How to choose paving materials for your garden

Block paving detail at Blois France
Block paving detail at Blois France

With the vast range of possible paving materials, it can feel a bit daunting when you first start looking at paving materials. To try to reduce the selection down to a more manageable size, it is well to consider the practicalities imposed on you by what you are planning to use the paving for. You can then check how much of each type you are hoping to use, compare the costs of using different materials and if need adjust your plans.

Though there is considerable overlap; the uses for paving in a garden can be divided into four main categories: drives, patios, paths and utility areas.


When choosing a material for a drive the first consideration must be what will
happily withstand having a car regularly driven over it and parked on it. The second consideration, is that for many people it will be the first thing visitors see of their home though quiet a lot of the time most of it may be hidden under a car. How suitable a paving material for a drive will also be effected by how it is laid. No material if the base under it is too soft will support a car but materials like domestic 35mm paving flags, which would not normally support a car, may if laid onto concrete. Once you have eliminated the impractical options the choice comes down to cost and personal preference. Please note if you paving an area of your front garden planning permission may be needed.


Flags and cobble path at Robin Hoods Bay
Flags and cobble path at Robin Hoods Bay

Whereas a drive is something you park a car on, a patio can be a major feature of a garden and so your budget should try to reflect that. The important thing is that it forms an attractive feature and not a slab of paving. So break up the area by mixing different sizes of flags and/or using a mix of materials. You often see paving broken up with planting pockets; this is rarely successful with the plants getting stood on and heels and chair legs dropping down the planting pockets.


The idea of a garden path is as old as the garden itself, but a path has to have a purpose. And that will influence the materials used. If the path for instance, is going to be in a vegetable garden, where you are stepping on and off the path onto the bare soil you are going to have problems if you use gravel. Every time to step from one to the other soil and gravel will be transferred from one to the other; ending up with a muddy path you can’t clean. On the other hand, an informal path winding along the edge a border it is going to be difficult to achieve with square and rectangular flags and runs the risk of looking messy if its full of cut bits of flags.

Utility areas

Most gardens have some area dedicated to the necessary but unattractive bits of a garden where things such as the shed live. Here the importance has to be the functionality of the material. Something that is cheap, durable and easy to clean. A smooth flag is a lot easier to sweep clean than a riven one and a plain concrete slab, though unattractive, leaves few gaps for weeds to grow through.

Paving materials

Brick path detail
Brick path detail

The trick when designing your paving is to make it blend into the surrounds while adding to them. To do this you are free to use every trick in the book. You can use materials which contrast with their surrounding or complement them but care should be taken when trying to match materials as a bad match will be the worst scenario. Nor should you restrict yourself to just one material as mixing in an additional material is a very good way to break up areas of paving and differentiation between different areas. Just don’t overdo it!

Below I’ve put together a table of most of the paving/drive materials currently available, the list though is not exhaustive. The cost column is really only to give a very broad indication of the relative expense involved in using different ones The exact cost would depend on many factors including site conditions and how much if any of the work was undertaken on a DIY basis.

Paving Materials 

Bark Low Low cost
Water permeable
Can look very effective in informal areas
Tends to spread about
Needs edging
Gravel Low Low cost
Comes in a very wide variety of colours and shapes
Water permeable
Tends to move about
Needs edging
If too soft it will quickly disintegrate
Only suitable for level areas
Plain concrete flags Low to medium Low cost
Readily available
Provides a smooth surface
Does not need pointing
Good under sheds and for utility areas
Visually unattractive

Very heavy

Coloured concrete flags Low to medium Low Cost
Readily available
Provides a smooth surface
Do not need pointing
Visually unattractive
Very heavy
Colours fade – particularly reds
Budget riven flags Low to medium Low cost
More attractive than plain flags
Do not need pointing
Not as attractive as the more expense flags
Limited range of colours and sizes
Poor finish
Limited range of patterns
Premium riven flags Medium Very wide range to choose from
Large range of flags shapes and sizes
Can be as expensive as imported flags
Care needed to ensure they are laid with the correct fall
Limited life
Imported stone flags Medium Almost limitless life
Very hard wearing
Cost is equivalent to/or less than premium man-made flags
Needs a diamond blade to cut them
Brittle so hard to work
Block paving Medium to high Very wide range of colours and patterns
Very hard wearing
Small size makes them very flexible
Must be securely edged
Red ones fade
Large areas can look like a car park even if it’s not
Cannot be cleaned by pressure washing
The surface must be 600mm above the water table
Stone setts High Hard to very hard wearing
Small size makes them very flexible
Difficult to lay
Need a very solid base
Need to be pointed
New sandstone flags High Almost limitless life
Natural product
Very attractive
Requires skill to be laid well
Reclaimed sandstone flags Very high Almost limitless life
Laid well are very attractive
Particularly prone to becoming slippery
Very heavy
Very expensive
Require skill to lay them well
Mosaics High to very high Can look very attractive
Requires a lot of skill
Sandstone crazy paving Medium Flexible
A cost effective alternative to sandstone flags
Needs skill to lay it well
Can be hard to source
Tarmac High Makes an excellent hard-wearing surface
Comes in a range of colours
Requires specialist skills to lay
Only practical if sufficiently large area
Must have a secure edging
Limited range of colours
Not very attractive
Cobble paving High Can look very good in the correct setting Hard to source good worn cobbles
Very uneven surface
Prone to being slippery
Requires a lot of skill to lay it well
Decking Medium Can be laid in a range of patterns
Comes in a range of finishes
Very good for levelling sloping sites
Prone to being slippery
Limited life
Requires more maintenance
Needs to be lifted off the ground
Any decking surface over 300mm above the ground level requires permission from your local authority
Concrete slab Medium Smooth
Can be textured
Laid well it is very durable
Capable of supporting heavy loads
Very good for utility areas
Requires skill to lay
Large areas require good access
Difficult to make good if it is damaged
Large areas will crack if movement joints are built in
Pattern impressed concrete Medium Visually much better than plain concrete
Can be laid in a range of patterns and colours
It is only a surface treatment so prone to surface damage
Very difficult to make good if damaged
The colour will wear away where car wheels repeatedly run over it
Large areas will crack if movement joints are built in
Brick High Small units allow flexible designs
Small their small sizes make them good for small areas
Bricks must be carefully chosen because of the risk of frost damage
Skill required to lay
Reinforced grass Medium Provides a visually “soft” appearance
Water permeable
Only really suitable for car parking or intensely used footpaths

Sitting out in the garden

Traditional garden bench at Pine Lodge Gardens
Traditional garden bench at Pine Lodge Gardens

One of the most popular pastimes in gardens is sitting out enjoying any warm weather the British climate affords us. At its simplest this could be just relaxing on a lawn, but soon you will be looking for something a little more comfortable. With this comes the decision – where to put the seat. A light wooden bench can simply be stood on the lawn and moved around as needed. This has the advantage that when it comes to cutting the grass it’s a relatively simple task just to move the bench to one side out of the way.  More substantial seating, or when you want to make a feature of the seat, a permanent base is needed to stand the seat on.

The first consideration when deciding where to put your seat is what is you going to use it for? Are you looking for a shady place to read a book, some where to sunbath or a dinning area? By now you should be getting to know your garden and the shade changes during the day and the year. Take a chair into the garden – any one will do – and try sitting in some likely spots. The world looks different when you drop your line of sight by 2 feet. Does it still feel like a good place to sit? Are you over looked (or overlooking)? Can you till see the view you were hoping to admire? Lots of questions I know but it’s easy to modify your ideas at this stage.

Once a suitable place has been found; the next things to consider are what style of seat and what you are you going to stand it on. The actual choice of style is largely a personal choice and most styles can look perfectly good in most settings; either by complementing or contrasting with its surroundings.  The range of different seats is vast but a few pointers are worth considering.

Garden bench built from railway sleepers
Garden bench built from railway sleepers
  • You get what you pay for. The better made the seat the more expensive it is going to be.
  • Hardwood is more durable but of course costs more.
  • Both wood and metal seats both need regular painting to maintain them.
  • Seats don’t have to be bought. Some very effective seats are homemade.
  • Garden seats can soon become hard and uncomfortable so do you need cushions?
  • Single seats never look very inviting in the garden; so generally stick to benches or use groups of two or more single seats.
  • A garden seat does can be made from all sorts of different materials.
  • A seat doesn’t need to be a conventional chair or bench – be imaginative!

    Sculptured garden bench at the Hillier Gardens
    Sculptured garden bench at the Hillier Gardens

When it comes to what you stand the seat on the choice is simpler. You can stand it one the soil or lawn; but the legs will tend to sink into the ground, and not evenly, so you will have to keep repositioning it. Also constant contact with the damp soil is likely to encourage rotting or rusting of the base of the legs. Bark has similar problems unless it is laid over a firm base, if just a porous membrane is laid under the bark the seat legs will tend to puncture it. Gravel has similar problems to bark and it also needs an edging to stop the gravel spreading about. That aside both can make a good base for a seat that is not being moved around as it is in use. The last choice is paving in its various forms and this is the most expensive. If the seating is going to be around a table, with chairs moving about as people sit and get up from the table, then a smooth solid surface is the only practical choice.

Tiding up to see what you’ve achieved.

Once the overgrown trees and shrubs have been cut back a lot of rubbish will be left; which we need to do something with. Its only once you’ve tidy up your hard work can you really get an idea of what you have achieved and the sense of space you will have created. There a several ways of dealing with green waste: take it to the tip, put it in a skip, re-use it, grind it up or make it into compost. All these have their advantages and disadvantages and in practice most cases will need a combination of some or all of these.


Large Yellow Skip
Large Yellow Skip

The easiest solution with small quantities is to cut it into manageable sized pieces and take it to the local tip in the car. If there’s a lot, and when cutting back its surprising how much rubbish you will create, a skip might be a better solution. The green waste you produce will be very bulky so you will probably need a large skip and over sized skips are sometimes available for this very reason. You will need to explain you are only putting green waste in, and make sure that is all you do put in, as then you should get a better price. It may seem a waste just to throw it away but these days garden waste doesn’t just get buried in the ground. Its ground and shredded up, and made into compost for reuse. The advantage is that it’s done on a big scale so the machines doing the shredding and grinding will happily swallow things like tree stumps which are very hard to recycle any other way. Also as the material is coming in from a wide range of sources so the compost doesn’t get overwhelmed by one type of material, an important consideration when making compost. Finally the process of making the compost is a commercial operation so it is carefully managed to make a usable and therefore re-sellable product. The main disadvantage is that if you what to benefit from this compost you have to pay to buy it, so you can end up paying twice; once to get rid of it and once to get it back.

Log car
Log car

That considered you may well feel you would rather recycle the rubbish yourself and this has its advantages. You are not paying someone to do the work and you can be more flexible in the way you use the material. This is though going to take imagination, space, hard work and patience on your part, the results can far outweigh these. First off have a really good look at what you have and start planning how you could make use of it. There is no point in chopping everything up and then finding you could do with some big pieces of wood for something. This may well mean you have to adapt your plans; but this often turns out for the better.

A simple use of small branches is as an edging for informal parts of the garden and these can be built up to form low retaining walls and steps if needed. If you only have a small amount the branches can be cut into equal lengths, say 600mm long, and heaped up to provide valuable shelter for wild life and most importantly the things they feed on. Thin pieces of stick can make simple summer plant supports amongst hardy perennials and in the vegetable garden. Traditionally garden peas were supported by “pea sticks” which they could climb up to keep the plants off the ground. If you are in the fortunate position of having more substantial pieces of tree trunk; these can make very impressive garden seats. Alternatively they can be made in simple but very effective pieces of play equipment.

Log car
Log car


Olearia x macrodonta

Olearia macrodonta bush
Olearia macrodonta

The “New Zealand Holly” rightly earns is common name; its pointy edged leaves make look a lot like a grey holly leaf. They can be a little tender but are sufficiently tolerant of salt laden winds that that do well near the coast. This makes them a valuable plant in seaside gardens where their tolerance of salt and the relative absence of hard frosts makes them well suited. In all but the most exposed gardens they can be grown; coming through all but the worst winters with little or no damage. They are very wide spread in North West Scotland, to the point of almost being naturalised.

Olearia macrodonta bark
Olearia macrodonta bark

While evergreen like holly; the leaves are not as hard and vicious as holly (as anyone who has hand weeded around a holly bush will testify too). It also differs from Holly in that it grows quickly; forming a medium sized bush, and given time a small tree. Holly on the other hand is rather slow growing.

In summer the New Zealand Holly is covered by mounds of white flowers and older specimens develop a peeling, almost shaggy, bark which new growths breaks away freely.

Close up of Picture of an Olearia macrodonta shoot
Olearia macrodonta shoot

As the common name suggests it is a plant native to New Zealand and was first described by Joseph Dalton Hooker who in 1864 named it Eurybia dentata var. oblongifolia. This turned out to be incorrect and in 1884 John Gilbert Baker, working at Kew under Hooker, renamed it Olearia macrodonata. Though this is the name it is normally grown under in the UK; the New Zealand government’s own data base lists it as Olearia ×macrodonta Baker a hybrid between two species: O. ilicifolia and O. arborescens.

Though Olearia ×macrodonta is widely grow in the UK, the dwarf form Olearia macrodonta ‘Minor’ would be well worth seeking out for a court yard garden or rockery. This plant looks like a miniature version of the original, being smaller in all its parts, and it is listed in the RHS Plant Finder.

Olearia macrodonta 'Minor'
Olearia macrodonta ‘Minor’