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.

Drives

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.

Patios

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.

Paths

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 

MATERIAL COST ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
Bark Low Low cost
Flexible
Soft
Water permeable
Can look very effective in informal areas
Tends to spread about
Needs edging
Gravel Low Low cost
Flexible
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
Expensive
Need to be pointed
New sandstone flags High Almost limitless life
Natural product
Very attractive
Heavy
Expensive
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
Unusual
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
Smooth
Flexible
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
Flexible
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
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How to design a drive

With drives, probably more than any other thing in gardens, the most important thing is it actually functions as it is intended. No matter how nice it may look, if it does work as a drive it is a waste of money. As ever there has to be some compromises, for example: you may what a turning circle in your drive but they need an awful lot of space. To start with you need to decide how many vehicles you are going to what to park on the drive and do you need to be able to pull onto the drive, turn around and then drive back out. You also need to consider how often individual vehicles will be needed, ideally you are not going to want to be constantly moving vehicles around just to get one particular one out. Last but not least you need to consider access to garages and house doors and how much of your garden you want to make into the drive.

Now look at what space you’ve got. An average car needs a space of 2.4 metres by 4.8 metres to park on and this doesn’t include space for manoeuvring it. Make a sketch and some vehicle sized pieces of card and try moving them about on the sketch, allowing for how they are going to swing out when turning. At this point you are going to have to make some compromises so consider what is important. Once you feel comfortable with the layout of your drive mark it out in the garden as you plan to have it and actually try it out. It is far easier to change now than later. To help I’ve includes some dimensions that may be helpful at the end.

You are almost ready to construct your drive but before you start checking the cost of materials it is important to consider if planning permission is needed. The pressure for off road parking has led to more and more gardens being paved over and while this does get cars off the sides of roads it means the rain that would soak into the front gardens now runs off them. The amount of rainwater running off a car parking space in a front garden may not seem much but once this is multiplied up for a town, never mind a city, it amounts to a lot of additional water going into drains and ditches. In response to this the government decided to bring in planning controls to cover non-porous paving in front gardens. What this boils down to is that any water that falls onto you drive you need to get rid of on your property and not down the drains. In many cases this can be as simple as providing adequate areas of borders for the water to soak into naturally, but where this is not an option either a permeable surface has to be used or the water has to be collected into drains and lead to a soak away where it can then seep away into the soil. Further details can be found on the government’s planning portal here. Planning rules are complex and special rules can apply in many situations so a 5 minute phone call to your local planning office at this point can save a great deal of trouble later. Whatever you do don’t try to emulate the Ostrich!

Drive surfaces

No drive surface is perfect and they all have their strengths and weaknesses so you have to decide which compromise is going to work for you.

Block paving

Block Paving

Block paving laid in a pattern using different colours

Pros:

  • Easily forms curved shapes
  • Adapts well to changing slopes
  • Sections can be taken up and re-laid to gain access to buried services
  • Vast range of finishes
  • Some designs are now permeable.

Cons:

  • Not suitable for poorly drained ground. The sand bedding course must be well drained and at least 600 mm above the water table.
  • The edges must be well retrained
  • Prone to sink where car wheels continually run
  • The more ornate finishes can be expensive.

Flags

Pros:

  • Can be very cost effective

Cons:

  • Only the 50mm thick flags are suitable

Grass concrete composite

(Concrete blocks with grass growing through gaps mounded in them)

Pro:

  • Simplify the job of getting rid of surface water

Cons:

  • The grass will not withstand heavy use
  • The grass will not survive under vehicles park continuously over it
  • Take time to establish
  • If the grass cover breaks down it will quickly become muddy.

Gravel

Pros:

  • Adapts to any shape
  • Cheap
  • Self-draining

Cons:

  • Only suitable for relatively level areas
  • Weeds quickly establish in the areas that aren’t been driven over
  • Moves about
  • Cannot be laid onto a hard surface such as existing concrete

Hardcore

Pros:

  • Cheap

Cons:

  • Easily eroded by water running down it
  • Not all hardcore is suitable

 

Pattern Impressed concrete

Pros:

  • Weed free
  • Large range of finishes available

Cons:

  • Must be laid by a good specialist contractor
  • With use the parts receiving concentrated wheel traffic start to fade
  • Very difficult to repair successfully

 Plain concrete

Pros:

  • Weed free
  • Relatively cheap

Cons:

  • Unattractive appearance
  • Needs to be well constructed if it is to last
  • Difficult to repair

Pointed setts

Granite setts

Pointed granite setts

Pros:

  • Combination of small paving units set in pointing makes an attractive finish
  • Adapts to complex shapes
  • Suitable for slopes

Cons:

  • Very expensive
  • Requires a lot of skill to lay

Resin bonded aggregates

Pro:

  • Less prone to move about than gravel
  • Available in a range of attractive finishes

Cons:

  • Not suitable where it is likely to become contaminated with mud
  • More expensive than plain gravel

Tarmac

Pro:

  • Adapts to complex shapes and slopes
  • A good compromise between cost and length of service
  • Well suited to large drives and heavily used ones
  • Available in a range of colours

Cons:

  • Has to be laid by a good specialist contractor
  • Colours only available subject to suitable plant near by

 

Drive dimensions.

These are for guidance only and should be checked before being used.

  • Local regulations and restrictions may apply and you should check before starting any work.
  • The drive entrance should only be at the verge crossing.
    • The verge crossing will have lowered curbs for the vehicles to get onto the road.
    • New or changed verge crossings will normally require permission from the council highways and planning departments.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed to special specifications.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed by approved contractors.
  • Ideally a drive should be 3.2 metres wide (or 2.6 metres if there is a separate footpath).
  • If you are putting gates on a drive opening onto a busy drive you may have to set them back 5 metres from the edge of the highway to allow a vehicle to pull safely off the road before needing the gates opening.
  • Check you can see clearly from the car driving seat when you pull out of the driveway.
  • Any water on the drive must not drain onto the highway, but must be disposed of on site.
  • Long drives need special considerations.
    • Bends need to be wider to allow vehicles to turn.
    • Oil delivery vehicles may only have 30 metre long delivery hoses.
    • Oil delivery vehicles are typically 7.2 metres long by 2.6 metres wide and weigh 18 tonnes.
    • LPG delivery vehicles need to get to within 25 metres of the fill valve.
    • The fire brigade need to get their vehicles to within 45 metres of the house.
Model Drive

Model Drive

Model drive turning circle

Model drive turning circle

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Drive dimensions

This is a short collection of notes on the dimensions of a private drive.

  • These are for guidance only and should be checked before being used.
  • Local regulations and restrictions may apply and you should check before starting any work.
  • The drive entrance should only be at the verge crossing.
    • The verge crossing will have lowered curbs for the vehicles to get onto the road.
    • New or changed verge crossings will normally require permission from the council highways and planning departments.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed to special specifications.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed by approved contractors.
  • Ideally a drive should be 3.2 metres wide (or 2.6 metres if there is a separate footpath).
  • If you are putting gates on a drive opening onto a busy drive you may have to set them back 5 metres from the edge of the highway to allow a vehicle to pull safely off the road before needing the gates opening.
  • Check you can see clearly from the car driving seat when you pull out of the driveway.
  • Model Drive

    Model Drive

  • Any water on the drive must not drain onto the highway, but must be disposed of on site.
  • Model drive turning circle

    Model drive turning circle

  • Long drives need special considerations.
    • Bends need to be wider to allow vehicles to turn.
    • Oil delivery vehicles may only have 30 metre long delivery hoses.
    • Oil delivery vehicles are typically 7.2 metres long by 2.6 metres wide and weigh 18 tonnes.
    • LPG delivery vehicles need to get to within 25 metres of the fill valve.
    • The fire brigade need to get their vehicles to within 45 metres of the house.

Drive design

With drives, probably more than any other thing in gardens, the most important thing is it actually functions as the drive. No mater how nice it may look if it does work as a drive it is a waste of money. As ever there has to be some compromises, you may what a turning circle in your drive but they need an awful lot of space. First you need to decide how many vehicles you are going to what to park on the drive and do you need to be able to pull onto the drive, turn around and then drive back out. You also need to consider the order the vehicles will be needed, ideally you are not going to want to be constantly moving vehicles around just to get one particular one out. Last but not least you need to consider access to garages and house doors and how much of your garden you what to make into the drive.

Sandstone block paving at Winchester

Sandstone block paving at Winchester

Now look at what space you’ve got. An average car needs a space of 2.4 metres by 4.8 metres to park on and this doesn’t include space for manoeuvring it. Make a sketch and some vehicle sized pieces of card and try moving them about on the sketch, allowing for how they are going to swing out when turning. At this point you are going to have to make some compromises so consider what is important. Once you feel comfortable with the layout of your drive mark it out in the garden as you plant to have it and actually try it out. It is far easier to change now than later.

Cobble drive

Cobble drive

You are almost ready to construct your drive but before you start checking the cost of materials it is important to consider if planning permission is needed. The pressure for off road parking has lead to more and more gardens being paved over and while this does get cars off the sides of roads it means the rain that would soak into the front gardens now runs off. In response to this the government decided to bring in planning controls to cover non-porous paving in front gardens. Further details can be found on the government’s planning portal here. Planning rules are complex and special rules can apply in many situations so a 5 minute phone call to you local planning office at this point can save a great deal of trouble later. What ever you do don’t try to emulate the Ostrich!

. Planning rules are complex and special rules can apply in many situations so a 5 minute phone call to you local planning office at this point can save a great deal of trouble later. What ever you do don’t try to emulate the Ostrich!

Choosing paving materials

Path through a garden

Path through a garden

With the vast range of possible paving materials it can feel a bit daunting when you first starting 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 over lap; the uses for paving in a garden can be divided into four main categories: drives, patios, paths and utility areas.

Drives

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 there home. On the other hand though; it also spends a lot of time hidden under a car. Once you have eliminated the impractical options the chose comes down to cost and personal preference. Please note if you paving an area of you front garden planning permission may be needed.

Patios

Where as 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.

Paths

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, 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 border winding along the edge a border is going to be difficult to achieve with square and rectangular flags and runs the risk of looking messy if its full of cut flags.

Gravel and plants

Gravel and plants

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.