Design your outdoor room with potted plants in mind and enjoy the lush foliage and greenery provided
Words: Catherine Stewart
Greenery brings life to any room, whether it’s a jungle of lush foliage or a delicate flowering beauty tucked into the tiniest space. In an outdoor room, more natural light gives you wonderful opportunities to make plants part of your overall design, helping to blend inside rooms with the outdoors.
Research has proven the physical benefits of surrounding yourself with plants, showing that the microflora that work symbiotically with plant roots neutralise harmful VOCs given off by many man-made materials. We’re now also hearing more about the psychological upside of having plants around us: significant reductions in tension, anxiety, depression and fatigue and an increasing sense of vigour and wellbeing.
Potted plants can be useful design tools in an outdoor room. Larger tubs provide mass and volume, so you can use them to shape the space of your outdoor room or to define different zones, such as an eating area separated from a place for children’s play. Tall potted plants make excellent screens, with lacy foliage like pittosporum or bamboo offering some privacy, while allowing through a cooling breeze. Use large troughs with denser, clipped hedges of murraya, camellia, lillypilly or native myrtles to block an ugly view.
In a large pot, you can even have a small tree right up close to the house without the worry of damaging foundations. This gives an outdoor room a sense of canopy and enclosure, as well as providing cool, venting shade. Your local nursery will stock super-advanced plants which grow well in very large containers, including magnolia, citrus, maples, crepe myrtle, pomegranate, frangipani, tuckeroo, grafted flowering eucalypts, figs, ornamental pears, weeping cherries and watergum. In confined spaces, grow a fast-growing climber like ornamental grape from a large pot over a pergola for some summer cover.
In an outdoor room you can use potted plants in combination with furniture and decoration to evoke a particular mood. The graceful arching fronds of potted palms combine with elegant cane furniture and crisp whites to remind us of the courtyards and conservatories of the 1920s and ‘30s. Massed pots and cascading climbers with bright tropical foliage create a sense of steamy jungles. Stiff rosettes and fans of succulent leaves with warm red, pink and ochre alongside an outdoor chimera instantly make us think of Mexico, or the grey shades of olive, lavender and rosemary can work with a splash of pelargonium red and terracotta and white for a Mediterranean look.
Plants in pots that have been grown in unusual ways are great focal points that bring some “wow” to a sunny outdoor room. You can buy ready-made smoothly clipped balls or cones of box, lillypilly, box honeysuckle, juniper or coast rosemary, or decorative spirals and wreaths of star jasmine, ivy or wire vine. Twisted and contorted Japanese-style pines are as impressive as any sculpture. Simple standard plants bring an air of instant formality and there are plants ideal for full-sun exposure, like iceberg rose, conifers, duranta, cumquat, olive and portwine magnolia, or gardenia and lillypilly for semi-shade areas.
Large-leaf plants will draw the eye to that part of your outdoor room. The huge leaves on bromeliads like Alcantarea, ferns such as birds nest fern, and Japanese aralia (Fatsia), cordylines, fruit salad plant (Monstera), bird of paradise, agave, yucca, NZ flax and gingers are a great texture contrast to finely woven or lacy ironwork furniture.
Plants with interesting leaf designs can be used close to sitting areas to provide pretty detail. Peacock plant, prayer plant, variegated bromeliads, zebra plant, hosta, euphorbias and Caladium cultivars are so beautifully patterned, it’s as if the leaf has been individually painted.
Low-growing potted colour is a great way to brighten up an outdoor table and ring in some seasonal change. Flowering bulbs like miniature daffodils and tulips are an instant early spring pick-me-up. Celebrate summer with bright-coloured petunia, marigold and dahlia, and the cooler days of autumn with dwarf chrysanthemum or nerines. Bring in some winter cheer with calendula, cyclamen and pansies.
Even roofed outdoor rooms can support a surprising number of plants as there is still quite a lot of light about, particularly if you’ve got pale, reflective walls. Madonnna lily, the very adaptable Philodendron ‘Xanadu’, dumbcane, African violet, China doll (Radermachera), Stromanthe, Ctenanthe and Aglaonema and ferns thrive in pots in these lower-light conditions.
When designing an outdoor room, keep a plant’s needs in mind. Most plants like the same conditions you do; they will suffer from a build up of heat underneath a translucent but poorly venting roof, or bake if surrounded by too much dark paving in full sun. They like a bit of air movement (a slow-moving ceiling fan works well) but not to be constantly wind-blown. As potting mix drains quickly, container plants don’t usually suffer from excessive winter rain and as their root system is more exposed to heat and evaporation than indoor plants, over-watering is much less a problem than under-watering, especially in summer. You can use pots with a watering reservoir, or set up an automatic system using a circle of dripline around the top of the pot connected to a tap timer or controller. Keep your pots well mulched with decorative pebbles for extra stability and conserving moisture.
Growing plants in pots helps you succeed with plants that can be difficult in-ground, like daphne and orchids, or to have useful fast-growing plants that can get out of control in a garden, such as ornamental figs, umbrella tree, bougainvillea, wisteria and jasmine. You can also enjoy the beautiful perfume of roses, gardenia, jasmine and citrus blossom wafting through your home by growing them in pots close to windows and doors. In a sunny outdoor dining room, herb-filled pots provide aromatic surroundings and a quick garnish for any dish. Bay tree, lemon grass, kaffir lime, lemon myrtle and rosemary are all longer-lived plants, or you can have a tub of annual plants like chilli, basil, coriander and parsley. In shady areas, try different kinds of mint.
• Large tubs provide mass and volume and can be used to help shape the space of your outdoor room.
• Potted plants can be used to define the different zones of an outdoor room, such as an eating area separated from a kid’s play area.
• Tall potted plants make excellent screens; lacy foliage or bamboo will provide privacy while still allowing through a cool breeze.
• To mask an unsightly view, use large troughs with denser, clipped hedges such as lillypilly or myrtles.
• When designing an outdoor room, keep a plant’s needs in mind; consider sunlight, wind, water requirements, potting mix and mulch.