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TAKE YOUR SEATS

(published in the June 2002 issue of The English Garden magazine)

The best bench I've ever chosen was the one I sat on at the end of a weary day at the Chelsea Flower Show. Nothing concentrates the mind more than aching legs and, having already perched for two seconds on a hard cold metal bench whose floral twiddles dug into my back, the wooden slats of an ergonomically designed swing seat with side rests for the glass of Pimms I was clutching had me writing out the cheque there and then.

In the plethera of choice it is sometimes all too easy to lose sight of the fact that comfort must be paramount. Having said that though, as a garden designer I have also strayed down the path of choosing mainly on looks. That is because outdoor furniture has such an important role to play in expressing the basic philosophy of your garden. It can help set the genius of the place, but only if if it's not been heavily overused such as the ubiquitous white Lutyens bench set against a yew hedge.

Obviously a house from a specific period may well demand that the style is reflected outside. For instance, intricately patterned metal furniture "goes" with a Victorian house. Modern alloy reproductions are lighter both physically and visually than the original cast iron versions and can be more comfortable but will still need cushions. A severe formal facade often cries out for a balancing echo of weighty stone at a reverential distance - perhaps an imposing high backed curved bench at the end of a vista. This will, of course, be frightfully cold and damp - fine for an occasional linger on a hot day but for the rest of the time it will fill the role of statuesque ornamentation.

Inevitably the key pieces to decide on first are the table and chairs. These make a sizeable group and can look ungainly and untidy. I abhor the lazy landscaping of a rectangle outside french windows. Inevitably the paving is too small and it means that the furniture is cluttering up the opening and spoiling the view. If possible, make the main area just to one side of the doors. A surprisingly large space of at least 3.60 x 4.60m (10' x 15')is needed for a table and chairs to seat six people.

For such an important category of outdoor furniture I would decide on the style first and then roadtest different makes for comfort. I am unconvinced of the necessity to be strictly purist. Surely it is more pragmatic to complement the architecture, sticking to the basic dictat that a plain exterior can benefit from an injection of character and that an intricate facade is set off by quiet quality.

For instance a nondescript L-shaped space formed by the rendered walls of a house with a new extension could be given an identity with a scene-setting set of modern metal chinoiserie-influenced seats around a table with a clump of the black-stemmed bamboo Phyllostachys nigra in the bed to one side. Equally, a three-storey, bay-windowed and brick-dentiled house needs the massivity and calmness of chunky hardwood furniture which will age to a silvery-grey cooling the warm brick. All the better if the bench has steam-bent corners so that you can face each other for comfortable conversation.

Many gardens can only absorb one permanent set of furniture both physically and visually. But it is useful to be able to bring out more transient easily stored seating such as folding cafe chairs or the ever jolly deckchair. Other moveable items are loungers but their bulk means that they need to contribute to the overall ambience. A pair of loungers could be selected on the basis of their sculptural qualities. Position them on the lawn not just to catch the sun but also to interact with the surrounding mass and volume of planting, perhaps making a linear contrast with a striking upright specimen tree. Elsewhere in the garden there may well be another tree which could be encircled by an enticing tree seat. Ironwork conjures up a park-like neatness; timber gives a more rustic air.

Garden furniture, particularly a set of table and chairs, is a major expenditure and so apart from style and comfort, practicality and versatility should also be considered. I was pleased to find some wooden chairs which are very adaptable. They have adjustable backs for relaxed reading but are also the correct height to pull up to a table. Also, the accompanying foot rests butt up to make full-length loungers and even they adjust flat to become side tables or extra seats.

Modern plastic furniture is very practical and affordable and now comes in dark colours which blend harmoniously into a floriferous setting which is also something to consider when deciding on upholstery. Bear in mind the adage that the flowers should take centre stage and not the cushions. Unless, of course, you have a deliberately austere foliage garden in which case it may amuse you to import high summer flowers on the back of the chairs.

Colour can also be used to upgrade and personalise basic softwood furniture. A gentle willow-green stain knocks back its stark newness. Or just imagine how well a red painted bench would sit alongside the white metal furniture and black bamboo in the example above. And I used my favourite slatey-blue 'Lupine' on my swing seat to blend it into the backdrop of sky and distant hills. For ten years now it has given grand service at the end of many enjoyable gardening days when we sit sipping a well-earned drink enjoying the sunset.

Copyright Christina Oates

I HOPE YOU FOUND THIS ARTICLE INTERESTING AND HELPFUL BUT, AS USUAL, PLEASE NOTE THAT ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED AND NO PART OF THIS PUBLICATION MAY BE REPRODUCED, STORED IN A RETRIEVAL SYSTEM, OR TRANSMITTED, IN ANY FORM OR BY ANY MEANS, ELECTRONIC, MECHANICAL, PHOTOCOPYING, RECORDING OR OTHERWISE WITHOUT THE PRIOR WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR.

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