Starting a Garden – Landscaping and Construction – Paving and Patios

Starting a Garden - Landscaping and Construction

Earth Moving

If your garden is uniformly flat, you may find it worth while to change the levels, or, if the existing slopes are very steep, some levelling and terracing may be necessary. The usual method is called ‘cut and fill’. This consists of cutting into the slope, moving the topsoil and placing it to one side in small heaps so that it does not become consolidated, then levelling off the subsoil by removing it from the upper part of the slope and using it to build up the lower part. Then the topsoil is replaced. These raised areas will usually need some kind of retaining wall to keep them intact, although if they are allowed to run off into a gentle slope, the earth may be retained by turfing, sowing grass-seed or planting ground-cover.

For earth-moving over larger areas, it may be necessary to bring in contractors but, once again, before entrusting them with the job make sure that they are a well-established outfit and have been recommended to you by others. They are usually quite keen on leaving mounds of earth where you least expect or want them, claiming that they thought you would like to make a nice rockery there – so hang around a while and watch them at work.

Services – Water Supplies and Electricity

With the initial ‘sculpting’ of the garden done, it will be time to lay on any necessary services – the drains if necessary, water supplies and electricity.

Paving, Patios and Terraces

That done, you will have to make your hard surfaces, the paths, terraces and the bases for outbuildings, etc. Every material has its advantages and disadvantages. Stone is expensive and heavy to handle, and in some conditions it can become slippery. On the other hand, it is immensely handsome, hard-wearing and easily maintained. If you do go for stone, try and keep to one that occurs naturally in your area, although second-hand York paving looks good in most places, having a simplicity that fits in practically anywhere. Similarly, if you are using bricks, it is generally more effective to use those that are the same as, or resemble, those used in the construction of the house: second-hand stocks in London; red bricks for red-brick houses; modern, perhaps engineering bricks for modern properties, etc. Some concrete slabs can look right in modern settings, but I think that, even there, they look more effective if edged with courses of bricks or cobbles.


gravel paths Gravel (or pea-shingle) is the most adaptable of surfaces, either on its own or combined with others. It is, comparatively, very cheap, easy to lay and, really, pretty easy to maintain: a little raking from time to time, the odd application of weed-killer and an occasional top-dressing to any worn patches. It has the advantage that you can alter its position quite easily, and you can plant through it, too, which can give a romantic air to the whole thing. Many people shudder when I suggest gravel, thinking of those municipal graveyards where the marble-edged plots are filled with chippings, but nothing is more natural-looking or mellow than honey-coloured gravel, edged with billowing plants, and it fits in happily with any period and style of house. If you are afraid that it will cling to your shoes and come into the house, lay a few slabs of stone or a patch of brickwork in front of the door sills, which should take care of the problem. The larger grades of gravel will never stick to your shoes, and a 2cm (3/4″) grade has a good, strong ‘feel’, although  you can still stand a table and chairs comfortably upon it.

If the area is to have heavy use, put a 15cm (6″) layer of well rammed hardcore down first, then a 5-8cm (2″-3″) layer of consolidated hoggin (a mix of gravel, sand and clay that binds firmly when compacted) or builder’s sand, before adding the gravel in a thin layer of about 2.5-4cm (1″-1-1/2″) and rolling it in. Anything deeper would be difficult to walk on. You can hire a roller and a rammer quite cheaply from tool hire shops. Get a hollow roller that can be filled with water when it is on site, as it is much easier to handle, although not quite so heavy as the solid ones. If the gravel is to be purely ornamental, or in areas of light use, omit the hardcore, especially if you intend to plant through the gravelled surface. Many plants are at their happiest in the good drainage system that gravel provides for them.

Areas of gravel will need some kind of edging to keep them in their place, unless they are in an already contained area, such as a sunken garden. They can be edged with thin strips of treated timber, bricks, concrete or stone curbing.


brick patios Bricks can be laid on a similar foundation if you are laying them loose. This has several advantages: the layout can be changed easily; odd bricks which crack or flake can be replaced; they will drain quickly and small plants and bulbs can be established between them in informal settings; while an odd application of weedkiller will keep things neat in the more formal setting. Areas of gravel or loose bricks should be slightly cambered to assist drainage.

Where something firmer is required, lay the bricks in a layer of mortar, instead of sand, over the hardcore base. A 5cm (2″) layer of 4 to 1 dry mortar should do the trick. Mix the mortar well and shovel it onto the area to be paved. Pulling a piece of board from one end to the other will help you to level it. Brush more of the same dry mix between the bricks when they are laid and the natural dampness in the soil and in the atmosphere will cause both the bedding mortar and the pointing to ‘go off’ slowly and make a firm surface, without the risk of staining that comes from using a wet mix. In very dry weather, sprinkle gently with water after laying. Paths and terraces laid in this firm fashion will need to have a very slight tilt to carry off surface water to some form of drainage away from the house – into the grass or beds in ‘soft’ areas, or into gullies, drain-traps or soak-aways in ‘hard’ areas. Without this drainage, the surfaces can become slimy with algae or treacherous with ice in bad weather. A fall of about 2.5cm (1″) in two yards should be about right.

If you are laying a very small area of brick, it would be easier to use a bag or two of ready-mix sand-and-cement. This is also the answer where you are working in an area which is hard to get at, or where access is through the house, but it is quite a bit more expensive than making your own mix. Whichever you use, put some form of protection down before you mix up, to prevent staining. Plastic sheeting or off-cuts of chipboard or hardboard will do.

One easy way to get a smooth, regular surface and a continuous tilt, is to drive small pegs into the ground on each side of the area, marking the top and bottom of the slope. A straight piece of timber is then placed along this row of pegs at the desired level of the finished surface, and another board, placed across them and checked with a spirit level, can be moved down the slope as you work, ensuring that you are keeping to a smooth fall.

In theory, you should use specially hardened bricks, paviors or engineering bricks for a durable surface, but in practice, gather your bricks where ye may; most of them will last a reasonable time and those that do crumble can be prised-out and replaced. Second-hand bricks have a pleasant, lived-in look which seems happily at home in most settings.

There is a variety of patterns in which they can be laid. Straight courses, walling bonds, basket weave and herringbone are the easiest to do, although the latter will need some cutting for alternate courses at the edge, but you can overcome the necessity for this by leaving the edges jagged, laying a straight course of bricks along each side and infilling the gaps with gravel. In fact, it always looks neat to finish off areas of brickwork with a course or two of straight bricks, either side by side or head on. The larger the area of brickwork, the simpler the pattern should be, or the effect will be turbulent rather than soothing; in small areas, however, your imagination can run riot, with squares, circles, triangles and stars. The bricks can be laid on edge, with their flat surfaces uppermost, or in a mix of both. They are not difficult to cut in half: just chase a line across them, then place a bolster on this groove and give it a sharp tap with a club hammer. Any jagged bits can then be chipped off. Alternatively, as in the herringbone edging, any odd gaps in your pattern can be in-filled with gravel, shingle, pebbles, cobbles, small shells or low-growing plants.

Pebbles, Cobbles, Quarry Tiles and Granite

Pebbles and cobbles can also be used for paving, either laid loose or set in a mortar bed. Large, rounded pebbles and cobbles set on end, like eggs in a box, are good for areas in which you want to deter walkers, whilst laid on their side, with the flattest surface uppermost, and well bedded down in sand or a mortar-mix, they can be walked on with ease, except perhaps by those with bare feet or stiletto heels.

Quarry tiles and stable tiles also make good paving material for small areas and, like the cobbles, should be set in a layer of dry sand and cement mix (3 to 1) over an 8cm (3″) layer of consolidated hardcore, with more of the same mix brushed between them.

Granite setts are laid in the same way over a 10cm (4″) hardcore base.


stone patios Stone, reconstituted stone and concrete slabs are probably the easiest to lay (apart from their weight), but the first two are not cheap, unless you have salvaged them from somewhere or other. Concrete slabs are cheap enough, but rather un-endearing unless very skilfully sited. The best of them can look right in a modern setting, and the others will do at a pinch for ‘utility’ areas, but avoid, at all cost, multi-coloured slabs. For areas of very heavy, perhaps vehicular use, they should be set over a poured concrete base. For medium wear, a 5cm (2″) bed of sand over a 10cm (4″) hardcore base will be the answer and for light use on well drained areas, the heavier slabs can be set on sand laid over compacted soil. A dab of mortar set at each corner and in the middle of the underside of each slab will be a help in getting them level, as they can be tapped down and checked with a spirit level. They can be close-butted or pointed with a dry mortar mix.

You can, of course, use poured concrete for terraces and paths by ordering a load of ready-mix, if you have access to barrow it into your garden, or by getting a hired concrete mixer in there and mixing it yourself. It is much praised in some circles, but I find it incredibly alienating, no matter how cleverly laid and surfaced. I would only use it as the base for sheds, etc., and never where it will be seen, but if it does anything for you, it is a cheap enough solution. I am equally unkeen on random or crazy paving; it is unspeakably awful when made from bits of polished marble in assorted colours, or from broken-up concrete slabs. I can just about bear it, in natural stone, for a cottage garden path. If you do go for it, make sure that it is well laid and firmly bedded, or it will prove a trap for the unwary. I prefer to see these odd pieces of stone set as stepping stones, through gravel or pebbles.

Wooden Decking

It is possible to terrace small areas with wooden decking. If you can get your timber from skips and demolition sites before it ends up on a great bonfire, it will be quite a cheap solution to uneven ground. The planks of treated wood are nailed down onto a system of beams and joists, like a wooden floor, which must, of course, be set on a firm and level foundation. The planks can be laid in a variety of patterns, either in straight courses or diagonally, using galvanised nails.

Decking makes a good, neat cover for tatty concrete yards, so often found at the back of older, urban properties. These are eyesores, but a bore to dig up, as you never know what you are going to disturb – the drains, main services, etc. Cover the uneven rubble with tidy planks, or lengths of 5 x 2.5 cm (2″ x 1″) timber which you have treated with a suitable wood reservative. Heave a small gap (about 6mm or 1/4″) between the planks for drainage. Anything wider could catch narrow heels. A wooden floor can also be made from railway sleepers, and from old beams and slices of tree trunks as well, but all wooden flooring can become slippery in wet weather, so be warned.

Bark Chippings

Finally, in a wildly informal garden, paths and even small clearings can be surfaced with bark chippings which, like gravel, can be altered easily and planted through. It acts as a weed-suppressing mulch but, unfortunately, birds are attracted to it somewhat and spend much time flicking it about in a most annoying and untidy way.

Manhole Covers

Wherever you plan your paths and terraced area, one or more manhole covers are sure to be bang in the middle, where you least want them. It would be expensive to move them but you can usually raise or lower them a little, by the removal or addition of a course or two of bricks, so that the cover will, at least, be flush with its surroundings. It is possible to buy recessed covers which will take slabs, tiles and other surfacing materials. This is great if you can fit it in with the general direction of the surfacing, but as often as not they are set at the weirdest angles so that it is impossible to blend them into any reasonable design. If they are not slap in the middle of a main thoroughfare, immediately in front of a door or in the middle of a narrow path, they can be disguised by a paving slab, some bricks, a container-grown plant or a layer of gravel, all of which can be removed easily enough when necessary. If they are sited where you would inevitably trip over such a disguise, a thin layer of gravel or a neat paint job would be the best you could do.

06. October 2010 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Garden Landscapes, Gardening Ideas, Neglected Gardens, New Gardens | Tags: | Comments Off on Starting a Garden – Landscaping and Construction – Paving and Patios


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