Tag Archives: garden paving

Garden Lore

Decorum is the refinement of propriety. It is in order to procure stable-dung for hot-beds; it is proper to do this at all times when it is wanted, but it is decorous to have the work performed early in the morning, that the putrescent vapours and dropping litter may not prove offensive to the master of the garden, should he, or any of his family or friends, visit the scene.

John Claudius Loudon Encyclopedia of Gardening (1822)

Urban paving
Urban paving

How to cope with the escalating demand for off street parking is a major urban issue. The severe flooding that assails the United Kingdom with ever-increasing regularity has in part been attributed to the problems of urbanisation and increasing run-off. Water has to go somewhere and if it cannot be absorbed into the ground because of concrete and tarmac, it will either pond, flood or flow until it finds somewhere to go. Urban stormwater systems are not built to drain all the water away, merely the excess water.

There are commercial products designed to give a firm base for car parking while still allowing drainage and ground absorption. Laid properly, the area can still be mowed or raked. Even sealed areas need maintenance, whether by sweeping or the use of a leaf blower. This midway position is a much sounder option environmentally, as well as being softer to the eye than expanses of seal.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

A pedestrian matter

The chequer board approach (in need of a gravel top up)

The chequer board approach (in need of a gravel top up)

This morning’s column is for readers on low budgets or in mature gardens. Path surfaces. If you are on a new property which has been landscaped, or what passes for landscaping, odds on your paths are in place and are concrete. We just love the utility and endurance of concrete in this country.

New concrete dries to a somewhat startling white which is usually appropriate to a new build, but can look garish and out of place on an older property. It also leaches lime for the first few years so you are likely to have trouble growing plants such as rhododendrons and camellias alongside it. The foliage will go yellow on acid loving plants.

Aged concrete softened at the edge with prostrate thyme

Aged concrete softened at the edge with prostrate thyme

Because we have a fair amount of old concrete here, where we have chosen to go with extending concreted areas or new paths, we take the trouble to mask the new look. Adding colouring (black oxide) counteracts the whiteness. Once it is all smooth and starting to start dry, we spray a sugar and water solution over the top. That strips the smooth top layer and exposes the aggregate. Voila. The concrete looks aged from the start.

Were we English, we would have a tradition of flag stones and stone pavers. We are not, so they are a very expensive option. You can get a similar effect in concrete pavers which come already roughed up and coloured to give the overall impression of stone. It’s a good product. We have used it to pave a small courtyard and the same style of pavers were used in a modern outdoor dining area I featured on this page a fortnight ago. The larger sized pavers look better if you want the flagstone look. Ours are 600mm square.

I don’t recommend brick unless you live in a dry climate. Old bricks are porous which means they soak up moisture and retain it, enabling moss to grow very nicely thank you. Brick paths tend to be extremely slippery for much of the year and therefore hazardous. It is also difficult to get a relatively even surface and if you don’t construct a solid edging, the side bricks roll out.

Gravel paths are usually best retained with a solid edging to reduce spilling. We have used concrete sidings on ours. We like gravel paths. There is something satisfying about the scrunch as you walk along them and they are softer on the eye than unforgiving concrete. They are not as simple to install as they first look, however. You can’t just pile gravel onto the ground because the mud will rise from below. You need to excavate down to lay a compacted base course first before you top with your choice of gravel. For foot traffic, a 5cm base should be fine. Don’t lay the top gravel so thickly that it makes walking difficult. You also need to choose your gravel with care. Rounded stones can be like walking on marbles but you want a grade which is reasonably consistent (in other words it has passed through a screen) to look attractive.

Gravel can be quite difficult to keep looking smart without a leaf blower. We did it for years with a leaf rake to remove the build up of litter but it is labour intensive and doesn’t do a particularly thorough job. The leaf blower removes humus in a trice and we wondered why it took us so long to discover its merits. However it is a noisy and intrusive machine and your neighbours will come to dread it as much as your lawnmower. A certain amount of gravel will get blown into the surrounds too.

If you have a larger area to cover, placing pavers at regular intervals throughout a gravel area can add interest and style cheaply. To look good, measure the placement of the pavers to keep them regular and put them down before you lay the top layer of gravel.

We have not gone with wooden walkways at all. In our garden, they would make us look too much like an institutional or public garden (“the DOC look” as we call it). Having seen them elsewhere, I would comment that even corrugated decking timber can get slippery if it is wet for protracted periods or in shade areas and it can be particularly hazardous on slopes. There are non slip products you can buy to secure to your wooden paths or steps but they will add to the cost. If you are not a public garden, then I think wooden walkways tend to be a better aesthetic fit to a modern house with acres of timber decking.

Mulching the leaf litter for the most pleasant walking surface of all

Mulching the leaf litter for the most pleasant walking surface of all

In woodland areas, we keep a thick layer of natural mulch on paths and we shun hard edgings because we want a natural look. In the last few years, when we groom up for our annual spring garden festival, we have gone a step further and raked up the all the litter and fed it through the mulcher. What comes out is a consistent grade of anonymous brown mulch which we then rake back over the paths. It gives the softest and springiest surface to walk on. While it doesn’t compact down, it is remarkably durable as long as it doesn’t get washed away and it can be maintained with a leaf rake. It looks really good until autumn when we get both wind and fresh leaf drop so it is not a long term solution but it gives an attractive option for wooded areas without expenditure.

Some level of consistency is desirable. No matter what size your garden is, you probably don’t want to be using a whole range of different path surfaces. They don’t all have to be the same and paths can differentiate between high use, formal and informal areas. But the overall effect will usually be more cohesive if you can keep some level of uniformity.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Simple Ideas to Import (from Spain and Portugal)

First published in the Weekend Gardener and reproduced here with their permission.

Both Spain and Portugal have long histories of bright tiling which can look garish and out of place in different cultural and geographic contexts. However, the more restrained use of tiling, seen here at the Royal Palace in Seville, may fit the bill in more humble abodes in New Zealand. Setting a small tile into a predominantly brick paved area reduces the problems of a slippery surface when wet. Clay bricks (which grow moss too readily in many parts of this country) could be replaced with concrete for a safer walking surface.

Using bright tiles on the risers of the steps with very plain treads adds detail without being too dominant.


Personally, I am not a huge fan of the modern fashion for colourful and often rough mosaics and I suspect it may go down in history as an aberration in good taste on a par with macramé. The mosaics of antiquity in Spain were wonderfully detailed and executed with precision and go to show that good design and craftsmanship are timeless.

Mixed modern paving

We can certainly learn from the detail of modern paving, these examples are from Madrid. Bold, geometric designs, variations in texture and a subtle mix of muted colour can make an expanse of paved or sealed area a great deal more interesting. A mix of different sized pavers, flint, and flattish pebbles of a fairly small grade set in concrete make a pleasing surface.

Mixed paving and tiling

These two examples are from the famous Alhambra in Granada and may appeal to those who are looking for more detail in their paving. The small coloured tiles set in the brick squares are probably very old but recycled in a much more modern construction. The long view down the avenue is also a recent reconstruction and the detail is used to accentuate design features. These details have been picked out in black pebbles placed on their side which gives a relatively uneven surface which must be impossible to sweep. A blower vac would be needed to keep this area free of garden litter and debris.

Blue tree
Clearly one tree died in this avenue in Queluz, Portugal but that did not deter the local authorities from turning it into an eyecatching feature. It was painted well. Twiggy growth and loose bark must have been removed and it was given more than one coat of paint. Choosing a colour other than bright blue might make it a more subtle option for a home garden. A muted rusty red would be less visually dominant, while a cream could light up a dark area.