Time was you could go into a garden, sit on a wooden deck, admire the neighbour's lush, green lawn and gasp at the vibrant colours of the flowerbeds, while being reasonably confident that you knew what you were looking at.
No longer. These days, things aren't quite what they seem. Perhaps it's our growing environmental awareness, global warming, or even the British love of a joke, but there's now a chance that if you wander into your neighbour's garden you will be lounging on a deck that looks like wood but is made from plastic, and lying on a lawn that looks like grass but is made from nylon. Even the flowers, while not plastic (quite yet), can't be relied on to provide any colour as the fashion is for all-white, while the colour comes from the fade-resistant, waterproof flowery cushion covers on the sofa, which looks like rattan. But isn't.
Somewhere along the line, while returning to natural fibres indoors for our linen sofas, wool rugs and sanded floorboards, we have decided to fake it outside.
"It's partly to do with our climate," says Kerrie John, of the Garden Design Co. "Decking just gets wet and slippery and rots in this country. Teak furniture goes a horrible shade of grey and doesn't look nice after a few years. And what with hosepipe bans every year, it's tough to keep a beautiful lawn all year round.
"Advances in technology have meant that we can have furniture that can stay outside all year round and decks and lawns that don't need any maintenance."
Tom Holt, of Bau Outdoors, takes the opposite viewpoint. "For me, nothing beats the idea of sitting on a wooden chair, with my bare feet in the grass, looking at my garden in the candlelight. I don't even really like electric lighting in a garden. People used to talk about bringing the outdoors in but I think there's a little too much of taking the indoors out."
Karl Harrison, of Exteriordecking.co.uk, sells both traditional wooden decking and the new replica-oak version, which is made from fibreglass, polyurethane and a kind of rubber polymer. "Some people just want natural wood, and if it is laid properly and is responsibly sourced, then it's great," he says. But the advantages of composite decking are numerous. "It doesn't warp and rot. It isn't slippery when wet. It doesn't burn if you drop a candle on it. It doesn't need any maintenance and you won't get splinters."
Harrison maintains that you can only tell it's fake when you touch it as it's warm to the touch and feels a bit rubbery. "It comes in several finishes and one of them really does look like 200-year-old driftwood," he says.
Composite retails for £49.90 per square metre, while hardwood decking is around £50 and upwards.
This is perhaps the one area where the advantages of the natural might outweigh the copy. Georgina Read, of Pavingsuper store.co.uk, says the price of natural stone has come down in the past five years. "People used to go for concrete because they thought they couldn't afford the real thing but, with the exception of York stone, which is expensive and always popular, it is now often cheaper to buy the real thing.
"Concrete can be easier to lay as the shapes are more regular, it is of a regular thickness so it's easier to lay level and the colour is more consistent, but natural stone can be half the price and it won't lose its colour."
Man-made general paving is around £40 per square metre, while natural stone starts at around £20.
Garden designer Kerrie John, a silver medallist at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, no less, is thinking of putting fake lawn in her front garden. "It looks great and I just can't be bothered to get the mower out for that tiny area. These days, fake grass looks fantastic and there's no maintenance. With hosepipe bans in place these days, it's hard work to keep up a lovely lawn." Plus, you can retire the lawnmower for good.
Sarah Harrison, a mother of two football-mad boys, installed fake grass two years ago. "The garden was ruined; it was a mudbath in winter and bald in summer. Since we put the fake lawn down, they are out there all the time, they come in clean and there's no maintenance."
Garden designer Georgina Read sells both turf and artificial grass and says that demand for artificial has increased tenfold this year: "I don't know if it was because it was such a bad winter, but it has really taken off this year."
For 60 square metres of turf, expect to pay around £160. But it will need watering morning and evening for the first two weeks, and thereafter, depending on the weather and the ground, will need carefully preparing before it goes down. An artificial lawn of the same size isn't cheap at £1,000 plus installation but requires no further maintenance.
The current fashion for flowers is that they should be white, or at a push blue, says Kerrie John. The days of borders heaving with brightly coloured bedding plants are over. "I even went to visit one client for a quote to redo her garden and she had plastic flowers," she says. "She assured me it was just while she was waiting to plant the real thing."
Having said that, it is a garden, so there should be some flowers somewhere, and John says that often they are to be found in the accessories. "People are jazzing up their gardens with brightly coloured cushion covers," she says. There are a number of outdoor fabrics available, which are now mildew- and water-resistant and won't fade in bright light.
Designers Guild does a range of outdoor patterned fabrics for £42 a metre.
Teak furniture is the garden classic but you can find some great contemporary designs if you hunt around. But the newest solution to a maintenance-free garden is weatherproof rattan. Tom Holt says: "Rattan, or wicker as it is otherwise known, isn't really suitable for our climate of alternating wet and dry. Weatherproof rattan is made from a polymer, which can be left out all year round without fading or losing its shape. It's strong and lightweight and should give you about 10 years of use.
"Teak will last for your children and possibly even their children, especially if you rub it down with teak oil every couple of years. It gets better-looking with age as it silvers and as long as you make sure you are buying plantation teak, which is responsibly farmed and managed, then there should be no problems."
Ketch teak table and Tubby synthetic rattan sofa both cost £595 from Bau Outdoors.Reuse content