We are in the middle of outdoor entertaining season, when many of us use our gardens and patios daily. When designing outdoor spaces and deciding which furniture and accessories will function best in them, it’s essential to consider the types of people and activities that will share the space.
Do you plan to host small groups of adults using stemware, or boisterous children’s parties featuring finger foods? You may be doing both – and more. It’s important to work with the space to allow flexibility that enhances all kinds of gatherings.
A seat at the table – or on it
Most backyards have space for a dining set, a lounge arrangement or simple bistro seating, but you may need extra seating on occasion. My favorite functional accessory for accommodating diverse types of entertaining is a sturdy side table/stool combination.
A versatile stool can serve as impromptu seating, a stable perch for a drink or plate, a safe place to set down a laptop or tablet and a spot for feet-up comfort at the end of the day. To find the best options, search for stools with flat tops that can hold a drink without tipping and shapes that can be tucked out of the way.
Also, shop for small side tables made of wood or metal that can hold the weight of an adult. Glass tops and delicate features won’t work, but solidly built nesting sets get extra points.
Benches also function well for both sitting and setting as long as they are strong enough not to tip when a person sits on one end. For this reason, built-in benches are particularly nice to add to decks or arbors.
A perch on the wall
The most versatile outdoor seating option is a low garden wall. Consider a seating wall if you are renovating a landscape or designing a new one. A garden may already need a functioning retaining wall for a raised bed or a grade change. In that case, make sure that the finished height is less than 24 inches – 18 inches is optimal – to accommodate most adults.
In addition, the top of the wall will need to be smooth and wide enough to be comfortable for sitting or setting down a plate.
Freestanding walls that don’t retain soil but are used as a design element to divide spaces will operate just as well for casual seating. Pillows or custom cushions add comfort and color.
One of my success stories for wall seating is at the home of a client who has a very narrow backyard. At only 12 feet wide, her space was limited, but she loves to entertain. She already had a raised bed with a wall of rough, stacked stone, but its only use was to hold up the soil around some rosebushes. In the process of redesigning her garden, she redid the wall with a smoother material; a wide, comfortable cap was added to the top; and soft-foliaged plants replaced the rose bushes. Immediately, her 500-square-foot garden could seat 30 people without ever renting or storing an extra chair.
A stair to rest on
One of the most overlooked garden features for impromptu seating is stairs. Watch small children in a garden and if given the option, they will gravitate toward a stair to sit with their Popsicles. It’s the ideal height for toddlers.
Landscape features such as decks can be designed to create wide, gracious steps where children and petite-legged people can sit, as long as they aren’t in the middle of a high-traffic area. Transitions from different levels within a landscape can also be designed with this additional use in mind.
Whether garden gatherings are large and loud or small and intimate, consider combining permanent features with flexible elements to create options and comfort for all kinds of outdoor entertaining.
Joy Albright-Souza is a member of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. For more information, visit albrightsouza.com or per-joy.com.