Making your garden an immersive retreat

Who says you need to travel far to experience a sense of sanctuary and retreat? It is entirely possible to create this in your own garden! With some professional garden design inspiration, you can enjoy your own immersive retreat from the stresses of everyday life – and it will be available to you all year round.

Over the last few years, we have noticed a trend amongst our clients towards spending more time at home rather than travelling away for holidays.  This may be for health reasons, a wish to avoid tourist crowds or simply a desire to reduce their carbon footprint. Whatever the reason, many of our clients have been keen to make more use of their gardens as a place to rest, relax and reconnect with nature.

Spending more time in your garden can be rejuvenating.  A design-led garden with a good balance between hard and soft landscaping can transform the way you enjoy being in the space.  Many of our clients tell us that they gain enormous pleasure from cooking and dining outside, entertaining guests – or just relaxing quietly in beautiful surroundings.

Design principles

A key design principle when planning a garden sanctuary is to scale up wherever possible with large, bold strokes.  Attention to detail and craftmanship remain essential.  This includes beautiful finishing edges to the lawn and flower borders, along with stone paving or timber pathways that feel good enough to walk on barefoot. Gorgeous garden furniture and colourful planting schemes that will look good all year round are essential too.

To help you to make the most of your garden retreat, I would lean towards ‘zoning’.  This can turn your garden from a one-dimensional area into a collection of lovely spaces – from a generous terrace for whole group gatherings to intimate retreats for private conversations.  Zones can be created by adding screening between spaces; this can be a ‘living screen’ (e.g. tall grasses, bamboo planting) or a structure built from metal, wood or stone. You can add to the sense of compartmentalisation between areas through careful use of lighting, plants and garden furniture.

My first sketches for a new garden are always focused on the flow around the space. I also take account of the light conditions, views (looking out of and into the garden) and any ‘hidden gems’ (e.g. areas that have been underused or neglected).  This helps me to plan how the areas will connect practically and visually – with each other and with the house itself. The aim is always to create a cohesive flow. This is where hard landscaping will provide the ‘bones’ of the garden (e.g. through paths, paved areas and stepping stones); in addition, garden features can be added to draw the eye to destination areas that are pleasant to spend time in.

Typical features
  • Firepit or firebowl
Sunken garden zone surrounded by planting and featuring two wooden garden chairs with a fire bowl in weathered steel.
© Clive Nichols

One way to create a vibrant, sociable atmosphere is by using a firepit for people to gather around.  There are lots of options to choose from, depending on the space you have available and your overall budget. The main design decision is whether to incorporate a freestanding firepit or a permanent, ‘built-in’ structure; after that, you will have aesthetic choices to make e.g. what hardscaping material to use (concrete, cast-iron), also seating options. If you are working with limited space or budget, a simple steel fire bowl along with some comfortable seating can provide the perfect place for gathering – adding ambiance, some warmth of course and extra lighting as the daylight fades.  You can have more than one fire bowl dotted around your garden, creating havens of warmth where people can gather and chat.

  • Day beds, hammocks and garden swings

Nothing creates a sense of relaxation like an afternoon nap! An outdoor day bed is a lovely place to soak up some sunshine, immersed in the garden’s greenery and soothing atmosphere. With armrests, backrests and pillows, they can offer a sense of luxury and a great place for chatting or snoozing the day away.  It’s important to choose a style which fits the overall aesthetic of your garden.  It’s also a good idea to add an elegant parasol to make sure you don’t overdo the sunbathing.

Alternatively, a garden hammock offers a relaxing place for you to doze off, read a book – or just sway gently in the breeze. You tend to stay warmer in a hammock once the sun goes down as you are wrapped up. There are double hammocks available too for a cosy place to snuggle up or watch the stars together.  A patterned hammock can add a lovely splash of colour to a garden, set against greenery. You can purchase hammocks with their own stands (metal or wood).  Alternatively, there are hammocks that you can set up yourself between trees or posts.

Garden swings are also very popular. These hanging structures can seat one, two or three people and are ideal for relaxing and chatting together. There are plenty of different types to suit your taste and budget. Remember to place the swing in a spot with lovely views across the garden, ideally immersed in greenery.

  • Planting

Garden scene with alliums in the foreground, backed by lawn and an abundant border with a variety of plants.The basis for feeling truly immersed in nature is usually provided by structural plants such as hedging, shrubs and small trees.  These all have a strong architectural presence.  Good hedging choices include Yew, Beech and Hornbeam.  While structural plants provide a clear framework, the borders can be filled with plants that will soften the ‘rectilinear’ effect.  I like to incorporate as many late-blooming pollinator-friendly plants into my schemes as possible. My favourites are Salvias, Lavender and Verbenas. Not only do I enjoy the punch of colour they provide from September until November, I also love seeing the diversity of pollinators they attract. The RHS provides plenty of planting inspiration for late summer pollinators here.  You can also add a touch of height to the flower borders through a variety of Alliums, and (if you have the space) then Hydrangeas have a lovely softening effect with their large blooms in the late Summer.

For additional greenery, you can add decorative grasses to some of your garden zones.  This will add height, privacy and a lovely swaying movement to the space.  For example, Miscanthus offers gorgeous green foliage with feathery flowers in late summer to autumn. Some varieties grow up to 6 feet in height. Others grow to little more than 2 feet tall and can be mixed with flowering plants or used to fill containers. Another option is Stipa, which comes in various sizes.  It has feathery flowers which turn into decorative seedheads later in the year.

As well as planting up flower borders, you can add some terracotta pots filled with more greenery.  An advantage to this is that you can move the pots around as needed. Phormiums would be a good option – they are exotic-looking evergreens with dramatic, sword-like leaves. Don’t forget to add early flowering bulbs for the bumblebees too!

  • Swimming pool

Although it can be a big investment, adding a swimming pool to your garden certainly adds a ‘wow’ factor.  A heated pool is likely to become a real focal point, whether you are relaxing alone or entertaining friends and family. Depending on budget and space available, adding  a pool house and changing area will enhance the swimming area too.  In a garden that is overlooked, you can create a feeling of retreat with careful use of plants, screens and canopies. Make sure the hardscaping is consistent with the overall garden aesthetic too.  We like to use natural stone, which helps to showcase the greenery and colours of surrounding plants. Adding comfortable sun loungers or sofas will add to the sense of taking time out and escaping from everyday responsibilities!

  • Outdoor cooking and dining

You may want to prepare food in the garden to add to the sense of outdoor living. A barbecue or pizza oven can cater for lots of people. Cleaning up after food and drinks outdoors can be a lot easier too.  Most of today’s barbecue grills and other outdoor cooking appliances are made from stainless steel.  This makes them easy to clean. One major advantage of preparing food in the garden is that it’s easy for people to gather around and socialise.  Many indoor kitchens don’t lend themselves easily to this. An outdoor kitchen can be a good addition of course, budget and space allowing.

Garden scene with dining table and chairs in the foreground, surrounded by purple alliums and set against a background of shrubs and trees.With regard to dining furniture, think about the flow of people around the space. Make sure you are not creating bottlenecks with tables and chairs.  Allow sufficient space on either side of a dining table and chairs for people to move around with ease.  The more comfortable the furniture the better too.  For example, you can soften metal garden chairs with a generous supply of cushions and throws.  This will add to the sense of rest, relaxation and retreat.

  • Garden lighting

Don’t forget the difference that some well-considered lighting can add to your garden. Garden lighting will be essential not only for practical purposes but also to add atmosphere to the space. It’s a good idea to mix and match different types of lighting to suit the different garden zones.  For example, a dining area requires different lighting to a cosy sunken space. Options include wall lights, table lamps, lanterns and candles.

  • Accessories

Outdoor rugs, throws, blankets and plenty of garden cushions will all enhance the sense of retreat and comfort.  As daytime turns into evening, it’s essential to have something readily available to keep off the chill. This will help you to enjoy your garden all year round, rather than waiting for warm weather. Adopting a coordinated, stylish theme for these accessories will also create an inviting effect.

Note on sustainability

Some of the most popular features associated with a beautiful garden retreat can require quite high energy usage of course.  We always try to steer our clients toward the most sustainable solutions. We also strongly advise clients to avoid plastic plants, including plastic lawns. Plastic garden plants are a source of pollution, in their manufacturing process and their disposal (they are not practically recyclable).  Aesthetically speaking, they also lose colour outside and look fake. Using plastic garden plants misses an important opportunity for you to have a positive impact on the environment.  Planting living, growing things will boost biodiversity and attract beautiful butterflies and other beneficial insects to your garden.

If you have enjoyed reading about creating your own garden retreat, do browse one of our recent garden transformation projects here. In this award-winning example, we created an immersive experience based on different zones dedicated to relaxation and entertainment.

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