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Updated on April 23, 2012

The Outside Story Living Outside

Patios, terraces and paved back gardens should be treated imaginatively to form an extra special outdoor room.

Because these small green havens lead immediately off the house it's a good idea to relate them to it, establishing a link between indoors and outdoors. If one area flows easily into another it suggests a whole that is much larger than the parts.

At its simplest this could mean no more than having plenty of green leafy plants in whatever room leads onto the patio but it could also mean choosing the plants for outside in shades that are sympathetic to the colours inside. If your room is all creams and soft corals, for instance tubs full of bright red geraniums and blue lobelia will drain it of colour and make it look dreary. Conversely a room full of punchy primary colours would make delicately beautiful pink and mauve petunias look merely washed out and insipid.

The most convincing way of linking indoors and outdoors is to use materials that are common to both. If your room has quarry tile flooring for instance and provided the exterior is very sheltered, you could carry the flooring straight on out; or you could use frost proof engineering bricks for a handsome through floor. In the kind of basement patio that is partly overhung by a room or verandah on the floor above it might even be possible to use continuous rush matting. Much smaller touches could help create a relationship: perhaps houseplants grouped together on a tray full of cobblestones if cobblestones have been featured outdoors. A large mirror could work the trick. Strategically hung on the wall opposite the window it would reflect a garden growing within the room.

In general' the style of your house will dictate your choice of style of patio, terrace or backyard. If it's older and fairly formal in aspect, you may want to pick traditional paving stones, with antique or reproduction garden furniture, urns instead of chunky tubs; and a layout that is measured and symmetrical. If it's modern, you may prefer coloured concrete slabs, built-in brick benches and an asymmetrical arrangement. Sometimes contrasts in style work excitingly well, so nobody need feel obliged to play safe.


Any outdoor room needs a practical floor that is easy to sweep or hoe clean, and easy to walk on. York stone looks mellow and instantly established but it's very expensive and extremely heavy if you're laying it yourself you will need someone with a strong back to help you. Concrete slabs are relatively inexpensive, and come in a variety of textures and colours, but it's mistake to get carried away with the colour potential. Too many colours will look messy and garish: it's best to stick to one, or at most two shades taking care they echo or blend with the colour of the walls around them. Always wet a piece of the concrete before finalizing your choice. You will be seeing the patio in downpours as well as sunshine and you may find the wet colour becomes so strong you will prefer to pick a lighter tone.

Bricks are an attractive alternative to paving stones and they are ideally suited to covering smaller areas because they are small-scale themselves and will make the ground space seem larger. In a very tiny area straightforward laying is probably the best: anything more ambitious might look confusing. It's also best in any situation where you need to create an illusion of width or depth, because the coursing provides the eye with clear directional lines to follow. Elsewhere there are marvelous opportunities for interesting arrangements: herringbone pattern; basket-weave pattern and any pattern you care to build in if you want to use bricks in two different colours.

Sadly ordinary building bricks are relatively soft and will tend to flake or crumble during a hard frost. In a sheltered position you may be prepared to risk this, particularly if you want to use secondhand brick that will match the house or the walls of the garden. Otherwise use engineering or special paver bricks. Paver bricks are thinner than other types, and come plain, diamond textured or paneled like bars of chocolate. If you are worried about slipping and some new bricks have a very hard smooth surface paver bricks are the wisest choice.

The Smaller The Simpler

Cobblestones set in concrete are beautiful to look at but they are agony to walk on and they don't provide a stable base for chairs and tables. It would be a mistake to use them all over, but in a largish area that can take the busyness of pattern you could include a few squares by omitting the occasional concrete slab or square of brickwork.

As a rule the smaller the space to be covered the plainer and lighter coloured the approach should be. If you try to visualize the space when it's liberally sprinkled with plants, furniture and people you will appreciate the need for simplicity. This approach effectively rules out crazy paving in a restricted area. And unless you have plenty of space and money very expensive slate which can be used continuously indoors and out is so dark it would shrink the paved area considerably.

Similarly although the idea of butting up paving instead of pointing it is very appealing it would look merely untidy in a tiny setting. You may even want to get rid of any moss or lichen that forms because although it adds character and looks very romantic it's dangerously slippery when wet. In a back area where you don't have to consider the rest of the garden you can swill the surface over regularly with a solution of one part household bleach to ten parts water. Leave the liquid to stand for about thirty minutes and scrub it with a stiff yard broom before rinsing in clean water. This treatment should be enough to shift most mosses. Otherwise treat the surface with a bactericide taking care to localize it to the paving only.

Practical Pointers

Whatever kind of paving you choose do make sure that it's laid to fall away from the house so that water will drain off it towards the garden or towards an actual drain in the case of a completely paved area. Also ensure that the hard surface is at least 15cm (6in) lower than the damp proof course of the house and avoid covering over any air bricks. If you need steps from your terrace leading down to the garden make them from the same material as the terrace so one area leads naturally into another. However if you patio is on a level with the garden and surrounded by lawn lay the paving 1cm (1/2 in) below the level of the grass. You will then be able to mow right to the edges of the lawn without having to worry about possible damage to the blades.

One good looking alternative to paving an area particularly if it's already been concreted or asphalted and you don't like the utilitarian look of the surface is to cover it with a platform of slatted wood. A non porous wood like teak would be prohibitively expensive but any softer wood could be gloss painted stained with a wood preservative or left natural and sealed with clear varnish and of course there would be no problems with drainage provided the original surface was properly drained. However the wood would need re-treating each autumn.

The Walls

The house itself will provide one wall, but in narrow town houses, the garden walls may provide tow more, and a back yard will be completely enclosed. In situations where light is restricted, all too frequently the automatic reaction is to slap gallons of whitewash on the walls. But this really can look brash and insensitive. Plants and flowers need a less harsh background: If the work against white in hotter countries, that is because their colours and the sunshine are harsh to match. The British climate demands gentler treatment. For much of the year, you will be seeing your patio, terrace or backyard in cold, grey light- probably viewing it through a drizzle of rain too, so go for something softer and less stark. Perhaps cream for a simple and straightforward solution, although ochre's and browns provide sympathetic backgrounds, and don't show up the splashes of mud that inevitably spatter the walls after heavy rainfalls.

But in a really gloomy basement terrace particularly where the paved area is overhung you could create a dense and mysterious arbor effect by panting the walls in a deep shade of green. With masses of foliage plants in contrasting shades and shapes climbing the walls and running over the ceiling as well as standing about in tubs the result would be very lush and romantic.

Whatever colour you paint your walls, however use a cement paint that will last several years rather than something that will need repainting annually. Repainting walls is a tricky task once climbing plants have become established so themes this chore needs doing the better.

But if you walls are built of mature old bricks why paint them at all? Mellow brick is beautiful and provides and ideally muted background that will not only go with plants and flowers but with the curtains and furnishing in the room that overlooks it.

In a terrace leading onto a garden it's a good idea to create a low wall to give definition to the different areas and avoid the exposed feeling that you are actors on a stage. The French cafe look is a quick and easy way of achieving this just edge the area with fairly deep troughs holding clipped conifers. In a sunny situation you could even extend the look by having a shop blind fitted to the back of the house.


The ideal garden furniture looks good, is comfortable, and can be left out all year round but unfortunately it doesn't exist.


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    • Credence2 profile image


      7 years ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      We have a few issues to resolve before we can make use of the information you present here, obviously you are a professional in this regard/ Cred2

    • RTalloni profile image


      7 years ago from the short journey

      This is really full of good information to keep in mind. A well-done overview for planning an outdoor living space! Voted up.


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