Letting the outdoors in: designing the garden to suit the house

Modern houses have bigger windows than old ones. Picture windows, sun rooms, sliding glass doors – these are relatively new concepts. The ‘big house’ of old may have had big windows, but for everyone else, home was a fairly dark place. So, what do these big windows have to do with gardens?Garden in the rain

Big windows looking into the garden at our own home.

Most modern gardens are as much for looking at from inside as they are for actually being in. You could even argue that they are more for looking at: we see them while we eat our breakfast, watch our TV and cook our meals. But how often do we actually enter them? They play a huge part in the way our home feels. They are practically in our living rooms and,  if we’re lucky there’s a great view beyond.
Despite our mild climate, the outdoors in Ireland is a fairly inhospitable place for much of the year. It’s dark for most of our waking hours over the winter. If you have a job or go to school, it’s possible that you’ll only have the chance to see your garden in daylight for five or six hours per week. For those hours it could be cold, wet or windy: the grass is water-logged, the ground is slippy. You really don’t want to be outside. Of course, we do have glorious summer days when we can really be in the garden, and we should never forget them. But we should not plan our gardens around them.

House with big windows

A modern house in the Dublin mountains by Fitzpatrick and Mays Architects: garden design and planting by us.
The fad for the garden being an ‘outdoor room’ suddenly seems very out of-date in our more frugal, post-crash world. Do we really want  - let alone need – all the things outside that we have inside already? This includes furniture (with cushions), lights, speakers, cooking areas, painted walls, paved ground and wall-mounted ‘features’. These are the things that we have indoors anyway – only outdoors they are rarely used and probably falling apart.  We have to remember: this is Ireland, not New Mexico, France or the deck of a cruise liner.
Given the amount of hard surfaces in our daily lives, do we really want more than we need of this on our own home turf? We need paths and surfaces so we can get around our house cleanly, and we need somewhere for parking, but we don’t need swathes of paving that put us at a distance from what is probably the best antidote of all to modern life: the natural world.
Plants in this situation, pushed to raised beds or to garden boundaries are relegated to a very lowly status. They are used for a splash of colour here, a dash of movement there, a bit of screening over there. On the other hand, even the simplest garden - a lawn with some bulbs and well-chosen shrubs around it – can provide enough for seasonal change, rotation of flowers, weekly changes. If there are views to the landscape beyond, this planting can relate directly to that, merging the immediate garden with the borrowed landscape in a subtle way.

Sean O'Casey Community Centre

Sean O'Casey Community centre in Dublin. Planting by us brings nature right into the heart of this modern building.
Modern houses are built solidly. There have sturdy concrete foundations, damp-proof courses and many layers of cladding, each of which protects the next one. There’s no danger of damaging a house by allowing plants right up to it. There are a few obvious things not to do – don’t plant an oak tree six inches from your kitchen window; don’t plant a willow on your drains. Otherwise, allow plants to come as near to your house as you like. Often, the best part of a garden is that south-facing wall which is also the back of the house. Put it to ideal use, and that means plant it: with herbs, with lavender, with flowers or even with a trained fruit tree. If you need a path around the house, move it out a couple of feet from the house so that the house in nicely anchored in its setting. This is common in most countries except for Ireland and England where we appear to have a particular fear of plants. It’s known as ‘foundation planting’. If you need a patio for table and chairs, move it away from the house so that it can have planting all around it. This will make it a more pleasant place to be in and will also mean that you can have garden right up to your house.
If the trend over the years has been to create an ‘outdoor room’ by constructing a garden with all the trappings of an interior, I would suggest that the next trend will be a complete reversal: allow the outdoors to come in. Participate in the natural beauty of the outdoors without having to enter it – at least for some of the year!