Designing a low-maintenance outdoor room will mean less work and more play
Words: Catherine Stewart
Relaxing in your outdoor room with friends and family is one of the best parts of being at home. What we want is to put our feet up, sip something long and cool, chill out to our favourite music and share some laughs. Nobody wants the mood spoilt by that creeping feeling that all around us are chores waiting to be done.
While it’s impossible to make anything “no maintenance”, there are choices you can make when designing, building and planting your outdoor room that will greatly lighten the load. If you’re busy planning a new outdoor room, take some time to think about the layout and inclusions, as these can save you work, time and effort later on.
The first step is to make sure there is good access for wheeled bins and maintenance machinery. If you keep paths a minimum of 900mm wide, avoid tight turns around house corners and use ramps rather than steps, as you’ll be able to bring in yard carts, wheelbarrows and bins for an easier clean-up. Allow the same clearance between raised garden beds and, if you have enough room, also around the outside of outdoor furniture settings.
Try to include small storage areas in your outdoor room, with discreet narrow cupboards against walls and seating built over waterproof storage boxes with a hinged lid. This will keep maintenance tools handy for a quick tidy-up, enabling you to stick to the golden maintenance rule of “little and often”.
Seat boxes can hold battery-powered hedge shears, dustpan and brush, spray cleaning fluids and sponges, bucket, watering can and small gardening tools like weeder, trowel and secateurs. Wall cupboards are ideal for hanging up long, narrow tools such as a broom, spade and line trimmer.
Easy access to an outdoor power point or two minimises the need for extension cords when running an outdoor vacuum cleaner. Position a tap where it’s handy to fill a bucket or watering can for a quick floor wash, plant revival, water feature top-up or running a drip irrigation system or a high-pressure washer. If you try to hide it with pots, you’ll just have the bother of moving them, whereas inside a wall cupboard works well. Alternatively, you could choose a beautiful ornamental tap.
To sweep or wash the floor of your outdoor room, take into consideration where you’ll be sending the leaves, dirt and water, such as a lower-level garden bed or grate-covered drain. And if you’re in a windy area, watch where the prevailing wind pushes surface leaves so you can work with, not against it. Provide a boot scraper at access points from the garden.
When choosing flooring materials for your outdoor room, remember that paving that’s either very pale or evenly coloured (rather than mottled or blended) will quickly show leaves, dirt and stains. Clay pavers are a better option as they have a low porosity so are more stain-resistant. However, all pavers and stone flagging can be sealed to prevent staining. Some pavers are available pre-sealed, or a sealer can be applied after laying, and this should last several years.
It’s best to avoid using cast iron or steel furniture and decorative items that could leave rust stains, as these are very hard to remove. Highly textured surfaces, while often non-slip, will also retain lots of dirt, creating conditions for mould and algae. Larger-sized pavers have fewer cracks between them for weed growth, and laying them over a concrete base prevents settlement problems.
Decking timbers also require regular cleaning, including scraping out debris that builds up between the boards and resealing with oil, stain or varnish. Modwood substitutes are lower-maintenance options, while powder-coated metal decking allows much of the dirt to fall through.
Masonry is the lowest-maintenance choice for walling, but more surface dirt will build up on concrete block or stack-stone walls with a rough stone-like finish, or in deeply raked mortar joins. Make sure walls have good drainage behind them to prevent mildew and moss growing on the outside face.
For privacy fencing, powder-coated steel or aluminium slats are the lowest-maintenance alternatives, as timber needs to be regularly stained, oiled or painted. Panel fences of brushwood or bamboo should be set off the ground to prevent rotting. A balustrade made from tensioned wire cables set either horizontally or vertically is virtually maintenance-free, as long as you’ve paid for good-quality stainless steel, such as 316 marine grade. If you plan to use glass balustrades, invest in a permanent protective coating, which will greatly reduce cleaning.
Plants are an important part of outdoor rooms. While some, such as succulents, are lower-maintenance than others, you can still have an outdoor room that is lush and green without endless pruning and fussing. By unifying hardscape materials, such as similar surfaces and colours for walling and flooring, you can then add the contrast of a profusion of plants without it descending into messy chaos. Make sure garden beds are strongly defined, with edges high enough to keep mulch contained. Decorative pebble mulches are high maintenance as you need to stop dirt and leaves building up on the surface, and they’re hard to sweep.
Although limiting the number of plant species simplifies maintenance, monocultures are more vulnerable to attack by pests and diseases, which can turn into a much bigger headache. Designing deeper garden beds (at least 900mm) allows for better planting combinations and for leaves to drop inside the bed rather than on paving. It’s best to avoid spill-over plants other than succulents, as dead leaves build up underneath.
Don’t be too impatient for a quick effect and space plants too closely, as this will greatly increase your pruning chores as well as the clippings you need to dispose of. Formally clipped hedges need almost constant trimming compared with three or four times a year for informal screens. All plants drop leaves or flowers, whether deciduous or evergreen, so you’ll still need somewhere to sweep to, and also compost the leaves.
Don’t encourage too much growth with over-watering or overfeeding. If you buy new soil rather than improve your original site soil, you’ll be locked into topping up garden beds every year, as the organic matter in made soils gets used up and the soil level drops. Drip irrigation systems are easy to install under mulch and can be controlled with automatic timers.
A few large pots require less maintenance than several small ones, both in watering and re-potting. Putting pots up on feet avoids some water staining and you can use black plastic pots inside larger decorative ones to make turning, pruning, re-potting and replacing plants much easier.
Designing a low-maintenance outdoor room is easy and will result in less work and more play. If you think about the upkeep when designing, building and planting your outdoor room, and choose flooring, walling, plants and decorative items accordingly, you’ll not only be able to enjoy your outdoor room but you’ll also be able to rest easy knowing it won’t take much to maintain it.
LOW MAINTENANCE OUTDOOR ROOMS
• A sealer is recommended for all flooring, whether it’s pavers, stone or timber decking.
• Walls should have good drainage behind them to prevent mildew and moss growing on the outside face.
• Fences made of powder-coated steel or aluminium slats are a low-maintenance alternative to timber.
• Use only marine-grade stainless steel and, for glass, ensure you use a permanent protective coating.
• Garden beds should be strongly defined with high edges to contain mulch. Deep garden beds (at least 900mm) will also allow better planting combinations.
• Put pots on feet to avoid water stains, and use black plastic pots inside larger decorative ones to make turning, pruning, re-potting and replacing plants easier.