When someone first says ‘garden room’ to you, what comes to mind? If you’re like me, it’s an English garden where hedges surround a patio and often obscure the view. But that’s simple American prejudice talking: a variety of garden rooms readily find their place in our gardens from coast to coast.
Garden room: an area defined by plants or hardscape separated from the house and other parts of the garden but connected to it in some way. This last is most important: if the ‘room’ stands alone, it’s something else.
The effect of a garden room is dynamic: when a small back yard includes a secluded nook, the whole place seems larger. To take a large space and plant a series of rooms brings intimacy to the landscape. Irony or magic, both are true.
Great designs, pictures, and plans can help you create garden rooms, but they all come down to three basic ideas: the enclosed space, the walls around it, and the way back to the house. You can begin with any of the three elements, but stay aware of the view to be concealed or revealed and adjust them to please your eye. Follow the natural path that flows from your backdoor out to the area where the kids’ swingset used to be. Stand there and look back at the house, then lay out a circular flowerbed with a three foot gap on one side as an entrance. Plant the bed like a border that faces the inside of the circle: tall evergreen plants fronted by perennials and a strip of short annuals. Add a bench, sit down, and relax.
Say the neighbors build a nice, big addition, and the solid wall makes a lousy view. Use that wall as the bottom of a U-shaped completed by lattice trellises or bamboo baffles. Then, finish the room with an arch flanked by short shrubs. A blank wall becomes an intimate garden room framed by its walls and arch.
Some of the nicest garden rooms happen by serendipity: a grove of trees in the sideyard becomes hard to mow, so you plant beds all around beneath them. Or the shady place behind the garage is the coolest in summer, so the glider goes there, and the path to the clothesline is nearby, so you make a bed alongside it. Soon a garden room evolves from the space already nearly enclosed by happenstance.
If nothing in your garden inspires you to say, "That’s where the garden room goes," don’t fret. Draw a line in the grass and build around it. A good place to begin is one third the distance from your back door to the rear property line and one third its length. Plant an oval hedgerow and put a gate in the center facing the house. Choose plants that can tolerate annual pruning to keep them thick, and buy the largest specimens you can. As you plant the room, its concealed view becomes a destination reached through the gate.
Like potato chips, a single garden room often leads to another. Your garden rooms can empty into one another, or open onto a path that winds throughout the property. Use hedges, walls, baffles, even tree allees to separate the lawn into places to sit, eat, swing, entertain, or grow theme gardens. Imagine rounding the corner of a hedgerow at dusk to see a collection of plants with white flowers glowing. Or stepping through a low gate into a cutting garden, its summer flowers begging for a vase.
If laying out the whole yard seems too large a project, start small by adapting the existing space. Got a patio or deck, add an overhead arbor that will be intimately shaded all summer. Where a blank wall dominates, build a pergola in front of it surrounded by evergreens. Add a seating area and enjoy the quiet oasis within the dense branches.
Garden rooms enhance the indoor-outdoor relationship that flows between your house and garden. The view from the window looking out is as important as the framed view you see from the glider looking in. By dividing that view into garden rooms, you make more to look at, more places to garden, and more reason to go out and see what’s behind the garden wall.
This is the unedited version of an article that appeared in Garden Almanac, a publication of GroGroup.