Thoughts of summer have come early this year: with lockdown restrictions easing and groups of six allowed into private gardens, entertaining will soon be moving outside and people are already excitedly upgrading their gardens in anticipation of once again hosting friends and family.
New and more elaborate barbecues, fire pits, outdoor kitchens, rugs and patio tiles have all seen an increase in sales.
At John Lewis, barbecue sales are up by 8% on the first half of last year, while there has been a 90% rise in demand for outdoor pizza ovens.
B&Q says sales of outdoor rugs are up almost fivefold and there has also been increased demand for tiles for the patio and fairy lights. Auction site eBay has also seen increased interest in fire pits, fairy lights and outdoor heaters.
“People are going back to work but they are going back intermittently, one or two days a week, and, for the most part, staying in their gardens to entertain,” says Jonathan de Mello, analyst at CWM Retail Consulting. “Any chance people get, they are out.”
It’s possible to spend £2,000 on a barbecue – but the good news is that there is something for most budgets.
Once, buying a barbecue was a choice of charcoal or gas. Then came the era of ceramic grills such as the Big Green Egg, which can hold heat for 20 hours at a consistent temperature, but which also comes with a hefty price tag of almost £1,200 for the classic version.
The latest arrival is the wood pellet grill, which uses ground wood pellets to heat itself. Richard Holden, a chef who specialises in barbecue cooking, says the grills are easy to light and can maintain temperature with a dial (the temperature on charcoal and ceramic systems is set by adjusting air flow using vents). They are a “plug and play” alternative and start at about £750, comparable to a quality entry-level gas model.
As people are at home for longer, many are experimenting with more elaborate recipes, says Holden, and either trading up their existing barbecues or buying additional ones. “They are seeing the benefit in this thing that may have only been brought out three or four times a year, but now is being used a few times every week,” he says.
Smokers, the equivalent of an outdoor slow cooker, are also gaining in popularity because being at home means you can check on meat as it cooks for hours at a time.
Traditional charcoal barbecues are still the cheapest way to start, with a good quality grill and equipment available for about £200.
Gas and wood pellet versions come in at about £750, while ceramics will cost between £1,000 and £1,250, according to Holden.
There are, he says, many different cheaper options, but often they can be of poorer build quality and have problems retaining heat and getting to the temperatures needed.
If using charcoal, he advises using 100% lump wood without any chemicals for faster lighting. Farm shops around the country increasingly carry brown bags of charcoal from local woods.
Fire pits and outdoor kitchens
Barbecues are only one part of the modern garden, it seems, with full outdoor kitchens now enjoying a rise in popularity. These can include a fridge, food preparation area and drawers and can cost eye-watering sums. Ian Hodgett, a manager at Hayes Garden World in the Lake District, says one model with a full sink costs £6,000.
However, an increasing number of people are choosing to go it alone and improvise, which can dramatically cut costs. He says: “They are building outdoor kitchens on the side of their houses. They are putting wooden structures up and building barbecue shacks.”
Supermarkets have hopped on the trend. Aldi has brought in an option for the budget market with a tiki bar at £200, while Asda has a similar one for £300.
The move towards an “outdoor room” has resulted in a sharp increase in demand for fire pits and outdoor heaters on eBay. The fire pit bowls, in which logs are used for heat, come in many forms – some are from repurposed boilers and others from old washing machines.
Usually, they are heavy-gauge steel, according to Hodgett, and cost between £40 and £350.
One of the success stories to emerge from the pandemic was the Ooni, outdoor pizza ovens made by a Scotland company that cost between £250 and £500.
Holden says that people are increasingly having more than one appliance in the garden – such as a barbecue as well as a pizza oven. But buying numerous different ovens is not always necessary, as any barbecue can cook at heats from low to high depending on how you use it – and can even cook pizzas.
The first lockdown last year led to a surge in sales for hot tubs and this year looks to have attracted a similar a level of interest.
John Lewis is selling inflatable hot tubs for the first time following demand, it says, with prices ranging between £750 and £1,500. At Argos they go for between £350 and £820.
Unfortunately, the rise in popularity last year and the high price of some items has led to an increase in thefts. A number went missing in Bradford in the space of a week after thieves managed to drain the water before making off with them.
Insurers have warned homeowners upgrading their gardens to store items safely before locking their house up for the evening.
Last summer, Halifax home insurance had an almost 50% increase in claims for theft or damage to items in the garden, compared with 2019.
Tim Downes from the Halifax says: “It’s easy to leave belongings outside or not to even think about insuring them in the same way as you do for those indoors.
“But taking a few simple steps this summer, such as securely locking away garden furniture and appliances, and checking you have the right insurance policy means you can have peace of mind.”
And relax and enjoy the garden.