From decking to paths and garden paving, each has a huge impact on a garden’s character. Aside from big specimen plants and bespoke features, they are also the most costly part of making a garden.
Shades of earthy brown, honey, dark grey and deep brick red work well with most materials used in British architecture, especially older buildings. Around modern glass-clad or wooden exteriors, decking looks good. Subtle is always best; pre-cast concrete imitation garden paving in pink or yellow slabs is a common offender. Rainbow-coloured sandstone can look odd, too.
Hard landscaping can enhance or ruin a scheme. Rustic clay pavers, river-worn gravel, split riven sandstone and tall hazel hurdles suit more traditional designs. For modern schemes, sawn limestone, quartzite, planed oak – even polished concrete – are common, although
cut, sanded or planed materials usually cost more. But don’t be afraid to break the rules. Traditional materials used in a contemporary way (such as porphyry or sandstone planks) also feature extensively in modern designs, for a pleasing hybrid of old and new.
Consider the landscape
The local design vernacular should also have an influence. In the front garden, where hard landscaping makes an contribution to the character of the surrounding area, try to use local materials, or sympathetic alternatives that blend in. Buff-coloured Cotswolds stone chippings would look odd surfacing driveways in Cornwall, for example, where granite is local.
Appearances are important, but so is performance. Garden paving and decking should be slip-resistant, durable, and require little maintenance. Retaining structures built with bricks, blocks, sleepers or stacked stone should stand firm even if the soil beneath is waterlogged. While good-quality materials cost more, they will last longer.
From a visual perspective check if a material weathers well. For me, oak, natural stone and copper only get better with age. Concrete imitation paving won’t change at all, however, for some people, this is exactly the point.
How materials behave and affect the wider environment is a hot topic. Water run-off is a key issue, especially in towns and cities where old drains can no longer cope with run-off from so much extra paving and tarmac. Rules introduced in 2008 now mean impermeable surfaces mustn’t exceed five square metres in a front garden unless angled to a lawn or flowerbed; otherwise you’ll need planning permission.
Many permeable alternatives exist, from gravel and block paving (‘rumbled’ blocks look more natural) to reinforced grass (such as Geogrid from grassform.co.uk), so it’s not difficult to comply. Porous paving and bound gravel, even permeable tarmac, are also worth considering.
Rainbow natural stone garden paving, £38 per m² or £569.99 for 15.3m² from Ethan Mason
Key to the lifespan of all hardscape is the foundation or sub-base. The depth and construction varies according to materials. Garden paving slabs typically require a solid foundation (5–20cm deep, depending on soil conditions and material), ensuring no movement. Brick or block pavers for driveways are usually laid on compacted sand (a ‘laying course’), over a thick sub-base. Only the edges are cemented, to hold the whole surface together.
Gravel drives need a compacted sub-base, but paths typically don’t. Never scrimp; ask a landscape contractor for advice, or visit pavingexpert.com.
Garden Paving Materials
Most garden designers use three to four different materials, such as granite, brick and oak, to avoid a look becoming too busy. This makes it easier to achieve design unity. Don’t feel you can’t break up one monotonous material — knapped flint along side clay bricks is common in rural gardens, for example. Or use smaller units of the same thing — a ribbon of rough granite setts running through crisp sandblasted granite slabs could subtly delineate a children’s play space.
Using the same surface material both outside and in helps to blur boundaries, making the spaces feel bigger. But few materials can be used for both. A textured finish is important for grip, so another material of a similar size or colour, or a weatherproof version, is necessary. Western red cedar or hardwoods such as oak, iroko and balau will extend timber flooring outdoors, especially if the planks are laid the same way. Plastic composite decking is an option (visit trex.com), or paving — try CED Natural Stone.
Creating a seamless transition isn’t as simple as raising an exterior surface to the level of the internal floor height, as it could compromise the damp-proof course (DPC). With new extensions, a high DPC can be added, or, with existing buildings, interceptor or tidy slot drains installed on the threshold. Patios and terraces should slope gently away from the house so water doesn’t collect by walls.
Marshalls Fairstone smooth limestone paving, £32 per m² or £355 for 11.3m² from Turnbull
Paving and faced brickwork joints should be the same width and run perpendicular, depending on the pattern, and pointing colour should never clash.
With decking, the fixings are as important as the boards, so use specialist screws. For hardwood and cedar decks, stainless steel or brass coloured screws are best. Never use nails — you can’t lift the boards easily without damaging the edges. As with paving, consistent spacing is essential.
Costs depend on design, size, construction, quantity and quality. Cut natural stone costs more than split, while loose gravel is cheaper than resin-bound. Concrete imitation paving costs less than the real thing and, being a uniform thickness, is quicker to lay, too. Factor in labour and machinery, and always get quotes from at least three contractors.
DIY keeps costs down, but know your limits. Laying a gravel path is simple (don’t forget the cost of edging), but for brickwork, rendering, plastering and patio stone, employ a professional for a quality finish. Retaining walls and steps aren’t easy, plus it’s essential to get them right for safety.
Using local materials can cut costs, but this isn’t always the case. Brazilian slate, for example, is cheaper than Welsh. Likewise, reclaimed materials are rarely cheaper than new.