Choosing path materials

Even the shortest, straightest path offers scope for creativity in the choice and combination of surfacing materials.

Before buying paving materials for building a new path or widening or replacing an existing one, decide exactly what the path’s .function is and what materials, within your budget, are most suitable.

Look first at existing permanent hard surfaces in the garden: paths, patios and house and garden walls. Try to choose materials which match or complement them but you don’t have to use an unattractive surfacing material just because it’s already there.

How much and what kind of use a path gets is important. A main footpath, especially if used for wheelbarrows or other heavy items, needs a more durable surface than a little-used one.

A garden path should provide a safe, non-slip hard surface that sheds water easily and dries quickly after rain. Some materials dry out more quickly than others, and the foundations on which a path is laid and the nature of the soil and subsoil also affect drainage.

Consider cost, as some paving materials are expensive to buy and/or lay, and foundations and edging costs may push the price up. Existing old brick, natural stone or granite setts may be too expensive to continue; using a neutral, inexpensive material, such as concrete paving slabs, is one solution. Consider the weight of the materials, especially if handling them on your own.

Unit paving options Concrete paving slabs are among the most popular hard surfacing materials for paths. Widely available, relatively cheap and easy to lay, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including square, rectangular, circular, hexagonal and half-hexagonal. Particularly popular are paving slabs that are reproductions of natural stone. You can also buy concrete paving slabs with patterned surfaces that resemble sections of brick or granite sett paving.

Be wary of overfussy, brightly or unnaturally coloured slabs. Check how easy the slabs are to cut and check that edging slabs are available for non-standard shaped slabs. Concrete slabs simulating brick or stone need high standards of edging and joint details, or they can look ‘fake’.

Crazy paving made of good quality, carefully cut materials, and laid with tight joints is an attractive, informal, long-lasting surface. Costs vary according to the type of stone used but old bits of concrete rubble rarely look good. Bricks make a good-looking, tough path, creating patterns with a pleasing, small scale. Not all bricks are frostproof, and some have a long delivery time – check with your supplier before buying. As well as traditional clay bricks, there are rectangular and interlocking concrete blocks. These are frostproof, more easily available and cheaper. They don’t need pointing (filling the joints with mortar) and can be laid on sand, but some colours are a bit harsh. Pavers, special paving bricks, are always laid on the flat. Made of clay or concrete, and usually thinner and denser than ordinary bricks, they come in several sizes. No pointing is needed. Quarry tiles come in a range of elegant shapes, sizes and earthy colours. Made of high-fired clay, they are hard wearing, lightweight and maintenance free. However, they are costly, require pointing and concrete foundations, are slippery when wet and may not be frostproof.

Natural stone has a unique beauty, but is costly, heavy to handle, difficult to cut and obtain. Sold as dressed squares or rectangles in various thicknesses, types include slate, York stone, Portland stone and the harder Purbeck Portland. Slate and York stone can be slippery when wet.

Wood used for garden paths must be hardwood or preservative-treated. Raised timber decking dries out quickly after rain and just needs an annual scrub to remove algae. Tree trunk slices set into the ground can make a stepping stonelike path.

Cobbles and setts are uncomfortable to walk on and best confined to edging or decorative infill, especially of awkwardly shaped areas. Granite sorts come in square or rectangular form, but are costly and, like cobbles, can be difficult to obtain and slow to lay.

Mass paving options

Mass concrete is cheap and useful for awkwardly shaped paths, although it is hard work to lay and shuttering (formwork) is needed to retain the edges while the concrete sets. It is usually long lasting but cracks can sometimes occur, especially if there are insufficient expansion joints.

The surface needn’t look drab; you can drag a brush across the wet surface, for instance, or leave aggregate exposed on the surface.

The cheapest way of working with concrete is to buy cement, sand and aggregate and mix them yourself. However, this requires the most effort and work space.


You can also buy pre-mixed bags and just add water – easier and more convenient, but more expensive. For a larger job, consider hiring a concrete mixer or, for a really large job, using ready-mixed concrete delivered to the site -with plenty of help on hand to ensure the concrete doesn’t have time to set before you use it. Tarmac is made of tiny stones bound together with bitumen or tar and laid over a firm, thick base. It needs strong edging, such as a narrow concrete kerb. Difficult to work with, laying it is perhaps best left to the professionals.

Tarmac mixes differ – there are various proportions of bitumen to gravel. A low bitumen content gives a more attractive gravelly appearance but may not last as long – check with your supplier.

Loose paving options Pulverized bark makes an attrac-tive surface and is soft to walk on. It needs some form of edging and may need topping up each year. Weeds, too, can be troublesome. Gravel and shingle are very cheap to buy and lay, and are ideal for an informal, rustic look. Gravel comes in different sizes, but anything more than 15mm (ziin) in diameter can be uncomfortable to walk on.

Both gravel and shingle must be carefully laid or they can puddle badly after rain. You may have to dress the path with a fresh top laver from time to time. Weeds can also be a problem, though weedkillers specifically developed for use on paths are available.

Grass paths

These can be beautiful but are definitely for light use only – even a hard-wearing grass mixture may need annual returfing near a door or gate. Pay careful attention to width and edging details, to facilitate mowing and to prevent grass encroaching on adjacent beds. Like any lawn, a grass path requires high maintenance, especially in the growing season. In wet weather, it can become waterlogged and unpleasant to use.

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