Your In-Depth Guide to Garden Decor

There’s garden design, which deals with the bone structure of your outdoor space, creating plans for the layout and planting. Then there’s garden décor, something a whole lot more personal and – for a lot of us – a whole lot more fun because it’s all about adding the fun bits, gilding the lily, giving a well-designed garden its own unique personality, look and feel.

Here’s our detailed guide to garden décor, what it can mean, how to choose your weapons, and what you can achieve. Happy outdoor decorating!

a clay chiminea alight

Decorating your backyard to perfection

You – or your garden designer – have worked long and hard to build a space that suits your needs perfectly, with the right kind of layout, planting, and overall structure. It might be a hilly, hummocky design filled with mystery and surprises or something plain and classical, for example a beautifully manicured lawn surrounded by stunning flower-filled beds, made to a classic design. It could be a beautifully casual, wild English-style cottage garden, or even a cool, formal Japanese style space with raked gravel, rocks, bonsai and elegant topiary.

Whatever you have achieved, the first stage is complete. Things are looking good. Now it’s time to add your own personality to the garden, and that can mean adding all manner of stuff, everything from lighting to sculptures to garden art and ornaments, decorative planters, water features, bird baths, statues, hanging baskets, shade sails, awnings and canopies, chimineas and fire pits, arbours, arches and outdoor heating.

Have fun adding creative garden lighting

A garden looks magical all lit up at night, but on the other hand you need to exercise some sensitivity. Plants, like humans and every other living being, have their own circadian rhythm, and like us they don’t appreciate trying to sleep in bright light.

While solar lighting is a brilliant idea as far as energy-saving is concerned, and helps mitigate global warming, cheap solar garden lights do tend to come on automatically once dusk arrives. Ideally you need the type that you can switch on and off rather than those that light up your garden like a Christmas tree night after night without so much as a by your leave.

Good garden lighting means positioning garden lights carefully, choosing the correct type of light bulbs, the wattage, and the coverage or beam angle. As a general rule, except when used specifically to make a design statement, outdoor lights should be hidden or camouflaged, recessed, small in size, or with a finish that blends in.

a pergola lit at dusk

  • Post lighting is perfect for highlighting pathways. Borders with deep or thick foliage and planting look great lit by large post lighting like this Larix one. Smaller or lower-slung beds benefit from lower post lighting like this Linum post light. Post lights are also a great way to illuminate driveways.
  • Garden spotlights are great for creating atmosphere and a sense of visual depth, ideal for uplighting big leaves, trees, fountains and statues. As a rule taller stuff needs a bigger wattage, and smaller plants and so on require lower wattage – a 12 Volt garden spotlight should do the trick.
  • Outdoor wall lighting is perfect for mounting on garden walls, fences, trees and outbuildings. First, decide what you are trying to achieve, and whether you want it to be simply decorative or functional, showing you the way. A 2W wall light should be bright enough to light an alleyway or path enough to see where you’re going. You can also get wall-mounted down-lighters for outdoors.
  • Decking lights are good for safety, if you don’t want your family or guests falling head over heels on dark decked areas. Basic versions are designed to illuminate the edge of a deck, others are angled and strong enough to also light up pot plants and other decking features.
  • Decorative garden lighting is a feature in its own right, used for aesthetic purposes alone. Wall lights, ball lights and spheres, lights shaped like stones, fairy light-style strings… there’s a huge choice to hang in trees and shrubs, and on fences and walls.
  • You can also buy underwater lighting for your pond, which looks amazing. Just bear in mind it’s best to turn it off when you go to bed, so the creatures that live in and around your pond can get some decent zeds in! Look for a specialist system with low wattage -m 12V should do the trick.

Garden art and sculptures

Roll back time just a few years and you’d be lucky to find any garden art at all in your local garden center. Now it’s everywhere, and it comes in a huge variety of designs. Traditional sculptures – things like statues – are widely available, anything from poured concrete reproductions of ancient Roman and Greek statuary to quirky contemporary concrete dragons, lions, gargoyles, monsters and so on.

A quick search on Google delivers an awesome choice of amazing garden art: a solar powered metal elephant in a verdigris-like finish, and a wonderful copper living wall planter, ready to use. All sorts of curvy, nature-inspired metal and stone garden ornaments, and colourfully-glazed ceramic orbs in a variety of sizes. Beautiful pieces of old wood that was once used as groynes and beach defenses, and supers-imple yet dramatic boulders to pile up to dramatic effect. Some gardeners even use old rusty farm machinery as sculpture.

Decorative planters

Bring the rule of three or five into play and you can easily create a scrumptious display for very little money, with very little effort. You can either buy absolutely beautiful glazed ceramic planters at your nearest garden center, or online, or buy plain pots and colour them yourself.

A big, plain terra cotta plant pot costs a lot less than a correspondingly big fancy one with a colourful glaze. Paint your own using exterior eggshell paint, the same color or each a different color, then add contrasting or toning planting. Stand two large two medium and one small planter in a group for a visually pleasing display, or groups of three, one of each size.

Even numbers are a nightmare to deal with unless you actually want to achieve pure symmetry. In which case buy several of the same sized planter, and line them up in a military-style neat row for sheer drama.

Exterior painting and decorating

If it’s made from wood, stone, concrete, metal or even glass, you can paint it using exterior eggshell paint, either oil or water-based. It is a totally brilliant product, sticks beautifully to most surfaces without peeling, cracking or washing off, and comes in every colour you can imagine.

Take advantage of its amazing properties to give sad, tired outbuildings a new lease of life, or create a stunning contemporary brick wall. The world is your oyster once you’ve discovered eggshell, and a simple paint job can make a massive difference.

Water features and bird baths

No pond? Not to worry. A water feature can be as simple as a ceramic planter stood on top of a lovely chunk of tree trunk, or as complex and expensive as an all-singing, all-dancing marble reproduction of an ancient fountain in Rome.

green ceramic bird bath

If you’d like to use a planter you already own to make a pond, but it has a hole in the bottom, you can block the hole using a sheet of waterproof material fixed into the bottom of the pot with bathroom and shower sealant. It really works!

You can also line a huge variety of items, from galvanised steel planters to home made wooden or stone structures with a good quality butile pond liner and transform it into your own DIY water feature.

Bird baths are great for birds, of course, but they also provide safe, shallow water for bees and other insects to drink. Or buy a ready0made version, available in countless different designs. Actually you don’t have to use a bird bath for the birds – they can also make lovely planters, particularly for specimens like ivy which don’t need a whole lot of soil. And an old enamel or plastic bath can make a beautiful water feature, either planted up around the sides or buried to the brim in the ground.

Creating shade

Shade sails are very popular right now, a great and very simple way to deliver cool shade in summer as well as keeping the rain off. They come in a wide variety of colours and styles, but they all look beautifully elegant, and they tend to be really easy to fit whether it’s to walls and fences or actual trees.

Build or assemble a kit-form pergola or gazebo and you have something ready made for shade. You can add your own home made shade sail from an old sheet or duvet cover, or simply plant climbers and creepers all over it for a gorgeous, green, cool shady spot. A big, beautiful garden umbrella is perfect for creating shade, too.

a triangular shade sail

Arbours and arches

An arch is a very pleasing shape to the eye, and there are some stunning garden arches around. Many are designed to grow climbers, others are beautiful on their own. They come in everything from rustic to contemporary designs, usually wood or metal, and many are self-assembly so easy to erect.

If you stand a garden arch next to a wall you have a ready-made arbour, basically a covered outdoor seat, or a shady garden alcove with the sides and roof formed by trees or climbing plants, trained over a framework.

You can buy ready-made wooden arbours too, like big roofed wooden seats with slatted backs and lattice sides, sometimes also called a bower. If you’ve come across the phrase ‘rose-covered bower’ you get the picture, and roses are a perfect climber to use to set your arbour subtly into the landscape. Bowers and arbours are brilliant for creating cosy seating areas, especially in private, sheltered spots.

Garden heating- Chimineas and fire pits

Anyone who enjoys alfresco fun will want to invest in a chiminea or fire pit, both great ways to keep warm while eating, drinking and making merry outdoors. As a general rule clay chimineas are more delicate than cast iron, and require a little more care and maintenance. They come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and designs, everything from traditional Mexican-style designs to sleek contemporary alternatives.

Patio heaters are also popular, also called mushroom or umbrella heaters. They operate with radiant heat, which generates thermal radiation and usually involves a burner on top of a post. They tend to burn either liquid petroleum gas, LPG, propane or butane gas, or halogen, or even infrared.

How to choose which to use? First consider the place they’ll be situated. Most need to be mounted horizontally, but a few can be mounted vertically.

A short wave outdoor heater will have a highly reflective, long-lasting reflector which focuses its heating energy. Short wave halogen heat lamps have a tungsten filament heated by an electric current to high temperatures, emitting heat as short wave infra-red.

Short wave high intensity quartz heaters work like the sun, warm as soon as you switch them on. Short wave heaters warm people and objects in the beam’s range, not the air itself, so the kind of warmth you get is entirely different. Long and medium wave heat warms comparatively badly, especially outdoors, heating the air rather than the person. Take care to avoid cheap versions, especially rubbish Chinese copies of quartz patio heaters – you really do get what you pay for. The running cost of most electric patio heaters is around 9p per kW / hour.

What else can you use to decorate your garden?

Here are some more ideas about how to decorate your garden to perfection:

  • Use indoor furniture outdoors in summer, putting it away when the weather deteriorates. Sturdy, personlity-filled old ‘brown’ furniture is madly cheap right now, being so horribly unfashionable, and there are some wonderful bargains to be had
  • There’s new… and there’s second hand. Maybe you can find a lower cost and much more interesting alternative to something new at your nearest architectural salvage yard or antique emporium
  • Plant flowers in pairs of old wellies, boots or shoes and stand them alongside a set of garden steps for a vivid, fun display
  • Hang old charity shop hand mirrors on your garden walls and fences to create unexpected vistas and visual mystery
  • You have probably seen old car tyres used as planters. But did you know you can paint them in bright or subtle colours? All you need is exterior eggshell paint
  • Hang an old car tyre off a branch using a rope, fill it with soil and plant hanging specimens into it. Wow!
  • We have even seen people plant beautiful flowers in an upside-down umbrella. It looked amazing
    Paint an old galvanised steel bucket, make a hole in the bottom and you have a gorgeous planter
  • Plant up an old metal wheelbarrow for a splendid display of colour
  • You can put an old wooden chest of drawers outdoors, using each drawer as a planter for flowers. If you use a wood preserver first, it’ll last longer

We hope this post has inspired you to go forth and create something really special outdoors. Have fun!

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