Design Like a Pro: Sitting Areas

Creating a calm oasis in the garden.

September 1, 2011

A sitting area can be as simple as two chairs under a tree or as complex as an outdoor dining area within a fine gazebo. These calm, inviting spaces draw you and your guests deep into the landscape to places to relax and immerse yourselves in the garden. Since the spring of 1984, my wife, Mary, and I have been developing an acre-and-a-half garden in southern Vermont, in which we have created four sitting areas. One of these havens of repose might be a model for a place to sit in your garden.


A paved dining area within a garden. For years we tried gardening in a shady spot, roughly 60 feet across, under five maple trees. Because the trees had massive root systems, the soil was always dry and completely shaded. Plants did not flourish. We took up all the struggling perennials in the center of the area and laid down 2 inches of sand topped with tightly fitting pieces of bluestone. 

The bluestone covers an area approximately 12 feet by 20 feet—a perfectly flat floor for a dining table and six chairs. Shade-loving shrubs and perennials border the patio. Containers bring the plants even closer, where we can appreciate their flowers and fragrances.


An arbor next to an existing shed. The sunny south-or west-facing wall of an outbuilding, a garage, or the wing of a house suggests a place for a sitting area. Our 150-year-old garden shed, with its weathered barn siding, provided us with the perfect backdrop for a rustic grape arbor. Under the tall arbor, a bench faces the adjacent herb garden. In a garden I designed for clients, we covered the west-facing wall of their garage with espaliered apple trees and then planted an intimate herb garden with a bench against the espaliers, facing west. The most successful sitting areas are within gardens.


A shady spot for conversation. A group of trees, or even just a pair of deciduous apple trees, provides a place for a sitting area. To make a cozy, low-maintenance outdoor room under a stand of towering ash trees, we took up the poorly growing lawn, laid down 2 inches of finely crushed gravel, and then topdressed the gravel with an inch of 3/8-inch peastone. The shaded, tranquil space is furnished with pots of colorful annuals and four chairs facing a pool and bubbler. I pruned the interior branches of the trees 25 feet high to create a lofty, leafy ceiling.

My 85-year-old mentor, Howard Andros, came to our garden early on in its development 27 years ago, saw the work we were putting into it, and said, "You have to promise yourself to sit and relax in your garden to admire all that you have accomplished." That is sage advice. We gardeners are driven; we have to consciously give ourselves permission to sit, and Howard knew that.

A sitting area in a gazebo or arbor. The end of a straight path in a garden also suggests a place for seating. At the far end of our lawn path that stretches between perennial beds is a finely crafted post-and-beam gazebo. Its placement at the end of the sight line draws us to that part of the garden. This sitting area, offering a sweeping vista of the parallel beds, is the most dramatic of our four sitting areas. Therein lies an important point: Make each sitting area in the garden different in terms of light and shade, size, outlook, and purpose. Be sure the views from each area are interesting and take advantage of the garden's strengths.