Over the past year, our gardens have become much-needed outdoor rooms. All it takes is a little planning, design know-how and expert advice to transform your garden with an outdoor living room idea.
Whether you’re looking to extend your living space, divide what you have into zones or update the furniture, our relationship with our gardens has never been more important. Any change, big or small, can be transformative, so we asked the experts to share their insider tips and advice on where to start…
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How do you make a good outdoor living space?
‘I’m not a huge fan of the term “outdoor room”,’ says landscape and garden designer Tom Massey, director of Tom Massey Studio. ‘A garden is an outside space, and in my view, the main focus should be on plants and planting. Gardens obviously need to perform a range of functions for the human users, but I believe should also cater for local wildlife, and help support biodiversity.’
‘When thinking about a garden I always consider balance between hard and soft landscaping, too much hard and it can feel cold and sterile,’ Tom explains. ‘A garden should be full of life.’
Start big, advises stylist Selina Lake; ‘Think about the bigger items of furniture, like you would with your indoor spaces. Invest in something comfy that can be easily stored away at winter. Then add your accessories, and a few pots with flowering plants that grow quite tall, like delphiniums, foxgloves or verbena bonariensis, which can be positioned around the furniture, helping it to feel more embedded into the garden.’
For Dani Taylor, creative director at Cox & Cox, it’s about shelter and heat. ‘If you’re going to spend money on an outdoor room, then it’s about using it as much as possible. You don’t need to add a permanent structure – pergolas or a sail shade look fantastic – but a large parasol can work just as well for a smaller space. And for evenings, consider a fire pit.’
Outdoor living room ideas
1. Break up the space with levels
‘If you have existing level changes, it’s best to work with these rather than fight them,’ says Tom. ‘Retaining walls can be very expensive. If your garden is flat, adding levels will add costs, but also interest and excitement to the space. If you were going to excavate a pond, then you could use the spoil to create a mound. Thinking creatively and limiting material taken off site is a good way to save money and lower the environmental impact of the build.’
2. Create a seamless flow
‘Connecting different links between spaces enhances the sense of rhythm and flow. Try using a limited palette of hard materials, or drifting key plants between different areas of planting,’ says Tom.
Selina adds: ‘I’m not sure they always need to connect visually – you could decide on a different planting scheme for each zone – think scented herbs for somewhere to sit and relax, wild grasses and wildflowers for a charming dining space, or a Scandi-style seating area with all-white flowers.’
3. Extend the interior decor
Extend your indoor space by dressing your outdoor living area with thoughtful furniture choices and accessories – such as armchairs and cushions. Woven rugs, like the jute rugs pictured above, are a great decor option for grassless garden ideas.
4. Define with edges and boundaries
‘A mixed boundary with some planting, some screening and perhaps some features like integrated sculptural elements can add interest,’ says Tom. ‘Boundaries can end up costing a lot of money, especially in larger gardens where the linear meter rates stack up.’
5. Illuminate with an outdoor lighting scheme
‘Festoon lights can be left out all-year-round and provide an easy and inexpensive way of adding magic to any outdoor space, while solar stake lights or path markers are a great solution of lighting your garden without plugs or wires,’ Tom adds.
‘The most simple and effective thing to do is to uplight trees – this looks dramatic and gives an ambient level of light. Too much lighting though and your garden can feel tacky and overblown.’
6. Enjoy alfresco mealtimes by creating an outdoor dining area
‘Start with location,’ says Tom. ‘Ask yourself if you want morning or evening sun? Do you need shade/prefer to dine in the shade? What about proximity to the house? You could put the dining terrace at the end of the garden, rather than right outside the house, meaning you go on a journey to get there, making it more of an event and experience.
Selina adds: ‘The very nature of dining al fresco evokes a relaxed, informal mood – I’d always choose a lovely spot in the garden over a practical decision. I have a mini meadow area near the bottom of my garden, and I happily carry all the tableware there as it’s such a charming spot.’
7. Add shade to make the space more versatile
Get more from your outdoor living room by incorporating an element of garden shade, such as awnings and pergolas. Being able to shade the space during the hottest parts of the day will mean the area is available to use throughout all hours of the day.
‘Always ask “do I need it”,’ advises Tom. ‘In a shady garden, one will just add more shade, but on a sunny terrace, a pergola can make it useable in hot weather. It’s not always nice to sit in direct hot sun’.
8. Be thoughtful with hard landscaping
‘Hard landscaping is a good idea for connecting areas,’ says Tom, ‘but this can be loose and informal, such as a planted gravel pathway, stepping-stones or floating timber boardwalk. Think beyond paving – it’s not always the best solution and it is high cost too.’
9. Purposely use paint outside
‘If you have an existing fence, painting it black makes it recede and can make the space feel bigger,’ says Tom. ‘Planting is also offset by the dark backdrop. Painting is cheap and can make a big difference, but remember if you paint it once, you will need to paint it again and will result in ongoing maintenance.’
‘Exterior paints and wood stains are great for revamping tired furniture – try painting black for a Scandi feel’ advises Selina. ‘For walls, a newly-built wall painted white is a great way of reflecting light, but I’d never paint an old, weathered wall – that would be a shame.’
10. Create a sense of calm with a water feature
‘The sound of running water is so relaxing. Look for one that is just “plug and play” without any complicated set-up needed, or even an outdoor tap,’ says Dani
11. Give your outdoor space a focal point
‘Tables are great for adding interest,’ says Selina, ‘but I’m not talking about a dining one, rather a side table that can be used to create displays with planters or collections of gardenalia. I love a vintage metal folding table, which can be moved to the perfect spot each season, ready for a new display.’
Tom suggests a tree; ‘One can be a fantastic sculptural element and cost a fraction of the price of an actual garden sculpture. Look for trees with multi-stem form and seasonality, such as hawthorn, crab apple or Amelanchier species.’ Dani adds; ‘A fire pit also makes a great focal point.’
12. Add a fire pit to make the space suitable for all seasons
Whether you choose to build a permanent solution or buy a moveable design a fire pit makes an outdoor living room more versatile. No matter how chilly the evenings get, sitting around a warming fire makes the space more useable throughout the entire year. ‘A fire pit is great to sit around with the family, toasting marshmallows or cooking sausages, and is the perfect excuse to get everyone outside,’ says Dani.
Enjoy more family fun in the space: How to create an outdoor cinema in your back garden – with a projector, screen and comfy seating
What is garden zoning and why is it a good idea?
‘Zoning is a design trick used inside and out,’ says Selina. ‘It basically divides up a space into different areas, eg in a garden you’d have somewhere to dine, relax, entertain or sunbathe. Zones work particularly well for families as you can create a hang-out area for teenagers, a stylish sofa space for coffee mornings and a family table that’s perfect for al fresco dining and bringing everyone together.’
Tom adds; ‘All too often I see gardens that have a large-paved terrace outside the house, a huge lawn and tiny borders with a few drab shrubs. This doesn’t offer any mystery or excitement – there’s no reason to explore as the whole space is revealed immediately. Zoning and screening can provide intrigue and destinations to draw you out into the space.’
‘You can use festoon poles and lights or even solar path lighters in planters to create pathways’ advises Dani for defining the space.
What furniture materials are best in an outdoor living space?
‘If you are looking for wood, then acacia is a good-wearing option,’ says Dani, ‘it’s used in ship building. For a metal option, choose aluminium as it’s light, lasts a long time and doesn’t rust. Most cushions are waterproof – or showerproof – but you should try to bring them in over the wetter months and cover the frames of your furniture with a breathable outdoor furniture cover.’
‘If you want low maintenance, thinking about how materials weather well is important. Choose timber that will fade naturally to a nice silver or corten steel that rusts to a deep dark brown,’ says Tom.
How do I make an outdoor living room feel cosy, inviting and comfortable?
‘It’s about layering and coordinating,’ says Dani. ‘Keep furniture neutral and add colour and personality with things that are easily changeable, such as paint, textiles and lighting. Think about where you’ll store everything when the weather turns though, with sheepskins and cushions that work inside as well as out.’
What interior design tips I can use outside too?
‘I love to see jugs, vases and buckets filled with freshly-cut flowers,’ says Selina. ‘They will instantly jolly up a space.’ Dani suggests a statement piece of furniture, ‘like a hanging chair positioned at the bottom of your garden to give you something to draw the eye. Or an outdoor mirror on a wall to give the illusion of more space. And if you need occasional extra seating, then use a daybed just as you would a bench inside.’
‘Your garden should be an extension of your home and style. Don’t compromise on garden furniture or accessories that you would never have inside,’ says Dani. ‘All-in-one solutions are really exciting, like a corner set with a built-in fire pit. They provide a real luxe feel to your garden and are super practical as you can lounge and dine.’