Terrace garden ideas are an essential tool for urban dwellers. For your terrace or patio is your one (usually quite small) opportunity to escape the urban environment and decompress. How it’s designed will dictate how you spend your time there - will your focus be on outdoor dining with friends, or enjoying the view, or spending time looking after your plants?
“Design it to align with your lifestyle,” advises the New York City-based landscape designer Todd Haiman. For those with roof terraces, Todd cautions against buying plants without first acquainting yourself with the load-bearing capacity of your terrace surface: “Plants and soil can be heavy.”
When considering your garden ideas, he advises investing in lightweight planters and plants that require minimal soil, in order to reduce the weight on a terrace surface. “If you live in a tall building, wind-loading is another issue to consider,” he adds. “Tall deciduous trees or columnar evergreens may need to be supported with guy wires to prevent being uprooted by strong winds.”
Whatever look appeals to you here, it’s useful to remember that these outdoor spaces are intended for unwinding. “We recommend you keep maintenance to a minimum,” says Todd, “so you can enjoy your time spent there.”
Terrace garden ideas
1. Create a nurturing cocoon
For this garden in New York City, the award-winning landscape architect and author of Designing a Vision Janice Parker (opens in new tab) wanted to harness nature’s protective qualities and create a space “that would engage us in an emotional way - a garden that is strong, and will hold you.”
The space, she adds, “was designed with the goal of privacy, peace, and softness – to balance the urban surroundings.” It doesn’t actually need to be a massive space, as this terrace amply demonstrates. Janice, based in Connecticut, worked with an eclectic plant palette to create “an expansive, moody, luminous design in a very limited space”.
The garden backdrop is made up of European Fastigiate Hornbeam trees, to which Janice added pops of color with Fastigiate and weeping Purple Beech Trees. And to soften and enclose the space, she added lush, vibrant tropical plants - for example, Australian tree ferns, pygmy date palms and chartreuse sweet potato vines.
When space is really tight but the client still wants garden furniture, Janice suggests considering hanging chairs. “This one, by Studio Stirling (opens in new tab), really works well in the space and allowed us to keep the valuable square footage for additional plantings.”
Plus, she adds, “It swivels so you could enjoy every angle of the garden while relaxing and taking in the space.”
2. CREATE AN OUTDOOR KITCHEN
Before New York City-based garden designer Amber Freda (opens in new tab) set to work on this Midtown Manhattan rooftop garden, it was really little more than a rooftop. It’s now a spectacular and space-efficient outdoor kitchen and dining area, beautifully brought together with continuous custom-built Ipe wood planters (which boast a 30-year life expectancy) around the perimeter of the terrace.
This Werever modular kitchen unit was chosen because it could be shipped in three separate pieces, which, explains Amber, “was easier to get in and out of tight Manhattan corridors and elevators than a single unit would have been.”
The countertop was added after the rest of the kitchen had been assembled, and, she adds, “helps create the look of a single, continuous piece”. Just out of sight to the right is a beautifully minimal gray-upholstered wrap-around sofa, and all around the edge of the roof terrace are cherry trees, boxwoods, Hollywood junipers, Thunderhead pines, and creeping Jenny.
“It’s nice to have a mix of evergreens, trees, and flowering plants combined together so that there is always something interesting to look at in every season,” she says.
3. Create a party terrace
What might your dream terrace include? A garden bar? Why not two bars? And make them strong enough to accommodate enthusiastic dancing. You’ll want a jacuzzi - an extra-large one, and an open-air shower. An outdoor kitchen, and a decked lounge area for chillaxing…
Well, in the heart of Clerkenwell, London’s design district, such a dream exists. It's designed by Nick Leith-Smith (opens in new tab), the award-winning British architect and long-term collaborator with Manolo Blahnik (Nick has designed dozens of his shops globally).
“The client brief was to transform an existing fifth-floor terrace into a spectacular entertaining space,” says Nick. The terrace is arranged over two levels - shown here, the upper level with the Jacuzzi, Ipe hardwood decking and integral seating, and the lower level, featuring the kitchen and dining area, all fitted with pale Portuguese limestone.
To create a beachy ambience, Nick combined whitewashed oak posts and stainless steel planters filled with bamboo, which provided additional privacy. “The canopy providing a shimmering privacy veil for the tub is made from the tiny stainless steel balls used in sink chains,” he explains (the shower curtain is also made from these chains - “In all, four miles of chains were used”).
And just in case you might be a bit tied up to get round to keeping the plants - ginger lilies, cordyline and melianthus - in their lush condition, Nick installed an automatic irrigation system.
4. Make a sculptural seat your focus
With limited space, and a minimalist brief, the landscape designer Beth Mullins, founder of San Francisco-based practice Growsgreen Landscape Design (opens in new tab), decided to create one main focus. As with many small garden ideas, it centered on practicality, and here, the bespoke wave-form bench - working everything else around that.
The curvilinear floating seating is made from cedar beams, while the concrete back support doubles up as a planter wall to house some tree Aloes. “The key to this space is to leave a bit of open ground plain, which creates some negative space in the garden so the eye can rest,” Beth explains. “Then I balanced that with the sculptural elements - the bench, the tree Aloes, succulents and grasses.” The repetition of forms and plants, she adds, “makes the space feel cohesive and not cluttered. Also many of the plants have similar green tones and some lighter green grays so that helps keep it light.”
5. Create privacy with a trellis
City life is necessarily cheek by jowl. The New York City-based architect Lynn Gaffney (opens in new tab) came up with a unique solution for her clients who lived in Chelsea, Manhattan. Their roof terrace was located on top of a nine-storey residential loft building, surrounded by noisy manufacturing lofts.
The clients wanted to have acoustic barriers from the nearby commercial warehouse fans, as well as create a space that would be safe for their cats. The resulting design - two overhead trellises inspired by archetypal New York Water tanks (one of which overlooks the terrace) - doesn’t just deliver on acoustic protection; it also offers shade, seclusion, and a framework for foliage.
Like many of the best garden fencing ideas, the trellises encouraged vines and crawling plants, which were set in pots of various sizes, and cast beautiful dappled and geometric shapes onto the space. The custom-built bench doubled up as a planter, and with the Japanese maple in the corner, the result is a well-judged leafy terrace that is not at all crowded.
6. Complement the urban landscape
The location of this penthouse, in a historic Art Deco building right on Miami’s South Beach, with views of the ocean to the east and the city of Miami to the west, might be hard to top. But, says Damir Sinovcic, principal of Miami-based Liquid Design and Architecture (opens in new tab) and the architect tasked with designing the roof terrace, it also presented its challenges.
First, any new construction had to be invisible from key view corridors because of its Art Deco location. The result is a terrace that complements and echoes the architectural view beyond: “The interesting rooflines and other architectural features of our building and other neighboring structures all had an impact on the design,” he says. Exposure was also a major issue - before Damir started the project, the spot was “inhospitable due to its exposure to the hot, humid and often blustery weather in South Florida," he says.
Damir created two shade-giving “cabanas”, one featuring an outdoor kitchen with a large granite kitchen island, the other (out of sight here) offering comfortable seating and an outdoor TV and sound system.
Between them is decking and a table for al fresco dining. The plants, Damir explains, “had to be resilient in order to thrive - we added a hardy Clusia hedge where privacy screening was needed, and a few palms in movable planters to reinforce the tropical ambience. The rest of the terrace was intentionally left open to preserve views in all directions.”
7. Fill the view with natural elements
When our eyes are treated to an unfettered view of nature, our shoulders instantly relax and our breath slows. The acclaimed garden designer and founder of Garden Club London (opens in new tab) Tony Woods sees no reason why city-dwellers’ gardens shouldn’t achieve this effect too.
Having grown up in the Cumbrian countryside, Tony’s plant-focused garden design and emphasis on soft - as opposed to hard - landscaping is about striving to bring that rural feel to urban landscaping, while also giving a contemporary edge to city garden design. In this award-winning garden, Tony built wooden decking on three planes, using sustainably grown cedar fence batons for the tall walls, and for the decking, he used locally sourced old scaffolding boards.
The multi-stemmed Betula trees give dappled shade to the exposed terrace and are wind-tolerant. “This terrace is designed to create privacy, attract wildlife, pollinators and create biodiversity in the urban environment,” says Tony. “There’s an atmosphere of stepping into a country garden with herbs, foxgloves and soft fruit, such as raspberries spilling into the flower beds.”
8. Use a beautiful screen for storage
All outdoor space attracts paraphernalia that can blight one's view - be it kids’ toys, gardening equipment, exercise apparatus, etc. And when your terrace or patio is tight on space, sometimes those items just pile up, ruining all your hard work. The London-based garden designer Georgia Lindsay (opens in new tab) designed these two fretwork screens featuring abstract trees for her clients to store their bikes.
“We all need screening of some sort in our gardens - it might be for privacy, to screen your compost pile or a storage area,” explains Georgia. “Here, the two decorative screens partition the rear of the garden allowing for concealed storage.” The bespoke screens were laser-cut to order by Decori (opens in new tab), a firm specializing in metal artwork for homes and gardens.
Screens are a perfect alliance of form and function - they not only conceal garden clutter but they also set the tone aesthetically. Plus, adds Georgia, “They can also be enhanced by garden lighting to create a dramatic effect in the evening.”
9. Make a feature of split-level terraces
With outdoor space at such a premium in city centers, you have to make do with the challenges presented. Even if, as was the case here, it does mean a significant level change right in the middle of it.
For the award-winning American garden designer Butter Wakefield (opens in new tab), this entailed creating a striking set of steps to unite the split-level patio at this end-of-terrace town house in Chelsea, London, in order to make a “cohesive and interesting union between the two levels,” she says.
It also entailed craning much of the supplies, furniture, trees and lead cistern up and over the house in order to be able to access the small city space. Using a planting palette of pale and darker pinks, whites and a bit of mauve and purple, Butter introduced lots of multi-seasonal pollinator-friendly planting, and scented climbers and roses such as R. Generous Gardener and R. Claire Austin.
She planted four multi-stem trees - Pittosporum tobira - which have glossy evergreen leaves and “wonderful, highly scented cream-coloured flowers”. “It is a great little tree for small spaces as it is very easy to prune and keep tidy and compact,” she says.
Despite being a narrow garden, the space is visually united by the brickwork - handmade in Belgium by Vande Moortel - throughout both levels, as well as the dividing wall, for which Butter fashioned lots of interesting pattern changes throughout. “We love their dark moody tone - they look particularly pleasing next to all shades of green, and work well with other materials, too.”
10. Create fantasy with a striking pattern
Perfectly tended lawns are an ambition too far for most roof terraces. But this stumbling block also creates an opportunity - laying artificial grass enables you to get much more creative than regular turf would ever allow for.
At this private villa in New Delhi, the architectural firm Essentia Environments (opens in new tab) hand-cut the artificial grass into a unique pattern of beautiful curves and swirls, in order to “lend an ornate look to the contemporary design of the terrace”, explains Hardesh Chawla, co-founder of Essentia Environments.
“Instead of using a flat grass mat, we wanted to add a bold artistic flair to the landscape.” The green mat holds the entire space together, he adds, “yet it doesn’t dominate; it’s subtle and complements the other bold features in the scheme.”
How do I make my terrace beautiful?
Terraces come in all shapes and sizes, but the best way to make them beautiful is to fill them with plants. “My advice for anyone with a terrace is to use the largest planters they can have (subject to access and weight) to accommodate planting,” says the London-based landscape gardener, Tony Woods, principal of Garden Club London.
“This means the plants/trees have lots of root zone to grow into” - after all, a beautiful garden is a flourishing garden. Also, adds Tony, “It’s much more sustainable as you don’t need to water them so much.”
Fleur Britten is a well-respected journalist who for years was the Senior Features Editor at Sunday Times Style. She is known as one of the smartest lifestyle journalists around, revered for being able to decode trends and report on new zeitgeists as they happen. She now writes for the Telegraph, Livingetc, Vogue, The Times, Harper's Bazaar and the Guardian.
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