Jo Arnell discusses what you need to consider when embarking on a quest to create the ultimate hard landscaping in your garden

Lawns are lovely to walk and sit on in the summer, but not so tempting when the weather is wet. And, if you want to eat outside, tables and chairs will be wonky, or sink into the grass, and are hard to mow around. Gardens need pleasant, level seating areas, pretty and practical places for outdoor dining, paths to travel on that won’t make your feet wet or muddy. Hard-landscaping is important, but it can also be an expensive investment. What you choose, whether that’s stone, brick, gravel or decking, will be a permanent addition and will set the tone for the rest of the garden.

What and where you pave needs careful consideration – once laid though, it is tricky and costly to change – so thinking it through carefully before the first stone/brick/plank is laid will be time well spent.

Design & planning

Consider where you want to sit or dine – is it a terrace near the house, or a sunny corner at the bottom of the garden? Will you need to access this area via a path? Will the style be formal and geometric, contemporary or classic, or rustic and full of cottage garden charm? Your choice of surface should also relate to the overall style. The materials you choose should complement the house – they will help to anchor the design and link to the landscape both within the garden and beyond your boundaries.
Use colours that will tie in with that of walls and buildings – harmonising shades or contrasts, because identical matching walls and paving can be overwhelming. Light coloured stone can lift a gloomy space, but if you are using natural stone – sandstone or limestone – it may be colonised with algae or moss in time, which will discolour the stone and may be slippery. For this reason wooden decking, too, is best confined to sunny areas near the house, where it can be kept in a non-slip state more easily.

Size matters

Seating areas and paths may need to be more generous than you first imagine. There should be plenty of space – for easy access, walking around, room for people to push chairs back etc. If a path is in frequent use, make it at least a metre wide, even wider if plants are going to spill over the edges.
Paths and paving can be used to enhance planting schemes, lead to a focal point or place to sit and admire the view. The shape and direction of a path needs to be fairly sensible – there is no point making a dreamy, meandering route down to the shed if everyone cuts straight across it and makes a more direct path of their own across the grass.

Plants around paving

We often think of pots and containers on terraces or around seating areas, but plants can also be used at ground level – either around the edges, or you can make planting pockets within an expanse of paving, either by making an actual bed – or, for a relaxed and cottage look, removing a slab here and there to plant in. In a sunny space low growing herbs like lavender and thyme work well, and for shadier pockets, try Alchemilla mollis or geraniums. These will gently spill out – the idea is to make the plants look as if they’ve grown into cracks in the paving. A great little plant that will grow in the tiniest of gaps between stones and bricks is Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican daisy), it is very free flowering and will spread prettily, self-seeding into cracks and crevices. Beware of anything bigger than this, as the roots may lift the pointing – and be especially careful about the roots of any nearby trees, as their roots may lift or crack entire paving slabs or disrupt a path.
If you are thinking about installing lighting, electricity for a shed or summerhouse or water feature, think about where the cable will go – if it is under the paving, then a trench will need to be dug for the cables prior to laying. You can add the actual fittings later.

Cost

Cost is an obvious consideration, as the materials you choose will need to fit your budget. Certain paving – York stone, for example – is very desirable and, despite the fact that most slabs are recycled, very expensive. Porcelain is another expensive material – it is coveted partly because this ultra smooth substrate is vitrified, which means that, unlike some natural stone, it will not mark or discolour.
Pre-cast concrete products are available at lower prices and some of these look very effective. They can be made from moulds taken from old stone, or manufactured in new styles.
Sandstone is popular, but because it is a natural stone, it will age down, gaining a patina which can look very attractive – or alternatively will need jet-washing every few years to bring it back to its original condition.
Wooden decking is cost effective, especially for large areas near to the house, but this will also need maintaining to prevent it becoming slippery or splintered.

Environmental considerations

The production of any manufactured product will be using energy and potentially causing damage to the environment. Materials like concrete, porcelain and cement have a high carbon footprint and use a lot of energy during manufacture. Reconstituted slabs are slightly better as they’re made from recycled stone, but have to be mixed with cement in the process. Natural stone is more environmentally friendly to use, but check the source. Stone is heavy and costly to transport – if it comes from a local quarry it will have a less detrimental impact to the environment than stone transported from a far-flung place.
Reusing existing slabs, or even designing areas of crazy-paving (a cheerful mix of broken stones) will be the most environmental choice – recycling will obviously be more cost-effective, but it might not fit the style or the aesthetics – this is definitely for more informal, relaxed spaces.
Impermeable surfaces can cause issues in the environment too. Solid expanses where water can’t get through exacerbate flooding issues. They are also barren and so reduce habitats for wildlife.
According to the RHS, at least a quarter of front gardens have been entirely paved over to make drives or to lower maintenance. Since 2008, however, any new drives or front garden areas must be permeable so that water can drain back into the soil.
Permeable substrates are more environmentally friendly because water will drain straight through – aggregates like gravel or decorative stone chips can be laid onto a permeable membrane. Stone setts – either reclaimed or locally sourced – are also a good choice. If you are paving with slabs, they can be laid in strips so that a car can drive onto them, but there are gaps in between. Grass grids, made from recycled plastic or concrete, let the grass to grow up through and give a soft and natural look while allowing vehicles to drive over them.

Firm foundations

Practical issues are as important as aesthetics where hard landscaping is concerned. Getting this right will not only enhance appearances, but ensure that the materials used will last for a long time and stay looking good for years to come.
Getting the levels right on any paving is key. Good preparation and levelling out of bumps and dips, making a firm, even surface on which to lay slabs or bricks takes time and attention to detail. A spirit level should be used, as doing this by eye can be very deceptive.
Landscapers use hardcore (type 1) to create a sub-base layer on which to lay paving. This is tamped down firmly with a compactor or wacker plate. This base layer will ensure that the paving stays level. Ensure that the paving slopes very gently away from the house and that any water will drain away into the flowerbeds. Unevenly laid substrates are potential trip hazards, but also may cause water to run into puddles in the middle.

Weather

Freezing conditions, especially during the first few weeks after laying, will be a challenge for any hard-landscaping material, so make sure that it can cope with the worst of the winter weather – freeze-thaw action can cause the top layers of paving and bricks to crack and come away in sheets. Postpone starting a project if the ground is frozen and consider ways of protecting freshly laid bricks, pavers and stones from damaging frosts.

There are many factors to take into consideration when thinking about laying either a new- or changing an existing- area of hard-landscaping, but whatever you decide, ultimately it should be a good investment that will enhance your outdoor space. In the end, once all the mess and noise is over, you will have created a haven in which to relax and entertain and, most importantly, improved your quality of life.

To book a gardening course, contact Jo on 07923 969634 hornbrookmanor.co.uk

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