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Outdoor Fireplace Design Secrets from an Expert

Outdoor Fireplace Design Secrets from an Expert

Outdoor Fireplace Design Secrets from an Expert
outdoor fireplace with trellis, outdoor furniture and coffee table in front

Landscape photos by © Lisa Romerein/OTTO, landscape design by Scott Shrader, plant photos by Monrovia: Doreen Wynja

The best place to get cozy in the garden? Around a fireplace, of course. We went straight to the source and interviewed top outdoor room designer, Scott Shrader, to bring you outdoor fireplace design ideas and lessons.

Scott is an expert at using fireplaces to create magnetic "bravo" moments in the garden. He combines thoughtful hardscape and landscape design with luxurious furnishings to create some of the most refined exterior spaces in the country. 

Get cozy and come along with us as we gather around the fireplace for our next design lesson from an expert. 

We've talked about the impact a firepit can make on a landscape. How is a fireplace different from a firepit when it comes to landscape design and style?

A firepit is often a casual gathering place. I use it in such a way that they end up being more of a fire feature or fire coffee table. I make them so that we have at least a 12" edge so people can put down drinks and appetizers, and put up their feet. You furnish them like a lounge, with big comfy chairs. They can be right next to a dining room because they look and sit differently. It's how you plan your type of seating.

Fireplaces are a little more formal in feeling, and they can also be the main attractor for getting you outdoors, and a focal point that you put at the end that gets people out to the backyard. I also like to think about what you see once you get out there and are looking back at the house. I think about that view back to the house as being the hero once you're out there enjoying the fire. 

You're an expert at creating a seamless indoor-outdoor living experience. How do you approach your overall indoor-outdoor design process?

I always work from the inside of a house and then work out. First, I study the whole layout of the house and think about how the interior of the house connects to the exterior. For instance, it's often a great idea to put a seating area or a lounge outside of an interior dining room because of course there's no reason to have a dining room next to a dining room. I always try to separate my uses.

The 6 S's of Scott Shrader's Outdoor Fireplace Design

Too much alliteration? Maybe so, but we hope it helps you remember these design lessons for your own fireplace project. Scott says "When done right, fireplaces can be a great piece of architecture in your garden." Here are six tips on how to do it right; see if you can spot them all in the following four fireplace designs. 

  1. Sightline. When you have a fireplace that you know you'll be looking at from afar, you need to make sure that you can actually see the fire. If it's too low to the ground or you have a bunch of furniture in front of it, you won't be able to see it. You can raise the fire up a little and put a hearth in front of it to ensure it's high enough for a  view that draws you into its warmth.
  2. Scale. I like an overexaggerated scale to my fireplaces. I also like the Rumford fireplace design approach where they are typically taller and the back is pitched differently. They can be shallow, narrow, and tall, and they're intended to throw out a lot of heat. 
  3. Symmetry. The symmetrical impact of an outdoor fireplace is important to consider. Often a great indoor room is anchored by a really great fireplace. 
  4. Space. The design of the fireplace will depend on the use of the space. Think about if you are using it for a lounge area, dining room, or open-air seating area. Your form will follow your function.
  5. Shelter. As long as you're protected from the sun or from the weather, you're going to use it. If it's not protected, people are headed right back inside once the weather turns. Think about creating an outdoor ceiling with a trellis. You can put heaters under the trellis, you can control the shade or sun a lot easier. It offers some shelter from the rain so you can go out and put the fire on and enjoy a little coffee or something next to the fire on a gloomy day. 
  6. Set the mood. It's important to think about outdoor lighting. When you're doing your interior planning, you're thinking about the lights in your ceiling. You're creating a mood with those lights, and outside you need to do the same thing. When you look out into a garden, the light of a fireplace will take you all the way into the backyard.

1. A Romantic Gathering Place

view of outdoor fireplace through french doors
outdoor fireplace with stone slab coffee table, wooden stools and lounge chairs in front

Tell us about this Hillside Garden fireplace lounge.

The fireplace here is right off of the house, and with the comfortable lounge seating, it's intended to draw you outside, and then look back into the house. 

The trees are white-blooming crape myrtle. Those trees become the canopy that you need to keep you cool in the summer. The shorter hedges you see around the trees are boxwood. The tall hedge that acts as a green wall is ficus. We have a yucca in a container on top of a granite slab coffee table.

How do you bring the style of the house outside?

This client requested a romantic garden with a lot of great smell. They wanted multiple places to sit around the garden. So we created a roaming garden you can walk through with friends, and enjoy the smells and views. 

What plants did you use to achieve the scented garden experience?

I used a lot of night-blooming jessamine, jasmine, rosemary, and lavender. There’s a walkway up the hillside that is all jessamine and rosemary. The client also loved ginkgo trees, the symbol of friendship, so we used about 15 ginkgo trees on this property.

Get the Look with These Plants

Natchez
Crape Myrtle

A large shrub or small tree with smooth, dark, cinnamon brown, exfoliating bark. Glossy dark green leaves turn vibrant orange-red in fall. Panicles of pure white, soft-textured flowers bloom all summer. Makes an excellent specimen, accent, or group planting. Full sun. Up to 20' tall and wide. Zones 6-9.

Ivory Tower
Yucca

Sword-like evergreen leaves are topped by tall spikes of ivory-white blooms. Forms dramatic clumps with age. Use to create contrasting textures as a garden accent or container specimen. A good firescaping plant. Excellent for use in xeriscapes. Full sun. Up to 4' tall and wide with flower spikes 6' tall. Zones 4-9.

Faulkner
Boxwood

This slow-growing, dwarf habit means less pruning! Glossy, bright green foliage is densely packed and takes on a rich bronze tinge during the winter—an exceptional specimen for a container or landscape. Easily shaped into a tidy hedge or topiary form. Partial to full sun. Up to 4' tall, 3' wide. Zones 5-9.

3 Plants for a Scented Garden Experience

Tuscan Blue
Rosemary

Quickly forms an upright hedge of aromatic, needle-like evergreen foliage. Profuse clear blue flowers add a charming effect. Leaves can be used as a flavorful herb in cooking. Takes to pruning well, but is equally wonderful when left in natural rustic form without pruning. A great choice for screening or in carefree, waterwise gardens. Full sun. Up to 6' tall, 4' wide. Zones 8-11.

Orange Peel
Jessamine

A living bouquet of pure orange-colored blossoms that, in warmer climates, last from early spring through the first frost. The tubular flowers offer a sweet scent upon sunset. This low-maintenance shrub thrives in the heat. Attractive in mixed borders, or espaliered on a sunny wall. A frost-tender tropical evergreen; treat as an annual in cold winter regions. Full to partial sun. Up to 6' tall and wide. Zones 7-10.

Munstead
Lavender

A rugged yet beautiful compact evergreen shrub with mounding, aromatic, gray foliage and an abundance of fragrant, rich lavender-colored flower spikes. Commonly used for perfumes, sachets, and oils. Dried sprigs will deter insects when placed in a closet or room. Gorgeous in perennial borders, herb gardens, rock gardens, and mass plantings. Full sun. Up to 18" tall and wide. Zones 5-9.

2. A Magnetic "Bravo" Moment

outdoor fireplace in open-air poolhouse with pool in front

The Hacienda garden fireplace is in an open-air outdoor room with a solid ceiling and low walls. How did your design approach change for substantial a structure like this one?

This picture is at the end of an existing old pool that was really tragic-looking until we got our hands on it. We added a pool house, so when you come down the stairs from the upper terrace, the pool house and fireplace is a centered bravo moment to get you out to the pool house.

The fireplace is the big moment of this area, and you enhance it by framing it with a beautiful, simple landscape.

This is meant to be a very drought-tolerant, low-maintenance landscape that’s very “hacienda” in feel. There are dwarf olives in the planters, and I’ve had them on this property for years; they are some of the best performers because they need very little water.

We put in 65-year-old olive trees on either side of the entrance, as well. And use California Bay Laurel as a hedge to provide some screening on both sides. There’s also rosemary here, which is another great drought-tolerant plant that does well in California. The narrow Italian Cypress is repeated throughout the property.

The stone hardscape is perfect for this hacienda landscape.

We had this terracotta stone made in Mexico. It’s all herringbone, and it’s in a 6x6 pattern that makes what I call “carpets in the landscape.” I use gravel strips as separation around the carpet of hardscape to break it up a little bit.

It also highlights the fireplace and entrance to the pool house.

It’s just another little detail to think about vs just hardscaping the whole thing. It gives you a centering moment and brings your eye from the outside in.

When you look at that fireplace, you want things to layer themselves so that by the time you get to the fireplace you think “of course that’s where it should be!” I really try to direct where people should be looking. Often, I’m trying to enhance a view or even direct your view away from something that we can’t control, like a neighbor’s side yard. I’m trying to control the visual narrative of what people are experiencing.

Any other tips for designing an outdoor fireplace near a pool like this one?

With a pool think about the reflection at night. So the fire and the outdoor lighting all reflect in the water at night.

Little Ollie®
Dwarf Olive

Dwarf, non-fruiting evergreen with a graceful, multi-branching habit. Deep green leaves have silvery green undersides. Attractive as a formal hedge or specimen shrub. Excellent in topiary form, or trained as a single trunk tree in smaller spaces. Heat, drought, and salt tolerant. Full sun. Up to 6' tall and wide. Zones 8-11.

Majestic Beauty®
Fruitless Olive

An attractive, refined appearance to the upright, open crown of this superior evergreen patio or garden tree that does not produce messy mature fruit. Gray-green leaves are narrow and long, giving it an airy appearance. Thrives in hot, dry regions.
Full sun. Up to 30' tall, 25' wide. Zones 8-11.

Blue Italian 
Cypress

An outstanding conifer with handsome blue-green foliage. Monrovia's superior strain of this classic evergreen offers a stronger blue coloration over others. An ideal specimen to dominate a landscape with its densely branched, narrow, columnar form. Full sun. Up to 80' tall. 6' wide. Zones 7-10.

3. A Warm Gathering Place

long dining room table in front of outdoor fireplace
outdoor couches and coffee table in front of fireplace

This project looks like it’s meant to be a large entertaining space, with the fireplace as the focal point.

The client wanted a space in the garden to hold fundraising events where people could get up and talk and be comfortable. This is a really good example of an outdoor room that has the ability to seat 20 or more people. 

You can start with appetizers by the fire and move to dinner at that big custom-made dining table. Or move the furniture and set up a nice bar by the fireplace.

This design was very focused on the architecture of the house, and connecting the outdoor space with that.  I wanted the backdrop of the fire to connect people to the garden from the main part of the house.

What plants did you use around this outdoor fireplace room?

There are rows of field-grown olive trees around the room. The trellis has Madagascar jasminedwarf olives, and flax

Madagascar
Jasmine

Clusters of fragrant, pure white, tubular flowers contrast nicely with the dark green, leathery leaves.  This handsome vine will twine upwards with a trellis or fence support and is an excellent container plant. Partial sun. Twining stems can reach 15' long. Zones 10-11. Grow Indoors in all zones.

Cassa Blue™ 
Flax Lily

An extremely versatile and easy-care dwarf selection with lush blue-green foliage and small violet flower clusters followed by attractive purple berries. Slow-growing and clump-forming; doesn't spread widely by rhizomes. Hardy and adaptable, tolerates salt spray and drought. Partial to full sun. Zones 7-11.

Haas Improved Manzanillo
Fruiting Olive

Distinguished by its large spherical olives with smaller pits, yielding more flesh than the popular Manzanillo. Evergreen foliage is more finely textured, with dense, arching branches on a more compact, rounded form. Full sun. Up to 20' tall, 15' wide. Zones 8-10.

4. A Mirrored Fireplace Focal Point

white outdoor fireplace in Moroccan style next to a pool with lounge chairs in front
view of outdoor fireplace over table and through trellis

Q: We've talked about the Modern Moroccan project with you before, but we’d like to revisit this fireplace because it is so different from the others we just discussed. It is a stand-alone fireplace without a "ceiling." Why did you choose to put the fireplace here?

In this space, there is a trellis-covered outdoor dining room and pizza oven bar directly across from the pool and fireplace. I mimicked the design of the pizza oven and mirrored it directly across the pool. I put it there to act as a focal point on the other end of the property.

After you're done dining, it draws you to the other side of the pool. This is where everyone hangs out at the end of the night. 

pool with gray tiled walkway that leads to a white outdoor fireplace

Q. How did you approach designing the landscape around this fireplace?

This fireplace is a Moorish-inspired design with a herringbone firebrick. and we set it up a little bit higher because I wanted people to be able to see it when they were sitting across the way in the dining room. You can see a very low stone table that allows you to see over it to the fire. 

We brought in 120-year-old olive trees on either side, kumquats in pots, and dwarf olives in blue metal containers. Low privet and ficus hedging gives the property a sense of greenery everywhere you look. 

Q. I also see the herringbone pattern in the stone showing up again.

That's a black terracotta that was made in Italy. The herringbone pathways match the firebrick. In this case, I use grass lawn to break up the hardscape. If I don't use gravel to do that, I like to use lawn. 

More of Scott's Favorite Plants

Corky's Honey
Delight® Fig

A semi-dwarf notable for its vigorous habit and bountiful fruit, yielding two crops of succulent green figs each year. Sweet, amber-colored flesh with a flavorful honey note. Thrives in mild coastal areas and warm humid areas, but often hardy and prolific in down to zone 5  if planted in a sheltered location. Full sun. Up to 12' tall and wide. Zones 7-10.

Golf Ball
Pittosporum

The dense, formal, low-maintenance form is ideal in containers or as a low hedge in place of a boxwood. A great choice to line a walkway or surround a rose or perennial garden. Provides year-round beauty with bright green foliage, maintaining a naturally rounded shape that seldom needs pruning. Partial to full sun. Up to 4' tall and wide. Zones 8-11.

Winter Gem
Boxwood

An excellent evergreen shrub for small hedges. Among the hardiest of the small-leaved boxwoods, the rich green foliage can acquire a golden bronze hue in cold winter zones, but is one of the first to become green again in spring. Makes a wonderful addition to formal gardens, providing year-round interest. Partial to full sun. Zones 5-9.

landscape designer scott shrader

Meet the Designer

Scott Shrader of Scott Shrader Exterior Design

Scott's landscape designs are borne out of an intuitive ability to connect with the interior 'heart' of the home producing gardens, outdoor entertainment spaces, and relaxing atmospheres specifically designed for those using them. His breadth of knowledge about design and concept come from both a master's degree in landscape architecture and an undergraduate degree in urban planning. Scott is the author of The Art of Outdoor Living: Gardens for Entertaining Family and Friends. 

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2022-10-28 21:36:00