Garden floors can be as varied and versatile as any floor within the house itself. While they are often overlooked, garden floors are one of the most important elements of the outdoor scheme, determining both the usefulness and attractiveness of the outdoor area as a whole.
Perhaps the most effective garden floors are those that rely on classical parterre designs, which involve a variety of plant shapes and colors – lawns, gravel and so on – that are arranged to produce beautiful embroidered effects.
Of course, much will depend on the role each part of the garden has to fulfill. A patio needs a hard, level surface, while play areas for children should be soft underfoot. A pool surround will have much in common with patio and terrace, but an added prerequisite here is safety, so it should be of a non-slip material. Ease of maintenance is a prime consideration in constructing the driveway, safety is the most important element when it comes to pathways.
But the aesthetics are just as important, especially when choosing suitable materials. Asphalt is an appropriate driveway material, but is not a good choice for the patio. Similarly, brick pathways look attractive in some settings but will not suit a wild garden.
The garden’s range of hard materials should ideally complement those used in the house itself. They do not need to match, but one should work towards harmony of color and contrast or consistency in texture.
Ideal Choices for Garden Floors – in alphabetical order
Not very popular nowadays, asphalt (or tarmac) is nevertheless particularly useful for low-cost driveways and parking areas. Many people consider the material ugly, but it can easily be softened by creative planting around the perimeter.
Asphalt is well suited to large properties with sweeping driveways, and is quite acceptable in one that has a Farmhouse-style garden.
Although it is a reasonably inexpensive material it is difficult to work with and it is not a DIY option. You will need to hire a specialist contractor to lay it for you.
Chips of bark may be used over bare parts of a bed to give a neat, clean look to what might otherwise appear a rather tatty and unkempt area. Chips are, however, not intended for walking on and should only be used in planted areas.
A popular material, brick may be laid in a variety of patterns to create a good-looking and hard-wearing surface for garden floors. It is suitable for driveways. patios. pathways. steps, and is a particularly good choice for swimming pool surrounds.
Both clay and concrete bricks are suitable, the choice depending on the effect you want to create and on your budget. Concrete blocks aren’t suitable, they’re too big. Concrete pavers are generally cheaper, but clay bricks come in a greater selection of colors and they tend to look more natural.
Sometimes old bricks may be used with effect in the garden, in a Victorian-style environment, for instance. If you have access to secondhand bricks, make sure that they will withstand weathering.
One of the most effective ways of visually softening an expansive brick-paved surface is to group a selection of tubs and pots on the paving. Planted with bright annuals (petunias for instance), or perennials (geraniums are a favorite) or, if there is some shade, fuchsias, they will add color as well as variety to the area.
Another option – for an informal garden – is to scatter quick-growing seeds, alyssum (Aurinia saxatilis) for instance, over the brick paving and allow it to root in the cracks. The plants look pretty and will spread rapidly. Or you could leave (or even create) gaps where more established shrubs and perennials can be planted.
Concrete, made by mixing sand, cement, and crushed stone with water in the correct proportions, is a cheap material that may be used throughout the garden. Moreover, it may be utilized on its own or in conjunction with other surfaces, including timber and brick. It is available in precast forms as fake flagstones or sleepers, as stepping stones or ordinary slabs, or it may be cast in situ (on site).
Until paving became so universally popular and affordable as garden floors, concrete driveways were often laid in strips (usually with grass planted between them) leading to a garage. There was also an unfortunate tendency in some suburban areas to use concrete over entire backyard areas – a practice that does little to improve a garden’s appeal.
5. GRANITE SETTS
Although not a commonly used material (similar to cobblestones, it can more often be seen as street and public pathway paving), granite setts are nevertheless suitable for garden terraces and patios.
Sometimes laid on paths and, on flat ground, on country driveways, gravel is an inexpensive option which, more often than not, serves as a temporary arrangement. Unless the earth beneath it is well compacted, the gravel will tend to sink into the soil and become uneven. It is also impractical if you are likely to use the pathway for wheelbarrows, prams and the like.
Gravel may be used between plants, adding to a mosaic design, or between slabs, stepping stones or any other hard material.
7. GROUND COVER
The green floor of a garden need not be of grass. Ground covers, of which there are a great many varieties to choose from, provide an attractive and inexpesive alternative. A number of species may also be planted to create a colorful carpet or dense blanket of foliage either in place of a lawn or as part of a bed – where they will also play a valuable role suppressing weeds. Many of the varieties are also suitable for covering areas of soil around young shrubs that will fill out as they grow.
If you want to create a lawn effect without grass as garden floors, consider aromatic chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), a hardy perennial that forms a thick, mat-like growth. Its long stems are removed by careful mowing once or twice a year.
A wild-flower meadow is another possibility. Here flowers and various grasses cover the ground in informal fashion to produce a glorious medley of color.
Especially suitable for farm driveways and walkways in formal rose or herb gardens, this fine gravel and clay mixture is watered and rolled to create a good, smooth surface.
Although real flagstones (which are flat slabs or solid rock) are not common in all areas, a fairly wide range of simulated products is readily available. Made from reconstituted stone or concrete, they are attractive, easy to lay, and they will make practical, good-looking and hard-wearing paths. patios, and even pool surrounds.
Just about every garden today has at least one area of lawn as garden floors. The type of grass chosen will be largely determined by its function and the look you want to create, but also by the amount of time and effort you are prepared to spend keeping it in shape. A well-manicured lawn will look lush and elegant, but it will also be time-consuming.
Generally, a lawn will appear bigger if it is unbroken by beds, trees and pathways. If yours is a small area, let the path meander alongside a grassy edge. If, however, you have a large garden, you may welcome a tree or two to provide dappled shade during long, hot summer days.
Stone chips and round pebbles may be used in the same way as bark (see above) to cover bare soil and so prevent excessive loss of moisture, and to help suppress unsightly weed growth. Often, too, they are placed between paving stones or slabs to create an interesting contrast.
Rounded river-stones may also be set in concrete to produce a cobblestone effect.
12. RAILWAY SLEEPERS
The wood previously used for railway sleepers was extremely tough and will therefore wear well outdoors (for which of course the units were designed).
At one time, not so long ago, railway sleepers were a cheap material for garden use, but nowadays they are scarce and relatively expensive. Still. if you can find them, they are a good option for patios, steps, and even as a border for ground-level planters. It is preferable to separate them with a ground cover, both to enhance their attractiveness and to provide a secure grip underfoot.
This is not commonly used as a ground surface on its own, as it tends to blow away in hot, dry weather and to become messy in wet weather. It may also be difficult to maintain weed control. Sand gardens are, however, an integral part of many Japanese-style homes. In this instance, coarse sand is laid and raked into different patterns for effect.
Available in both regular and irregular shapes, slate – which is usually set on top of a concrete base – is useful for patios, paths and steps.
If this is your chosen material and yours is a formal garden, you will have to use uniform pieces (which are not always readily obtainable) or tiles. Random ‘crazy paving’, on the other hand, is well suited to informal gardens, especially those planted in the old-fashioned Cottage style, and is reasonably easy to obtain. Moreover, it is a fairly easy surface to lay.
A natural garden material, stone may be used for building steps, pathways, terraces, patios and swimming pool surrounds.
Irregular pieces of cut stone are suitable for ‘crazy paving’ and crushed stone may be used in much the same manner as gravel. Large stones, of course, will be an essential part of any rockery or rock garden, and cobblestones are particularly appropriate to the Cottage style.
Simulated stone is now widely available. This is cement-based and factory moulded, regular in shape and therefore considerably simpler to lay than genuine cut stone.
One can easily soften the overall effect of a stone paved surface, simply by allowing perennial ground covers to grow in spaces between the stones. Herbs such as thyme, creeping marjoram and pennyroyal, which release a fragrant smell when crushed underfoot, are a delight. They may also be used as a ground cover on their own rather than for garden floors as such.
Suitable for patio surfaces and pool surrounds, tiles intended for outdoor areas should always have a matt finish and be non-slip. Terrazzo, terracotta and quarry tiles are especially recommended as they will blend with the natural environment in terms of both texture and color.
You lay outdoor tiles in exactly the same way as the indoor type – on a smoothly screeded concrete surface – and then fill the gaps with grout.
The most common decking material, and suitable for many parts of the garden. Choose hardwoods (meranti, afrormosia, Philippine mahogany or teak) and treat for longevity. Pine is not an appropriate timber for garden construction.
A major advantage of timber decking is that it enables homeowners on steeply sloping plots to establish a useful flat surface without excavation, retaining walls and soon. In this situation, it is often the most practical material available.
Nicely rounded slices of tree-trunk make attractive stepping stones. Place them in ground cover (it is generally tricky to keep lawn looking trim around the circular pieces). Although they do tend to become slippery. they can also be used for rustic garden steps, and even for a patio or driveway. If laid over a reasonably wide area ensure that the finish is slightly uneven. This will provide a grip for car wheels and make it less treacherous in wet weather