Designer guide to …. choosing paving stone for your garden

I have a number of garden design plans which are nearing completion at the moment and we’re getting to the tricky subject of paving choices. It really is one of the hardest decisions to make in the design and build of a new garden as there are so many factors to take into consideration, and it needs serious thought as the costs involved can be substantial. And unfortunately the choice isn’t getting easier as every year the major paving suppliers come up with new products to add to the mix! So if you’re bemused and bewildered by the choices on offer, here’s a simple checklist of things to consider before you decide what materials you choose:

What’s your style?
Is your house traditional or contemporary in style? Do you want your paving material to fit the style of the house or are you happy to contrast old and new?
If your house is very traditional and built in brick or stone, the obvious choice for paving is to go with brick and the same local stone or an all rounder such as Yorkstone which seems to work in pretty much any situation. If you’ve got a very contemporary house you may prefer something with a cleaner sharper look, maybe slate or granite, or a sawn sandstone.

sawn edged paving, chelsea flower show

Crisp clean lines for a contemporary look. Chelsea Flower Show

But you don’t have to be a slave to tradition and just do what’s expected, in fact modern materials can look fantastic next to traditional buildings and vice versa, but it’s something that needs to be thought out carefully. (And if you’re thinking long term – possibly about selling your house in the not-too-distant future – I’d advise you not to get too wacky in your choices. You could put potential buyers off).

Think about colour and its effect
Are you paving in a bright sunny part of the garden or is shade an issue? Think about colours of the stone you are choosing, not only to get the right tones to complement any nearby buildings and existing hard landscaping, but also in terms of the effect the stone will have on making a space brighter or not. A lighter coloured stone can really lift a gloomy space but with that choice comes the problem of keeping the stone clean.  You could consider sealing light-coloured paving to reduce the chance of staining (this can be done in advance by stone merchants, but there is of course an additional cost involved).

Are you concerned about where your stone is coming from?
You may also like to check that your supplier is sourcing their stone ethically – some of the stone currently on the market is unbelievably cheap, and certainly in the past concerns have been raised about the safety of some of the overseas quarries supplying stone. You may be aware that Indian Sandstone has become hugely popular in the UK over the last 10 or so years – and that popularity is based largely on price. Despite the fact it’s travelled so far to get to the UK, much of it is now cheaper than local stone or precast slabs. There’s no denying it can be a very good cost-effective alternative for the more expensive stones such as Yorkstone, however it can vary hugely in quality and also in colour (a real case of you get what you pay for).

Indian sandstone, stone merchants

Indian sandstone can vary enormously in colour & markings

And be aware that within one colour range you could be supplied with stone with tones of pink, beige, orange, grey …. I always advise my clients if at all possible to go to a stone merchants where you can see the paving laid out en masse to get a clear idea of the colours and textures you are likely to end up with. It doesn’t always look like it does in the brochure!  And look at it in dry and wet weather to get the full picture.

What about your budget?
Budget is often the deciding factor when it comes down to it, but it’s aso important to take into account the cost of laying the stone you choose. Many natural stones are supplied in varying thicknesses, and it’s a lot harder and more time-consuming for a landscaper to lay an area of paving if all the stones are of different thicknesses. Reclaimed Yorkstone in particular can be a nightmare as it can vary massively in this regard. It also weighs a ton which makes laying it a very slow and costly process.

Yorkstone paving

Yorkstone paving isn’t a budget stone but it looks fantastic.

You can pay a higher price to buy new stone that has been cut to a uniform thickness, or you could consider using pre-cast or reconstituted slabs. Some of the ‘fake’ products on offer these days really are pretty impressive in terms of mimicking natural stone, and they can be a better solution if for example you like the look of sandstone but don’t like the wild colour variations.

Concrete paving stone with brick detailing

Concrete paving stone with brick detailing

Of course there are many other very attractive natural stones to choose from apart from sandstone – limestone, quartzite, granite, slate, Purbeck stone and Travertine to name a few. The key is to do your homework and make sure you know where the stone originates from and (very importantly in the UK) that it can cope with freezing weather.

Where is the paving being used?
If it’s being laid in an area that gets little sun and it will be covered in algae by the end of winter that’s okay if you don’t need to walk on it. But for pedestrian areas you don’t want stone underfoot that will be really slippery and slimey when it gets wet (and the same goes for decking which can be lethal when wet). You also need to think about the surface finish of the stone you choose – a riven finish is great for a traditional look, but this uneven surface on sandstone and Yorkstone can be seriously dangerous when wet – as can a very smooth surface.

Sawn edged Yorkstone with a smooth finish

Sawn edged Yorkstone with a smooth finish

Consider opting for stone with a shotsawn, bush hammered or tooled finish on the surface which would solve the problem (you can specify this by getting the stone directly from a quarry).  In recent years we’ve seen Porcelain tiles being introduced to the landscaping market.  It’s great for a clean crisp look and is marketed as being easy to clean and slip-resistant.

Jetwashing will get rid of the algae and do a lot to keep paving clean but it can also damage mortar joints, so you could consider laying paving with clean edges which can be ‘butt-jointed’ (ie no mortar joints between the slabs).

A cost effective alternative to stone slabs is loose stone (gravel, shingle, chippings etc.). If you want to use a space for outdoor dining for example, gravel is best avoided where you will be putting your furniture as it will be difficult to move the chairs easily. And do avoid laying gravel right next to the lawn (always use a mowing edge like a strip of brickwork) or you could have stones flying through your windows next time you cut the grass!

Gravel next to seating area laid with sandstone setts

Gravel next to seating area laid with sandstone setts

Also choose a stone of a reasonable size that won’t be carried in to the house on your shoes, or kicked about all over the garden (or used as a toilet by next door’s cat!). Avoid the big stones (reminiscent of Brighton Beach) as they are a nightmare to walk on, and ideally go for flatter stones for any pedestrian areas, as they move less and create an easy surface to walk on and use wheelbarrows etc.

What about drainage?
One big advantage of choosing gravel surfacing is that you won’t need to worry about rainwater draining away as you might with a large surface area of paving. And this could be something to bear in mind particularly if you are planning to create or increase the size of a driveway in your front garden. It is now a requirement to gain planning permission for any new area of impermeable driveway over 5 square metres in size (unless it drains to a permeable area), so if you don’t want to use block pavers or porous asphalt, gravel would be a good option.

There are 3 major stone companies who supply stone merchants nationally in the UK, so if you don’t have a local quarry who can supply what you want, it’s worth taking a look at their websites to get a feel for the variety of paving products available.  Check out Marshalls, Bradstone and Stonemarket.

You’ll soon realise that paving is a big subject (and I haven’t even mentioned alternatives to stone such as bricks, setts, cobbles, block pavers, sealed gravels, timber….)  and it may not be the most exciting subject in the world (!), but if you’re planning some new hard landscaping in your garden it’s important to spend some time thinking really hard about what you are looking to achieve.  If you don’t, you could risk making an expensive mistake by choosing materials which are completely unsuitable for your needs.

5 essential … small evergreen plants

Evergreen plants are invaluable to give a garden some interest in the depths of winter.  And small evergreens are particularly useful to grow near paths and deciduous shrubs or trees, filling gaps in the border until spring arrives.

One of the most useful (and tough) little evergreen plants you can find is Liriope muscari (or ‘Turf Lily’).  It’s a dark green sedge which forms neat little mounds of strappy leaves.  Great in shade (even dry shade) or sun (if in a moist soil), it flowers late in the summer which is another bonus.

Liriope muscari

Most Liriope have violet flowers but there is also a white flowering variety called Liriope muscari ‘Monroe White’. Height about 40cm (in flower) and spread maximum 45cm, and perfect for low-maintenance year-round planting schemes.

Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Golf Ball’ is, I think, a recent introduction to the UK, and I’m very excited about it!   Pittosporums are great evergreen shrubs (with tiny scented flowers) but most varieties will reach around 3m x 2m in size over time.  ‘Golf Ball’ is a smaller variety, naturally rounded (and easy to clip into shape) with beautiful fresh green leaves and contrasting dark stems.

Pittosporum Golf Ball

Average size about 1m round.  It’s very easy to grow as long as your soil is well-drained, but Pittosporums are not fully hardy, so plant with care.  This is a lovely shrub to add shape and structure to a scheme in a sunny, or partly sunny, site (and ideal if you want to create a low hedge).

Helleborus orientalis (also known as Helleborus x hybridus) are such popular winter-flowering plants, and it’s really not surprising.  Not only are they small and well-behaved, but the flowers are very pretty and long-lasting, coming in a range of colours from white and pink to red.  These hellebores are also known as ‘Lenten roses’ which is a very suitable name, given the shape of their flowers and the fact that they generally bloom between February and April (although in mild winters they may flower earlier).

helleborus orientalis

As the flowering stalks emerge at the base of the plant the dark green leathery leaves drop to the ground, and should be cut off at this point as new leaves will also soon appear.  Cutting back the old foliage also allows for the upright flowers to be seen at their best (although I suppose this technically means that are not evergreen in the true sense of the word, but new leaves grow quickly!).  Average height and spread is about 45cm, and they do prefer a good soil (neutral to alkaline) with some shade.

Pachysandra terminalis is a low growing evergreen with rosettes of serrated glossy leaves, commonly known as ‘Japanese spurge’.  It spreads slowly but will eventually cover quite a wide area (up to 1.5m) with dense growth about 20cm high.  This makes it an ideal ground cover plant.

Pachysandra

As it’s happy in sun or shade, and tolerant of most soils it’s a seriously useful addition to the garden (especially for carpeting the ground under trees and shrubs). In late spring there’s the added bonus of clusters of small white flowers, but it’s mainly grown for its foliage interest.

I love Euphorbias!  They have such a zingy acid yellow-green flower which is always a welcome sign in spring.  There are many varieties of Euphorbia characias and Humpty Dumpty is one of the more well-behaved varieties I have come across.  It’s quite a neat plant compared to many, not getting much wider than about 60cm across (maximum height about 1m).

Euphorbia Humpty Dumpty

It’s a sun lover (though will cope with a little bit of shade) and needs well-drained soil to really thrive.  Once the old flowering stems have been cut down to the ground, the new stems grow to replace them, forming a neat mound of unusual glaucous leaves which last through the winter until they flower the following spring.

Euphorbia

This Euphorbia turned up unexpectedly in a raised bed in my garden. I have no idea what variety it is but it’s a lovely plant!

In my experience Euphorbia characias varieties do tend to move around the garden and pop up in the most unexpected of places, so they aren’t the most reliable plant if you need them to stay put. I love to plant Euphorbias with purple alliums, Salvias and blue geraniums, lavender and nepeta.  It’s a match made in heaven!

How to create the perfect winter garden

If you look at your garden in the depths of winter are you pleased with what you see?  Is it an uplifting space with lots of attractive plants, colour and scent, or a drab gloomy and boring plot which leaves you feeling totally uninspired to even venture beyond the back door?

If it’s the latter, I’ve got just the thing – a quick 4 step guide on how to create an attractive outdoor space to enjoy all year round – and that’s including the winter.

Think about shape and structure in the garden
Make sure your garden is in good shape with strong lines and well-defined spaces.

Bramdean house

Formal shapes and structure at Bramdean House in Hampshire

Create lawns, borders and paved areas in formal shapes such as circles and squares, or if you prefer something more informal, go for big sweeping curves.  Whatever your preference, just make sure there’s good strong, cohesive shape to all the elements which make up your outside space.

Use structures such as walls, fences, pergolas, even obelisks for climbing plants, to create height and structure in your garden.

pleached trees

The framework of pleached trees is attractive in its own right after the leaves have fallen

Evergreen plants and hedges are invaluable for adding shape and interest to the garden in winter, but many deciduous shrubs and trees also have great shape when they’ve lost their leaves.

Miscanthus in winter

Miscanthus stand well through the winter and look lovely in frosty and snowy weather

Many grasses such as Miscanthus stand well until early spring (looking lovely with frost on the flowerheads), and a number of perennials have attractive seedheads which are worth leaving to stand to enhance the winter garden.

Pittosporum Tom Thumb

Not all evergreen plants are green! The dark foliage of Pittosporum Tom Thumb looks fantastic with a dusting of frost on top

Include sculpture and water, and light up your garden
In winter, when it’s harder to create drama with planting, use sculpture, pots, water and attractive furniture to add a further element of interest to your garden and give you something extra to look at.

If you can include garden lighting into your scheme then so much the better (and make sure you plan it in at the start of a design project rather than as an afterthought).

Lighting water feature

With well-considered garden lighting you can illuminate your key features and get to enjoy your garden no matter how short the days – and without even stepping outside.

Add plants for seasonal interest
I think it’s fair to say that most people concentrate on plants which are at their best throughout the summer as that’s when they tend to use their gardens most.  But there are so many fantastic plants which look great over winter that it’s really worth finding space for them too.

If you’re not particularly keen on getting outside in cold weather just make sure you position the plants where you will be able to see them from inside or on your way into the house from the car!  Place scented plants such as Sarcococca and Viburnum by pathways.

Hamamelis

Grow Hamamelis for unusual winter flowers and gorgeous scent

Position winter flowering shrubs and trees like Mahonia and Hamamelis (‘Witch Hazel’) where you will see them from the house.

Cornus Midwinter Fire

Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ is a superb shrub for brightening up the garden in winter. Plant en masse for maximum effect.

Put plants with coloured stems and bark such as Cornus (‘dogwood’), Willows and Silver Birch where they will catch the winter sun to see them at their glowing best.   Include trees and shrubs such as Malus (crab apples), Hollies and Pyracantha for colourful berries (great to look at but also valuable for wildlife).

crab apple

Crab apples and plants with winter berries are wonderful for seasonal colour

Tempt yourself outside
I’m one of those people who can’t stand being inside if the weather’s even half decent.  And on a sunny winter’s day it’s a real treat to find a cosy space to sit and enjoy the warmth of the sun.  So don’t forget about designing in a seating area which will catch the winter sun in your garden.

Sitting Spiritually oak swing seat

This bespoke oak swing seat is the perfect place to enjoy winter sunshine

And to really make the most of things, you could include space for a firepit – very useful too on those less-than-balmy summer evenings we in the UK generally have to contend with.

firepit

Firepits have become a very popular way to warm up a chilly garden

Add some scented planting nearby, a sculpture or two and a splash of winter colour and you’ll be all set to enjoy your garden throughout the winter!

To find out more about colourful plants for winter interest, click here.   To read about scented plants for winter, click here.

Picture credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic

Fabulous plants for December

Who said winter is a boring time in the garden?!  There are lots of great plants which provide visual interest at this time of year, and here is just a small selection.

Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’
Also known variously as ‘Black Dragon’, ‘Ebony Knight’, or ‘Arabicus’, this lilyturf is an extraordinary looking plant with arching purple-green leaves that turn jet black when grown in full sun and very well-drained soil.

It’s a small clump-forming, evergreen perennial growing to 20cm high. Its tiny bell-shaped, purplish-white flowers in summer are followed by round, dark blue-black fruit.

As it is so dwarf and such a dark colour, it is easily lost in the middle of a mixed border so it looks best grown against a light background such as gravel, or next to plants with contrasting foliage.  In my own garden I use it to edge a path and also next to a timber bridge and a deck where it can be seen in all its glory.  In winter a dusting of frost makes this plant look particularly attractive.

Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens

Ophiopogon prefers good, slightly acid, soil in full sun or partial shade and will spread to form a sizeable colony, needing no maintenance at all other than curbing its growth when required (but as it’s not a vigorous grower that’s generally not a problem).  As an alternative to the black variety, try straight Ophiopogon planiscapus which has bright green leaves and tiny white flowers.

Pyracantha Saphyr Orange
This is a compact form of ‘Firethorn’ which is semi-evergreen.  Deep green glossy leaves will hold through winter unless it is very cold.  Spiny branches are easily trained on a wall or fence in sun or shade and moist soil.  In late spring and early summer the plants are smothered in large clusters of tiny white flowers. These are loved by bees and are followed by orange berries in autumn – a favourite with Thrushes and Blackbirds through the winter.

pyracantha

Ultimately this Pyracantha will reach 2.5m tall with a similar spread.  A resilient plant that is tolerant of most conditions, including both drought and pollution, although in frost-prone areas is better sheltered from cold, drying winds.

Sarcococca confusa
One of those unsung heroes of the garden, Sarcococca confusa (commonly known as ‘Sweet Box’ or ‘Christmas Box’) is an easy, neat, low, reliable evergreen shrub which doesn’t do a great deal until the depths of winter when its small white scented flowers pack a real punch.

Christmas box

Good in shade or sun and any reasonable soil, with small glossy evergreen leaves, position it near a door or pathway where you will get the benefit of its beautiful fragrance.

Mahonia x media ‘Lionel Fortescue’
Even if you’re not a great fan of yellow flowers, there is no denying that Mahonias will brighten up even the dreariest of winter gardens.  Unlike the low growing types, the Mahonia x media varieties are upright evergreen shrubs with a statuesque shape, wonderful spiny architectural foliage and scented flowers.

Mahonia 'Lionel Fortescue'

They make a great addition to the shady garden.  Mahonia are hardy, do well in most soils and need no pruning if allowed to reach their natural mature height (approx. 3 metres in the case of ‘Lionel Fortescue’).

Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’ 
Ferns are such easy and useful plants, bringing lovely textures to shady planting schemes.  This Polystichum (or Soft Shield Fern) is also evergreen which means it’s very useful for winter interest (shown here in frosty conditions).  It can be grown in pots in the shade or in borders as underplanting for deciduous shrubs and trees.

Polystichum setiferum Herrenhausen

This is a lovely compact plant (at 60cm high max.) which is happy in most garden soils as long as it doesn’t get too dry.  It’s a great companion to plants such as Hosta, Liriope, Luzula nivea, Brunnera macrophylla and Hellebores which enjoy the same growing conditions.

Ilex aquifolium ‘Argentea Marginata’
‘Tis the season to be jolly …’ This holly will perk up shadier corners and it looks especially cheery in winter sunshine.  The spiny leaves have a creamy margin and young growth is tinged pink.  The bright red berries of the female plants are a valuable food source for birds in winter, and of course the stems are brilliant to cut to decorate the house at Christmas.

Ilex Argentea Marginata
Hollies are slow growing and this variety (known as ‘Arge Marge’ to those of us in the business!)  is ideal to keep as a shrub or use as a hedging plant.  Hollies can also be trained on a single stem to form a mop-headed tree.  Easy to grow, tough plants, they are happy in either sun or partial shade, and not too fussy about soil types.  Perfect!

 

You can also read more about plants with colourful stems to brighten up the winter garden including dogwoods, willow, bamboo and ornamental brambles by clicking here.

dogwoods in winter

Cornus alba underplanted with Carex Evergold

Photo credits:  Janet Bligh & Firgrove Photographic