PUBLISHED: 08:00 18 August 2017
The appeal of a great garden isn't to be underestimated. Richard Burton found out how to maximise this sought-after space, making your 'outdoor room' better than ever...
Houses I visit in the summer, particularly village ones, always seem a little smaller in the winter months when the owners close the doors to the garden.
It’s almost as if they’ve halved the size of the place if you’re used to spilling out of rolling doors and joining them on the patio with a wide expanse of garden behind it.
Mine is no exception. It’s not that there’s a particular lack of space. It just seems that way after months of enjoying an extra, and rather expansive, living room - the private, shaded, flagstoned corner that sits outside the living room.
Since May we’ve played, dined, entertained, enjoyed a nap and even supervised homework sessions there, often only closing it off late in the evening after the three hedgehogs we’ve adopted have been to clear the plate we leave.
It’s a modest space but a massively useful one when the climate permits, and was a bit of a deal closer when choosing to move out of the city to somewhere we can hear the dawn chorus.
And that’s not surprising. A recent survey on the qualities likely to add value to a home for families looking to buy outside London revealed that a south or south-west facing garden could add up to £15,000 to the sale price.
The results of the survey, carried out by estate agents Savills, give a clear indication that “when it comes to a garden, or outside space, they’re a serious factor for buyers and one that can attract a significant premium”, according to Nick Ingle, head of the Harpenden office.
“During the spring and summer markets, the importance of outdoor space quickly climbs up a buyer’s wish list, and gardens are considered much like another room of a property,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for a buyer to spend as much time and attention inspecting the external space of a property as they would the kitchen.”
Homeowners are now much more aware of how to maximise the potential of their gardens.
“Compartmentalising a garden into different ‘rooms’, for example, with a focal point to catch the eye in each, can create a pleasing illusion of space and therefore works well whatever the plot size,” Nick added.
“In a smaller patch, carefully arranged flower pots bring vibrancy and personality. Mirrors can also work wonders for tighter spaces, making them feel less enclosed, while planting some colour will help draw the eye away from the house and make it feel larger.
“For those who like to entertain, creating a specific dining and seating patio area makes this more practical and can prevent any damage to lawns and flowerbeds.”
The outdoor room concept is often attributed to designers such as Vita Sackville-West, the Bloomsbury Group poet who created Sissinghurst Castle in Kent in the 1930s and Lawrence Johnston who experimented with discreet outdoor spaces during his four decades at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire.
They were innovative at the time for they way they broke down large landscape areas into smaller spaces housing individual plant collections that gave the impression of moving from room to room.
Today’s garden rooms have further developed the concept by generating spaces that house everything from kitchens to dining and living rooms.
These days there are plenty of sofas, dining tables and armchairs that can withstand the weather and homeowners are being encouraged to go a step further by taking (suitably protected) sound systems and TVs outside too, especially when there’s also lighting in place.
One person who knows this area more than most is Kate Gould, who has won four gold medals at Chelsea Flower Shows and whose work takes her way beyond her Radlett base, out across the home counties and into central London.
The challenge for her is often working with small spaces in urban surroundings and creating areas that are practical as well as looking good year round. I asked her for a few tips for anyone thinking of creating a space of their own.
“With the current trend in architectural design, gardens and outdoor spaces are increasingly viewed through large contemporary glass doors or picture windows,” she said.
“They have to work hard to provide interest all year. To achieve this, the hard landscaping needs to be constructed from materials that can take some shade and the soft landscaping should include plants that span the seasons so that there is seasonal interest year round.
“The best small spaces are those that are bold and strong so large furniture is a bonus. This furniture does have to be worked into the scheme though and not just plonked in the middle with a few pots around it.
“Trying to achieve too much in a tiny area can result in a dilution of the overall effect; pare down the design, assess the absolute minimum that you need and work from there.”
If you’re wondering how to prolong the outdoor living experience as the weather starts to think about turning – go to the pub.
There, you’ll find all the inspiration you need in terms of heating, lighting and weather-proofing. But to translate the idea into something suitable for your home needs, you’ll need to look further afield.
And there’s no shortage of inspiration as manufacturers tune into a growing desire for outdoor parties and barbecues all year long.
For example, patio heaters have come a long way since they first started keeping customers warm when smoking was banned in pubs and restaurants.
Many electric ones now come with eco-friendly, low-glare lamps, use minimal amounts of energy and work well in a variety of conditions, including, according to some manufacturers, torrential rain.
The gas versions are also becoming more energy-friendly and some have a designer feel, displaying flames dancing inside borosilicate glass tubes.
Then there are fire pits and bowls and all manner of chimeneas cast in clay, steel and iron...