Everyone’s looking for good outdoor seating ideas this spring and summer, as we welcome friends and family back to our gardens.
I’ve visited gardens with some lovely outdoor living spaces, so here is my list of ideas and tips I’ve picked up or tried out. Then I’ll explain them in more detail.
- Think about where to sit in your garden. Consider the view and think about access. If you’re entertaining friends or family, how far is the seating area from your kitchen?
- Have different kinds of seating in different areas. Lounging with a book is different from chatting over a coffee.
- Find an unusual place to sit, eat or lounge. What about a bench or table in one of your borders?
- Use the edges of raised borders, gabions or low retaining walls at seat height, to create extra outdoor seating for larger gatherings.
- For shelter from the sun or rain, choose between a gazebo, pergola, umbrella or awning.
- Think accessible design – chairs of different heights, some with arms & some without
- Pick a style or theme for furniture to make your garden look stylish
- Or go cottage garden style with mis-matched odd chairs and tables
- Adapt or recycle. For example, a bench made of stone slabs or cut into a fallen tree.
- Use cushions or painted furniture to add colour to the garden.
Where to place a seating area in the garden
The most popular place for a table and chairs is the terrace or patio just outside the back door. It’s also the most practical place for eating, because you won’t have so far to carry plates, glasses and food.
But it’s also worth thinking about placing a bench or another seating area elsewhere to give you a different view of the garden.
And switching things around can be magical. Richard and Anne had a dull border under some trees. Nothing much grew there. So they decided to lay a small octagon of decking in the middle of the planting. They now have a table and four chairs there, so they can enjoy a different view of the garden. (It’s actually next to their veggie patch).
If you’re laying decking on a lawn or border, remember that wood will rot if it touches the ground. Richard built concrete footings for this little area, then covered it with weed matting before adding the wood decking. It’s on a slope so the footings also gave an opportunity to create a level surface.
And this idea works for just one evening, too. We had friends to dinner in the garden one warm summer evening. Someone suggested moving the table out into the middle of the garden, so it was surrounded by flowers. It really felt special to have a different view.
Have different kinds of outdoor seating in different areas
Jane Beedle has a town garden measuring 52ft x 30ft. She has a small table and two chairs directly outside the back door where she can perch for a coffee, then a large table with chairs in the main part of the garden. See more of her garden here.
Jane also has gabions filled with pavers along one side of the garden. They act both as planters and somewhere people can sit during larger parties. Garden designer Charlotte Rowe also has raised borders with edges large enough for seats. See other design tips from Charlotte on 12 creative ideas for a stunning urban garden.
We’ve got some low retaining walls, marking out the lower garden from the upper lawn. We put cushions on these for parties.
Gazebo, pergola, parasol or awning?
A gazebo has a roof so can give you all-weather protection. At its simplest, it’s effectively four posts with a roof, like this contemporary one designed by Catherine Macdonald at the Ascot Garden Show.
You can also buy pop-up gazebos. We decided that a pop-up gazebo would work better for us than an umbrella or a pergola – because we wanted real rain protection. You can find out how we chose the best gazebo for us here.
A pergola is a frame of wood or metal and is a beautiful structure for climbers. It can offer you some shade, but won’t protect you against rain. We add a corrugated iron roof to our pergola to make it an all-weather space for eating out. My brother in law, who learned his DIY from YouTube, did it in around 3 days. It cost around £300 to convert. More about that here.
There are many good garden parasols on the market. However, in my opinion, you’ll only get reasonably reliable shade from the larger ones, which are as expensive as pop-up gazebos. It’s also worth noting that as the sun moves, so does the shade from the parasol. That’s fine if you enjoy some time in the sun, but a garden parasol will not shade a table of 6 from the sun for a whole lunch time. A parasol is a good choice if you can adjust its position easily and only want to use it for one or two people.
Awnings and sails look simple, but they need professional fitting. If you have cladding on your house, you may not be able to have a sail or awning as the cladding may get pulled off in the wind. If the sail/awning is attached to a tree, the tree needs to be of a certain width and strength.
Accessible outdoor seating ideas
Garden designer Mark Lane points out that seating inside houses is always at different levels. Your sofa is usually lower than the dining chairs, for example. He counsels you to make sure that garden seating is similarly varied, because people are different heights and have different needs. He also says that arms on a chair or bench can be helpful for some people with disabilities, but arms can also get in the way of someone transferring from, for example, a wheelchair to a seat.
Wheelchair users can also find some tables difficult. A wheelchair-friendly table is one which a wheelchair can fit under comfortably. There are more accessible garden design tips in my interview with Mark here.
Outdoor seating with a theme
In my post on different garden styles, I said that having a theme to your garden can help narrow down choices when choosing furniture. If, for example, you like classic country gardens, then teak benches or Lutyens benches look good.
Or use mis-matched furniture for cottage garden style. If you do have different styles of chairs and tables, then painting some or all in the same colour can look good, as in garden designer Posy Gentles’ garden here. She likes using deep rose pinks and soft blush colours in her planting so picked this moody purple as a good foil for the flowers.
Natural outdoor seating ideas
I’ve seen a few delightful natural garden seating ideas, made from leftovers. The simplest is Hugh and Fiona Boucher’s tree bench. They had some very old conifers which needed to come down. So they carved a bench out of the trunks with a chain saw.
Fern Alder also had to clear some dying trees from her woodland area. The tree surgeon used small sections of tree stump as ‘legs’ and had sections of trunk cut away so that the main trunk could sit securely on it. The seat side of the trunk is planed flat, check, with a chain saw. ‘Well, it’s not quite flat,’ says Fern. ‘But it’s as good as, and I add cushions.’
And at Doddington Place Gardens in Kent head gardener Lucy Adams and David Breakall created a curved stone seat out of leftover stone pavers, tucked into the curve of the hillside.
The area was in a somewhat forgotten part of the garden. They wanted to bring it alive and to enjoy the beautiful view. It’s sloping down, so they used a digger to create a small bank and an area of flat land in front of it. Then they dug a trench as a base for the seat and filled it with hardcore and rubble. ‘If you don’t give it foundations, then the earth can sink or settle with the rain,’ explained David.
David and Lucy spent a few days transferring the pile of pavers across the garden. It took a few days to lay the stones – ‘it was like dry stone walling,’ said David.
Doddington Place Gardens is open to the public between April and September (see their website for details) so this seat will be a wonderful place for visitors to rest and enjoy the views of the Kent countryside.
Curved benches are easy for chatting…
The stone bench at Doddington Place Gardens is in a long, gentle curve. The garden opens to the public two days a week between April and September, so this makes a perfect place for garden visitors to stop and rest.
Curved benches are generally very comfortable because you sit naturally curved towards the other person. We have a very standard design of curved bench – it’s the best place to sit with one other person for a cup of tea or a glass of wine.
Add colour to the garden with painted furniture, cushions or accessories
Gardens look good with colour. I love the way Richard and Jacqui Drew have used blue paint and cushions to add colour to their shady north-facing garden. They’ve painted furniture, plant stands and even pavers in their signature blue.
See these garden seating ideas in the video:
More outdoor living ideas
For some super-useful tips on what you need to know before installing an outdoor kitchen, see how to create a garden for entertaining. There are garden party decorating ideas here and tips from Heston Blumenthal on giving a barbecue in your garden.
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