Forget battered benches and sagging chairs, now you can furnish your garden as smartly as your home
Before you race outside into the garden at the first sign of sunny weather, make sure you have the right furniture for lounging around or for the more ambitious business of outdoor meals. Skinny and sleek or chunky and robust, the latest designs come in myriad materials, with everything from stalwart teak and chunky iron to delicate wire and new synthetic weaves. To make sure you choose the best style for your outdoor space, our no-nonsense guide is packed with all the information you'll need...
Before you buy
Who, what and where?
- Think about who will use your furniture and what for. Will it have to standup to children and pets? How long will you be spending in your garden? Do you want to eat family meals and/or entertain outside?
- Measure up your space, make a sketch and mark features such as paving, decking, walls, fences and flowerbeds. Leave space around your furniture for comfortable use, with room to get in and out of your home.
- For sunny spots, consider a built-in parasol/umbrella but make sure base fixings are rigid. Some loungers even have hooded shades.
- Avoid designs that are glaringly prominent. Wood fits in anywhere, particularly when weathered; metal in a dull, silvery finish is easy on the eye and stone also blends in well. As for colours, white looks fresh and bright, but dark green doesn't always fit in well with lots of grass or foliage.
- Stores such as Homebase, Argos, Woolworths and B&Q sell inexpensive styles in vivid colours. These can look good on patios and balconies, but could look out of place in gardens with colourful beds and borders.
Inside or out?
Do you want designs robust enough to leave outside all year round? A lot of casual, lightweight furniture is simply weather-resistant rather than weatherproof. It can cope with the odd shower but must come inside in winter, so make sure you have somewhere to store it. Some chairs stack rather than fold - useful for the corner of a patio/roof terrace. Protective covers made from weatherproof fabric are handy if you don't have winter storage space, but it is probably better to spend the extra cash on weatherproof furniture.
Wherever possible, try out chairs, benches and hammocks. Heavy styles incast iron and solid wood are less yielding than aluminium, synthetic mesh or woven chairs. Shaped wooden backs can be more comfortable that straight slats.
Try to buy from a good retailer who can give advice on how long furniture will last. Splashing out on something that's only good for a couple of years is bad for your bank balance and the environment.
Buy furniture to last as long as possible. Consider an old bench or table from a local salvage merchant (salvo.co.uk). Or build your own from recycled materials, such as cast-iron supports and railway sleepers.
Modern styles mix all kinds of different materials, so check with your supplier whether furniture is only weather-resistant or is fully weatherproof. For cutting-edge design in mixes of many materials, try Encompass (023 9241 0045 encompassco.com). The Conran Shop has a good selection of old and new classics (020 7589 7401 conranshop.com). Contrasting materials can also look good, such as metal furniture on timber decking.
Stone (for tabletops or supports) looks good outside but it is heavy and can stain. Try Architectural Stone Supplies (01565 830 707; architecturalstonesupplies.co.uk). Terrazo, with chips set in resin, is lighter. For recycled stone tables try Stone Age (01524 736 988; stonetables.co.uk).
Glass may be used for some tabletops - but always check that it is safety glass that will not shatter.
- Teak is one of the toughest woods available, making it a good choice for outdoor furniture. It is a close-grained hardwood with lots of natural oils, which help it to withstand rain, salt, sun and snow without rotting. When new, teak has a glaring, almost-orange colour, but this will weather to an attractive silver-grey within months. However, if you prefer the bright colour of the original wood, oil it on arrival, and then apply cleaner and preservative every season. Try Indian Ocean(020 8675 4808; indian-ocean.co.uk)or Patio Furniture (01726 817 587; patio-furniture.co.uk).
- Oak often comes from British woodlands and has a gentler feel than teak. For simple, solid designs, try Gaze Burvill (020 7471 8500 gazeburvill.com). Other hardwoods include eucalyptus - ask carefully about durability/maintenance.Try David Craig (0191 378 1211; davidcraig.co.uk) for FSC (ForestStewardship Council) certified English oak and ash - and Zambian hardwoods. Lutyens Designs offers garden benches made to the original designs of twentieth-century architect Edwin Lutyens and is run by his granddaughter(020 7978 2480; lutyens-furniture.com).
- Pine is used for less expensive FSC-approved designs, and can be easily shaped. Look for wood that's ‘tanalised' (pressure treated) to resist rot. Try Devon Garden Furniture (01769 560 223; devongardenfurniture.co.uk). More rustic-looking styles can be made from small logs - try The Garden Furniture Centre (01564 793 652; gardenfurniturecentre.co.uk).
- Ask suppliers of wood furniture whether it comes from properly managed forests. These may have FSC approval, and/or they may be approved by local governments. The FSC website (fsc-uk.org) lists 17 approved suppliers, ranging from stores like B&Q and Focus, to local carpenters and saw mills.
Steel (an alloy of iron and carbon) is very strong and can be lightweight - but it will rust unless treated. Galvanising (a zinc coating) shields steel against the weather, and an epoxy coating (clear or coloured) will give extra protection. Powder-coating, baked on at high temperatures, is another protective coloured finish. Metal-framed furniture is often combined with sleek, synthetic, fabric-mesh seats. These designs are thin and elegant, with a little ‘give' that makes them more comfortable than solid wood. Try Holloways (01886 884665; holloways.co.uk).
Stainless steel is usually rust-free, but to avoid corrosion in salty conditions, choose stainless steel which has been electro-polished with a smooth surface that's less porous. Try Alexander Rose (01444 258 928;alexander-rose.co.uk).
Aluminium (widely available) is very light and strong. Anodising will give a good resistance to corrosion and can also add colour. Cast aluminium designs have intricate shapes available in many finishes/colours, including verdigris.
Cast, wrought and forged iron is very heavy (and of course strong) but will rust unless protected. Try Michael Hill of Spalding (01775 840 925).
Wire (usually steel) can be turned into elegant shapes with a period feel. These can look attractive when weathered or even rusting, but may then stain clothes and table linen. Try Matthew Eden for wire work based on Regency originals (01249 713 335 mattheweden.co.uk), and look at Allweather & Tubbs (01308 425 252 allweatherandtubbs.co.uk) for a range of classic designs.
Plastic and synthetic
Cheap plastic garden furniture is lightweight and can blow over. It may get brittle over a period or time, and discolour and/or crack if it is knocked, or gets too hot.
Plastic used for more expensive furniture will be more solid. It should be UV-resistant to stop it from fading, and resistant to temperature change to prevent it from cracking. Check up on these points before buying. Look out for drainage holes in solid seats.
Plastics such as polyethylene are now being used with powder-coated aluminium frames for woven garden furniture that looks like cane. Styles are elegant and lightweight, soft and comfortable, and weather and fade-resistant. Try Gloster (01454 631 950; gloster.com) and also BarlowTyrie (01376 557 600; teak.com).
Synthetic waterproof fabrics for seats come in PVC-coated polyester yarns, which will not rot or fade - but shouldn't be left out in heavy rain.
Several manufacturers use recycled materials, including plastics and metals. Try Marmax Products (01207 283 442; marmaxproducts.co.uk) and Glasdon Manufacturing (01253 891 131; glasdon-manufacturing.co.uk).
Looking after your garden furniture
- Get supplier's advice, carefully keeping any product tags.
- Tilt wooden furniture over in winter, and keep feet off wet ground.
- Test all cleaning methods on undersides.
- Take care that pressure hoses do not mark wooden furniture and harm metal finishes.
- Mop up spills as they happen.
- Wash down wooden furniture with warm soapy water and rinse off - open grains can trap dirt. Use a soft brush to remove any green mould.
- Inspect metal frames regularly for rust. Remove any loose material and apply rust-resisting paint.
- Oil any joints as necessary.
- Clean synthetic fabrics with water and soap, rinse well, and wipe dry - don't use scouring powders or solvents.
- Before you use your furniture for the first time in spring, check seats are clean so they don't stain light-coloured clothes. Lightly scrub and rinse wood if necessary.
- Think of your furniture as part of your overall garden scheme - shops and garden centres with a landscape service can help with this.
- Consider delivery access for large items - narrow side alleys and garden gates can be constricting.
- Synthetic mesh seats should have a tension device to stop them sagging over a period of time.
- Look for mortise and tenon dowelled joints in wooden furniture as a mark of quality.
- Stainless steel and brass fittings will not rust.
- Always make sure that furniture is dry before storing for the winter.
- Protective covers for winter use can keep furniture looking newer, but these tend to look ugly and may stop you using furniture on warmer winterdays.
- Metal furniture on paving stones can make an annoying clatter - some designs have ‘silencer' pads under their feet.
- Mini models for children are appealing - but will quickly be outgrown.
- A bench around a mature tree can add a romantic touch.
- Viewed from afar, furniture becomes sculpture - so think about shapes and where they might go.
- Take care that new furniture doesn't block off a favourite view.
- Circular tables tend to suit square patios or lawns.
- Folding compact furniture is great for picnics in the country or on the beach, but will it fit in your car?
Top and bottom pictures: www.redhotplancha.com, Red Hot Plancha, 01527 404 226
Second picture: Elizabeth Zeschin
Third image: Mel Yates
Forth image: Edina Van der Wyck
Words: Barbara Chandler