How to create the perfect outdoor sanctuary in your garden

Is a cool outdoor sanctuary top of your wish list this summer? Author and stylist Sara Bird’s new book showcases some stunning, soulful gardens.

Aa summer looms and the weather gets warmer, it’s not just our wardrobes that require a seasonal makeover – our gardens need updating, too. And if you love al fresco entertaining, it’s time to let nature have a say in how your garden is dressed.

‘A more relaxed, sustainable, eco-friendly ethos can be at the heart of creating an enchanting outdoor sanctuary,’ says stylist Sara Bird, who has captured some of the nation’s coolest gardens in her book Gardens For The Soul, with photographer Dan Duchars.

‘They are somewhere wonderful to share and offer us an immediate biophilic connection to the natural world, as well as being a captivating extension of
our homes.’

We asked Sara to share three gardens to inspire your own outdoor space, whatever the size or location…

Sarah Clark’s pair of cosy suburban bijou courtyards


Scale-enhancing mirrors and lighting cleverly open up and brighten both these cosy courtyard areas, which are also inspired by wild, untamed planting to appeal to wildlife.

‘One of the benefits of having smaller, more enclosed outdoor spaces is that you can fill it with lush greenery and scented flowers,’ Sara says.

‘By enveloping the rear terrace in clever vertical planting, Sarah has used the walls as much as the floors to soften the hard landscaping. A once-bare wall in the rear courtyard is now covered with greenery and festoon lights.

Trellises support the creepers on the parallel house wall and a staged planter space on the enclosed balcony above helps to draw the eye upwards.

‘Plants and colours have been chosen to have a calming and relaxing effect, and to connect the family to the seasons.

Sarah has also tapped into the soothing potential of sound, with gentle tinkles and swishes from chimes and leafy boughs. An abundance of twinkling candlelight and hanging lanterns hidden in the foliage and the warm glow of flames in the firepit complete the scene.

‘Using feeders, the space is just as enticing for all manner of wildlife – a suburban oasis for all, this garden is a gorgeous small-scale crowd-pleaser.’

Designer Abigail Ahern’s sun-dappled secret city haven


Abigail Ahern’s garden is the most beautiful of green spaces – an exquisitely nurtured hidden haven, sheltering behind boundary walls and under handsome tree canopies. ‘It is a striking and scenic urban landscape for friends and family to delight in,’ says Sara.

The garden’s gradual transformation was influenced by Abigail’s many travels, from lush tropics to mountainous peaks. ‘The engaging greenery she encountered abroad has found its path back to her own outdoor space, where swaying bamboo mingles with feathery ferns and trailing ivy. It is an incredibly restorative and soothing garden to spend time in.’

And it’s this uplifting, moving and sensory aspect that is most appreciated by Abigail and all who enter this secret, soulful setting.

‘The rustling of foliage resonates around the garden, amplified by the closed-in nature of the planting, while favourite scented herbs and flowers fill the air with clarifying and cleansing fragrance. It is a positive and welcoming space in which life’s stresses and concerns ebb away,’ adds Sara.

Abigail’s design background clearly plays a role in her confident use of colour. ‘The palette of greenery ranges from softly bleached foreground leaves to deeper black-greens in the shadows. These shades are mirrored in her choice of furniture, fixtures and materials.’

The garden has been designed to be used all year round with many internal fittings installed outside so it feels like an indoor space. Sara adds: ‘Walls are dressed with decorative displays, a chandelier hangs from a tree canopy “ceiling” and the furniture is pleasingly textured.

‘Heating and lighting have been integrated to cater for the seasons, with a cosy fireplace and sociable firepit dressed with chandeliers, pendants and underplant lamps, festoon and string lights and a host of candles and lanterns.

‘A cabin towards the rear – found via eBay at an unbelievably low price and painted black – acts as a bijou outdoor studio for Abigail. The garden is a great outdoor entertaining space, with many places to hide or hole up in.’

Wildlife is welcome here, too. ‘Birds and mini beasts visiting the garden discover a welcome urban refuge among the ample greenery, much to the excitement of Abigail’s pet dogs.

Observing the rhythms of nature has resulted in a harmonious and biodiverse habitat in this garden, in spite of its city setting.’

Holiday vibes in Kate and Simon Revere’s fun garden


Colourful and eclectic, an abundance of fun elements can be found around every corner of this surprising garden. Kate’s more-is-more approach is inspired by fashion, interiors and high days and holidays. A pair of flamingos, found in a vintage shop, take pride of place.

‘Kate and Simon started with a “no plan” plan which evolved as they embraced accidental discoveries and casually collected items – a tile here and a piece of furniture there,’ says Sara.

The couple wanted a seating space near the back door, so this area was dug out to create an outdoor living and dining room. ‘Patterned floor tiles establish a link back to the kitchen. The surrounding fence is made from western red cedar, one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly construction materials.

‘The raised borders, built using painted and rendered cinder blocks, were initially planned to be lower, but their design was revised so as not to waste any excess soil.

Their bold yellow hue, inspired by a trip to Marrakech, brings a holiday ambience to what is now called the Ibiza Zone. A blend of vintage and contemporary styles – the sofa is covered with brightly patterned cloths and cushions from Kate’s shop, Revere The Residence.

There’s a nod to a party theme with a disco ball hiding in the border planters.

A vibrant jungle atmosphere is at the heart of the lower-level seating area, thanks to tall tree ferns and palms in oversized planters and bespoke large raised beds.

With plenty of soil, shelter and support, these tropical plants are able to care for themselves and save on water while providing a lush tree canopy for the family to sit under.

In the Vintage Garden area are a set of heavy antique benches bought in Paris. ‘Bordered by old railway sleepers/railroad ties and featuring plants from Kate and Simon’s childhood homes, this area has great sentimental value,’ says Sara.

Gardens For The Soul by Sara Bird and Dan Duchars, published by Ryland Peters & Small, is available to buy now for £25 from Waterstones.

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