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How to make the most of your garden

Garden designer Charlotte Rowe tells Graham Norwood how to fully utilise your outside space

Tania Laurie's brief for her garden was clear. As a fashion designer she'd had no difficulty infusing the interior of her Victorian home in London with a minimalist style, dominated by black and grey colours.

Now she wanted her garden to echo that style, making her outside area into a de facto extension of the house which she could enjoy almost as a room. Low maintenance would be nice, too. The problem, however, was how to do it. That's where Charlotte Rowe came in.

With a mixture of granite surfaces, polished pebbles, tongue-and-groove boundaries and oak decking stained to match interior floors and the belief that "hard surfaces make it easier to take the contemporary, simple internal design to the outside", Rowe set to work.

Olive trees and plants such as ophiopogon, the so-called ebony knight or black dragon, were set into squares to augment the dark style. Bamboo stems, subtly back-lit to emphasise height, makes the garden seem much larger than its 60sq m. Little wonder that Laurie has described the end result as being "like a beautiful painting". Rowe regards it as one of the finest pieces of work she has achieved in five years as a professional garden designer.

"Lifestyles have changed and people like their gardens but they want to make use of them," says Rowe, a former public relations executive who now runs one of the country's leading garden design firms and is a member of the Society of Garden Designers.

"Until recently, it's been difficult to do that – interiors have been formal and very traditional and that's hard to reproduce outside."

She believes that any garden can be integrated more into a home, although the trend lends itself more to urban homes, especially those with smaller gardens typically found in Victorian or late-Regency-era houses.

"The desire is to have a garden that looks good all year round, is low maintenance and has hard surfaces," says Rowe. "But because many interiors are contemporary, there's a need to move gardens away from Yorkstone and similar materials.

"You need to look at the type and positions of plants, too. Different plants can break up a garden, rather like room dividers, and can help change a garden from chintzy to streamlined. In many ways, I'm creating a picture for my clients to see every day," she says.

Although costs are relatively high – Rowe says design and planting plans for even the smallest garden may cost £1,000 each, while turning the plans into reality would cost £25,000 at least – the workmanship has to be top-notch.

"Gardens have to exist outside, so materials have to be of a high quality and crafts like carpentry have to be excellent to stand up to the weather and still look good after a hard winter," she says. "And in any case, the point is to make the garden a major part of the house; it's like creating another room."

Yet there are ways that those with more modest budgets can combine garden and home to create the feeling of more usable space.

A sun room – usually a small, glass-roofed add-on to a conventional bricks-and-mortar room that already faces the garden – is one relatively straightforward addition to a home.

The next stage up is the classic conservatory which tends to be larger (and can be vary large indeed) and offers more "year round" usability, often with direct access to the lawn to bring the house and garden together.

But there are pitfalls. A south-facing conservatory needs appropriate Pilkington K or Reflex glass to deflect sunlight. Anything less than that will risk the new "room" being effectively unusable at the height of summer because of glare and heat. Try to avoid low-specification glass that is often fitted by commercial conservatory firms wanting to keep costs down.

Likewise a north-facing conservatory built with inadequate heating can make a "cold barrier" that, even in warm months, deters people passing through to the garden.

Planning considerations can be time-consuming and expensive, too, for large conservatories.

One tip that works as well with a conservatory of any size – as it does in a project as ambitious as Laurie's – is carefully-selected garden lighting.

"Subtle illumination through uplighters or low-voltage spotlights shone to far points of a garden give the illusion of the area being larger, and will of course allow the space to be used into the twilight hours," says a spokesman for the Lighting Association, who advises that to get the best effect at the most economical cost, lighting plans must be integrated into garden and/or conservatory design before any work is done.

Another way of bridging home and garden is sophisticated use of decking. There are several types – ground decking runs, as its name suggests, at little above the level of the terrain, while elevated, stepped or "suspended" decking can help climb slopes.

This product can be very useful in difficult areas. For example, it can allow the creation of steps to link a room with a steeply sloping garden, or can add some height and variety to a large flat lawn area. Either way, it can provide a defined "route" to encourage people to move between the house and the garden with ease.

The Timber Decking Association, which sets standards for decking and installation, says staining is a highly effective way of decorating and personalising a deck. "Properly designed and installed decks are lifestyle-enhancing features," says director Stephen Young. "They are best used as part of a balanced garden design in which landscaping and planting combine to create a space that meets the individual needs of homeowners.

"Avid gardeners will have different priorities to those who place an emphasis on relaxing or entertaining in their gardens."

But installation and quality complaints about decking are legendary, so whatever your plans, use only approved suppliers and contractors.

Charlotte Rowe says this increased fascination with living in and using our gardens has developed over the past 40 years. "We're a more travelled nation now, we've seen more and we're open to new ideas for our gardens. That's been the trend since the Sixties but it's really gathered pace in the past five to 10 years," she says.

Contacts: Charlotte Rowe Garden Design (020-7602 0660; www.charlotterowe. com); The Lighting Association (01952 290905; www.lightingassociation.com); The Timber Decking Association (www.tda.org.uk); Tania Laurie's designs at www.tania.uk.com