The key to a beautiful outdoor space? Don’t just buy patio furniture — plan it like you would an interior room

Before choosing outdoor furniture, it’s important to plan an outdoor space, says garden designer Jo Thompson.

Increasingly, I’m asked to include a dining-entertaining space in my garden designs and not necessarily close to a house. Being forced to stay at home for so long during the pandemic has made people consider using more of their gardens, whether it is a table in the cool shade of magnificent old tree, a corner with a view or an ideal sunspot for breakfast, lunch or early-evening drinks.

It is a space that can be much more than a rectangle of flagstones with a table and chairs. There might be an outdoor kitchen and barbecue near a herb garden, comfortable sofas and armchairs for places to unwind, perhaps with a sculptural piece, such as a curved bench from Gaze Burvill, which can be as beautiful as it is functional. The garden pictured here is designed for leisure and relaxing with friends and family, complete with a hot tub sheltered by an oak pergola and, behind the camera, an indoor pool, tennis court and small putting green.

RELATED: Jo Thompson on how to make colour work in your garden 

The journey begins with an understanding of how the space is going to be used and an idea of the atmosphere to be created. One of the first things I then need to know is the size of table required and how many people it needs to seat, both comfortably for day-to-day use and at a squeeze for parties.

The table is usually one of the biggest features of an outdoor entertaining space, so I need to make sure it is in the right place and to consider how to make the area sufficiently spacious: nobody wants to have to pull a chair in every time somebody walks past. The same applies to other large items, such as a sofa. They need to be easy to get to, so you don’t have to walk along a fiddly path to reach them. Both paving and plants can be used to guide you through the space, creating a natural sense of flow and comfort.

Recommended videos for you

An elegantly curved table and chairs by Gaze Burvill.

An important consideration is where the sun falls during the day, as some people like to sit in the sun, others don’t. Shade may be important if you plan to sit outside with coffee and a laptop, as it is impossible to see the screen in bright sun. Typically, shade comes from trees and pergolas, as they do here.

The space shown was once a swimming pool, long since removed to leave a ‘sunken’ space strewn with builder’s rubble. Brick retaining walls were built to tie in with nearby farm buildings, as well as steps leading up to the main garden. The palette of brick, Yorkstone paving and oak is simple and the lines equally so, to avoid distracting with too much unnecessary detail. The whole effect is softened by abundant planting, the terraces filled with birch, hydrangeas, roses and shrubs. The layers of green screen sheds in the main garden and add privacy. Pleached hornbeam creates shade and shelters the hot-tub area, as well as introducing a cloistered feel and a sense of height. Careful planning will yield many happy lunches, suppers and parties in the garden.

Jo Thompson Landscape & Garden Design —