Transforming a Garden into a Gathering Space
My garden is my botanical story. It reflects who I am and is an expression of my creativity with every new bloom. It houses plants that have been mindfully chosen, carefully sown, patiently grown, and then placed in their beds with clear intention and purpose. It’s organized but wild. And as all the plants grow, so do I.
In my garden, birdsong is the background music, the circle of trees wrap it in a hug, and the sunsets dance behind the tree line showing off their cotton candy colors during perfect summer evenings. Hours float by when I’m in my garden, lost in nature’s therapy of pruning, harvesting, nurturing. It is where I pray. Where I cry. Where I go to reset and turn my thoughts. It truly is my sanctuary.
Over the past couple years, it has taken on new purpose entirely, becoming a gathering place for those dearest to my heart. A place they can come to unwind. A place that radiates peacefulness and encourages you to slow down and observe. A place that shares the fruits of my creativity and labor with more than just my family. The garden has become a truly special gathering place that I have embraced wholeheartedly.
But how did my garden transform from a plot of wooden beds to a tranquil backyard sanctuary? I’ve laid it all out below, and many of these same concepts can be applied to any outdoor space including back patios and apartment balconies.
Natural ambiance. When designing a garden space, it is often recommended that the garden is south-facing, however ours is west-facing and the perfect place to enjoy the gorgeous summer sunsets viewable out our back-property line. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My garden still grows plenty of gorgeous blooms and herbs (my botanicals of choice) and you just can’t beat that warm orange glow streaming in from behind the trellis arches during golden hour. As long as your space gets eight hours of sunlight light a day, direction is not as critical as gardeners often make it out to be.
Define the entrance. Give your space a defined entranceway that welcomes visitors in to stay a while and gives your garden a dreamy secret-garden vibe. We have a gate with an arbor as our garden entrance, with two large pots on either side that hold vining clematis, geraniums, and violas, and an herbal wreath hanging on the gate. When people walk by the garden, the entrance draws them in. And the arbors provide anchors for hanging baskets. We have a second arbor directly opposite the front one that is home to our vining wisteria, giving the back wall a cozy cottage core feel.
Define the space. Create a sense of privacy by building a fence around the garden perimeter to define and enclose it. This gives your guests a feeling of being surrounded by beautiful botanicals at every turn.
Coordinate with your home. I chose to paint the outside of the garden beds black but leave the fencing that surrounds the garden the natural cedar, which coordinates with our home exterior color scheme of very dark (nearly black) primary color, caviar black trim, and natural cedar pillars ceilings, and floors. It ties the garden space into the living space seamlessly, making the garden feel like an extension of our home.
Add layers of interest and texture. In addition to our garden beds, we incorporated several containers in various sizes and textures throughout the space. I added several terra cotta pots which I find to be timeless; a striking contrast to the green foliage of the plants and black backdrop of the beds. Then, I added galvanized buckets, metal stock tanks, and other vintage metal containers in different sizes and shapes to incorporate a different material element and to add character, create balance, and add elements of interest to your garden space.
Guide the way. Create pathways or small walking paths to guide your visitor’s steps. I’ve seen this done in several creative ways, including wood rounds, stone slabs, and garden bricks laid out in pretty designs, to name a few. But for us, a simple clean gravel was chosen to keep the mud at bay and withstand the elements of our very wet Pacific Northwest springs. We did this by first laying a layer of landscape fabric over the entire surface area of land along with edging around the perimeter to contain the gravel. Then we covered the entire garden ground with gravel 2”-3” deep. This method of ground cover has done an amazing job at draining precipitation and completely eliminating mud from our garden pathways, and ultimately our guests’ shoes.
Add vertical height. Incorporate trellises to add vertical height, texture, and visual interest to your garden while providing structure for your vining and trailing plants. We installed wire arches made from 4’x16’ utility panels (each square is 4”x4”) that can be purchased at most local feed stores or co-ops. They can be adjusted to any width or height with a reciprocating saw to fit between your garden beds or to arch at the front of a patio space to create an entrance. Trellises are perfect for climbing plants like sweet pea, nasturtium, clematis, climbing rose, runner bean, snow pea, luffa, even squash and some pumpkins.
Create a resting destination. Consider adding furniture or a sitting area or eating space; a resting destination so-to-speak. A place to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labor. To read, journal, craft or visit with a loved one. To entertain the masses or just a welcome place to share coffee with a friend. To simply be. Or to busy worried hands or an anxious mind.
For the center of my garden, I had envisioned a long simple picnic-style table stretching across the space with chairs on both sides. For Mother's Day last year, my husband built it using the lumber we had left over from the original garden build and a quick sketch of my vision. Today, this table is a tranquil, peaceful space for coffee and cocktail hours, garden parties, homeschool classes, reading and sketching sessions, journaling, and picnic lunches. It also doubles as my potting bench for all the garden tasks that present themselves throughout the growing season.
Give time-worn pieces new life. Consider repurposing old houseware pieces, favorite garden-themed antique finds, or wooden furniture that no longer has a use in your home but still brings you joy. The weather-worn look they will acquire over time will add to the character and charm of the space and they will make wonderful conversation pieces when visitors wander the pathways.
I love antiques and old-world pieces and have enjoyed hunting for special pieces to repurpose in the garden. Old benches, chairs and stools make charming plant stands. And old milk crates, rusty buckets, and cracked plaster bird baths make lovely vessels. Not to mention, the cracks and rust holes are built in drainage systems!
Most recently, I came across an old pair of rubber wellies that my kids had all outgrown. They were well-loved and I couldn’t bear to part with them so I gave them new life as vessels for my flowers! I placed two smaller glass jars inside each boot and filled them with water for cut flowers that didn’t make it into an arrangement or whose stem broke when harvesting. Alternatively, you could nail a couple holes in the bottom (if holes from wear don’t already exist) and fill them with soil to hold next year’s annuals. I am daydreaming of violas cascading down the sides!
Grow what you love most. It is important to fill your garden beds with the plants that bring you the most joy. When I first started gardening, I grew so many vegetables and, well, it completely bored me. My heart just wasn’t in it. But each year, I found myself sowing less and less vegetable seeds and significantly more varieties of herb and flower seeds. Before long, herbs and flowers became 95% of the botanicals that filled my garden. And my heart was so full. When choosing your plants, consider what truly brings you the most joy and what can be used for a multitude of purposes.
Share the space with pollinators. If you prefer to grow vegetables, consider planting a handful of pollinator-friendly flowers and herbs to attract beneficial pollinators to your garden and provide fragrance and pops of color to engage all the senses. Not only will they pollinate your vegetable plants, but the butterflies and bumblebees fluttering around the space add a whimsical, natural beauty and ambiance to the space. It’s truly magical.
Consider intensive planting. Plant your seedlings in clusters rather than rows and intermingle them throughout the beds and containers to create visual interest and a French kitchen garden (potager) style. Don’t be afraid to pack the beds a bit more densely than you would if you were growing in rows, giving them only the bare minimum space they need to grow and thrive (which is generally a few inches less than what is recommended on the back of the seed pack.) I began using this growing style, called intensive planting, a couple years ago and I’ll never go back. With intensive planting, I have found that I water less, weed less, and harvest more. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather harvest than weed any day! And, frankly, I love walking my garden in August to find my flowers and herbs completely covering all the soil and overflowing out of their beds, often cascading down the sides. To me, that is garden perfection!
Incorporate lighting. We have two primary light sources in our garden. The first are outdoor solar Edison string lights that border the entire garden space. Second, we have outdoor solar wall lighting attached to the outside of the beds about a foot above the ground, lighting the main pathways between the beds. As the sun sets, the lights come on and light up the garden for evening garden parties, nightcaps, or last-minute harvesting.
Don’t forget the hygge. Incorporate hygge elements such as cozy chair cushions, outdoor throw pillows on the benches, candles, table clothes, lanterns and other details that highlight your own personal style while providing ambiance and usefulness at the same time.
And with that I leave you and your imagination to it. May these ideas inspire you to create an outdoor gathering space in whatever area is available to you. A space where the world slows down and time drifts away. A place you may invite your loved ones to enjoy with you. To slow down with you. To break bread with you. Where you swap your phone for a good book and social media for real life face-to-face connection.
As you begin to design your space, think of it as you would a living room in your home. There’s an entryway, a sitting area, meaningful pieces adorning the walls and tabletops that are unique to you and your story. You won’t regret it, I promise.
Disclaimer: This article may contain affiliate links. Cedar House Living LLC receives a small commission for sales generated through these links at no additional cost to you. I use the commissions to further expand my garden, floral, and herbal knowledge so I can continue to share what I learn with you.