Once you’ve got the walls or fences of your garden sorted, it’s time to consider the ground surface or floors
While lawns have their place, at least part of the garden floor needs paving or some kind of hard surface to make it easy to move around, and to create outdoor sitting and dining areas. In smaller gardens, every centimetre of space is valuable, particularly if you like to entertain outside. A hard surface is essential for this. When choosing hard surface materials remember the golden rule: simplicity is key. A mix of too many different materials on the floor of a garden (or anywhere for that matter) just looks confused, particularly in smaller gardens.
A good starting point for choosing materials for your outdoor ground surfaces are the external walls of the house and the boundary structures and other materials already being used in the garden (see my guide to garden walls and fences). For instance, if the garden is surrounded by concrete walls, you could use concrete flagstones with a different surface texture as paving. Or use timber inserts within a new area of poured concrete to connect it to an existing timber deck. Remember that garden floors are not always level. If steps are needed, this will affect what materials you use for the areas that connect to the steps.
It was big in ancient Rome, then again in the 1950s. Now crazy paving is making another comeback in gardens. Irregular-sized paving stones are laid dry or mortared onto a flat surface to create an organic, eye-catching garden floor. The curved shapes are a perfect counterpoint to the rectilinear geometry of many urban gardens, like this one in Sydney. Crazy paving suits contemporary, Mediterranean, coastal styles and other informal gardens.
PROS: This kind of paving gives a unique look, as the shape and often the colour of each slab is different. The curved lines are more gentle on the eye than regular paver units too.
If you’re going to go for natural stone, then travertine is one of the best paving materials to use around a pool. This is due to its porous surface – it will absorb water quickly so the surface is virtually non-slip. Travertine pavers also don’t heat up like other paving materials such as brick or concrete.
PROS: Travertine is incredibly long lasting, is available in a wide range of colours and patterns, with warm tones that work well with planting. They’re non-slip, can be either smooth or textured, and suit both contemporary and European-style gardens.
Made from concrete mixed with stone aggregates, reconstituted stone is a great way to get the look of natural stone without the price. It works very well when laid in a traditional stone pattern such as the Ashlar used here; these Granite Range Vega pavers are made with reconstituted Australian black granite flecks within a light grey base.
PROS: It’s cheaper than natural stone and is available in a wide range of colours, while also coming in consistent thickness and texture.
Also known as basalt, bluestone is a popular choice in Australia and New Zealand, with its grey tones being the ideal complement to green lawns and plantings. These honed bluestone stepping stones are set into a lawn, allowing rainwater to permeate and creating a softer look than a solid path. The classic simplicity of bluestone paving suits most garden styles.
PROS: Bluestone has an attractive colour, and comes in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Pavers can be cut to your own specifications, and you can choose from a range of surface finishes. They’re dense and hard-wearing, strong, slip-resistant, low maintenance and don’t show marks.
When you’re covering a large area that gets a high level of vehicular traffic, such as a driveway, concrete is often the best paving solution. This Melbourne home demonstrates the versatility of concrete; the house is clad in textured concrete, and the same material with different colours and finishes is used for the irregularly shaped driveway and mix of different sized paving units in the pathway.
PROS: There is a huge range of colours, textures and finishes available with concrete, and virtually any shape is possible. The material is long lasting and durable, looks great combined with other materials such as timber, terracotta, stone and brick, and can be cut to resemble large pavers.
Gravel and other ‘soft’ paving materials such as pebbles, stone chip and shell are ideal for secondary or low-traffic pathways. Adding an attractive textured look to the garden, gravel does still need to be retained with some kind of edging. And although it can be noisy, this is said to be a good burglar deterrent.
To make gravel more stable, select small-grade stones and avoid rounded, tumbled pea gravel. Sharper, angular gravel interlocks to form a firmer surface, and using a roller to compress also helps stability. This look suits informal garden styles such as cottage, beach, and naturalistic.
PROS: Gravel paths drain well. Plants can be grown into it to soften the look, and it’s a good environmental choice, as rainwater doesn’t run off it and into stormwater drains. It’s also one of the cheapest paving options, with only basic DIY skills required to install it.
Decking and boardwalks
Timber decking provides a good visual connection to timber-clad or timber-floored houses. It is also an excellent way to disguise level changes, and boardwalks are especially good for boggy terrain. Timber decking is so versatile it suits most garden styles.
PROS: There is a wide range of decking finishes, colours and board sizes available, and they can be built with a medium level of DIY skill. There are even ready-made timber decking sections available.
An environmentally sustainable alternative to timber decking is composite decking, such as the ModWood used here. An Australian-made composite product, ModWood is a mixture of ground wood waste and recycled plastic milk bottles. It contains no formaldehydes and comes in a range of sizes, colours and finishes. Like timber decking, it suits most gardens.
PROS: ModWood is sustainable, versatile, easy to install, durable, splinter-free, resistant to insects such as termites and requires low maintenance. It’s also just as stable as timber.
Cobbles or setts
The small size of cobbles and setts makes them ideal for curved paths like this one, as well as edging and decorative details in gardens. Most are made from concrete, granite or bluestone, ensuring their durability and hardness. They’re mainly used in informal country or cottage gardens, but also suit courtyards.
PROS: Cobbles and setts are hard-wearing, slip-resistant, versatile and easy to remove if damaged when laid on sand.
Recycled or old bricks have character and warmth and work beautifully with other materials such as gravel or concrete and planting.
PROS: They can be used in a variety of patterns, are available in a wide range of colours, have a non-slip surface and aren’t as expensive as stone paving.