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What Makes a Garden “Room”?

August 19, 2010

I have been aware of the concept of garden “rooms” at least since I visited Sissinghurst more than a decade ago (see Gardens Worth Visiting: Sissinghurst), but I didn’t think they had much to do with my garden. All those walled garden spaces and closely clipped geometric hedges seemed irrelevant to my much less formal garden tucked up against the woods at the end of a dirt road. But a recent post by Marguerite at Canoe Corner, in which she linked the concept of outdoor rooms to the act of naming parts of the garden, led me to reconsider.

Entrrance to the back garden - house, deck and woods create a sense of enclosure (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)I have always named my various flower beds, mostly as a matter of convenience, but also as a way of honoring the distinctness of each garden area. But this year, I found myself needing an additional name to refer collectively to the three flower beds at the back of the house (the deck border, the blue and yellow border, and the fence border), and I took to calling this area the “back garden.” I realize now that I felt a need to give this space a name because, with the addition of the fence border, it had become a garden “room.”

There are many named flower beds in my garden that I don’t consider garden rooms or even parts of garden rooms. For me to consider a space a garden “room,” it needs to have three elements:

A sense of enclosure

A garden room needs to be visibly bounded in some way. When you walk into my back garden, you come into a space that is defined by the house to your left, the woods to your right, and the deck directly in front of you (see above). When I put in the fence border, it closed off the fourth side and created that sense of enclosure when you are looking out from the deck – and that is when I started wanting to have a single name for this whole area.

View of the back garden from the deck; the fence border creates a sense of enclosure (photo credit: Jean Potuchek)


A garden room needs a planting scheme that makes it a coherent whole. The three flower beds in my back garden each have their own distinct personalities, but there also are elements repeated among the three that tie them together. All three beds, for example, include daylilies, tradescantia, and hardy geraniums. In addition, because the fence border runs perpendicular to the deck border and the blue and yellow border, which face each other across a long walkway, I used plants in the fence border that would link the other two flower beds. The deck border is planted primarily in pink and lavender, and the blue and yellow border in blues, yellows and whites; the fence border includes all of these colors. Similarly, the front edge of the fence border includes both the Geranium x cantabrigiense that edges the front of the deck border and the Alchemilla mollis that is planted along the front of the blue and yellow border.

A way to be in the garden

A garden room needs some element that invites a visitor to pause and be in the garden. The most obvious way to do this is with some kind of seating. In my back garden, that seating is located on the deck, and I spend long hours sitting out there just enjoying the garden. But, in a secondary way, the long walkway that runs through this garden from the deck down to the driveway also invites a visitor to pause and enjoy, as I do in my “morning tour of the garden” ritual (see The Morning Tour of the Garden).

* * *

I think I was primed to rethink my understanding of garden rooms by my visit to the Stokes Garden last month (see A Visit to the Stokes Garden). This was a largely informal garden in a rural setting (like mine); and it created a series of distinct garden rooms, with clear entrances and passages between them, without the use of high walls or clipped hedges. This division into distinct “rooms” made what is actually quite a large garden seem intimate and welcoming.

The circular bed  in June (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) With my new understanding of garden rooms, I now realize that my back garden is the most successful part of my garden precisely because it is a garden room. By contrast, the various named flower beds at the front of the house have no coherent relationship to one another and are not  very satisfying. For example, the circular bed is lovely to look at, but there is no easy way to spend time there doing so!

In the next few years, I will be putting an addition on the front of my house and, as part of that project, redesigning the front garden. I now realize that I need to think of this design project in terms of garden rooms. Because the property slopes away from the front of the house and fill will need to be brought in to surround the foundation of the new addition, it will make most sense to divide the slope into two levels separated by a retaining wall. The upper part will be one garden room, an entry garden made up of flower beds and hardscape and including a small patio seating area. I am imagining the lower room with an open area of clover lawn in the center, surrounded by perennial borders, and with larger flower beds anchoring the four corners. (One of these will be the circular bed, making it part of this larger whole.)

I had been feeling overwhelmed by this front garden redesign, but thinking about it in terms of garden rooms makes it much more manageable. Thanks, Marguerite, for the inspiration!

23 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2010 4:55 pm

    Dear Jean, I was most interested to read what you have to say here and, whilst we may not necessarily agree on what does, or indeed does not, constitute a garden ‘room’, the concept of dividing a garden up is, as I feel sure you will agree, a sound one. For me, whose passion remains for and with formal gardens, what is important is that the whole should not only relate to the house but also should not be visible in its entirety at any point.

    But even more so, I believe, is for a garden to contain a narrative, something which is immediately apparent in those gardens which are considered within Europe [and I include the UK here] to be defined as ‘good’ or successful. I cannot and do not, of course, speak for the USA as I have no first hand experience of gardens in your country.

    The proposed alterations to your front garden when you extend the house sound most exciting and will, when it all happens, give you a great deal of pleasure I am sure. In the meantime, continue to gather ideas through garden visiting and, of course, reading.

    • August 20, 2010 9:59 pm

      Edith, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that the garden must relate to the house; but, in my case, I’m also aware that the garden must relate to the surrounding forest, which is such a dominant feature of my rural landscape. I think this is why my garden style here will always be informal and will incorporate native plants; a formal garden would be too discordant with the wildscape. I had never thought of my garden as a narrative, and I’ll have to think about that some more. My first reaction, though, is that I don’t want my garden to read as a refuge from hostile wild surroundings but as a harmonious complement to the surrounding forest.

  2. August 19, 2010 5:03 pm

    aloha jean,

    great information you share with us on these garden rooms…i’m very drawn to your yellow/blue garden it is very curvy and has a nice natural flow much like some of the gardens you mention.

    • August 21, 2010 12:33 am

      The blue and yellow border is my favorite, too, Noel — although I also enjoy the more quiet charms of the deck border across the way. Right now the fence border is in a gawky, adolescent, first-year phase, so I’m not yet sure what it will grow up to look like!

  3. August 19, 2010 5:17 pm

    Hello Jean,

    I have loved the concept of ‘garden rooms’, but do not have any myself. I may need to change that….I have a lovely side garden which I could transform into a room of it’s own. I look forward to seeing your rooms created as your redesign begins.

    • August 21, 2010 12:35 am

      Noelle, I suppose if you were going to turn part of your garden into an outdoor room, you’d want it to be a part of the garden with lots of plants that bloom in the cooler months when you can be outside and enjoy it.

  4. gardeningasylum permalink
    August 19, 2010 5:52 pm

    Hi Jean Whether a garden has definable rooms or not, to me a garden has to have a sense of enclosure, that feeling of being surrounded by and at home in the garden. It will be exciting to see how your new addition affects your garden!

    • August 21, 2010 12:38 am

      Cyndy, The sense of enclosure in the garden has been a tricky issue for me because the dense woods around my house create such a strong sense of enclosure. The trick has been to find ways that make the garden seem welcoming and intimate without creating so much enclosure that it is claustrophobic. But, like all gardeners, I learn as I go.

  5. August 19, 2010 6:33 pm

    What makes a room? Some nice shag carpeting, interesting curtains, a nice floral wallpaper, maybe. Just translate that into your garden.

    • August 21, 2010 12:39 am

      Susan, Too funny. Maybe the move away from lawns has been helped along by the fact that green shag carpeting is so seventies!

  6. August 19, 2010 6:51 pm

    Jean, as you know, I love garden rooms. Even if you do not have walls of hedge, just defining the space makes it more cozy. I realized this even more after putting up a pergola type structure on my terrace in Toronto. I find having a name for areas in the garden also helps define the space even more.

  7. August 19, 2010 8:05 pm

    Jean, I’m so glad to hear how my post inspired you. You’ve got so many great ideas and I especially like how you expressed that a room allows you to be in the garden. That is something I would like to strive to achieve. A garden that pulls you in and encourages you to stay rather than just walking through.

  8. August 19, 2010 8:52 pm

    Jean, I really enjoyed this post. It seems the more blogs I read the more work I see ahead of me.

  9. August 20, 2010 3:21 pm

    Our garden rooms have happened/become where we sit. Sun. Or shade. Looking up at the mountain. Or down to the pond. Strolling from room to room to see what is happening. Our walls are house or boundary. And my informal hedge is knee, hip if I look away, high. A border serves as a ‘wall’ if you wish it to.

  10. August 20, 2010 8:08 pm

    Jean, what a fantasticaly interesting post! It makes me reconsider my own garden spaces. I’m glad you decided to rethink garden rooms. I’m certain many of your spaces are wothy of being their own room. Consider the traditional home with various rooms separated by walls and connected by doorways. Now consider the urban loft that can actually offer more space than a traditional home (sometimes 3-4,000 SF on one level)…mostly without walls. Loft residents appreciate open space while “defining” vs. “confining” areas. Walls are only used for privacy, not as a division from the rest of the space. Taking on this point of view may assist you as you continue on your garden path.

  11. August 22, 2010 4:17 am

    Hello Jean – I like your concept of rooms much more for its lack of rigid formality and the complete absence of seeing the garden as just another house extension (as popular garden makeovers tend to suggest.) One ‘room separator’ I really do like though is the high hedge with an opening/gate – makes me feel like an explorer


  12. August 22, 2010 9:35 am

    Hi Jean,

    I do so agree that there are many ways to think of a garden room… and how inviting they are to the visitor. I love how shrubs can make that happen too. and always give an element of surprise as you walk around a hedgerow or cluster of shrubberies along a grassy or stone path. Your long stone path reminds me of Emily’s path we visited in June. Lovely gardens and photos.

    • August 24, 2010 10:51 pm

      Deborah, Diana, Kimberly, Laura and Carol, This is what I finally figured out — that there are many different ways to define a room besides walls. (I tend to be very literal minded, which is why it took me so long to figure this out. ;-)) I think this insight was lurking in the back of my mind after my visit to the Stokes Garden, where the rooms were so clearly defined, but where the boundaries were seldom more than waist-high, and where there were vistas (a lot like your garden, Carol, but your “rooms” are more subtle).

      Kimberly, Your analogy with the loft is perfect.

      Laura, I like high walls and gates, too, but not in my garden, where they would just be claustrophobic in conjunction with the dense woods.

      Marguerite, Thanks again for your post on “Outdoor Rooms” which helped bring all this into focus for me.

      Charlotte, I know what you mean. It seems as though each time I actually finish some garden project, two more have somehow gotten added to the list! I think this is just the nature of gardening; it’s much more process than product.

  13. August 22, 2010 3:26 pm

    Jean – what a great ‘discovery’ process you took us through! Just looking at your pictures and the garden room that evolved in your backyard, makes me realize that perhaps all gardeners create ‘rooms’. Sometimes it happens to be unintentionally and informally.

    Your gardens look wonderful, of course, but I have to tell you – I am so excited to see your home addition project and how you will develop you newest garden room! Happy planning!! 😀 –Shyrlene

  14. August 22, 2010 6:14 pm

    I enjoy the thought process that you take your readers through… and I love the concept of “rooms” within your garden. My husband and I just defined another “room” in our gardens. To me a room is a comffortable place to be, to pause and reflect. Of course there needs to be a beautiful view and some place to sit to give “permission” for all that pausing and reflecting to take place. Lovely thoughts, Jean. I feel enriched for my visit here.

  15. August 22, 2010 11:56 pm

    When I first saw “garden room” I was a little worried. There are all those HGTV shows where they go in, yank out plants, pave a piece of what was formerly garden space, throw some yard furniture at the space and call the result a garden room, essentially a replacement of yard with yet more human space, often in the yard of what’s already an overscaled house on an underscaled lot. So when I read your post I was pleasantly surprised. Yours are garden rooms I’d love to spend more time in, and I’ve always liked the idea of breaking up outdoor spaces into manageable zones with their own character. Nice post.

  16. August 23, 2010 12:36 am

    This is a beautiful and thought provoking post. Garden Rooms are the ‘in’ thing at the moment, and I have wondered how to create such a space. I have also thought that a visual barrier of sorts, a theme and a place to sit are of utmost importance. Your circular bed is gorgeous, but I completely understand your slight frustration with not being able to enjoy it fully, I have been dragging a lawn chair around with me to sit hither, thither and yon.

    • August 24, 2010 10:58 pm

      Shyrlene and Meredehuit, I’m pleased that you enjoyed sharing my process of discovery in this post.

      Meredehuit, We seem to be totally on the same wavelength here about the atmosphere we’re trying to create in the garden.

      Shyrlene, Don’t hold your breath waiting for the posts about the front garden redesign; it’s at least three years in the future, with one other garden project ahead of it in the queue.

      James, Sorry to give you a scare; I haven’t watched HGTV in a while, but I know I would be totally irritated by the kind of “garden room” designs you’ve described.

      Rebecca, Dragging around a garden chair is a practical way of creating seating; maybe I should drag one out to my circular bed next June! I’m thinking that the lower room in my imagined front garden may just have a couple of Adirondack chairs that can be moved to whichever part of the garden is at its best.

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