Gathering / Dining Zone
One of the great pleasures of living in North Alabama is being able to enjoy the great outdoors all twelve months of the year. Notice I said all twelve months and not 365 days, since we all know that we do experience the seasons here, whether it is cold, dreary days of January and February or the stifling hot and humid days of July and August.
However, we are always on guard for those moments when the weather turns in our favor and we can experience the splendor of being outside and enjoying the sights, sounds and smells all around. One of my favorite times to be outside in a garden space is for meals (including cocktail hour.) The early evening hours can be some of the most pleasant times we have in the Tennessee Valley, one where the wonders of a sunset view or the rustling breeze through the trees can be experienced.
When creating a space for this garden setting, think of it as a natural extension of your indoor spaces. This outdoor garden room for dining should have familiar objects like walls, floors and ceiling just like the dining room and kitchen in your home. However, while the names are the same, how you create these features will be quite different. Walls may be solid and dense, made of wood or brick or they may be subtle and soft, being constructed of plants, trellises or vines. Ceilings may be a pergola overhead or even the overlapping branches of tall trees. Floors may be made of pavers, flagstone, gravel or even grass. Regardless of the choices, the function of these materials is to create the familiar structure of an outdoor room comfortable enough to use often.
One way to ensure use of the outdoor dining area is to locate it close to the house and include the grill in that space. It is natural to gather around the cook as meals are being prepared, just like indoors. The added bonus of being outside is appreciating the fabulous smells that permeate through the air. Throw in a small vegetable garden in close proximity and enjoy the satisfaction of picking fresh, home-grown squash, cucumbers or tomatoes and then cooking them up for dinner. Growing containers of fresh herbs that are readily accessible for picking truly enhance the flavors of any meal. Plus having fresh mint and basil on hand means that your Mojitos or cucumber-basil martinis are the envy of the neighborhood. The good news is that many vegetables can be grown in small spaces whether that be in raised beds, straw bales or even large containers. The trick is making it easy to get to – vegetable gardens need attention and having it way out in the back of the property often spells trouble. The distance becomes an obstacle so it is better to grow a few things well and keep them close at hand in order to use as they ripen.
One concern when dining outdoors is dealing with pests, especially mosquitos. While some plants do have pest repelling abilities, the best defense against mosquitos is to make sure they do not have a place to breed. In other words make sure there is not any standing water in the garden. If you have a water feature (and I hope you do) add the mosquito dunks (natural mosquito larvicide) and fish to any ponds with still water. Moving water is a good deterrent. Adding plants like Citronella to the garden is good for providing fragrance to your garden space but the plant alone will not repel mosquitoes. If you crush leaves and rub on your skin, that may provide some relief. Having a fan to move air around is also very helpful in keeping bugs away.
As with the Zen Garden, having plants that provide both flowers and fragrance is important. Morover, the plants will help to soften any of the hardscape features you may have installed to create the garden room. Plants with very fine texture growing around and over the coarse texture of flagstone patios or brick walls is a perfect pairing. Ferns, grasses and even small patches of turf can be used effectively in these areas.
Creating an additional garden room that is used for gathering friends and family to enjoy a meal and conversation is a fantastic bonus to any home. Look for ways to expand upon the area where the barbecue grill sits and you can get everyone else to come out and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells while the cook prepares the feast.
Sun Lounging Zone
Now here is a garden room that is open for all to see. The concept of a ceiling in this case is put aside so there is space to enjoy the warmth of the sun’s rays and cool off on a hot, sunny day with a dip in the pool. Unlike the Zen Garden which is usually small, intimate, private and even secluded, this garden room for lounging is often the center of activity. For that reason, access to this space is very important; therefore pathways and decking are crucial elements (the floor) of this room. With a myriad of choices here, it seems like new options are being provided every day. Fortunately, many of these options are kinder to our pocketbooks than what was available previously. One option, especially for large areas is stamped concrete. In the past a concrete deck or patio was one of the more inexpensive choices but the look or affect of the finished product left much to be desired. A bright, almost white color created an unwelcomed glare.
Also the heat generated off of these surfaces was intense, to say the least. Now with stamped concrete the finishes are numerous with looks that mimic slate, flagstone, brick – this list goes on and on. Take a look at the possibilities and you may be surprised at the selections. Also, recycled or composite decking is a fantastic option today. The look of wood without the maintenance issues associated with wood makes for a great product.
Bright, sunny open spaces provide a great environment for growing flowers and even introducing a tropical element into the landscape. Plants like Hibiscus, Elephant ears, Alocasia, Angel’s trumpet, Firecracker plant and Kimberly Queen ferns all thrive in sunny locations while providing a tropical feel to a stark hardscape. These plants work wonderfully in containers and allow you to even move them around if need be.
With container plantings a few simple rules to follow will make your job easier. First get the largest container you can handle (whether that is by price or weight.) Size does matter and these tropical plants will appreciate a large container size for their roots to grow. Also larger containers will need less water than smaller ones during the growing season. Use a high quality soilless mix that provides excellent drainage.
Incorporate a slow-release fertilizer into the mix at planting and add supplemental fertilizer throughout the growing season. Since this is a soilless mix and it is being watered regularly, the fertilizer is being depleted much faster than if these plants were placed in the soil. Water when the plants need it, and watch your sunny, outdoor space be transformed into a tropical oasis.