Let's go outside... Transform the neglected outdoor living space into a welcoming haven for you and the wildlife
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It's the time of year when I look out my window and despair. Outdoor living is all about planning and I haven't done any. Now, it's midsummer. Having neglected the garden all year, I would like to transform it into a haven of leafy loveliness, but nothing short of a magic wand could turn it into a place where you'd want to linger.
"Hire someone to sort it out," mutters Marianne Shillingford under her breath. Then she flips into professional mode and talks me through her garden rescue package. Shillingford is the creative director of Cuprinol and she'd make a wonderful fairy godmother (with a paintbrush instead of a magic wand).
"Painting is easy," she says. "It's the cleaning and prepping that breaks people's hearts. Cuprinol's Garden Shades range is water-based and it's dry within an hour. You don't need an undercoat, but you do need clean dry wood."
Her advice is to power-hose and scrub or sand the surfaces one weekend and paint the next. Cuprinol makes woodcare products, largely associated with practical but unsexy DIY. Because of that image, the brand probably doesn't get due credit for the excellent colour range of its Garden Shades (€14.76 for 2.5 litres), designed for garden sheds, fences, decking and outdoor furniture.
For garden fencing, she suggests that you paint the bottom two-thirds of the fence in a very deep colour. "It will make the most of the foliage and hide a multitude in terms of dirt." The top section can be painted in a paler version of the same shade. "But remember to paint the top part first," she says. "Because of drips."
Another trick is to buy two window boxes and clamp them to each end of a garden table. Leave the table in neutral wood but paint the boxes in terracotta orange with a connecting stripe down the middle of the table. Then plant the boxes with herbs and salad greens.
With the environmental crisis at the top of most people's minds, growing things that you can eat is very zeitgeisty. We may have to do more of that in the future. So too is rewilding the garden, which basically means planting for insects and butterflies, and not doing too much weeding. "The garden is the last untapped room of the house," she says. "It can be a haven for you and the wildlife - a place to think, or dream or play - but it can also be a place where you can express your individuality. We don't need to please the neighbours anymore. We need a garden to be good for the soul." This sounds a little bit like she's reciting it from a paint catalogue - and maybe she is - but there's truth in it as well.
In terms of colour, the trend for painting everything in highly saturated brights has passed. "I once saw a deck that was painted yellow," Shillingford says with a shudder. "It was a pretty gruesome piece of kit, with a raised seating area in beach-blue.
The owner had seen those colours together in Morocco and she wanted to replicate the look at home. It looked horrific. If you want to use bright colours, think about the landscape and take your palette from what's already there."
To get a suitable balance, she recommends that you paint the larger elements of the outdoor space in neutrals taken from nature. "My favourite in the Garden Shades range is Holly. It's an invisible green, almost black, and even the weeds look good against it." Then, for bright elements, use the colours that nature uses more sparingly. I like Cuprinol's Rhubarb Compote, but then I have a dreadful habit of buying paint because I like the name.
With the outdoor space painted to within an inch of its life, the next step is to make it comfortable. I asked Anne Marie Boyhan, interiors blogger, for her advice on transforming a neglected garden. "You need to bring the inside out," she says. At first I think this is just an annoying platitude, but she actually means it literally. If you're entertaining, bring the living room sofa into the garden. And the rug. And the side tables. This is a brilliant idea. If it rains, you're going to have to run for it anyway. Carrying the furniture with you will only add to the fun. Another low cost option is to use wooden palettes. While these can make for splintery seating, they work well as low tables for garden parties. "I've seen them laid directly on the grass, with people sitting around them on rugs, Moroccan style."
Then, layer the lighting. "You need outdoor string lights," Boyhan explains. "They're industrial-looking with the light bulb on show." A string of 20 solar-powered Festoon lights from Marks & Spencer costs €20 and can be clustered in a corner or strung along the top of a fence. Lanterns, placed at intervals along the ground, can be lit with tea lights or battery powered candles.
"The metal ones look fantastic and they don't have to match." The flame coloured Carolyn Donnelly Eclectic Cut Out Lantern (€20) is made in ceramic and will probably last. The paper lanterns in the same range (€10 per pair) probably won't, but they're very pretty. Both can be found at Dunnes.
If you want to buy outdoor furniture, leaving it to the last minute isn't necessarily such a bad plan. A lot of retailers begin their sales at the end of June and there may be bargains.
Boyhan favours plain furniture - you can bring in colour with cushions and tableware - and likes the selection at JYSK. The Danish brand opened in Naas this April and three more stores will open in Drogheda, Navan, and Portlaoise over the summer.
"It's like Ikea, only different," she says. Currently, garden sets at JYSK cost between €305 and €849 with many hovering under €500.
"For smaller spaces, like balconies, you're better off with a bistro set." A set of two metal bistro chairs and a table from Meadows & Byrne costs €129. They're pretty, but no bistro set is designed for long term comfort. Prepare to cushion up.
See cuprinol.ie, marksandspencer.com, jysk.ie, meadowsandbyrne.com and dunnesstores.com.
For Anne Marie Boyhan, see @whatshewears.