Well Dressed Garden: Benches to anchor your outdoor spaces

Marty Ross
Special to The Detroit News
A bench painted just the right shade of green is tucked in between a couple of boxwoods in this shade garden. Stepping stones lead the way to the bench -- and support the legs in the mulched bed.

Great patio furniture makes your garden a delightful place to gather with friends. A garden bench is altogether different: A well-chosen, well-placed bench gives you a place all for yourself.

        A garden bench is a finishing touch, like a feather in a hat, that completes a landscape. Benches help define spaces in a garden and complement its style. They offer irresistible destinations. Seen from the house, a bench beckons you outdoors. And once you're out there, a bench gives you the best of vantage points from which to admire the beauty around you, to rediscover your garden each day from a comfortable spot within its leafy embrace.

        Making a place for a garden bench introduces an element of art and architecture into your landscape. Benches refine nature in an informal garden, and, in a formal space, they complement neat lines and clipped shrubbery. A cheerful painted bench is a bright spot in the dappled light of a shade garden. A fine, natural wood bench, aged to a soothing silver, helps tone down the riot of color in an exuberant cottage garden.

        The earliest garden benches were nothing more than sturdy pieces of furniture brought outdoors for an afternoon in the sun, according to the late garden authority Rosemary Verey. Instead of having benches in the garden, most people borrowed from the house, or simply sat on the ground or on a low bank, Verey said, until the invention of the turf seat, which was basically a small raised bed planted with grass -- or, even better, with a fragrant herb such as thyme. Such benches would be a charming touch in an herb garden today, too, especially with an arch over the top, perhaps planted with morning glory or some other easy annual vine, to gracefully frame the space and provide a bit of shade.

        In her book "Classic Garden Design," Verey traced the development and use of garden benches through history, exploring styles, colors and materials. The ideas of the past provide all kinds of inspiration for modern garden benches, but copying them isn't necessary. Stone benches suited to the grand estates of the past may seem out of place in modern gardens of any style. The palatial proportions of benches at English estates are intimidating by today's standards, but the careful craftsmanship of these fine old benches will never go out of fashion. Verey liked durable iron benches, and she was particularly pleased with a curved bench her husband made for her.

The simple lines of a Leopold bench (named for its designer, the conservationist Aldo Leopold) fit anywhere in a garden, and it's small enough to move from one spot to another. Leopold made his bench with six pieces of lumber. You can find plans for the bench on the internet.

        Today, garden benches do not need to be grand to be great. A gardener in Annapolis, Maryland, chose large boulders to use as benches in his garden, complementing rustic fences that define the garden's rooms. A boulder in the rock garden looks as though it was placed there by nature, and sitting on its smooth surface for a few moments lets you better appreciate the intriguing plantings all around.

        A gardener in Virginia arranged two small benches facing each other in her courtyard, like a pair of sofas in a living room. The conversational placement takes perfect advantage of the proportions of the space.

        One of the best known of simple garden benches was designed by the conservationist Aldo Leopold, author of "A Sand County Almanac," for his weekend house in Wisconsin. Leopold sat on his bench, made with six pieces of standard lumber, every morning as he drank his morning coffee and listened to the birds. He took notes as he sat there planning his day, but he did not linger -- the utilitarian bench has beautiful lines, but it is not relaxing for long.

        There are no rules about where a bench should be placed, although a path to it is essential. It could be a final destination at the end of a long, meandering walk through a garden, or you may want to place a bench halfway into your garden, to entice you just far enough away from the house to escape for a moment of fresh air. It could be notched right into a flower bed somewhere along the way, where you can savor the flowers and fragrance. Or be practical: A bench beside the back door becomes a place to park tools or to change in and out of your garden shoes. A bench by the front door welcomes visitors and invites neighborly conversation.

        Above all, a garden bench is a sign of good intentions. There's a chance you will not sit on it very often, or for very long, but just knowing it is there, ready for you when you find a moment, makes you feel connected to the garden. It's your reserved seat in nature.

A bench just beside the back door comes in handy when you're changing into and out of garden shoes. Bins under the bench are a good place to stash garden tools.