Choosing Garden Surfaces
Surfaces are one of the main elements of a garden, literally underpinning almost everything else. They can be expensive and time-consuming to install, but get it right, and they will last a lifetime.
There are many factors to consider when deciding on surface materials. Cost and appearance are obvious, but don’t overlook practicality: think about the site and how it will be used. For example, choose tough, hard-wearing materials for heavily used areas such as paths. Consider porous materials, like gravel, on sloping sites where drainage is an issue. If access is difficult, think about using lightweight materials that can be easily carried to the site. Another important consideration is that, although the surface is the most visible element, it is often the easiest to complete; it is the foundation that can be challenging. Decking, for example, needs minimal footings which you can do yourself, but stone tiles require a solid base, best left to professionals. The payback, however, is that while a deck lasts 10 to 15 years, tiled surfaces can last indefinitely.
Hard surface materials include bricks, blocks, slabs, and tiles, whether natural or man-made. Their advantage is that they provide a firm, level surface that is very hard-wearing. They are also available in a wide range of materials, suitable for most designs. Smaller units, like bricks, are best for sloping or angular sites, where corners are required, or where materials must be carried on site. Slabs are ideal for paving areas quickly and are simple to lay. The drawbacks, depending on the material, are the need for foundations and drainage, and often the price.
Hard surfaces must drain in a controlled way to prevent puddles from forming and to stop rainwater from entering buildings. Slope surfaces and incorporate drainage channels to direct flow. Ensuring good drainage also helps keep smooth surfaces, like slabs and tiles, from becoming slippery when wet.
Gravel is very versatile and comes in a range of colors and textures. It can be laid almost anywhere, regardless of slopes and corners, and requires only a weed-proof membrane for a foundation. It can be carried in bags to the site, and if bought in bulk can be very economical. It can be used as a temporary solution. Laying it requires no special tools or skills, so is easy to do yourself. The downsides are that it does not form a solid surface and can make walking––and pushing wheel barrows and strollers—harder. Weeds may eventually grow through it.
Decking is a modern choice, most commonly used in contemporary designs. It is usually made of weather-resistant, pressure-treated wood, which must be treated regularly to protect against rot. Decks are very adaptable and can be built to suit most sites, whether sloping or awkwardly shaped. Their advantage is that they are easy to build, using basic tools and DIY skills, and the materials are cheap. You can also adapt or expand them over time. The drawbacks are that decks can be slippery when wet, and that wood decays and need to be replaced.
Lawns are the most traditional garden surface. Like gravel, they are ideal for sloping and awkwardly shaped sites, and the materials can be easily brought on site, assuming the soil beneath is suitable. They are also ideal for families, providing a safe surface for children and one that will grow back if damaged. A big drawback is maintenance, since they require regular mowing in summer and treatment and care in fall and spring. They are not suitable for shady sites and can turn to straw in hot summers, although they usually recover.