How to choose paving and decking for your garden
Garden designer Tabi Jackson Gee lays out the pros and cons of stone, bricks, wood and gravel in a garden, and offers tips on how to plan hard landscaping to maximise style and function
There’s a lot of lingo surrounding any kind of building work, and garden landscaping is no different. When we talk about ‘hard landscaping’ we are referring to all of the built elements of an outdoor space; anything that’s not a plant or soil, basically, which in turn fall under the umbrella of ‘soft landscaping.’
Here’s a breakdown of the most commonly used outdoor materials, as well as tips on how to choose the right ones for your garden.
What landscaping materials are available?
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should give you a flavour of the most popular garden landscaping materials and their specific uses.
Stone - natural and man made materials
At the back of the garden designer Emily Erlam's terraced Georgian house limestone flagstones are used throughout the ground floor to link the open-plan kitchen living space with the dining terrace
Stone comes in many shapes and sizes, and while local stones are available in new and reclaimed conditions (like York Stone, for example) most of the more affordable options come from China, India and even further afield like South America.
Sustainability wise, the other issue with stone is that you often need to cut it to get the right amount for your garden, which can amount to waste. However, careful planning can mitigate this.
The more popular materials like sandstone and limestone will also age, this is a beautiful natural process and something to be enjoyed! Porcelain, on the other hand, is a man made material that cleans much like an indoor floor does. It’s designed to look exactly like natural stone, except that it doesn’t age so won’t take on any character over the years in the same way that limestone and sandstone do.
The pattern is important, you can find examples of this online. A random pattern looks more rustic and traditional, whereas a pattern with running joints is more modern. These stones also often come as planks, squares, rectangles… making the composition options endless.
Stone comes in different finishes; sawn, tumbled, riven, and so on. Again, samples are your friend here. For the natural stones always order multiple samples and if possible large ones, so you can see the variation in colour.
Reclaimed bricks, clay pavers and setts
In their idyllic Hampshire garden, Kim Wilkie and Pip Morrison have created an outdoor dining patio with brick and flint
Reclaimed bricks, clay pavers and setts are all lovely materials to use and are easily available second hand. They’re also much more forgiving if you have small children as they are usually much darker than most stone options. This is because they are smaller; large pieces of stone show up stains and dirt much more than slips and setts.
Setts and cobbles are largely the same thing, meaning smaller pieces of stone. They’re great for detailing around the edges of spaces or even for use on pathways. I’ve used them over entire areas where a more classic, less modern aesthetic has been wanted. Plus, they’re extremely hard wearing and you can even scrape out the grout to allow moss to grow between them.
Decking: timber and composite
In the back garden of Shalini Misra's north London house , generous timber decking sits outside the french windows
There’s an ongoing debate about whether traditional natural timber is better for decking, or composite materials. Original timber decking usually only has a shelf life of about 15 years, and does need regular treatment to keep it in good condition. Composite materials - that usually combine timber with recycled plastic - do tend to last longer.
Decking is sometimes a cheaper option than installing stone or bricks, but the look is much more modern. I’d usually recommend using a silvery coloured timber (like Siberian larch, which unlike most of other timber products, lasts about 50 years) and combining it with another material like stone or gravel to get a bit of variation in your scheme.
Gravel: Breedon, chippings and pea shingle
The relaxed second terrace of the garden designer Emily Erlam's terraced Georgian house uses pale gravel to bring light to an area sheltered by a mature crab apple
Gravel is usually a no-no for people with children (they tend to eat it!) and it can also move around the garden quite a lot. However, there are options available like Breedon gravel which has a sandy, finer gravel finish on a compacted base. This is contained within a timber or steel edge so stays in the same place. I use this a lot for longer paths in gardens that get a lot of use.
Where you want permeability, you’ll be wanting to use something like a chipping or pea gravel. Always avoid using geo-textiles underneath, I’d argue a little bit of weeding is a lot better than suffocating the ground with plastic and stopping the soil from doing its thing.
How to plan your hard landscaping:
Choose a look. Do you want a traditional country look or something a bit more modern? Consider how the interior flooring relates to the outdoor (especially if you have bifold doors leading out). For instance if you’ve gone for a lovely natural wooden flooring inside then you could offset it with a light and bright smooth stone on your terrace, or compliment it with a more rustic sawn sandstone with a tumbled edge.
Make a moodboard. Pinterest can be a great place to start but it’s better to arrange your ideas for materials, plants and furniture on a single page document and edit it as your ideas develop. Restraint is key!
Order samples, preferably several. Remember outdoor light is very different and often less forgiving, so you want to make sure your material choices look just as good in reality as they do on a screen.
Consider longevity and sustainability. Measures here can include using a ‘screwed not glued’ philosophy, for instance by putting a sand base rather than cement under paving, and reducing the use of new materials used.
Salvage what you can. Retaining old stone, tiles or cobbles and using them as details is a good way of updating a scheme while keeping the character of the existing space. Always clean existing terraces before deciding to replace them; after a jetwash and being repointed, many types of paving look as good as new.
Take maintenance into account: Different materials need different care after they’ve been installed, so make sure you get this information from the supplier before deciding which one to go for.
Choose the right installer: Do not assume that your builder is the best person for the job. More often than not, unless there is a designer involved, you can end up with undesirable layouts, strange junctions, badly organised drainage and all sorts of other issues. These are things that a qualified landscaper would know to avoid. You can find local, accredited businesses on websites like BALI and APL . As ever, it’s better to do it once and do it properly than go for the cheap option and waste time, money and resources.
Where to source your materials from
Always check the origins of your products before you buy them, and make sure the company you use have their own set of sustainability standards as well as ethical sourcing practices. This is especially important if you’re buying from abroad where their rules may be a little more lenient around labour and work conditions.
All of the companies below are used regularly by landscaping professionals but there are of course many others out there.