Tag Archives: garden rooms

The outdoor dining and entertaining conundrum

A well designed outdoor dining area at Foreman's garden in Lepperton - and well under 20 paces from the kitchen

A well designed outdoor dining area at Foreman’s garden in Lepperton – and well under 20 paces from the kitchen

We live in a house which was built in 1950, long before “indoor outdoor flow” was ever conceived of and there is no doubt that we lack it. At one time, I had ideas to rectify this and went as far as getting concept plans drawn by an architect. The estimate of $100 000 for the work was a bit of a disincentive so we did not proceed, for which I am now relieved.

The latest House and Garden magazine has an article on the renovation of a Wellington property where the owner is quoted as saying: “We didn’t want to open the front of the house to the weather because, if we did, we’d all get blown away. We designed our house as an interior home, not an exterior one. Wellington is not a sit-outside sort of environment.” Actually, much of this country is not best suited to outside entertaining, at least when it comes to evening dining. Witness the plethora of fire pits, gas heaters and outdoor fireplaces. But you would not think that to look at modern design in houses and gardens.

One of the properties featured in the new book “Contemporary Gardens of New Zealand”, shows an outdoor dining area on an exposed platform with no shelter or shade and down a flight of 37 steps. Or it may be 39. I bet they never use it. Who wants to dash up so many steps to get the dipping sauce you forgot, or the serving spoon? Make that glass of wine last because the first to finish gets to climb the steps to the house to get another bottle or two. If the owners leave the dirty dishes on the table until the next morning, the neighbours will be able to see and judge. That particular property has a second outdoor eating area immediately by the house so you can be pretty sure that is the one they use.

Oft times, home owners place seating and entertaining areas too far from the service areas. I paced it out and think that few people would want their outdoor eating area more than 20 paces from the kitchen. It becomes inconvenient and if it is inconvenient, you won’t use it much. I’ve seen too many summer houses placed where they will create a focal point in the garden but they are just in the wrong place for use. Unless you have servants at your beck and call (and children are an unreliable substitute), save your money and make a focal point in some other way.

Most of us will wander a little further with just a cup of coffee in hand, but again if your seating areas are beyond about 30 paces from the electric jug or fridge, you are not likely to use them for morning teas or evening drinks. Even more than gazebos, garden seats are often stationed as focal points rather than for use. Never is this more obvious than when it is but one gaily painted chair. I think that seats need to be placed where you will use them, not used as de facto garden ornaments.

Just our glorified porch but an indication to me of how well used a garden room could be

Just our glorified porch but an indication to me of how well used a garden room could be

Garden rooms are my preferred solution after noticing these in a number of English gardens. These differ from gazebos and summer houses in that they have the capacity for more protective walls. There are times when just a roof is not enough to keep the situation pleasant enough to linger longer. Most of us find eating outdoors very pleasant in the right conditions and it can also make for more relaxed entertaining. After all, gardens are best enjoyed when you are out amongst them, not viewed from house windows so a charming and versatile garden room situated not more than 20 paces from my kitchen would be lovely addition. With some forethought and investigation, it could be so much more than just a free standing conservatory or a trellised gazebo. In the meantime, we make do with a comfortable outdoor dining suite beneath a large sun umbrella which is good for daytime use when there are more than just the two of us, but not so good for long evenings, even in summer. The closest we get to a garden room and the reason I know one would be well used, is our favoured sitting spot which we use all year round and at all times of the day. It is enclosed on three sides but completely open to the garden. It is just a glorified front porch and it only fits two comfortably but I think it is a pointer in the right direction for my choice of a garden entertaining area.

My all time favourite garden room from the Alhambra in Granada but it may look a tad pretentious here

My all time favourite garden room from the Alhambra in Granada but it may look a tad pretentious here

I leave you with the very best example of a garden room or gallery that I have seen. It might look just a little pretentious in my garden, it being of Moorish origin dating back to the tenth century and located in a palace at the Alhambra and Generalife in Granada, Spain. But can you imagine entertaining in that space and glorying in your garden surrounds?

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Decoding the jargon

Setting the standard for garden rooms – Sissinghurst

A newsletter from a gardening organisation arrived a few days before Christmas and I duly read it, coming across the following statement (warning: do not let your eyes glaze and brain disconnect before the end). “Outstanding gardens manage to respond to the genius loci using borrowed landscape, natural landform and native plants – often mixed with exotics – to create stunning indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour.”

Borrowing the jargon, shall we unpack that statement? Though I prefer to use the term decode because it is somewhat like a secret code.

Outstanding gardens manage to – that bit is fine.

respond to the genius loci – had to get out the dictionary for this. Loci is, more or less, a place or locality. Google then helped me track down the term genius loci which apparently dates back to early Roman times and means the protective spirit of a place. Latterly the term seems to have been adopted by the landscape architecture fraternity although it might be easier to understand if they simply referred to the well known words of English poet and writer, Alexander Pope who took an interest in garden design. He put it rather more simply when he wrote in 1731 (a mere 280 years ago), “Consult the genius of the place…” which has come to be interpreted as the principle that design should always be relevant to the location and natural environment. This of course assumes that your particular location has some genius loci attached to it but it is a little hard to see how much genius loci you can lay claim to if your lot in life is a small, flat, urban section with a house, be it large or small, plonked fair and square in the middle. Some of us are blessed with quite a bit more genius loci than others.

using borrowed landscape – that is the view of the neighbours’ properties, assuming you have neigbours with views worth borrowing.

natural landform – silly me. I thought that was part of the genius loci.

and native plants – I can’t quite work out whether this is using the already existing native plants in your own genius locus extending to your neighbours’ genius loci which would be a little limiting because it then tends to apply only to those whose patch is on the boundary of a national park, scenic reserve or at least a patch of native bush. Alternatively it may be that native plants are mandatory and pre-eminent in outstanding gardens. While advocating strongly for the use of native plants in tandem with exotics, I think this statement takes the position of native plants considerably further than is common in this country.

… – often mixed with exotics – yes, we are allowed to embellish with introduced plants (exotics are the vast majority of what we grow in this country. Even our lawn grasses are heavily dominated by exotics, as are all our fruit trees and vegetables). I don’t know what the word often is in there for because you would be hard pressed to find any environment in this country, be it natural or contrived, which does not have introduced plants in it. Even our national parks are invaded by weeds.

to create stunning – stunning… hmm. There is a very emotive word. Quality can be measured and evaluated. Emotional response is a matter of individual opinion.

stunning, indigenous compositions of form, line, texture and colour. I will let the compositions of form, line, texture and colour go, though I can think of clearer ways of defining good gardening as a combination of excellent design and skill with plants. But, indigenous compositions? Puh-lease. Indigenous – occurring naturally or native to the land. Gardening, by definition, is not indigenous. It is an imposition on the landscape, occasionally a natural landscape but more often a landscape already heavily altered by man.

So what I think the original statement says is: outstanding gardens make the most of their natural environment, using a variety of plants and really good design. At least, I hope that is what it says. There is no author named so I can’t check.

The classic garden door frame and passage at Hidcote – best in a garden with plenty of space, perhaps

Just a little further on in the same piece, there is the sweeping statement: “Gardens should be a series of outdoor rooms and should have walls, exits/ entries or passages between the rooms. Rooms should be well defined so the viewer is not distracted by what is going on in the next room although they might be tantalized at some point.”

What happened to open plan living, I ask??? Are we to be forever locked in to that format of the early twentieth century evident in the great English gardens of Sissinghurst and Hidcote? Do not get me wrong. We were very impressed by Hidcote when we visited, but perish the thought that all New Zealand gardens must follow the formula if they want to be seen as very good gardens. There are other styles of garden design. A woodland garden will never be a series of rooms with tight structure. A flowing landscape garden in the manner of Capability Brown relies on open spaces, not rooms. Must a tiny town section redefine itself as an area of poky little rooms surrounded by high walls? All those walls blocking out distraction can be damned oppressive, not to mention expensive if done in permanent landscape materials like brick, plastered concrete block or stone. Or high maintenance if done in clipped tall hedging with the added problem that all those hedge plant roots reaching out into the flower borders. It is also very difficult to accommodate large trees in those rooms, let alone worrying about the place of the genius loci in such a heavily contrived design.

Must the defined spaces of garden rooms, seen here at Great Dixter, become mandatory in good New Zealand gardens?

I could not disagree more. Garden rooms are but one device, one way of achieving a desirable end point. The underpinning principle is surely that a good garden should never be revealed in its entirety at first glance. There should be surprises to be discovered, changes of mood and variations in light and shade. The design should entice you to explore further. Using different types of plants in different ways is not only practical in that you have varying growing conditions but it also punctuates the changes.

If you stand back and look at your garden and decide that it is rambling, then it is likely that you lack that sense of design and flow as well as changes of mood. If you have repeated the same plants (oft claimed as a device to give continuity but actually more often, simply dull), then you exacerbate the sense of rambling lack of form.

Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat (not that I have ever wanted to subject a poor moggy to that exercise), there are more ways to design a garden than depending on tightly defined and enclosed garden rooms. After all, a mark of a good garden is surely a degree of originality?

The Moorish Gardens of Andalucian Spain

Moorish gardens of Southern Spain - the Alhambra &

Moorish gardens of Southern Spain - the Alhambra &

I didn’t really know what to expect of gardens in the south of Spain, although Glyn Church had told me that the Alhambra and Generalife in Granada was simply amazing. What really caught me unawares was the depth of history. Our country is still so much of the New World that gardens of a mere fifty or sixty years in age are often described as heritage or historic. Indeed I have heard people claiming that their garden is “mature” after about 15 years.

Traditional courtyard garden - this one in Toledo

Traditional courtyard garden - this one in Toledo

Andalucian gardens in the south of Spain had Roman ruins, overlaid with the Moorish exotica and wealth, reworked by the Christian kings – marching down the centuries, layer upon layer. It was the Moorish influence which was completely new to me and that, apparently, is unique to the area. The Moors were the Arabic Moslems who crossed the seas and controlled large tracts of southern Europe for many centuries before they were defeated and expelled in the late 1400s. The Spanish gardens are known for the use of small intimate spaces rather than the huge water gardens of Islamic Persia and India. Ah ha! The origin, I suspect, of garden rooms in the modern, western garden.

All the Moorish gardens are restorations. While the palaces survived, the gardens certainly didn’t though I guess a certain amount of archaeological evidence remained, along with sufficient pictorial record to enable a reasonable level of accuracy in reconstruction.

The exotic chorisia in the palace gardens at Seville

The exotic chorisia in the palace gardens at Seville

There has been no effort to maintain the original plantings and indeed these gardens don’t have a whole lot of plant interest. In Spain’s hot, dry climate (even in autumn, it was consistently 35 degrees), only a limited range of plants can be grown. There is a heavy emphasis on buxus, cypresses, citrus, roses, grandiflora magnolias and annuals for colour. The only plants to stop me in my tracks were a colourful bramble (which would likely be a noxious weed here) and the sight of chorisias in full flower in the palace gardens of Seville. Chorisias are South American (so a later introduction) and in flower rather look like trees full of exotic orchids. I have seen one flowering in Auckland though I don’t think our summers are hot enough to allow our plant at home to reach its potential.

The Moorish gardens were all about creating formal, but intimate spaces cooled by water and shade where the nobility could take refuge from the heat. So the emphasis is on structure and hard landscaping to give the form. In a climate where it is too harsh to grow lawn grasses, paths and terraces are usually paved, often with pleasingly subtle mosaics and interesting detail. What impressed me about these fine gardens were the gracious proportions and the flow from one area to another.

Shadows add another dimension in a country of unrelenting sunshine

Shadows add another dimension in a country of unrelenting sunshine

At the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos in Cordoba (that is the palace of the Christian monarchs), the majority of the gardens were much more recent but the Moorish flavour remains, just as it does in the breathtaking nearby mosque cum cathedral. In a climate where sunshine hours exceed 3000 per year, the purpose of using vertical accents (mostly cypresses) to create a picture in shadows made sense. I have seen the technique copied without much success. I think it worked in Cordoba because they have so much bright sun that the shadows are really deep and welcome, because there were wide avenues left open to frame the shadows and because even on a cloudy day, there was enough strength in the design for it to work without any shadows at all.

These gardens have nothing to do with the peasantry. It was all for the nobility, usually royalty with deep pockets. In such a dry climate, the use of water for aesthetic purposes is in itself a statement of power. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Alhambra and Generalife, an entire complex of palaces, forts, towers, gardens, water features and even a village, all enclosed by fortified walls. Now one of Spain’s premier attractions, gardens and palaces have undergone major restoration. Interestingly, the palaces were modelled on similar principles to the gardens. They were not huge and the rooms were comparatively intimate, user-friendly even. Small interior courtyards and gardens were a frequent inclusion, usually with a water feature – a small fountain or pool with rill. It was the open rooms and galleries that really took my fancy. These had open sides, defined by Moorish arches, and an overhead roof – presumably to keep the sun out but to encourage as much air movement as possible. What wouldn’t I give for a Moorish garden room? The Alhambra was set on a promontory with views across to the neighbouring medieval village (the Albaycin) and surrounding hills and both gardens and palaces made use of the device of framing views, of drawing the eye outwards from these intimate and delightful small enclosures.

Coping with unexpected rain - a French visitor improvises at the Alhambra

Coping with unexpected rain - a French visitor improvises at the Alhambra

It rained on the day we visited. While clearly a most unusual event (few of the visitors were prepared for rain), we felt grateful because it cooled the air temperature on what could have been an oppressively hot seven hour visit and it bestowed a misty romanticism on the vistas which took my breath away.

What can we learn from the Moorish gardens of Andalusia? First and foremost, the sheer folly of trying to emulate garden styles rooted in a completely different climate and time and on a scale we can only dream about. It is one thing to extract ideas such as the garden room and the creation of gardens as a series of intimate spaces – a technique which has had a profound influence on western gardening. It is quite another thing to try and transfer the whole genre to a modern, New Zealand setting where it is alien. Leave them in the south of Spain – Moorish arches are more likely to look naff and tacky set against a backdrop of our wooden or summit brick bungalows. Similarly, the transplanting of the idea of the rill or narrow canal to a different garden concept rarely works. These tended to have a practical role in Islamic life (washing before frequent prayers) and were part of the engineering feat of moving water around a site long before electric pumps.

Garden rooms and galleries to die for - this one at the Alhambra and Generalife

Garden rooms and galleries to die for - this one at the Alhambra and Generalife

To transpose the rill or narrow canal in isolation is to ignore the wider context. Turning your back on the lushness and range of plants we can grow here in favour of a few cliched varieties is boring. But we can learn from the old masters when it comes to understanding the importance of getting the proportions right – especially in formal gardens – of making sure that garden rooms are not claustrophobic but that they combine intimacy with an invitation to explore further, of being bold when it comes to allowing sufficient width for paths and avenues, and of valuing the quality of materials when it comes to hard landscaping. Above all, the Andalucian gardens combined form and function, underpinned by aesthetics and logic. That alone is a lesson worth learning.