One of the most romantic garden views in Ireland is from a metal-framed wooden bench perched above the Vartry river, at Mount Usher Gardens, in Co Wicklow. There is just enough room for two people to sit companionably and watch the water spill over a series of weirs, while on each bank, dozens of exotic trees make a leafy patchwork. The antique seat is slightly rickety, but that is part of its charm.
Garden seating must serve more than one purpose. Obviously, it provides a place to park yourself while taking in a vista, reading a book, having a chat or just doing nothing. Seats and benches also act as focal points. They draw the eye, so they should be well positioned and be of a style that suits the setting. The Mount Usher bench gets everything right: it is placed invitingly under a tree, it gives the sitter a splendid view and its unpretentious appearance complements this wild Irish garden.
All this may seem obvious, yet in many gardens you will find numerous crimes against garden furniture. You would be amazed at the people who have impeccable interior decor, yet they lose the run of themselves the minute they step outside the back door.
Fancy benches decorated with twiddly, twirly bits fight for space with plastic seats and wooden tables. Or their furniture is so bizarrely stationed that when you sit down you find yourself nose to nose with a coiled hose or gazing upon the plump, rounded form of a compost bin.
Unfortunately, much garden seating is naff and poorly proportioned, especially that stocked in some of the big DIY outlets. Choice may be limited to white plastic chairs or dinky cast-aluminium and timber benches that look as though they were meant for a doll’s house.
Be prepared to shop around until you find something that you like and that suits the mood and size of your garden.
Smaller gardens call for simpler styles, while larger spaces can absorb bigger, more decorative items. Those are the usual rules, but if you have a good eye and an adventurous streak, you can bend them to great effect. For example, a tiny and exquisitely designed garden might be home to a highly ornate, cast-iron Victorian bench. In that case everything else must defer to the flamboyance of the vintage piece. It is the queen of the garden and nothing must compete — no sculpture, no water feature or other potential attention grabber.
If you want to save space in a small garden, you can incorporate bench-type seating on the edge of a raised bed. Aim to make the sitting part at least 35cm tall and wide. You can include hidden storage — for bags of compost, barbecue paraphernalia or tools — under the seating by fitting a removable timber lid. This works well with apartment balconies or terraces where every inch is important.
In general, modern buildings demand contemporary or clean-lined furniture that matches the straightforward architecture. Older houses can accommodate more complicated styles. The heavier the furniture, the more anchored it needs to appear. Weighty pieces look best in formal and structured surroundings such as in a niche bordered by walls or backed by hedges, and with paving or gravel underneath to give a sense of solidity.
Seats on lawns need to be shifted regularly for mowing, so make sure that they are light enough to move without damaging your back or scraping the grass. If you have a bench in the middle of an expanse of grass or meadow it should look relatively lightweight and transparent, so that it does not disrupt the sense of airiness and space.
White garden furniture jumps out and hits the viewer in the eye, so be careful where it is placed: it will be one of the most noticeable elements in the garden. Dark or neutral colours are more recessive, and thus safer: consider dark and sage green, or various shades of grey. When painting furniture, choose the same colour for all of it, or complementary tones. Having said that, unexpected pops of colour can be fun, too, if used judiciously.
If you have a large garden with informal areas, then rustic-style seating is cheap and looks appropriate. If you’re handy with tools, you can create your own with artfully worked logs and planks — look on Pinterest for ideas. A circular seat around a tree is a lovely thing — just be sure to allow room for the tree trunk to expand.
Finally, let me say again that seats are for sitting on — and for gazing into space. For those who have handsome views, seating should make the best of those assets. For those of us whose vista includes oil tanks, clothes lines or the backs of neighbours’ houses, turn the attention inwards. Surround the seat with delightful planting and include fragrant diversions such as night-scented stock or roses.
An airy screen of plants is better than a solid barrier. Useful candidates include ornamental grasses, bamboos and tall perennials such as Eupatorium or Verbena bonariensis.
Grow for it
For teak and metal furniture, check out howbertandmays.ie. For iroko timber garden furniture, made in Rathvilly, in Co Carlow, go to mccallsfurniture.com. For English oak, including swing seats, visit sittingspiritually.co.uk.
Bespoke garden furniture
Metal garden furniture is made to order at: bushyparkironworks.com, calnan-anhoj.ie and benningtonmetalfurniture.co.uk
Jane digs . . .
Lifelong learning: I’m perpetually curious and always doing courses. Garden-loving Corkonians are well served by the spring programme at Cork Photo Gallery, in Fitzgerald’s Park. Workshops include pruning, cut-flower growing, flower arranging and gardening for bees. corkphoto.com