Garden Features: Patios, Paths, Walls, Fences
Many aspects of a garden can change from year to year. Flowers and vegetables can be grown in a different position and even relatively mature shrubs can be moved. Indeed, many keen gardeners often find the urge to change the pattern of plants from time to time irresistible.
However, structural features such as patio, paths, steps, walls and boundaryshould be planned to form the permanent framework of the garden. They determine not only a great deal of the outline of the design, but also go a long way towards dictating the style of the whole garden layout.
A paved patio is likely to become the centre of family activity in the garden, and it should, therefore, provide adequate space to fulfil this purpose. If the garden is to be used as an important part of the domestic environment, then it must be possible to do so in comfort, with ease and convenience. To accommodate the normal use of four to six people the patio should be sufficiently large to contain table and chairs, barbecue, planted pots — and still leave room to move.
If a paved terrace is supplied by the builder to the rear of a new house, it is likely to have two major shortcomings. Firstly, an inadequate size and secondly an unimaginative shape, often being no more than a double row ofslabs running the width of the house.
A patio need not take this uninteresting form. Neither does it have to be a regular paved square or rectangle immediately outside the rear door or close to the side entrance of the house. The paved area can look more interesting when set at an angle, or when the edge is slightly staggered. This helps to integrate it with the overall garden layout, and since a path will generally be required for access to the remainder of the garden, it helps by providing an obvious ‘leading off’ point for the line of the path.
Certainly integration is an important factor in achieving a satisfying design. It is a mistake to make a small fence or wall along the edge of a flat, rectangular patio. This has the effect not only of making the garden appear smaller by sectioning it off, but creates a barrier in the minds of people entering the garden, so that they feel reluctant to venture beyond the patio and explore the whole area.
In a sloping garden, however, it may be essential to provide a barrier at the patio’s edge. It would certainly be required as a safety measure where the ground beyond slopes away steeply.
The position of the patio must be determined as well as its shape. The most immediately obvious place to site it may be outside the entrance from house to garden. This can be convenient in preventing dirt from treading indoors, but is not the only consideration. If the patio is used for sunbathing it should be positioned where it will receive the maximum period of full sunlight, and yet be screened from neighbouring gardens.
Young children in the family will use the patio for play, so consider whether they can readily be seen from the most convenient position indoors. It is impractical to build a paved area that necessitates continually running upstairs or outdoors to check that all is well. It is equally possible to site the patio at the side of the house, or even in the front garden provided, of course, that it is well screened by a wall, fence or planting.
If all the requirements you will make of a patio are not met by any one position in the garden, then consider creating two paved areas. It is pleasant to have one open area near to the house and a second, more secluded and intimate area, perhaps at the far end of the garden. This arrangement will also serve to draw people in to the garden and encourage them to use it to the maximum.
Whatever its position, there are practical guidelines for building a patio. A strong foundation and level base should be formed, and provision should be made for water to drain from the surface. This is done by allowing for a slight slope away from the house. Where the patio edge is against a house wall its finished edge should be approximately 6in — the equivalent of two courses of brickwork — below the damp proof course.
Damage to paved areas can occasionally be inflicted by a severe frost, causing slabs to lift. These should be re-set to their position once the frost has thawed.
Choosing the patio surface
On moving in to a new house, you may discover the two rather useless rows of paving slabs already mentioned, or perhaps an even worse horror — large areas of concrete. Even older houses are not free from this problem, for you may inherit an unsightly area of patches of concrete laid at intervals over a period of time. Invariably the patches are cracking apart and providing a home for any number of thriving weeds.
Although serviceable, concrete is rarely attractive. The Americans have perfected a system of brushing the newly laid surface just before it dries, to expose a pebble finish. This avoids that flat, grey, sterile appearance, but it is, unfortunately, rarely seen in this country.
However enthusiastic you may be to replace existing eyesores, it pays to consider carefully the most appropriate material for the garden room that you have planned. The patio surface, will, in effect, be the outdoor floor covering and should therefore be selected in the same way as a carpet for the living room. It should obviously be attractive, hardwearing and cost within your budget. In addition its appearance should suit the style and ‘mood’ of your garden plan and your house. The nature of the material you choose and the size, colour and texture of each module are all important factors in dictating the final, overall effect.
A cottage in a rural setting lends itself to the use of crazy paving in a natural stone, since this is a traditional material, the crazy pattern giving an informal effect in keeping with the surroundings.
A small Victorian house in town often has only a tiny backyard as a garden. If the original brickwork is still exposed, it can be extended into the garden to good effect using second-hand ‘old stock’ bricks as pavers.
For a newer house modern paving materials can be used, in the form of pre-cast rectangular slabs manufactured from a concrete or reconstituted stone mix. These will continue the clean, simple lines of the architecture.
Of course, your house may not fit any of these examples. In any event it helps to have a general idea of the more common alternatives open to you in choosing a patio surface.
This is the best known traditional material for paving and is often found in rural areas. There are local stones for most parts of the country, although some are more suitable than others for cutting to sell as paving. Natural stone has the advantages of being hard-wearing and presenting a pleasing, rugged appearance, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and therefore increasingly expensive. This depends on location, however, as does its price, and it is more economical to use a local stone than one that has to be transported some distance.
Probably the most superior and prestigious form of natural paving is York stone laid in a ‘random rectangular’ pattern, using slabs of rectangular shape in varying sizes. This can be seen on the sweepingof large country houses, but is almost only available today in its most valuable, second-hand state when a pavement is taken up from one of the older streets of a city such as London or York.
Natural stone is more commonly found laid as crazy paving — particularly York stone and Westmorland, Welsh or Cornish slate. The appearance of crazy paving is, however, often spoiled by bad laying. The surface may be uneven, or the stones may be laid too far apart, with large areas of pointing between them. The result is a patchwork of stone and cement mortar. The stones should, rather, be arranged so that the joints are no wider than 1/2 to 3/4in and the overall impression is one of a neatly fitting jigsaw.
Manufactured paving slabs
As natural stone has become in short supply and the price has risen, so the number of variations on the manufactured paving slab has risen.
Some are designed to take on the appearance of weathered stone, with a textured or ‘riven’ surface, often cast from moulds taken from the natural stone. The result can be quite convincing — a creditable reproduction of the genuine article. Others are very obviously repeats or parts of only one moulded pattern and a natural effect is impossible.
Although this type of slab has a textured surface, it is rarely non-slip. This is not to say that the slabs are dangerous when laid, but there are slabs with a surface that is specially designed to be non-slip. These are particularly appropriate when the patio will be used by older people or those who are a little unsteady on their feet.
Slabs with a pebble or exposed aggregate finish are attractive, as they bring variation in colour, and often texture, to the paved area. However, it is worth remembering that they are manufactured from a durable stone aggregate which is impossible to cut in the normal way, that is with a masonry hammer and a bolster chisel. Instead it is necessary to use an electric power tool with carborundum disc attachment for cutting slabs to fit neatly in to awkward corners, aroundand so on.
Manufactured slabs are available in a wide range of square and rectangular sizes, all of them now being sold in metric sizes based on a unit of one millimetre. If a combination of slab sizes is to be used, the pattern should be worked out carefully before the paving is ordered; many manufacturers supply useful guidelines and plan drawings for this purpose.
Hexagonal paving slabs allow the creation of an interestingly shaped patio with staggered edge and provide a more decorative alternative to the square or rectangle.
Whatever the shape of your paving slabs, they represent a long term investment in the improvement of your property as well as your outdoor enjoyment, and should therefore be handled with care. Always store slabs by stacking them on edge, like books on a shelf. Take care in both storage and handling that the edges and corners are not chipped or damaged, and that the surface of the slabs does not become dirty or stained.
Finally, never throw slabs from a lorry on to the ground. Cracks may not become visible immediately but the damage may be done and will result in disappointment later, when the patio is completed and in use.
Bricks and blocks
The use of secondhand bricks to complement an older house has been mentioned. Where a newer house is concerned, the same principle applies. If brick paving is to be laid, it should ideally match as nearly as possible the brick used in the construction of the house.
However, to lay a large area of paving using traditional clay or marl bricks can be both costly and time consuming, although the end result can be well worth the effort. The very small module results in a high degree of versatility; bricks can be laid in a variety of patterns — herringbone, diagonal, basketweave or even in circles and spirals. The finished effect has a warmer appearance than that of concrete, and can more easily achieve a sense of integration and harmony between house and garden.
Paving blocks share many of the advantages of brick. There is now a good range of interlocking concrete blocks available for laying by the home handyman. These are approximately the size and shape of bricks, but as well as the plain rectangular form are made in the shape of an ‘S’ or ‘V’ giving a more decorative effect. Concrete paving blocks are available in a number of subtle shades, but a contrast of more than two colours in one area of paving is overpowering. Such a combination takes on a cluttered appearance that is at odds with the clean line of the blocks.
Concrete blocks are similar in many ways to the traditional granite set, and share its advantages. Although expensive to obtain nowadays, this is an extremely hardwearing material that is eminently suitable for drives and areas that have to withstand heavier usage.
The disastrous toll of Dutch Elm disease and other tree disorders during the last few years has meant that more felled timber is available; sawn tree rounds make an attractive, rustic material for a patio surface. However, the use of tree rounds as paving is generally best restricted to country gardens where a woodland ‘feel’ is appropriate.
The timber should be 3-4in thick and the spaces between rounds can be filled in with bark chippings, ground cover planting or even pea shingle. ‘
In a damp, shady position log paving can become covered in a layer of slippery green algae during winter months. Care should, therefore, be taken in the siting of the patio.
It may be that, having given the matter a great deal of thought, the best location for your paved patio has an unsightly manhole cover as its most prominent feature. However great the temptation, a manhole cover should not in any circumstances be paved over. It is not only unwise but illegal to prevent access to drains. Nevertheless, it is necessary to prevent the cover from spoiling the appearance of the patio.
For the sake of safety and practicality the finished level of the patio should be flush with that of the manhole cover. The obstacle will still be seen, however, and some form of camouflage is desirable. The solution is either to place a planted tub or container over the cover, or to replace it with a recessed cover. This consists of a metal frame into which paving slabs can be set. When dropped into place it is detectable only by a narrow metal rim and small holes for the insertion of hooks for lifting.
It is a rather obvious, but nevertheless important observation to remember that a path fulfils a basic function — that of enabling you to walk from one part of the garden to another on a clean, durable surface. A path that leads nowhere is less effective, as is one that leads only to the shed when most of the family regularly walk across the lawn to the back gate.
This is not to say that an informal mown path wandering through long grass is unattractive. Indeed, it can be a pleasing feature of a larger garden.
Furthermore a path can be a useful aspect of design, helping to build shape into the garden and to coordinate the layout by linking its various features. Planning of the path should be guided by the same principle as that of the total area, so that you work out from the house to the far boundary of the plot.
It is probable that the surface of the path will be required to withstand harder wear than that of the patio, and a different surface may be necessary. Paving stones — either natural or manufactured — are of course suitable for paths, but ensure that the type you intend to buy are sufficiently hardwearing for the purpose, and that they are laid to strong solid foundations.
Where there are small children in the family a paved path is ideal, for it will almost certainly become a track for tricycles, cars and dolls’ prams. This means that a smooth, level surface is essential to avoid toddlers tripping on rough and uneven edges.
A path that receives less use — and less wear and tear — could be surfaced more cheaply in an alternative material such as pea shingle or gravel. Pea shingle is quite easy to obtain, either in bulk or in bags, but it should be used with caution. A shingle surface becomes scuffed up with use and will need to be raked level at regular intervals; moreover the tiny pebbles get inside open shoes as they do on a pebbly beach, and can tread to other parts of the garden.
Because of its tendency to spread, a shingle path should always be edged by a solid border of timber, narrow concrete kerbing or bricks. Although no longer always readily available, the decorative appearance of Victorian barley twist edging makes a perfect finish for paths around an older property. Gravel can be a more satisfactory material, since it consists of larger pebbles in a clay base, which when raked level and rolled forms a solid surface almost similar to concrete. However, some caution should be exercised when the gravel is newly rolled, as it is still liable to be scuffed and carried on to other surfaces.
As a design feature, stepping stone paths can be extremely useful, particularly when used in a balanced pattern to break up a large, open area of grass. What is more they can be a delight for children, who like to hop and skip from one to another.
However, stepping stones may not be the most practical feature to include in your garden layout. If they are placed in a lawn the grass must be regularly trimmed around them to keep them looking neat and tidy. If you are, nevertheless, prepared to undertake this maintenance work, then you may contemplate using a more unusual slab, such as a circular or hexagonal shape.
‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ as the saying goes. Most of us undoubtedly value privacy when it comes to using our garden, and prefer to screen the boundary from the view of the neighbours with a wall or fence. Such a construction will also serve to screen from wind, so that the garden can be used in comfort.
In order to be effective the screen should be five or six feet high, but if you plan to build higher than six feet it may be necessary to consult the local authority planning office. In any event, ensure that your fence or wall will not obscure a pleasant view that you really wish to retain.
On many new housing developments there are restrictions governing the style and height of boundary fences erected to the front of the house, particularly if the scheme is intended to be ‘open plan’. These should, of course, be checked and it is wise to keep within their stipulations.
The appearance and upkeep of boundary fences between gardens at the rear of the house can be the cause of bitter disagreements between neighbours. According to the experts, it is vastly preferable to settle these matters as amicably as possible, without resorting to costly legal proceedings. It therefore makes sense to check that you are responsible for the boundary on which you plan to build, and perhaps to notify your neighbours of your intentions. Hopefully this will enable you to iron out any significant differences of opinion before they become major disagreements.
The garden boundary of a new house is often marked by nothing more than a three feet high chain link fence. Not only is this unattractive, it affords very little privacy.
Where a higher, more solid screen is required, the most readily available form of fencing is timber panels. These are usually sold in a standard width and heights ranging from three to six feet, and the system involves nailing the panels to posts set firmly at regular intervals along the boundary.
The most common design is probably interwoven, with overlapping and other designs also available. They are almost always ready treated with a preservative when purchased. Fencing panels can, therefore, be expected to have a long, useful life, often being in greater danger from stray footballs than the elements.
A more expensive form of fencing, in terms of both time and money, is close boarding. This consists of narrow, individual boards of either oak or a treated softwood; the boards are nailed vertically to a timber framework so that they overlap to form a solid and attractive fence.
A more open form is ‘ranch style’ fencing. Wide boards run horizontally on palings — often decoratively made — with spaces between the boards. Low ranch style fencing is often seen as a front garden boundary, and has a very modern appearance. Increasingly it is made from pre-formed plastic sections, but if it is of a white painted timber construction it will need regular painting to maintain the clean, tidy finish essential to its good appearance.
Whilst a badly maintained ranch style fence can look unattractive, chestnut fencing is, in our opinion, always unequivocally ugly. This is the fence that consists of narrow vertical stakes linked with heavy wire, and should be used only in its intended context — to prevent sheep from straying.
A boundary wall creates a greater feeling of solidity and permanence than a fence, and is also more effective as a sound barrier — an important consideration if your house is close to a busy main road. However, the main factor that deters garden owners from building a long run of walling is that of cost. Nevertheless, once the initial investment has been made the wall should become a permanent feature, providing an attractive backcloth for plants. Indeed, it is important that both walls and fences should be softened by planting; this can take the form of climbers that will partially clothe its surface or of shrubs of ascending height that will blur its angular outline.
A wall may offer, too, the possibility of creating an intimate, sheltered area for seating.
The selection of the material in which the wall will be built should be a similar process to that of paving. Again the style and character of both house and garden should be taken into consideration. Where possible a brick wall should be built in the same brick as that used for the construction of the house. If your house is new and the builder is still working close by, you may be able to purchase a quantity of bricks from him, or ask where they can be obtained.
Natural stone walling is perhaps less easily available, but its rugged, weathered appearance has a timeless appeal. It is, of course, best suited to rural surroundings, being a little too rugged and unsophisticated to blend with the urban scene.
As with paving, there are a number of manufactured stone blocks that are cast from natural stone moulds, and are an excellent alternative when real stone is unobtainable. It is wise to select subtle shades and avoid harsh colours, for when used as walling these can be even more difficult to blend sympathetically with the landscape than brightly coloured paving.
Lightweight concrete blocks are a useful material for the modern garden. They are relatively cheap to buy and easy and quick to use. The finished appearance of the naked block is unattractive, and the wall can be painted in a shade that complements the garden scheme.
A further development of the concrete block is the screen block, with an open, decorative pattern. This can be useful where a solid wall would look too heavy or obliterate too much light. Screen blocks are not always used to best advantage in large quantities, and can be more appropriate in smaller sections, used to screen the dust-bin,or rubbish area, or even to partially separate one area of garden from another.
There are practical considerations common to all forms of boundary and screen walling. The wall should be built to a substantial concrete foundation, or footing, slightly wider than its base. Where the site slopes the wall should be formed in sections at descending levels, so that it steps down rather than sloping. The footings should also, of course, be stepped accordingly.
For a long run of freestanding wall additional strengthening will be required in the form of a brick or stone pier into which the main part of the wall is tied by means of wire wall ties; these are available from builders’ merchants.
A brick or manufactured stone wall often results in an unsatisfactory finish along its top edge, and a coping is required. For a brick wall, bricks laid on edge across the top are most satisfactory. Most manufactured walling comes with matching coping stones and pier caps, and these should overhang the wall by 1 to 1-1/2in on either side.
If the garden slopes, either away from or towards the house, with a gradient that prevents normal use of the area, then it is desirable to grade the ground to create at least one level space. The slopingwill then need to be held in position by a solid retaining wall.
For the do-it-yourselfer it is advisable to build a retaining wall to a height of not more than 3ft, depending on the requirements of the site. The wall should be built to a sound footing and should be the thickness of two bricks — approximately 9in. As the wall ascends it should slope slightly backwards into the bank at the rate of one inch per foot; this will avoid possible pressure.
Pressure will build up behind the wall unless you allow for adequatein the form of weep holes at intervals of approximately six feet. These can be formed by raking the mortar right out of a perpendicular joint two courses above ground level. Alternatively a 12in length of plastic hose can be installed to run through the wall.
Stones should be placed around the end behind the wall to prevent it from clogging with soil.
If you plan to build a retaining wall from manufactured or natural ‘dry stone’ where no mortar or cement is required, plants can be encouraged to grow in the cracks between stones so that they partially cover its surface.
Moreover, a low, double sided wall can be filled with soil and planted to form a miniature alpine garden.
Good rich soil should be used for this purpose, to support the plants which must, of necessity, be tolerant of dry conditions. Even so, it will be necessary to water the wall garden well in dry summer weather.
Among plants suitable for a wall garden are the following:
Dianthus plumarius (and other pinks)
Helianthemum (Rock rose)
Nepeta mussinii (mauve catmint)
Santolina (Cotton lavender)
I have mentioned the importance of softening the appearance of a boundary wall or fence with plants. However, you may wish to form a boundary screen using only plants — in other words, a hedge. When mature, a hedge can prove extremely successful as a screen for privacy and peace, and as a windbreak. However it will, of course, take time to reach a mature size.
Consider also the fact that a hedge will take up more space than a fence or wall. It could grow up to about three feet in width and you should therefore ensure that plants are spaced well inside your boundary, so that the hedge does not encroach on a neighbouring garden to any great extent.
The existence of a large hedge will also affect the planning of your own garden, for the plants will take moisture and food from the soil, and could cast shade onto which it forms a backdrop. This will obviously depend on its position.
If the hedge needs little attention, or can easily be reached from the other side for clipping, then it is a good idea to blend it with planting in the border, by selecting shorter growing plants for the front, graduating to taller plants at the rear. However, if there is no other way of gaining access to the hedge, to trim and maintain it, then allow for access through the planted border.
The best known plant for hedges must be privet. Although this stands up well to dust and dirt from roads, it really is used far too often. There are many more plants equally suitable, and their use will bring quite a different ‘look’ to the garden. Some have attractiveand generally make a more informal hedge; they require rather than regular clipping.
A formal hedge with colourful foliage needs to be close trimmed at regular intervals during the growing season.
Whenshrubs are newly planted they should not be allowed to grow too quickly in height until the lower parts of the plants are bushy and well established. Three or four clippings will therefore be necessary during each of the first two or three years; mature hedges will need clipping only once or twice a year, except where a formal, closely clipped hedge is required.
Renovating an old hedge
If you move into a house with an established garden that has been neglected and allowed to become overgrown, your problem may be in coping with a bulky, unshapely hedge. Think carefully before tearing it out completely, unless you are sure a screen is no longer necessary or you intend to replace it with a fence.
If you would rather renovate and bring under control the existing problem, the best time to do so is in spring — ideally late March. Cut the growth back quite drastically; this may involve sawing thick, woody stems; the sawn ends should be painted with a proprietary wound sealant. Then hose down the lower stems with clean water and clear away all the rubbish that inevitably accumulates at ground level. Finally sprinkle over and fork in to the soil above the roots a layer of compost or general fertiliser; water well if the ground is dry. This treatment is suitable for a closely knit hedge, where one plant becomes virtually indistinguishable from another. However, it is not really suitable for a conifer hedge, where each plant maintains its individual shape, a screen being formed by virtue of them being closely planted. Certainly it is possible to thin the conifers slightly by lightly pruning the tips of bushy growth, but if you were to amputate the top of each shrub or tree the graceful shape would never grow again in the same way, and their unique, natural beauty of form would almost certainly be destroyed.
A lawn can by no means be considered a structural item in the garden, since grass is a living plant. Neither is it strictly permanent in the same way as a patio or wall, since it is always possible to dig up part of the lawn and turn it over to growing flowers or vegetables.
Nevertheless, a lawn can be regarded as an important part of the garden framework; an area of cool, fresh green that can be enjoyed all the year round. Very few gardens are without a lawn; most people like to see some grass, even if it is only a ‘pocket handkerchief. A lawn provides an open surface for sitting and playing that is softer than the hard floor of a patio. It also introduces a large area clothed in a single colour providing a soothing contrast to the busier, brighter variations in the colour and textures of plants in beds and borders.
The desired effect will only be achieved by a clean, open sweep of grass, and not one that is broken up by little island beds which are, in any event, more difficult to maintain.
The area chosen for your lawn should ideally be quite open and free from the very deep shade of large trees. The soil should drain readily, and not become quicklyin heavy rain. A lawn need not necessarily be completely flat; indeed a slight slope away from the house to assist drainage is sometimes desirable. It is also possible, and can prove attractive, to incorporate a grass bank where the ground slopes quite steeply or to gently curve and undulate the lawn area. However, if you do attempt to achieve an interestingly contoured surface, it is essential to avoid forming dips that will become pockets of waterlogged grass better suited to the formation of a bog garden than a fresh, green, grassy sward.
With the development of modern lawnmowers grass maintenance has become much simpler, but anything that helps to keep maintenance to a minimum is worth considering at the planning stage.
Where a lawn runs right up to a house or patio retaining wall, the construction of a mowing strip is such a consideration. This consists simply of laying a row of paving slabs 9-12in wide approximately 6in below the house damp proof course, so that they separate the wall from the edge of the grass. You will then be able to cut the grass with the mower right up to its edge, and avoid having to finish off with shears against the house. The danger of causing damage to the mower is also considerably lessened.
A new lawn can either be grown from seed or turfed. Seeding means that you can choose exactly the right grass mixture to suit the purpose for which the lawn will be used; a hardwearing one if it is for play or a finer mixture if it is intended to become a velvety showpiece. However, the grass will take some time to become established. Turfing is perhaps more practical if you have children or a dog, and turf can be laid at almost any time of year.
There are important exceptions. Never attempt to lay turf when the ground is waterlogged or frozen. Also, avoid laying during periods of drought unless you are able to water heavily and frequently, for the turves may dry out and shrink in size — a process that is difficult to reverse once the damage has been done.
If you have a larger garden and an aversion to mowing, you may consider an area of ‘rough mown’ grass in which wild summer flowers will flourish. This has its rewards in both the sight and sound of long grass swaying and rustling in a gentle breeze.