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How to design a garden for outside socialising

Last updated: 07-26-2020

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How to design a garden for outside socialising

Socialising with friends and family in the garden is becoming ever more important, and entertaining outdoors rather than indoors is quickly becoming the ‘new normal’.

Many of us are now looking to how we can adapt our gardens to create a socialising-friendly space - from the seating and shade to key design features which create the perfect ambience for entertaining outside.

James Smith, design director at landscape company and BALI Registered Contractor Bowles & Wyer has many years of experience in designing gardens as social spaces – from compact city gardens and roof terraces to large country estates. As our gardens become the new centres of our social circles, he explains how we can better design our gardens for outside socialising.

Style and comfort are equally important factors when choosing seating - you want the garden to look great, but not at the expense of comfort, otherwise you’re unlikely to spend very much time sitting out there.

Flexibility is always good, especially if there are different areas of hard landscaping around the garden. That way you can mix and match the furniture to suit different occasions, or perhaps to follow the sun as it moves around the garden.

As Covid-19 is now a very real concern, individual seating helps to keep people from different households at distance, but also still feel like a normal garden. By using lounge chairs, beanbags, poufs or likewise if your furniture is modular, they can be easily arranged in a socially distanced yet friendly way.

One of the benefits of Covid-19 is that it has enhanced our use of external spaces and it seems people have realised how valuable it can be to their wellbeing and comfort. But with our increasing use of outdoor space, some protection from the elements is also something to consider.

If you have a very exposed garden, then some form of shade is always welcome. Whether this takes the form of an umbrella or awning, or a more permanent structure such as a pergola, gazebo or summer house is your choice. However, take care when using canopies on roof terraces or in heavy rain, as they can get blown away or sag under the weight of water. Nonetheless, rain or shine – providing some cover for your guests is an important element of entertaining outside.

Fire is a great asset to have in the garden - helping to extend the day into the cooler hours of the evening and allowing you to sit outside together for longer.

A fire also provides a good central focal point for a gathered group of friends or family. Gazing into a chiminea, fire bowl or fireplace is always mesmerising and calming as you watch the crackle of the flames dancing around. There is also something very primitive about fire that we all can relate to. 

Just like when entertaining indoors, the ambience has to be right outdoors too – it’s important to help set the mood and scene for the garden. This can be achieved with careful lighting, using different scenarios for different uses – for example lighting for a party; or to relax outside in the evening; or to see your garden when looking out from the house would all use different lighting set-ups and so this element requires some careful planning.

Water movement can also help to enhance the sensory experience, and can encourage a calm and reflective atmosphere. Water features can take all shapes and sizes – but it’s the sound of gently trickling water that will make the difference.

Certain scented plants help to evoke memories and relaxation – think of Lavender, Rosemary, Jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), Sweet Box (Sarcococca) and Honeysuckle. All can be planted close to footpaths or around seating areas so their fragrance spreads as you brush past them.

But texture, movement and touch also have a big role to play in your planting – think of grasses swaying in the wind, leaves rustling on trees and calming green textures. Plants such as Melica uniflora, Alchemilla, Ferns, Hakonechola, Fatsia and Hosta are all good for adding texture to a garden. Mixing plants with different green foliage helps create interest. When it comes to plants with movement, try grasses such as Calamagrostis, Miscanthus or Briza. Bamboo is also good for movement and that rustling sound.

These elements are key to creating a garden adapted to outside socialising. No matter how big or small your garden is, there’s tips and tricks for every space to make it the perfect spot for entertaining.


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