Garden designer Mirabel Osler once asked, "What gardener worth his salt sits down?" But a garden bench isn't only somewhere to sit – it can be a focal point, a design statement or a place to store tools. A bench provides the perfect excuse to pause and take stock of a job well done. It also adds the finishing touch, so some thought on how a bench fits your garden's style and atmosphere pays dividends.
The right site is important, too. In smaller gardens, that's often the patio, so the bench can be used for relaxation and socialising, as well as being the place to take in the view. The patio also provides a level, dry surface – great for encouraging use all year. Elsewhere, paving stones or a well-tamped gravel bed provide a good, dry placement – needed for wooden benches to avoid rotting feet.
If your garden has water, a seat nearby makes use of the sounds and tranquillity on offer. Lavender, herbs or a rose over a seated arbour will surround the bench with scent. Swishy grasses provide an audible and tactile lift. Scented and nectar-rich plants attract wildlife, too, great for observation close at hand. On paving or gravel, cluster pots around the bench. Or place a bench among your favourite foliage, to create a surprise hideaway.
Whatever your budget, seek out the best in the price range. Local auctions and salvage yards mean a more individual piece may be found at an affordable price. Wood recycling projects often offer a bespoke service, such as a tailor-made bench to fit around a particular tree.
If you already have a bench that's in need of a little love, painting is a fun way to personalise it, to add a designer touch or simply to make it look new again. White or cream is soothing, while black merges with the background and provides a surprise discovery. Blue adds distance – useful for small gardens – while red brings a bench closer and contrasts with greenery. Bright colours provide contrast and a contemporary feel.
In smaller gardens, everything needs to earn its keep, so a choice with more than one function is valuable. This could be a bench that doubles as storage or sits between planters or a decorative arch. One with wheels can be moved around easily.
Try before you buy. Some designs that are pleasing to the eye may not be practical or comfortable for extended use, such as reading. Look for a seat height of around 45cm, which is comfortable for sitting, with a similar allowance for depth if the bench has a back support. The angle between back support and seat should be 85-105 degrees. Backless benches are often narrower in depth, around 30cm – great by a path where space may be an issue. Check the width, too, because many have room for only one or two people.
Article first appeared in the Guardian June 7th 2013