We add finishing touches to our interiors using flowers, ornaments, sculptures, and other collectible items. But what about the exterior spaces of your home? There are lots of ways we can add finishing touches to our backyards and gardens.
Typical outdoor elements that we can use as finishing touches include statuary, topiary, and a selection of well-chosen containers. Perhaps you’d like to position a sundial, a bird bath, and a fountain, all in focal positions. All of these will add character.
Seating can also inject an element of originality, while lighting, imaginatively planned, will give the garden a distinctive night-time personality.
On the more lavish property, the whimsical appeal of a folly will provide a talking point. As finishing touches you might consider either treillage or a painted trompe l’oeil, which will add a fascinating dimension to what might otherwise be an ordinary even a dull space.
A boundary wall can be effectively decorated to introduce a hint of illusory charm. For instance, you can stencil flowers or, if you have well-developed artistic talents, a realistic landscape of fields, trees, or even painted topiary bushes. If you have a patio that is covered by a lush vine in summer, but which becomes bare and desolate in winter, think about a little painted greenery (perhaps with a few butterflies and bees) to introduce a seasonal color – and just a bit of wit – to the scene.
Benches and Seats
Outdoor seating has an essentially practical purpose, but it can also be a beautifully decorative and distinctive feature, enhancing the attractiveness of the garden as a whole. It will also invite people to sit, relax, and generally absorb the universal pleasures of nature in quietness.
It is important that any bench or seat placed in the garden should look as if it is meant to be there (even temporary seating should suggest permanence). It should also be thoughtfully positioned to take advantage of the best aspect or view and complement the overall garden plan.
The type of seating chosen should, like all other forms of ornamentation, blend with the other materials used in the garden. The style, too, should be in keeping with the general design. For example, a precast concrete bench, left to collect mossy growth in cracks and crevices, will enhance most informal gardens. Similarly, an elaborate, filigree cast-iron design will look well in an outdoor space created in the Victorian genre. But any elaborate finishing touches will be quite out of place in a simple Japanese garden and in most Mediterranean-style exteriors.
Finishing Touches – Containers
Tubs, pots, barrels, and window boxes planted with lush foliage, or colorful annuals or perennials, will brighten up dull, unattractive corners and bare spots. If you place these on either side of the front door, they serve to make an opening statement. Put them along a verandah and they will add life and help create atmosphere. Sensitively arranged on the patio, containers will have a softening effect and lend extra color and texture to the area. If the container itself is appealing, it may itself provide a striking focal point and become a finishing touch in its own right.
Plain but pretty, a terracotta pot makes a statement. Photo © Janek Szymanowski
The type and color of a container must of course be compatible with its surroundings. For instance, while terracotta pots will be appropriate to most gardens, especially those of the Mediterranean type, the ornately molded variety will not be well suited to a simple Japanese-style exterior.
And the container must be compatible with its contents. Consider color, shape, and the eventual size and height of the plants you intend to pot. Use a good quality potting soil (even if you are transplanting directly from a bag), and ensure there is sufficient drainage for the species you select.
For finishing touches, there are many plants that thrive in containers (though some of them need less care than others). Some favorites include fuchsias, begonias, petunias, and geraniums. Geraniums, which belong to the Pelargonium family, originated in the Western Cape region of South Africa, and are now found in window boxes and pots all over the world.
Choice of container is largely a personal matter. There are numerous concrete, terracotta, and fiber-cement varieties available in many shapes and patterns, both simple and elaborate, to suit every taste. There are also many ceramic pots on the market too. Some are mass-produced, others handcrafted, and of course, there is also an abundance of plastic pots, both standing and designed (in imitation of the Victorian basket) for hanging.
African clay pots make excellent receptacles for plants, but they are porous and will eventually deteriorate from exposure to constant moisture.
If your preference is for the more unusual, look around for receptacles that can be recycled and adapted for backyard purposes. Old troughs, cisterns, and sinks make surprisingly effective containers, particularly for succulents and alpine plants. Used wooden wine barrels are a popular choice, well suited to the Cape Dutch or farmhouse look. Additionally, obsolete chimney pots, tin watering cans no longer in use, ball-and-claw baths, and worn, rusted wheelbarrows will all introduce an attractively whimsical element into your yard as finishing touches.
While containers are often at their most effective when grouped together, it is not wise to mix the different styles. Be aware that if you mix looks and styles you may produce an unsettling discordance.
The idea of a costly but useless, often monumental folly in the garden is one that enjoyed its heyday in 18th-century Britain. In those days, everything from caves to pyramids and ruined buildings were found in larger private gardens. However, ‘temples’ (designed for contemplation rather than prayer) and simulated ruins were also popular among the aristocracy a century earlier. This was when early landscape designers aimed to contrive an atmosphere of poignant melancholy with outrageous flights of fancy.
During the latter part of the 19th century, follies (and temples for that matter) again became popular. This time around, they were used in a more lighthearted and creative way. While reproductions of Classical models remained fashionable enough, Victorian designers and wealthy landowners did their utmost to introduce some originality, forfeiting the historical symbolism for visual witticism on a grand scale.
Today, it is only the more affluent homeowner who can even consider a folly of the orthodox kind. But the idea can be adapted for more modest circumstances. Here, fragments rather than grand edifices create the desired impression. For example, a broken capital from a Classical-style column (the type freely available from many concrete works) stuck in the ground and covered with ivy, will suggest a folly. Or, if you are a handyman with some bricklaying experience, you could build a modern folly – a ruin in the best tradition. All you will need are scraps salvaged from a demolition yard.
Plant the surrounding area with wild flowers, without worrying too much about weeds. As mentioned, though, this type of feature would only be appropriate for the larger property.
Lamps and Lanterns
Garden lighting has practical value, but lamps and lanterns can also be highly decorative as well as being good-looking finishing touches. Moreover, they will also enhance the style you wish to create. Stone lanterns will fit the Japanese theme while hurricane lamps are perfect for the Victorian-style patio.
If your permanent lighting is strictly functional, take advantage of decorative portable units – especially on special occasions.
Ornaments as Finishing Touches
Ornamentation is just as important outside the house as it is inside, although, of course, you will display fewer individual items. The selection of yard ornaments ranges from statues of all sizes and styles, sculptures, and sundials to urns, birdcages, and all types of wall plaques.
The need for good taste cannot be stressed strongly enough when it comes to garden ornamentation. Too much of what is available will look messy, vulgar, ostentatious, or otherwise at odds with the style of the house. But again, these finishing touches will be intensely personal.
It is also important to choose the right spot for any ornamental feature. A sundial or concrete birdbath, for example, will successfully become the focal point if placed at the end of a formal walkway or where several paths meet. Remember, too, that some objects will look better grouped than individually and randomly placed.
Garden statues certainly draw attention, especially if they are large and prominently positioned. But few properties can comfortably accommodate them. Indeed, one body of opinion would have statuary of any kind restricted to public parks and stately properties! Garden gnomes, so popular in certain types of a suburban area, are now almost universally derided.
Nevertheless, scaled-down sculpture of some artistic merit can be effective if well placed, with shrubs and flowers sympathetically established around it, even partially hiding it. Precast statues in classical styles are widely available and they introduce finishing touches in a myriad of styles.
Many artists and craftsmen are turning out original works in a wide assortment of materials, including stone, wood, metal and clay. Many of these will enhance and lend distinction to even the smallest backyard.
Urns and Vases
Other smaller ornaments, including elegant urns and vases, may be placed on a pedestal or plinth. Even very ordinary painted concrete containers can be most effective. While these were traditionally used on the tops of pillars flanking an exterior staircase, they look just as attractive at each end of a wall, on the patio, or among foliage plants. Exercise restraint when you plant them, ensuring that leaves and flowers do not engulf the receptacle.
Even though they no longer have a practical use, sundials are a popular ornament, even for modern surrounds – in a formal rose or herb garden, for instance. Traditional instruments are commonly reproduced, although often to a smaller scale.
The basic elements of a sundial are the supporting pedestal, the dial itself, and a triangular plate or gnomon. The way these are assembled, however, varies from the reasonably ordinary, set on a brick pillar, to the elaborate. If elaborate, it will usually incorporate an ornate sculptured base and a brass dial.
To be visually effective, the sundial should – even if you never use it to tell the time – be placed in an open spot, free from shadows. It will simply look more credible.
Certain of these ornamental items – including some types of sundials, plaques, panels, and so on may also be wall-mounted. Mounted spouting fountains are ideal for the smaller patio or courtyard.
An alternative to relief decoration is to incorporate recessed niches and alcoves in a new wall and to place an urn or statue inside.
An ancient art that goes back to the Romans, topiary is not widely practiced today. However, it is an ornamental form worth considering if you have the time and the space and are prepared to put the effort into clipping and training plants into specific shapes. Only certain species are suitable, and it takes years and years to achieve the desired effect but, with patience, just about any shape may be achieved with topiary – geometric, round, or oval forms, even animals and birds.
Many might say this is a way of introducing the most intriguing and original finishing touches.
Fairly simple topiary features may literally be sculpted, by clipping. More complicated outlines will require a wire framework around which the plant is trained. When choosing a design, consider the maintenance factor. Features with numerous curved features will be more time-consuming than those with straight sides. Knot gardens, which had their heyday in the 16th century, are also created by pinching out shoots and clipping plants into decorative hedges.
The common box, Buxus sempervirens, English yew, Taxas baccata, and privet, Ligustrum japonicum, are traditional favorites for topiary, though certain shrubby honeysuckle plants, Lonicera nitida for instance, holly, llex spp. and the sweet bay, Laurus nobilis, which is a particularly easy-to-grow evergreen tree, are just as suitable.
Individual plants may be used, or you can convert an existing hedge, clipping the top portion and retaining the lower bushes as a plinth.
The classic water garden – which incorporates larger pools, streams, waterfalls, and so on – tends to be an expansive and elaborate affair. Smaller decorative water features, however, may be introduced in isolation adding charm to the tiniest garden or patio area. These include precast fountains, spurting heads, and bird baths, all of which, but especially those in courtyards and on secluded patios will add character and charm to the outdoor area.
Where there is borehole water, a well may be built for both practical purposes and as an attractive feature in itself. Alternatively, consider an ornamental wishing well, which, like many other decorative elements, may either be located in a prominently visible position – where two paths intersect or in a formal rose garden, for example – or in a secluded part of the yard.