Living the Good Life with Chris Olsen
Europeans have long known something that Americans are only just now finding out: you can create a “room” for entertaining within your landscape. And it won’t take a carpenter to do it. If you have a courtyard, patio, or level area in your yard that is wide and long enough to turn into a rectilinear space for table, chairs, and plants, you can treat your guests to a real indoors-goes-outdoors experience. Define the space and mark the “walls” with large specimen plants (read: dwarf or semi-dwarf trees), then plunk a table down between them. Add seating, accessories, personal touches, and then you have it. A delightful area for dining and conversation.
I created a sort of avenue of trees in the courtyard, in order to define the space. I call this Oak Alley, an homage to the real Oak Alley in southern Louisiana. You’ll need to keep two aspects in mind to create your room: scale and growing conditions. I couldn’t have tree specimens straight out of the forest because they’d outgrow the space; and I needed hardy sun-loving plantings. What you see are Columnar English Oaks. The long table flanked by matching chairs gives it all a sort of formal feel.
You’ll want to be mindful of the space needed to accommodate the table, chairs, and guests entering, leaving, or sliding their chairs back from the table. Another benefit of these semi dwarf oaks is that I know exactly how wide they will grow, and don’t have to worry about them encroaching onto the table.
You can see outside the ‘room,’ the backs of the defining trees, and area behind. ‘Green Giant’ Arbor vitae line the outer walls of the courtyard, and complement the deciduous oaks of my new room.
This is another “room” in its glory at the height of the season. Trees are potted in this instance, which means more opportunity for color and style. Chair cushions were chosen to pair well with the pots, and the whole area is now primed and ready for guests. The previous courtyard is a nice, intimate space, gravel-filled and inviting. But once it has been used as a room for seating, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to its pure and utilitarian nature.
If you’re going to use pots for your wall trees, you probably should splurge because they’ll get a lot of attention, and can also become an architectural element in the mix. Don’t just settle for unglazed terra cotta, and also make sure they’re the largest you can find. That way, they can hold growing trees and seasonal color and, most importantly, they won’t dry out as quickly as if they were smaller. How could anyone not want to sit and linger in such an area?
Remember what I said about scale. Don’t just read the horticulture tags on the plants. Ask about growth habits and requirements. You want plantings that fit nicely in their environs, and also provide a lot of show for their size. Everything you use needs to work hard for its space. And don’t be afraid to mix up the plantings; try new plants chosen for their growth habit and color.
Check out this mix. You’ll see tropical influence, seasonal color, plants chosen to spill out of the pot, cascading color, and both deciduous and evergreen plantings. Oh, and the garden room itself.
Proportion counts in each element, but remember the truism: the bigger the pot, the bigger the show. What you see in this photo is how just a bit of planning can mean something unexpected, especially the next time you want to host a dinner.
It really is quite easy, once you’ve found the space for your new “room.” Ask plenty of questions at the nursery, calculate how much area you’ll need, install, then stand back to take in the effect. And back to what I said at the beginning of this post. Europeans have known about this kind of thing for a long time. They don’t even worry about the furniture itself, and often just drag out the kitchen table and chairs. You can do that as well. Although shopping for furniture to fit in your new room might be fun. It’s the idea of being able to entertain your guests, share your food, and make your landscape part of your personal space.
You can read more about Chris Olsen’s home and outdoor entertaining spaces in our March 2018 feature California Love.