This summer’s severe heat drove us indoors too soon, forcing us
to peer at the garden from the windows. The birds sounded muted as they flitted from tree branch to gutter and back again. I feel robbed of my summer. My loss is not that all planting ceased, but that the other important activity of gardening, dwelling, ceased. The evenings seemed to never cool down and the mornings were much the same. We go to great pains to plant and to watch our
handiwork flourish. Part of this garden work is finding the perfect placement for benches and seats. In addition, we wait years to have trees grow high enough to cast some shade upon which we can rest.
I like the idea of sitting in the garden, listening to the birds, watching butterflies and marveling at bloom and leaf. In our garden we have two places to dwell, not that we have taken much advantage of it this summer. One spot is low, beneath the shade of the grape arbor where the garden wraps around two sides. The second seating area has a high vantage: a second story screened porch, where the network of hemlock and locust branches provides a birds-eye view of the patchwork of garden below. This is my favorite spot, not bothered by mosquitoes. I can count my presence twice this summer once last week when the weather turned agreeable and at this writing. It is hot today, but there is a breeze felt high up in the tree tops and which is less apparent under the grape arbor below.
Over the years I have collected pictures of seating areas in many gardens. As it is still too hot and dry to consider planting, we may as well inspire for better days and contemplate with renewed ideas of dwelling in the garden. With that, here are some whimsical ideas.
You may have heard of or seen on the internet the turf sofa and cassock in Wembury, UK? Yes, it is a plump loveseat with cassock made of grass. The downside is that it has to be mowed and watered, but it does look inviting to sit on – provided it is not wet!
A clever artist made a pair of chairs upholstered with sempervivum and differently colored sedum. It was a fine tapestry of color and texture but not to be sat on.
Another artist stuck bent willow whips into hoop shapes creating a cocoon with an opening. A woven willow seat was fashioned inside. Although she thought the willows were fairly dead, the willow whips took root and sprouted! This made for a shady glade fashioned around a woven seat.
This leads to the question: what makes for the best seating arrangement in the garden? The most favorable seating gives a sense of seclusion, either that the seating is tucked under shade or it is wrapped in plants of the garden.
Simple stone benches tucked into a hedge or planted wall with an obvious vantage of view is simple and inviting. Often such features are planted at the end of the garden, providing a broad view of the scene. One of my favorite benches featured a semicircular stone bench planted with Abelia x grandiflora “Edward Goucher” planted behind and dripping over the sides. The Abelia was planted on a retaining wall behind and above the bench. The bench faced a simple fountain and a pool. Abelia can be planted in our area as long as it has protection from the north and west winds.
I once saw a freestanding hedge of four round headed Thuya occidentalis Woodwardii with two flanking the back and two on each side with a very comfortable bench inserted. The globe arborvitae was trimmed tight and the bench was exposed to the south. This made for a very warm nesting spot in early spring.
Pyramidal hornbeams, Carpinus betulus fastigiata can be used for a covered canopy or trained and clipped into a seated arbor. These I have seen in many parks throughout Switzerland and Germany. The hornbeam whips are planted semi-circular at every 18 inches. The branches of each of the trees are wired horizontally to its neighbor until a fine network of branches and leaves fills in the gaps. The tops of the trees are overlapped and wired together. It is easier to start with a framework in which to tie the branches, but I have seen them free standing and fashioned without a form. Benches are added inside for seating. These free standing shaded alcoves have been planted in many public parks especially promenades along the Rhine River.
Whether is it a simple stone seat, wooden table and chairs for al fresco dining, or a round table of cut logs, dwelling in one’s garden is as important as planting.
Anita Bracalente is a garden designer, writer and lecturer with Jackson & Fourth Garden Design. She can be reached at 812.332.6042.