You've done much of the hard work in the garden – now it's time to put your tools down, your feet up, and really enjoy spending summer in your back yard. But while we might give fastidious attention to the kinds of flowers we plant, or the type of stones we pave with, we all too often neglect to give the same attention to our garden furniture. The prospect of having to drag a dusty sunlounger out of the shed, or of trying to relax on the hard, ugly garden bench you hurriedly purchased from a garden centre, can rather ruin a lazy, hazy day's lounging.
Garden designers and landscapers have been getting wise to the importance of attractive, easy and comfy garden furniture however, often finding imaginative ways of building it in to the very structure of the garden itself. A trend is growing for outdoor living spaces, where your garden becomes an extension of your kitchen or living room – somewhere to serve dinner to guests, relax with a glass of wine or just flop for a bit of sunbathing. We spoke to several designers who like to include functional seating that also acts as a focal point in its own right, and get their tops tips on how to sit pretty.
Outdoor living space
"I spent a lot of time in Italy as a child, and they very much use the garden – it's a living space," says garden designer Jo Thompson, who often includes attention-grabbing seating within her gardens. "If the seats are there, people are drawn to them, people will really use built-in furniture. Your garden is not just a pretty picture; it's about spending time there, too."
Thompson's Chelsea garden this year reflected the trend for garden-as-living room. It featured a fireplace, and an attractive holder for logs to be stacked in. "People want to keep warm, and a fireplace is prettier, more effective and more green than a patio heater, plus the stacked wood becomes an attractive feature in its own right. The garden becomes another room – a cosy, comfortable place to be."
Kate Gould, a designer, also includes built-in outdoor fireplaces, although she points out that you can get portable braziers or fire pits, too. "It's become much, much more popular for people to use their gardens as outdoor rooms – living or dining spaces. People have big bi-fold doors leading off their kitchen or living area to the garden, so it needs to be an extension of the room."
Choice of material
There are a wealth of options available if you've got the budget to create built-in seating, and depending on what you want to use it for, different materials will suit better.
Stone spiral structures can look pleasing, but Gould warns that "stone is lovely – if you don't want to actually sit on it. We use a lot of wood for seats; sustainable hardwood like cedar, as it's comfortable, especially when you put a cushion on it."
Thompson is enthusiastic about a wide range of materials, and created a beautiful curved structure out of cut sandstone for Chelsea in 2009, but she also stresses that "your seating has got to be comfy".
"I like creating big, deep, wide spaces that three or four people can lounge on," she says. The garden designer Yvonne Mathews agrees: "If you have steps, you can make them very wide and then scatter cushions on them. If you make them bed-width, then, in the summer, you can lounge on them."
Mathews also uses natural materials in her seats to form a springy, sweet-smelling cushion. "Anything that has a good scent can be nice to sit on, or have near your seat. Thyme or camomile are good."
And if you fancy a DIY approach, Mathews has a couple of suggestions that won't break the bank. Rather than buying benches, try making them yourself out of thick planks of wood, like scaffolding board. This lets you be as creative as your like; "you can just cut them into any interesting shape," she suggests.
An alternative idea is to scavenge at car boot sales, junk shops and charity shops for unusual finds that will work in your garden. "Try to look at things in a different light," recommends Mathews. "You can pick things up really cheaply from second-hand shops – you get some fantastic shapes, and it's a bit unusual."
A chance for colour
Seating can be a good way to add a splash of colour to your garden. Pick up colour accents from your flower beds, or use cushions to create continuity with your interiors, or just let a bold bench brighten up the garden in the winter months.
"You don't have to use the cushions that come with outdoor furniture," points out Gould. "They usually only come in brown and cream, but you can be a bit more imaginative. If you have a purple wall in your house, why not have purple cushions in your garden?" She also recommends using cantilever seats, which come out of a wall at a right angle, as you can light from beneath. Get imaginative with the colours you use to create an atmospheric lighting scheme.
Mathews, whose bright, Indian-themed garden won a gold award earlier this month at the Gardeners' World Live show, loves to use seating to add colour. "For me, they are focal points, not just seats. Paint a seat orange where you have brown grasses, and it'll look fantastic in winter – it's like a bit of sunshine when you really need it. Or you can have mosaic seats. They're fantastic, because they twinkle in the rain, or shine in the sun."
Take it easy
Making your seating comfortable with a minimum of fuss or bother means you're much more likely to use it. "Consider building seats with waterproof storage underneath, that you can keep the cushions in when you're not using them," suggests Gould, who points out that if the cushions are right there, you're more likely to grab them and use them.
Thompson says if she's building a wall, she'll try and make it about 450cm tall, a height you can perch on. And raised beds can be built at a sit-upon height too – put in a wide, wooden sill around your plants which can double up as a bench.
"Anything that will involve effort I try to avoid," says Thompson of her seating designs. "If you've got fold-up chairs or cushions stored in the attic, you just don't use them." Having a permanent structure with readily accessible cushions will help make sure you really do use your seating area. So scatter those cushions and get lounging.
The best garden chairs
Chosen by Ellie Levenson
As the name suggests, these all-weather folding chairs are available in grey, green, berry or white and are reminiscent of coffee bars on sunny piazzas, trendy locals on mopeds and romantic moments by ornate fountains. £55, for two from Marks and Spencer (marks andspencer.com).
Peru companion chair
Perfect for fidgets who want to be close but not too close, these companion seats built out of eucalyptus are separated by a built-in table so you can be together but not together at the same time. Seat cushions and parasols also available. £129.99, from Homebase (homebase.co.uk).
Folding garden bench
This lightweight, attractive and comfy take on the traditional garden bench can be easily folded away in one action for storage in the shed. £79.95, from House of Bath (houseofbath.co.uk).
Garden Storage bench
A toy box for all your outdoor clutter that doubles up as a comfortable bench for your early evening drink. No more tripping over toys or tools. £135, from Great Little Trading Company (gltc.co.uk).
Bikeezy Fluid Outdoor Chair
The most fun you'll have without lying down, this is the perfect posing chair for topping up the suntan, reading a book or leaning back and admiring all that you survey, turning garden furniture into a work of art. £780, from Occa (occa-home.co.uk).