How To Style Your Outdoor Space (For Non-Gardeners)

I’m going in to this post with both hands held up in the air: I am not a gardener. Give me furniture, wallpaper and fabric, and I’m in my element. Give me grass, earth and plants and I’m baffled and a bit useless. I’ve said in a previous post that, until we moved in to this house, I never had a garden I needed to personally tend to. It was a series of back yards then, in our last house, a communal garden with a gardener and we just paid a service charge and had a lovely, zero effort, garden. If I had that option now, I’d jump on it, but I don’t and, sadly, I think hiring my own personal, non-communal, gardener will have to be put on hold, pending my (imminent) lottery jackpot win.

The people we bought the house from were Very Good Gardeners. It was their thing. As a result, nice things pop up here and there in the garden, but it’s seen 9 years of neglect at my hands, and is now pretty much a wilderness, with only the most tenacious plants surviving. It’s saved by the presence of quite a lot of nice trees, which look pretty and distract from the chaos. I actually love a wild garden; really neat, precise gardens aren’t my thing. However, there’s planned and curated wildness, and there’s garden-left-to-run-amok-for-nearly-a-decade wildness. I am definitely in the latter camp.

My house used to have an enormous garden. Huge. In fact, one of my favourite things to happen on Instagram was one of the previous owners of the house contacted me and told me all about it! Apparently, it was the scene of many a football match and known as the “Wembley of the North” (mainly by the inhabitants of the house, but still…). However, the land was sold off in the 1980s and there are now two bungalows on what was the enormous garden, and we have a modest patch. It’s a funny old shape, lots of different ground levels, lots of different areas. The landscaping of the 1980s is showing its age now, and there’s lots of crumbling stonework. In my opinion, I need a landscape gardener to come with a fresh pair of eyes and probably bulldoze it and start again. Another thing added to the list for the impending lottery win.

All the terrible bits are out of shot.

In the meantime, there are a few things that can be done to improve the look of a garden or outdoor space, with no gardening skills whatsoever. And, for me, the secret is to treat the garden as if it was another room in the house, looking at each of the four elements below. I’m back in my comfort zone! I’ll be relying heavily on the wonderful garden work of others as we go along.

1. The Flooring

I’ll simplify this into two options: grass and not-grass (I told you gardens weren’t my area of expertise).

a) The Lawn – we just need to keep on top of this. A well-mown lawn makes everything look better, in the same way that painting your nails makes you feel put together, even if you’re wearing trackie bottoms and a vest top that you wore when you were pregnant. Ten years ago. Seriously, H&M made some long lasting maternity wear. When my in-laws come to stay, my father-in-law makes the lawn immaculate. Stripes and everything. At all other times, it’s my husband’s (one) job, and it looks like its been hacked at with a blunt knife and fork. Also, hoick out any weeds, while you’re there.

b) The Not Lawn – by which I mean patio or decked area. Regardless of which you have, it’s pretty much guaranteed that it won’t be looking its best after winter has passed. Algae, moss, mud, general grimness. There’s only one solution: THE POWER HOSE! I spent most of last weekend jet washing anything that didn’t move in my garden, and it’s very satisfying indeed. It’s the first time I’ve jet washed my two patio areas in the time we’ve lived here and, I have to admit, I was hoping that some absolutely fantastic stonework would reveal itself, like buried treasure. It didn’t, it was just slightly cleaner looking, boring, grey stone, but it’s good to know the layers of grot are gone.

If you have a beautiful patio or attractive deck once jet washed, then you’re a lucky individual. Proceed immediately to the next section. If it still looks rubbish, then we have two options:

i) Paint. Paint is our best friend. It can hide a multitude of sins and freshen up the most ancient of decks. A specialist decking paint is the most sensible option. I’ve never personally painted a deck, it looks like hard work. Here’s Jade Doutch (@jade.doutch) making it look easy (click here for the video), and using the sweeping brush to get the paint into all the grooves is inspired.

You don’t need to restrict paint to decking, though. You could paint your patio! You could go one better and STENCIL your patio! This isn’t an option for me, as my patio is broken, uneven, and made up from different size slabs, but if you have a fairly flat, uniform patio, then grab that paintbrush and spring into action! I would 100% be doing this to my patio if it was feasible. Hayley Stuart (@iamhayleystuart) is the queen of painted patios, and she’s transformed her patio not once, but twice in recent years (I should add, that the paint will probably only last a year before it needs re-doing or freshening up, but I think it’s worth the labour because it looks fabulous). She wrote a blog on this year’s transformation here. Dizzy Duck Designs has a great range of stencils.

ii) Outdoor Rugs. I’m such a fan of an outdoor rug. For me, it has to be one I can leave out in all weathers, as I’m slovenly, but I’ve had a couple for years now, and they still look great despite being abandoned to the whims of the changing seasons. I just jet wash or scrub them down in the Spring and they look good as new. I use them to add colour and to cover up what are, frankly, fairly underwhelming patio areas. The hardwearing ones are made from 100% polypropylene, and are water and UV resistant, so keep an eye out for those things in the product description.

I’d love to be able to say there’s an abundance of stunning outdoor rugs on the market to choose from. There isn’t. It’s surprisingly hard to find a nice one, in fact. These are the ones that I found that I liked, and the best sites I found for a good selection were Wayfair, iRugs and Benuta:

Top row, L-R: iRugs Sabrina Soto outdoor rug, Benuta Carlo outdoor rug, Benuta Cleo Rose outdoor rug.

Middle row, L-R: Wayfair McKenzie outdoor rug, iRugs Jill Zarin outdoor rug, Benuta Antique Yellow outdoor rug.

Bottom row, L-R: Benuta Summer Orange outdoor rug, Benuta Dura outdoor rug, iRugs Safari outdoor rug.

2. The Walls

a) The base level. This is either going to be brick or stone walls, or fencing. For underwhelming fencing, we need to reach for the paintbrush again. I painted mine black a few years ago, and it made the garden look more considered, for relatively little effort (though anyone who says painting fencing is fun is lying). Jacqueline Mercer at @tinyandthehouse has black painted fencing in her gorgeous garden too.

If your brick or stone is in decent condition and looks lovely, then hooray! If it’s less than lovely, we need to make it so, and there are a number of things we can do to jazz up our exterior walls.

If we keep in mind that we’re treating the exterior walls similarly to interior walls then, of course, we could paint them with masonry paint if the brickwork is particularly horrible. Otherwise, we can cover them up and pretend they never happened. Screen With Envy is a company that keeps popping up on my social media and they make really lovely, design-led garden screens, fencing and panels which can sit over unlovely walls. I think they’re great. Lily Sawyer at @layered.home has recently used them in her garden, to excellent effect.

For a more natural look, you could also use willow or reed screening, which is reasonably priced and easy to install. Kerry Lockwood (@kerrylockwood) has done this in her garden and I love it.

Kerry’s excellent garden

b) Dressing the walls. Shelves, artwork, wall-hung planters, mirrors are all brilliant at making a garden look snazzier.

I particularly love garden mirrors for reflecting light around, opening up the space and adding a bit of intrigue. Just be careful where you place them, or you may find the 3pm sun rebounding directly into your retinas via the kitchen window, and we don’t want any incidents involving the Eye Hospital. There are various outdoor mirrors on the market which are specifically made from robust metal, to withstand the elements, and these are your best bet for longevity.

I do, however, also love Tamsin Ford’s collection of vintage mirrors in her beautiful garden, which weather as the years go by (@tamsin_ford_happy_living)

Garden shelving is another great idea – bring on all the new shelf styling opportunities! Freestanding units are nice and simple, and can be popped into boring corners to liven them up with a few pot plants. I assume you have to attach them securely to a wall, and securely attach any pots or ornaments to the shelves, given the fondness of the UK weather for a gale force wind. Or you could fully commit, like Lisa Dawson (@_lisa_dawson_), and install a fixed wall of shelving. I blooming love this, you could change it up on a whim and give it a whole new look just for fun (yes, this is my idea of fun).

Bravo to all of this!

Here are some other nice bits and pieces for the garden walls…

Top row, L-R: Ceramic coral wall decorations, lantern with wall bracket, rusty metal letters (I’d probably try and spell out something more fun than “garden”, unless you’re in the habit of forgetting where you are. All Not on The High Street.

Middle row, L-R: Hanging flower pots, cheeky bum plaques (terrible yet I’m drawn to them!), fused glass nuthatch.

Bottom row, L-R: Compass wall art, terracotta wall hung planter, aged ceramic wall planter.

3. The Furniture

Whether you only have have room for a single deckchair, or room to host 20 for a formal, seated, garden lunch, garden furniture is the thing that takes your garden from “neglected rectangle of doom” to an extension of your home. Somewhere to sit and eat, read, sunbathe (happens about twice per annum in Yorkshire), and generally relax.

I recently worked with @modafurnishings on an Instagram project (this isn’t part of it), and used one of their corner sofa sets to transform one of my two patio areas. The difference in how we now use the space is incredible – previously it had a couple of chairs sat forlornly in it, and no-one ever really went into the space. Now, we use it all the time when the sun’s out and there’s an unseemly scramble between parents, children and dog to bag the sunniest corner.

Here are some other lovely things to bring cheer to your garden space….

Top row, L-R: Cox & Cox woven rope bistro set, Copa garden aperitif set (we all need a garden aperitif set), La Redoute rattan garden chair.

Middle row, L-R: East London Parasol Co Helena parasol, VonHaus wooden frame hammock, Cox & Cox Capri corner set.

Bottom row, L-R: B&Q Apolima rattan effect egg chair, Wayfair Abbingt hanging chair, Sacha stool.

If there’s no budget for garden furniture, then it’s paintbrush time again. You can breathe new life into tired old bits of wooden furniture you may have lying around and, if you have none, the whole of Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree etc is full of people who can’t be bothered to go to the tip with their old garden furniture and which can be picked up for free or for a steal. Any exterior paint will do for this, any colour you like. Fun! There are also many creative things that can be done with pallets, and on this I defer to Pandora Maxton (@pandora.maxton) who wrote a blog post all about it here, and who created this dreamy set up:

I also bagged this vintage sun lounger last year on Facebook Marketplace, which brings me much joy.

4. Accessories

Always the best bit! This is where we gets to express ourselves (to our full capabilities), and make everything comfortable, and pretty. I have four main categories for accessorising outdoor spaces, and they are these:

a) Lighting. Fairy lights make everything better. If you have access to outdoor electricity, then your life is already loads simpler, and you can take your pick. If not, then it’s solar power all the way. Fairy lights, festoon lights, lanterns, wall lights – they all bring a space to life when the sun goes down. Theresa Gromski (@theresa_gromski) has a garden to die for, and has all sorts of clever lighting going on….

b) Cushions. You can either use your indoor cushions, remain vigilant for rain showers, and diligently clear up every night and put them away, or use outdoor-specific ones which are a bit more weatherproof. Guess what I do? As with outdoor rugs, the choice isn’t amazing, but these ones from Warner House, which I recently saw released on Instagram, are the nicest I’ve ever seen. I covet each and every one.

c) Pots. The blog is not intended for the serious gardener. I’m pretty sure no serious gardeners will be reading it, so that’s ok. I think we can all agree that flowers are lovely, and enhance our outdoor spaces no end. Plants in pots are the answer. Buy them ready-potted for maximum ease, or go to the garden centre and ask the garden centre person for their advice on which plants best tolerate neglect whilst looking pretty. “Hardy” and “robust” are our keywords here.

Jac’s (@tinyandthehouse) garden is joyful (go and check out her hydrangeas, go on), and a lovely example of pretty pots in action.

Pots can also be weirdly expensive, Homesense always have a good selection at good prices. Make sure they have a hole in the bottom, or that you can drill one in, so they don’t get waterlogged. Another top tip is to paint old pots (get on to Facebook Marketplace or Gumtree again if you don’t have any). I did this last summer, and it was an hour well spent. These were dark brown before I gave them a glow up.

d) Anything else you fancy. I’m weirdly drawn to statues and figures. I think I’m straddling the fine line between tasteful and tat with them, but I love them and that’s all that matters, innit? Here are my two fellas who sit on the steps to my house, and whose hair changes often, due to me neglecting it, and it withering away. It was ever thus.

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