Designing your outdoor room with plants will not only connect it to your garden but also give it a softer, more relaxed feel
Words: Catherine Stewart
An outdoor room needs many of the samequalities as those inside your home — a sense of enclosure, room for comfortable furniture and attractive decoration — but with one important addition.
Creating your outdoor room with built walls, hard surface paving and solid roofing can make it feel too much like the rest of the house, especially if you have used similar materials to “blur the boundaries” between inside and out. What really makes a room feel outdoors or connected to the garden is plants. Dense, rich-green foliage, broad strappy leaves, lacy textures and the zing of colourful flowers will make your outdoor room entirely different from the rest of your home. While we often think to use plants as decoration, they can play a much bigger role by actually shaping your outdoor room.
To create a cosy and “people-scale” space, you need to define it using vertical shapes, as walls and an overhead canopy to act like a ceiling. This ceiling is particularly important if you have a two-storey house, as it will feel too tall to sit next to when you’re outside. If you build all these in hard-scape materials you risk boxing yourself in with barriers which block breezeways and light and make for a much less pleasing environment. Using plants is a better alternative as they provide privacy and separation while still allowing for cooling breezes and the venting of heated air.
Clipped and shaped hedges replicate the regular look of man-made structures. At two metres high, they block views; at one metre high they still define spaces, rather like a couch separating parts of an open-plan room.
Plants with dark green leaves and a regular growth habit are best, such as lilly pilly, murraya, myrtus, bay tree, Japanese box and some cultivars of sasanqua camellia. Deciduous shrubs such as weigela, chaenomeles or berberis are useful if your outdoor room is too shady in winter. Hedges need to be at least a third as wide as they are high to stay thick and leafy.
Already built walls can be given a plant makeover using espalier techniques to clothe them in patterns of green, or by installing a green wall.
Hedge or screen plants growing in large pots or troughs, especially on castors, can be moved about to change the shape of your outdoor living area, adjusted for where you might need a windbreak or to provide extra shade. Bamboos are ideal candidates.
Breaking up strong lines
Outdoor rooms at the back of the house are often formed by the boxy shapes of house walls. Create a softer, more natural and relaxed feel to your outdoor room by filling in corners with plants, either in beds or pots. Plants that will grow in these sunless places are gold dust plants, aspidistra, liriope, star jasmine, philodendron, plectranthus and sacred bamboo.
Outdoor covered areas are notoriously hot because of the heat that builds up and cannot escape. By leaving a section open to the elements but covered by plants, you can have cool shade as well as better ventilation. A tree is the best canopy as it also reduces urban heat load. A vine-covered pergola is an alternative for restricted spaces. It’s a good idea to under-prune trees so as to lift the canopy well above head height and set pergolas at three metres high to give room for the vine to hang down.
Although hard surface paving is a smooth and easy-care outdoor floor, you can increase rainwater penetration and reduce heat load by mixing it up with small areas of low-growing plants or insets of “steppable” plants like mini mondo grass, ajuga, dichondra or pratia.
Every room needs those special and individual touches to make it unique. In an outdoor room, use plants for decorative accent such as the bold foliage texture of succulents or the lacy leaves of ferns. Or why not opt for a vibrant splash of colour with long-flowering orchids or tropical leaves? Use different plant shapes, such as tall narrow sanseveria (mother-in-law’s tongue) or palms, or spreading rosette-shaped bromeliads.
Most outdoor spaces have something you’d like to hide, such as wall-mounted services and pipes. Densely foliaged clipped plants cover the uglies but can be easily moved aside when access is needed.
Like expensive furniture, larger plants are not easily changed, so it’s best to stick with neutrals rather than choose lots of bright colours. In plants, neutrals are those with a regular shape, smallish leaves, a uniform cool leaf colour (green through blue to grey) and not particularly obvious flowers.
Dark green foliage is a great backdrop for warm-coloured timbers or shiny metals. Good candidates are murraya, grey myrtle (Backhousia), lilly pillies that don’t have colourful new growth such as Acmena smithii var. minor and Syzygium select form, green Euonymus, Spartan juniper and xylosma.
While box (Buxus) is also an excellent hedge, avoid English box close to the house as its leaves have an unpleasant smell. Grey and silver-leafed plants such as teucrium, lavender, wormwood (Artemisia), saltbush, coast rosemary, lamb’s ears and curry plant (Helichrysum) work well with dark furniture and rusted-look metal. Fresh, lighter greens are an excellent foil for pastel furniture such as cane, wicker, white-painted metal and blond timbers.
Spend as much time researching your plant choices as you do your good-quality furniture and fittings, as an inappropriate tree or failed hedge is an expensive mistake to fix. Consult a landscape designer, horticulturist or your local accredited nursery for some sound advice.