Choosing hard landscaping materials

York stone

York stone - Credit: Archant

The weather at this time of year is terrible for grass, so if you’re doing your garden, you may want to consider a patio. Here’s what to consider before cracking on

Patio garden by Kate Gould

Patio garden by Kate Gould - Credit: Archant

The world of hard landscaping materials can be a minefield; a boggling array of new or reclaimed, natural or manmade paving, softwood, hardwood or manmade decking, decorative aggregates and feature stones in myriad colours, shapes and sizes and that’s even before we touch on the subject of grouts and pointing. So, when thinking about how you want your garden to look as a finished product how do you narrow your choice of materials?

First consider what the material is to be used for?

1. Will it be a new stone for a contemporary scheme, a reclaimed one to enhance a period property or perhaps a wooden material, either natural or manmade?

2. Will it be seen directly outside the home providing a link between inside and out?

3. Will children play on it in the winter months when a lawn is perhaps too wet to be used? If so, it ought to have good anti-slip properties.

4. Will it be sited in sun or shade, or both?

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5. Will it be used as a flooring or vertical (walling, fencing) material?

6. How much ongoing maintenance will be required to keep it looking fresh?

When designing for clients I never underestimate the matter of ongoing maintenance. If you are to spend any amount of money on hard landscaping in the garden then it should be something that will last for years. That said, all materials, even manmade ones will discolour and age over time, which in most cases will help to settle the scheme into its surroundings. Algae are the scourge of paving stones and there are many products available on the market to help deter growth. It is always a good idea to speak to the supplier you purchase your stone from for their advice on a cleaning product because natural stones tend to react in different ways to different cleaning agents.

The most economical of the natural stones are sandstones, many of which come from India and China. These come in various colours, the most popular being cream and grey, as well as having different surface finishes: riven (generally the most economical), sawn and textured. Sandstone has a good slip resistance when wet, which is why it is one of the most commonly used stones for landscaping in the UK. The range of slab sizes is very good so it can be laid in a random/traditional manner or as a single size slab for more modern schemes. Over time we have found that the grey slabs weather better and require less maintenance. The creams are lovely but look best when sparklingly clean which really does mean lots of scrubbing and a situation in full sun where algae will find it hard to take hold.

Our own native sandstones, commonly called Yorkstone, are lovely. New sawn Yorkstone is a lovely material with a slightly sparkly surface and lots of life in each slab. These work well laid in both a traditional and a contemporary way but both look best pointed with an exterior tile grout at 3mm wide rather than more traditional sand and cement pointing.

Reclaimed Yorkstone is never pristine and often arrives with holes or bits of old metal in and is never calibrated (i.e. sawn to the same thickness to make it easier to lay). This means it is best laid in a random pattern with a conventional cement mortar. It will become slippery when wet as its surface has already been smoothed by many years of foot traffic where it was originally laid. Despite these drawbacks, it does add instant history to a scheme and works well with reclaimed stock bricks, flint or granite cobbles.

The more expensive natural stones; granite, limestone, basalt are often slippery when wet and should have a textured surface applied before laying. This can be a sandblasted or bush hammered finish, both create dents in the surface of the slabs to provide grip but this process does leave the slabs matte and often they can seem a little lifeless. This can work well when combined with other slabs of a bright hue as a border or detail. Many of the best grey and cream slabs lie within the limestone range but all should be approved for use outside. Some limestone from southern Europe will not take the cold of an English winter and should be avoided as they will shatter in the frost.

Kate Gould is an award winning garden designer with more than a decade’s hands-on experience transforming gardens of all sizes and a regular exhibitor at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show where she has been awarded three Gold medals.