Garden Feature

This is an excerpt from the Book called “New classic gardens by Jill billington. Continue reading to learn more about Garden Feature, thanks to the author.


What people want from the modern formal garden is no different from the requirements of all gardens, past and present-namely, comfort, practicability and beauty. The style of furniture should  be  in keeping with the spirit of the garden, so for spaces planned on geometric principles, simple shapes and lines are essential; elaborate ornamental designs have no role here.  There are new materials too choose from as well as different ways of using traditional materials that suit the elegance of contemporary modernity. Bespoke furniture, crafted by a designer, can often double as sculpture but if you intend to sit in it, make sure that comfort is not sacrificed to style. While creativity and inventiveness take us forward, sheer opportiunism has taught us to make use of salvage, so we now see seats made from marble slabs, old stone lintels or sections of stone pillar. 

It furniture is sited as an important focus of the designs, it must be solidly visible when viewed from a distance, both structurally and in terms of its colour.  Such seats may have a massive grandeur or a strikingly dominant form and pale tones will stand out best from afar. In more inttimate or enclossed spaces, seats may be tucked out of sight and ‘happened Upon’, in which case they can be designed with a lighter touch. Seating that is planned to be more low-key might be made from lightweight aluminium, slatted metal or wirework so that it is semi-transparent.If built in, a simple bench could be supported by two low walls of glass bricks.


In a formally planned space, furniture is often best as an integral, fitted part of the design, permanently fixed in its space, concrete its an ideal material here. In truly minimalist style, the concrete used would be identical to that paving and built in as part of garden’s architectural structure. Cast concrete can be used with finely ground stone filler, making it simulate the look of real stone, or the surface can be  coloured or textured, as it is for paving. 

modern formal garden

Garden seating need no longer be constructed upon the principle of a bench, with a rectangular base supported by four legs: in the twenty-first century the inspiration is just as likely to come from the streamlined structure of aerodynamics. Formed as a pourable liquid, concrete can be moulded around a steel armature to make all manner of fluid or geometric shapes. Benches cantilevered from the wall are space-saving and may incorporate smooth ‘tables’ at either end. Or a thick ribbon of concrete can be moulded to make a sinuous serpentine curve, touching the ground in only two places. All concrete must be well mixed and slowly cured while damp, but most of these ideas will be made on site by a craftsman as a commission. This versatile material will weather like stone and darken slightly with age, but it can be pressure-cleaned if you wish to preserve its pristine look. 


For the geometric garden that is uncompromisingly modern, substantial metal furniture, anchored in place, has a role to play.  The difference between modern steel and the cast iron of the past is the ratio of improved strenght to a slimmer framework. There are sturdy possibilities for architect-designed cantilevered of freestanding metal furniture can be purchased ready-made and is very affordable compared with designer made originals. Modern tables and chairs made of corrosive-resistant stainless steel may have a santinized or glassily chromed finish or be perforated to give a lacy effect.  Galvanized metals like iron or mild steel do not rust outdoors, which makes them suitable for garden use; all fixings should be brass or chromed. 

The new metal alloys may be powder-coated with colour, extending the range of hues to include silver, green, blue and red, and providing a longer-lasting surface than by simply painting them.  And metal can be made to look lighter than it is, if made from high-strength aluminium alloy with seats and backs of galvanized wire mesh.  Or a contrast can be provided when the metal is combined with timber slats, woven plastics or coloured glass-fibre resins.  For comfort, plain woven or calico cushions are an essential addition to all-metal furniture. 


Freestanding timber furniture will always be around; it lends itself well to the simple lines of contemporary formality and is convenient for alfresco eating.  Movable pieces allow you to change completely the dynamics of the garden space. 

Timber seating should preferably be made from sustainable hardwoods but pressure-treated softwoods are an alternative if they are to be painted.  Be aware that there is tannin in hardwoods and this may exude for up to a year, during which time it could stain pale flooring. 

Where the garden is small, wooden seating may be built in as part of the framework of the site.  In place of the old, heavy cast iron frames, bench seating is often mounted on aluminium or black tubular legs or light steel arches, or a seat may be cantilevered from a firmly set metal or concrete base.  If the bench is all wood, it must stand on stone or concrete flooring, as even treated timber lasts better when not in contact with damp ground. 

timber furniture
timber furniture

Hardwood seats and tables may be left outdoors through the year but it is better to bring painted furniture inside for the winter.  Hot sunlight.  As well as wet and frost, affects all timber, so maintenance should be carried out once a year, treating the wood with preservative or repainiting it.  If the furniture is made of cedar or oak this should not be necessary.  As both weather to a desirable pale grey.  Check any metal fixings for rust. 

There are many craftsmen working in wood now offering distinctive and original furiture and their work may be seen at the large garden shows; many advertise in garden magazines. This furniture is not mass-produced so it will be costly.  Breaking with tradition has produced attractive new ranges of ready-made wooden furniture too.  Using pressure and steam treatment, timber bench seats are available with an undulating surface, allowing each person to sit on a smooth dip.  There are also elegant seats with classical allusions, symmetrical and with scrolled ends.  You could even commission a carpenter to make a curved meandering bench from planed timber to wind around your site. 

Living wood furniture has also attained a new popularity.  The old craft of willow weaving has been revived but the shapes are bolder than the ‘basket’ traditions of the past.  Within the modernity of contemporary formal gardens the contorted irregularities provide a dramatic contrast with immaculately managed hard materials.  As privacy is often important in the urban garden, an arbour-that is, a covered seat cocooned within a ceiling and walls-will offer both shade and seclusion.  Canes and willow can be wrought into the most satisfying shapes, with extended arms and a roof.  A modern arbour made from woven willow may be even bought in kit form, comprising a seat within a curved roof. 


Durable plastic is available for everyone, but the price will reflect the quality.  At the inexpensive end of the market plastics are often cast as reproduction shapes.  Imtating those that were once cast iron. These tend to be vulnerable to frost and ultraviolet light in summer, which makes them crack. And if your garden is exposed,  lightweight furniture will dance away with the wind. 

High-quality plastic furniture is more durable, though more expensive. Designs that respect the liquid nature of the cast material can be elegant and modern, with great purity of line. These plastics can be pre-formed. Strengthened with glass fibre and moulded into an organically flowing shape. The base of a chair, for example, may be a rounded ‘pool’ from which a single stem, with great tensile strength, supports the curved seat and back. Today there is a revival of the boldness of 1950s and 1960s designs, using the new plastics. There are matt surfaces in sophisticated white, black and grey for the garden of restrained formality.  Bright colour will suit the ethic of the modern garden in which restraint is not a theme. 

Garden buildings & structures

Many gardens fulfil the need for a retreat. This could take the form of a small extension, leaning on the house wall, or a freestanding summer house, pavilion, gazebo or even purpose-built studio. If not hidden away, such a building is best planned as a part of the garden style, in proportion with the space and scaled for people. In gardens of a formal design, nostalgic or rustic styles are out, but there are many contemporary designs using traditional or new materials. 

Garden buildings & structures
Garden buildings & structures

Pergolas And Arches 

Overhead shade and plant supports were always a part of the traditional garden.  Timber was the usual material for pergola walkways, supported by either heavy brick piers or wooden posts.  The same pleasures are sought today but metal is now the material most often used.  The overall look of a pergola has otherwise changed little, however, being either simply rectangular or arched, althought the scale and proportion will be somewhat reduced in the modern versions. Today’s pergolas also tend to be less elaborate than previously, with fewer plants. 

Some arches and pergolas are simple to install and economic, being made of lightweight aluminium, coated with plastic. These simple arched frames can be pushed into the soil and, provided lightweight plants are grown over them, they will withstand wind. The original single, wide iron hoops of the past enabled expansive arabesques of twining climbers to soar overhead; these suit contemporary formal styling just as well and may cross wide paths.  Clematis are the ideal climbers for this situation: avoid planting in a frost pocket and ensure that the roots are shaded.  

If you intend a pergola to carry heavier climbers, the posts must be strong enough and tall enough, preferably 2.5m (8ft), to allow weighty climbers like wistena or roses to trail clear of the head of a person below.  If made of timber, the beams and rafters should be deep (150-200mm/6-8in) with an average thickness of 50mm (2in), to avoid warping.  Bases should be firmly secured in concrete in the ground, against high winds. 

For a modern house made of concrete, glass and steel, the architectural value of using heavier ‘construction’ steel beams (usually hidden inside concrete) for a pergola is that the garden will relate clearly to it.  These structural beams tie house and garden together, defining line and indicating three-dimensional volume with great simplicity.  Scaffolding will achieve the same purpose more economically, with a lighter intention. 

A pergola is usually open on both sides but in some contemporary gardens it may be on the perimeter, so one side may be panelled to conceal an unattractive view.  Along the boundary, mistily opaque etched glass or polycarbonate panels will allow light through or stainless steel must create ground-level shadow patterns along the length of the walk.  Taut canvas may also be used stretched overhead for screening. In the absence of overhead cover, however, consider the dramatic foliage of large-leaved climbers like golden hop (Humulus lupulus ‘aureus’) or the massive-leaved Japanese glory vine (Vitis coignetiae). 

Canopies And Awings 

 No garden should be uncomfortable and all that may be needed where people sit is a means of filtering the light. In hot areas canopies protect people from the sun while allowing some light through. Transucent or opaque fabric panels can be made from canvas, flame-resistant PVC-coated polyester, coated glass cloth or other materials that can withstand wind and weather and are not too costly.  Flimsy, muslin-like fabric may be draped like blinds, strung over taut yachting wire or rolled back over a timber dowel to protect a seating area from the midday sun. 

Summer Houses 

If a summer house is visible, the construction will dominate the view unless it is made from the same material as the house.  Or it may be pale, if made from painted timber, or transparent if largely glass, both of which can be a foil for a more dramatic-looking feature or architectural plant in front. Freestanding summer houses are usually rectangular, hexagonal, square, octagonal or circular in shape; the basic geometry is best kept simple, with little adornment. You could have a custom-made summer house designed by an architect or craftsman, as a feature to suit the mood of the garden. Views out need to be considered when siting a summer house—you want to look at an attractive scene from you retreat.  Another possibility is to put it on a turntable, to follow the warmth of the sun.  The back can be used for the storage of garden implements and will do away with the need for a shed. 

In practical terms all outdoor buildings should be waterproof and built on a solid foundation.  The aspect is a major consideration; most summer houses are built in a sunny part of the garden to provide shade in the heat of summer.  Ventilation is important as well, particularly if there is a lot of glass this could be provided by windows that open or screens that slide.  In exposed areas the walls of the building must protect people from the prevailing wind.  In hot conditions there will be a need for blinds both to cool and to shade the building; they could have timber or aluminium slats resembling the linear patterns of Venetian blinds.  For a softer look, threaded reed matting, machined split-bamboo canes or stiffened cotton fabric are all effective.  They can be controlled by winding or pulling, using rolling or concertina folding. 

Traditionally, summer houses were made of hardwoods like western red cedar, Douglas fir, cedar or oak. Pressure-treated softwoods can be relatively durable, particularly if they are coated by protective paints or microporous timber stains formulated for external use. But the frame could equally be metal, steel or aluminium and the walls made of toughened, tinted, etched or transparent glass.  New, ultraviolet-resistant plastics like polycarbonate sheeting also make translucent or opaque windows or walls.  If these are hinged or removable, the building could have a completely open aspect in very hot weather. 

For a contemporary look, the roof of a summer house may be clad with turf.  These work best if pitched but are also effective when flat.  In an austere, modern setting the look of a turf roof is surprising but very attractive.  The existing roof needs a padded base over which you lay a waterpoof layer of tough plastic sheeting, followed by the planting medium which may include rockwool or a lightweight compost.  Lay the turf and make provision for drip irrigation, concealing the tubes behind the building.  A turf roof is extremely easy to maintain by removing invasive weeds once or twice a year and trimming the grass with shears.  An incidental virtue is that the summer house will have both thermal and sound insulation.

Garden Feature