enough to be starting with a clean palette, when it’s time to “paint “ a new landscape picture.  Let’s face it, we call it “remodeling” when we make improvements in an older house.  When we make significant changes and improvements in the surrounding landscape, we could reasonably refer to this process as remodeling, as well.  Just because an existing landscape is a rather haphazard arrangement of separate areas, doesn’t make them any less important.  What it does mean, is that it’s time for a landscape review that reexamines and rates the importance or necessity of these areas.

Camouflaging less attractive features, highlighting the best of what exists, softening hard lines, incorporating new spaces and doing all this with an eye toward the cohesiveness of the whole picture, takes creativity and more careful planning than that required for the “blank slate.” But, it’s a challenge and one most gardeners embrace, as they design their ideal outdoor living space.  It is time to at least start thinking about remodeling outdoor rooms.

Once you’ve determined what stays and what goes, you’re ready for the add-ins.  Whether planting to screen and beautify an existing pool area, or trying to make the compost pile less of a focal point, most of us are impatient to implement proposed new features... perhaps a cutting garden, bird sanctuary, grape arbor with seats, chef’s gourmet garden, goldfish pond that attracts frogs and turtles, a shady reading nook or contemplative oriental garden.  Focus on what’s most important and be realistic about available space.

Be aware that pathway layout is the primary way we move visitors through the landscape. Having a path disappear around the “walls” or enclosure of a garden room, leads the naturally curious around the corner.  Add to this the sound of a gurgling fountain, chattering birds as they bathe, the incredible fragrance of David Austin English roses, the coolness of a shaded bower or a glimpse of precisely clipped boxwood walls... all enticements that combine to lure even the least curious visitor to enjoy every aspect of your landscape.

While we New Englanders are resigned to about six months of no foliage on our deciduous plant specimens, we certainly strive to make the most of the growing season.  Color is a relatively accessible element, as we “paint” the walls of garden rooms or the structures within. Climbing roses will readily arch over the “doorway” of a wooden arbor.  Certain climbing roses, as well as some taller English rose varieties, lend themselves to pillar culture (an old-fashioned practice that deserves renewed attention)... A pair of pillared roses will effectively frame a garden room entrance.

Climbing vines, like clematis, honeysuckle (Lonicera), wisteria and trumpet vine (Campsis) are all suitable candidates to flow across arbors, creating shade and abundant colorful blossoms, some of which offer a nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds - yet another source of color and entertainment!  Of course, annuals and perennials offer armloads of colorful spring and summer blooms, making them ideal for inclusion in a cutting garden.  Surrounding such a garden with a blue-green wall of “blue” hollies (Ilex meserveae) presents the perfect backdrop for these flowering plants.  This same area goes on to become a wonderful winter feature.  Just be sure to include several male plants to cross-pollinate the female hollies; that is, if you want those red berries!

Many of the Japanese holly varieties (Ilex crenata) and dwarf boxwoods are ideal as low edging or medium hedges, to encircle a garden room.  They are of tidy habit and a minimum of pruning will keep them looking crisp enough for even a formal treatment.  Common boxwood (Buxus sempervirens, to 15’ high) and columnar boxwood (B. sempervirens ‘Fastigiata’, much narrower, to 12’ high) are ideal where higher walls are needed.  ‘Steeds’ and other upright hollies also have great potential as walls.  Such dark green, broadleaf evergreens tolerate shearing and remain a constant in the winter garden.

Sometimes, especially for informal settings, one need only hint at a “wall” for the garden room. A well-placed trellis, low fieldstone wall, a line of ornamental grasses or wide perennial border will do quite nicely.  For a sumptuous, old-fashioned dividing wall, choose from Hydrangeas that range from the four-foot ‘Annabelle’ (H. arborescens), ‘Forever and Ever’ or ‘Endless Summer’ (both H. macrophylla), to the 6-8’ ‘Quickfire’ and ‘Limelight’ or the 10’ ‘Tardiva’ and ‘Pee Gee’, all H. paniculata varieties).  An existing fence may form one wall of a room, as might an existing hedge.  Easy-care landscape roses are another alternative.

A few well-placed butterfly bushes (Buddleia) will keep these beauties busy, summer through early fall.  As a supplement to plants that attract birds and butterflies, offer a clean source of water, mount nesting and roosting boxes, hummingbird nectar feeders, butterfly boxes and offer a small, but constant, supply of wild bird food.  Not only will birds add beauty and song, but they’ll stay around to control garden insects.

Remember the cooling, soothing sound effects of rustling ornamental grasses and tinkling wind chimes, as you furnish those garden rooms.  Consider the subtle hues of wood, stone, brick, pavers and bark mulch as you balance complementary and contrasting blossom colors. A large grape-covered arbor is a room, by itself... a cool, shaded retreat which, with a little pruning, provides grapes for snacking.  Have fun creating and remodeling those garden rooms!

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