Contrary to what one might expect from a cursory look at suburban gardens, the choice of materials available for hard surfacing is very wide – it’s a question of knowing where to look. Most garden centers stock a relatively restricted range, though there are exceptions – mainly the larger ones or those with specialist patio franchises. Once you have thought about the preliminary considerations above, however, you should have a good idea of what you are looking for and be prepared to make inquiries until you find it.
The following notes and enclosed summary table describe the main properties of the principal materials on the market and are intended to help you narrow your choice to suit particular requirements.
Other forms of concrete used as surfacing include precast concrete slabs and interlocking blocks – see below under ‘Paving’.
Good Points: excellent, firm surface if laid well and textured for extra grip. One of the most flexible materials – can be molded to any shape. Useful for curved paths. Relatively low-cost, long lasting, minimal maintenance. No loose particles to cling to footwear/wheels. Only DIY skills needed. Can be made up on site or bought ready-mixed. Wide color range. Combines well with other materials. Can be smooth enough for wheelchairs or textured for use by semi-ambulant people.
Limitations: poor aesthetic appearance if used on its own over large areas. High glare risk unless mixed with other materials, used in colored form or part-shaded by planting. (Can be painted with special colourant later, but risks blotchiness.) May be slippery after rain. Can’t be laid in wet or very cold weather. Messy, heavy work involved. Large areas require several hands, work takes, time and needs careful advance planning. Removal awkward.
Other comments: not porous, so must plan levels and drainage carefully. Several ways of improving surface texture for extra grip: brush gently with stiff broom whilst setting; tamp across with horizontal board; score with powered concrete cutter; jet with hose,. blast with grit (specialist job); brush to expose aggregate; add surface layer of epoxy resin/aggregate material.
Made from chippings, crushed stone or slag raked into hot bitumen or tarmac base, then rolled.
Good points: very firm surface if well laid. Good grip after rain. Non-reflective in bright sunshine. Appearance fairly good, particularly if surface dressed with quartz chippings. Very flexible. Available in red, green or black. Fairly easy to lay by skilled amateur or professional, even in damp weather. Cost comparable to that of concrete, though cheap end-of-run loads may be available from local councils. Lorry delivery or DIY bags.
Limitations: can be cracked by tree roots and perennial weeds. Thorough consolidation and weed elimination beforehand essential. Must be laid within well-defined edges at correct thickness, or breaks up easily. Must be laid immediately on exposure to air as tarmac sets when cold. Damage from frostheaving common – later patching-up may be necessary. Running-track type products require less maintenance. May become sticky in hot weather, causing problems for wheelchair tires, especially if these are narrow.
Good Points: very wide range of types available: concrete paving slabs, stone or reconstituted stone pavers, interlocking, hexagonal or round pavers, simulated brick or patternpave slabs. Wide range of colors and surface textures to suit different purposes. Wide price range according to type and delivery costs. Unbranded concrete slabs cheapest but more costly than in-situ concrete. Stone slabs most costly. Great variety of shapes available – potential for imaginative design. Can be DIY laid, although interlocking pavers require more skill than plain slabs and need vibrating in. Simulated brick (herringbone, parquet or other patterns) easier and quicker to lay than brick, but pattern-pave (blocks textured to look like granite setts) more specialist. Well-laid products with brushed, rough surface textures, including exposed, aggregate, provide good grip even when wet. Majority frost-proof. Easy to take up and re-lay.
Limitations: many older slabs and those with smooth-ground finish too slippery for semi-ambulant people, especially when wet. Must be laid extremely level with minimum width joints for efficient wheelchair use. Loose, uneven slabs treacherous. Lighter colors often too reflective in bright sun and after rain. Care needed to keep weeds down between slabs – brush dry cement over; use herbicides or boiling water or hand weed. Cheaper paving types can look stark over large areas – mix with other materials. Not as flexible as brick, but can be cut with angle grinder. May crack under weight of vehicles, though small unit interlocking pavers take weight well and don’t ‘creep’. Particular care needed over sub-base preparation on clay soils.
Other comments: riven reconstituted stone good value. Simulated small setts difficult to lay evenly. Hexagonal slabs can’t be mixed easily with other shapes. Round slabs often scarce but useful as stepping stones. Natural stone slabs vary enormously in price (with availability). also in quality. Surface finish difficult to guarantee, can be slippery. Inspection at quarry recommended.
Good points: wide availability of shape, texture, color and price, depending on type. Extremely versatile, durable, minimal maintenance. Often very attractive, particularly when laid in coordinated patterns. Provides good, firm, non-slip surface if the right type, suitable for paving, is chosen and laid well. Useful for gradual changes in level or direction and for demarcating edges as contrast. Fast to lay – no delay during hardening period as for cement or tarmac.
Limitations: quality and performance varies with type of brick. Rough stocks and common household bricks not suitable. Former often uneven and of variable shape, both types porous, neither frost-resistant. Look for ‘Special Quality’ or ‘Engineering’ bricks (but check they’re designated as ‘pavers’) and those which are ‘solid wirecut’ or ‘single-frogged’. Bricks take longer to lay than slabs. Poor sunken joints can encourage moss and lichen growth and be dangerous.
Other comments: poor drainage encourages frost damage. Interlocking paving bricks give excellent grip, especially over large areas. Poorly-laid bricks soon become hazardous for wheelchairs, those using sticks or crutches.
Good Points: cheap, readily available, very flexible, easy to lay, good informal appearance and color range, never slippery, drains easily. If right thickness, a good, all-weather surface for use by semi-ambulant people as sticks can dig in for extra grip. Easy to take up and re-lay. Is often quite noisy to walk over which can be a good deterrent to burglars walking around the house.
Limitations: unsuitable for wheelchairs, especially if thick. Even if well consolidated beneath and laid thinly, wheels may rut ground, producing uneven, poorly-drained surface. Painful to fall on. Some maintenance needed (raking, weeding, removal of dead leaves). ‘Walks’ easily onto lawns and indoors. Needs good edging.
Other comments: grade used affects its success considerably. If too coarse, surface too uneven to be safe. If too fine, easily becomes muddy and uneven. Can be very suitable for use by ambulant sighted people with minor disabilities if laid on well-compacted base of hardeore, coarse gravel and hoggin, in the form of pea shingle. Otherwise best used adjacent to buildings, around plantings or in odd corners, as deterrent surfacing.
Used in the form of railway sleepers, decking or transverse sawn log sections.
Good points: attractive, rustic appearance, natural material. Looks particularly good in rural setting or near wooden buildings.
Limitations: short life, even when mature, unwarped, pressure-treated timber used – particularly in damp, poorly ventilated sites. Can be treacherously slimy and slippery in wet or icy weather. Risk of splinters. Must be well-planed. Gaps between adjacent sleepers give bumpy surface for wheelchairs. Spaces between sawn log sections hard to keep evenly topped up with infill. Regular, costly maintenance required.
Other comments: grip properties can be improved by treating with yacht varnish with sand added, but needs doing annually and may flake off in hot weather. Alternatively, can staple plastic coated wire mesh onto surface, but this must remain flush. More durable, rough texture of end-grain gives best surface. Redwood, cedar, cypress, second-hand timber and railway sleepers last longest, especially if laid on sound bed with perforated polythene sheeting beneath. Decking must be of stout mature wood and be well-supported beneath to avoid warping.
Good points: cheap, useful way of using old paving slabs, odd bits of stone. Attractive informal appearance. Gives even, firm surface if well-laid.
Limitations: easy to lay badly using poor materials on poor foundations breaks up readily. Must have good edging or deteriorates rapidly. Cutting and laying demands precision.
Other comments: pave path edges with larger stones – less likely to break away later. Arrange pattern first before fixing into cement base for extra stability. Use good quality, frost-resistant materials.
Good points: attractive, informal appearance, whether set random, coursed, in patterns or in loose piles. Cheap – where materials are at hand. Especially good in small areas near buildings – more intimate scale than pavers. Can suit ambulant people with good balance if set low into concrete so cobbles are flush with surface. Minimal maintenance.
Limitations: can be slippery. Very uneven if poorly laid or laid with cobbles raised above concrete. Generally unsuitable for most physically disabled people.
Other comments: very useful as deterrent surfacing in form of loose piles or raised cobbles preventing access or short cuts. Good in odd corners or at edges of curved paths as infill secondary material, complementing other textures and patterns. Can use sparingly to emphasize direction.
Fine gravel or chippings (scalpings), set into binder matrix of clay.
Good Points: informal appearance, cheap if available nearby, very flexible, good grip when evenly-laid.
Limitations: must be laid on very well prepared and compacted (yet well-drained) base. Ruts easily with wheelchair use. ‘Walks’ indoors and can be muddy. Good edges essential. Must be bought as consistent grade. Clay difficult to work with, particularly when compacting.
Good Points: can form a relatively hard surface if laid onto firm foundations and
maintained well. Grip properties good for ambulant people. Most attractive, particularly in rural setting. Porous. Non- reflective. Soft in event of accidents. Sensory value particularly useful for children and profoundly handicapped people.
Limitations: once laid, takes time to consolidate and then may rut easily beneath narrow wheels on slopes and corners. Expensive, regular topping-up needed. Good edging required. Short life, decomposes eventually. Some risk of honey fungus infection.
Epoxy-bonded resin aggregate
Good points: a non-slip, decorative surface applied to smooth materials such as concrete. Attractive. Several colors and grades of aggregate. Useful as contrasting material. Very safe, excellent grip and drainage properties. DIY kit form available.
Limitations: expensive. Takes 24 hours to harden.
Whatever materials you use, make sure that all paths are laid evenly. This is easier to do if you have a level garden. Where you are having to deal with a sloping garden it becomes more difficult but just as important.
Where changes of level occur, deal with them to suit your mobility. If you need a slope, make it no more than 1in 15 gradient. If you need steps, make shall risers – about 10cm (4″) and, if possible, deep treads – 77cm (18″). Incorporate handrails if you need to help with steps and slopes. Again the handrail should be comfortable height for you.
Once you have a good even surface, maintenance is important. Keeping it clear of fallen leaves, moss and algae will reduce its slipperiness. This is especially important where the path is in shade. You can buy proprietary moss and algae killers for paths. Keeping them free of weeds and cutting back any plants that grow over them reduce the possibility of catching you feet and tripping over.
If good even paths are laid all around the garden, you will have a much safer garden and one that you will be able to make more use of.
Finally, but perhaps most important, make sure that you can easily get from the house into the garden. Access starts from where you get into the garden, not just once you are in it.