Creative Ideas For Patios & Containers


Patios have never been more popular than they are today, as we become more and more aware of the value of precious living space out of doors. Somewhere to sit, to play, to entertain out in the open extends the living area of your house and adds another dimension to leisure life, especially if you are able to cook outside, too, on occasions.

A patio is an expensive item to construct, so it’s important to get the design and the planning right. But before you get to the actual planning stage, there are a few questions to ask yourself about the site. Traditionally we think of the patio as an area alongside the house, but this need not necessarily be so: it all depends on how you are going to use it. Is it to be an outdoor room? It could be that you are overlooked, or that the garden is in shade all the time, or that the street is so noisy that you are not likely to want to stay outdoors for long. In this case, you may decide to use your patio mainly as an area filled with attractive plants that can be viewed from the window. A paved area is a very good way of showing off a series of tubs, boxes and baskets of flowers that can be switched around with the seasons and replenished with bedding plants.

Many people have to use their patio primarily as a service area. For instance, you may have to store dustbins on it, or hang out the washing across it, or use at least part of the total space to keep a bicycle, scooter, or push-chair under cover. In such cases you may want to arrange for trellises or other types of screens to hide all the impedimenta and still leave you room for a deckchair or for sunbathing. So the patio may need to be larger than you might otherwise have envisaged. A patio that is to be a young children’s playground, on the other hand, does not necessarily need the sun; but it should have a non-slip surface and be near enough to the kitchen door for you to be able to keep an eye on things.

Work out which way your plot faces in relation to the sun’s position at various times of the day and how it might affect your use of a patio. You may find, for instance, when you come to chart the sunshine, that the spot where you are planning to sunbathe in the afternoon, in a small backyard or garden, will be in the shade at that time of day; in which case you will have to think again. Remember that in summer the sun climbs higher in the sky and you get longer hours of heat and light. The ideal patio faces south or west for the maximum warmth and sunshine. If it is sunbathing at all costs that you want from your patio you may find you need to site it away from the house, perhaps even at the far end of your garden. This might have the bonus of giving you more peace and quiet, distanced from the hurly-burly of the house.

Screening off the area from the eyes of the neighbours and ensuring privacy plays its part in the planning of most patios; but it should be done in such a way that it does not put the garden or the patio itself into shade or make it feel cramped. This can often be done by using a see-through structure such as trellis or pierced-screen concrete blocks, rather than a solid wall. But remember that the higher the fence, the less sunshine it will let in. In cramped city conditions a ‘ceiling’ of laths or planks suspended on their edges, with creepers growing over and between them, can block out the upstairs neighbours’ view of you and give you the feeling that you are in your own outdoor dining room. If you want to, you can add clear, corrugated PVC sheeting on top, which will shut out the worst of the weather and act as a greenhouse over the climbers beneath; but it will be very noisy when it rains hard. Any such roofing, incidentally, should have a slight slope so that the rain runs off it. You can also use the space under the planks to suspend plant pots and hanging baskets.


No matter how small your patio is going to be, it pays to make a plan. But first of all, if you are doing anything drastic, you need to check that you are not contravening local bye-laws or a landlord’s agreement. It is far better to find out beforehand than to have to put things right afterwards – expensively. Remember that many trees now have preservation orders on them, especially in towns; this is a point that needs checking too. It is useful at this stage to find out what type of soil you have – acid, alkaline (limy), or neutral. And find out whether it is sticky clay or a lightweight sand that will let the moisture drain through. If you are gardening solely in containers then you can choose your own compost to suit yourself and the plants you wish to select. Otherwise, a chat with the neighbours or the use of a soil-testing kit will give you a guide-line when it comes to choosing plants. If you have no-one else to turn to, your local town parks department may be of help.


Note any existing features that are there and plan to make the most of them. Even a dead woody shrub or tree may be useful as a host to climbing plants or to suspend hanging baskets from. Other factors must also be taken into consideration. Are you overlooked by a high-rise building, for instance, which shuts out a lot of light? Is yours a site that gets more than its fair share of wind? Decide, too, whether you want to block out your surroundings or make a feature of them. Often an item like a church spire or a magnificent tree across the road can make a punctuation point outside your garden that you want to keep in view, while an ugly factory or lines of neighbours’ washing will need screening from sight.

Fences and walls are a precious bonus to the confined gardener: they are the features where you can get some of your most spectacular effects with climbers planted in half baskets; you can even exploit them to deceive the eye by painting murals on them or by using mirrors. Think carefully about the patio ‘floor’. What is it going to be used for? Heavy-duty traffic may dictate the use of concrete or natural stone paving; but they can be jazzed up by growing little crevice plants between them – a point to bear in mind when laying the slabs. Remember, though, that the use of paving under a deciduous tree or a bush that bears lots of berries may mean that you will have a great deal of sweeping up to do when autumn comes if it is not to look unsightly, and it may pay you to have grass or a grass substitute instead.

If a patch of lawn is out of the question, but you yearn for one, then you can have a miniature patch of green chamomile or some other creeping plant that makes a good grass substitute simply by leaving out one or two of the paving stones at random and planting up the spaces.

Even the smallest patio needs a focal point of some sort – something that focuses your attention when you view it. A small statue, if it is carefully chosen, can lead the eye to the end of a small courtyard. A sundial makes a good centre point to a paved garden. A small pool looks good, especially if it is raised above ground level for dramatic effect. Water makes an ever changing centre of interest, especially in confined surroundings.

Patio lighting is another item to be taken into consideration at this stage, since it is much easier to install right at the beginning, when wiring can be hidden, than having to disguise trailing flexes later on. If you are planning a barbecue, remember that you will need to provide suitable lighting around it for evening cook-outs. A permanent fixture above head height is best.

While you are still at the planning stage it is a good idea to develop an overall theme for your patio. It could be a particular colour scheme: small patio areas look best with one, rather than a liquorice-allsorts mix of every conceivable colour. Or it could be a particular ‘look’. If you wanted to make your plot look like a Mediterranean-style patio, for instance, you could plan for some large terracotta pots, and make up a shopping list of plants like the yucca, and the Chusan palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) or New Zealand flax (Phormium lenax) to give a spicy, sub-tropical look. A country-garden patio can easily be achieved by heavy interplanting among the paving slabs and with old-fashioned flowers like foxgloves (Digitalis) and hollyhocks (Althaea) against the wall.


Drawing up a plan of your patio gives you a chance to make your mistakes on paper rather than more expensively on the site. The easiest way to do this is to make a large-scale plan of your plot on graph paper. Using the squares to count, rather than measuring each time, saves a great deal of effort. And you can sketch in the approximate size of fully grown specimen plants to see how they will look. Better still, cut them out of pieces of paper and move them around on your plan to find the best position for them. If you are proposing to include deckchairs, cushions, or a table and chairs, cut out scale outlines of the furniture separately and move them around on your plan to see if they will fit. You will need to attend to such details as making sure that it is actually possible to push a chair back from the table when you want to stand up, especially if you are building a terrace in a confined space or planning to cram a number of containers onto it.

For a really comfortable sitting-out area that will take a table seating four people, you need a width of at least 2.5m (8-1/4ft) and as much length as is available. As a general rule, keep the centre of the patio open, otherwise the immediate outlook from the house will seem cluttered. Bear in mind, too, if you are planning raised flowerbeds or putting plants against a house wall where there has never been a bed before, that you must not go above the damp-course line or you may be plagued with moisture problems on the inside of the house. You will find the damp-course if you look for a layer of tarred felt or other material inserted between courses of bricks near the ground on newer houses or, on older properties, such features as a series of holes bored in the wall. Where no damp course is evident, follow the general guide that the soil level should be a good 150mm (6in) below the floor level inside the house. If you do come up against the problem of damp, you must move the flower-bed away from the wall, put your plants in free-standing containers, or install some sort of permanent waterproof sheeting between the soil and the brickwork. Another simple idea is to use growing bags. You can disguise these useful but unattractive plastic containers in various ways – for instance, with a row of pot-grown herbs.

If, when you have drawn up your plan and put it on paper, you are still a little doubtful how the overall plan or some of its main features will look in reality, it’s a good idea to take photographs of the site from several angles. You can then sketch the major features you are proposing, like specimen trees, raised beds, a barbecue, or walls and screens, on to the photos. This will help you to see what your plan will look like in a third dimension. Now try your plan out on the actual site, using buckets as containers and pieces of wood and any other props you please. You may find that what seemed to work on paper does not quite work out in practice. Perhaps the door or window will not open fully, for instance, because something is in the way. Mark out paved areas, flower beds, and so on with a string and wooden pegs. Keep the string above ground level to give a more realistic feel of that third dimension, height: a planned area picked out in chalk on the ground may seem to work out nicely – but may become obtrusive when you see it in terms of growing plants. If your plot slopes, do not be in too much of a hurry to level it up. Think carefully first: it might be better to turn it into a series of terraces. Or the slope could be exploited by installing a feature with an attractive trickle of water down to a pool.


The materials for your patio are likely to be the largest single expenditure you will make on your garden, so it is as well to make the right choice. There is a wide range of surfaces available now, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. You need to list your own particular requirements in order of importance, then choose the material that suits you best.

Used creatively, a hard surface outside can enhance the look of your house. But you must at all costs avoid producing a desolate, hard-ground cover reminiscent of a shopping precinct. So think, in general, about breaking up the hard-surface layout into fairly small areas, varying the surfacing materials, and incorporating plants.

The nature and design of hard surfacing should be assessed carefully for its functional and aesthetic qualities. In functional terms the surface may be used for access (for people, bikes), for children’s play, for entertaining, and for sitting and sunbathing. The materials can vary widely according to function; but whatever it is used for, the best patio surface should be hard, clean, smooth, quick-drying, and weed- free. And, of course, whatever the material and the use to which it is put, it must be durable and not unreasonably expensive.

From the point of view of appearance, a potentially dull-looking hard-surfaced area can be made interesting and attractive by careful choice of colours, by breaking up the floorscape (for instance, with tubs or small beds of flowers), by changing levels, and by attention to the detailed finishing both within the surfaced area and particularly around the margins. Paving made up of small units, such as brick pavers, can both add character and create an illusion of space within a small garden. If the same type of brick is associated with materials also used in the house or its boundaries, a pleasingly co-ordinated effect may be achieved. Colours and textures are very important: bright colours that look attractive in the catalogue sometimes look garish on site, especially if they are mixed, and they tend to attract the eye away from the subtle, natural colours of your plants. Large expanses of light grey concrete are not only boring to look at but can cause glare in bright sunlight. On the other hand, lighter colours can help to reflect light into shaded areas.


York stone, limestone, granite and other kinds of natural stone have one big advantage: once laid they look instantly mellow, as if they have been in place for a long time – a good selling point if your house is an old one. But they are extremely costly, even when bought second-hand, and are not always readily available. If you are buying second-hand from a demolition yard – the cheapest source – you may find that the slabs vary greatly not only in size but in thickness too. So if you are paying a great deal for your materials it is worth shelling out still more to get a professional to lay them, rather than trying to tackle this job yourself.


Bricks are among the most versatile of paving materials. There is an enormous range of colours and the small unit size is particularly well suited to the smaller garden. They can match the bricks used for the house and serve visually to link the house and garden and give a very pleasant appearance.

Two sorts of brick are available for garden paving. You can use standardized bricks which are frost resistant and generally, therefore, will need to be of ‘special’ quality. Alternatively, you can buy especially made paving bricks, which are usually thinner in section but are very hard and dense. Engineering bricks are suitable, too, but choose muted colours.

Standard bricks can be laid flat on their bedding faces or, more traditionally, you can lay them on edge (but this requires more bricks). Perforated bricks must, of course, be laid on edge. There are many bonding patterns to choose, from the simple stretcher bond to the more decorative basket weave and diagonal herringbone, but the latter pattern will entail cutting the bricks diagonally at the edges.


A paving material recently introduced to this country, although it has been used for many years in continental Europe, is the concrete block, which is now available in Britain in many colours and a variety of shapes. The rectangular blocks are 200 x 100 x 65mm (8 x 4 x 2-1/2in) in size – that is, similar in shape to, but slightly smaller than, a brick.

In the last few years too, special concrete paver blocks, in various shapes and colours, have come on the market. One of the attractions of using these is that they can be laid in a wide variety of patterns to create visual interest and sometimes also an illusion of extra space, width, or depth. They are extremely hardwearing and are usually easier for the amateur to lay than conventional bricks.


Used in mass form as a garden surfacing material, concrete is hard, durable, and fairly easy to lay, and once laid it is more or less permanent. To many people, the colour of concrete is harsh, to others merely boring; certainly large, bare areas of concrete are pretty unexciting. Colouring agents can help to relieve the monotony if the concreted area is fairly small and the colours chosen with care; but a more interesting effect can be achieved by modifying the surface texture – for example, by exposing the coarse stone aggregate. Alternatively you can mark it out into mock paving squares, although, unless this is done neatly, it is likely to look worse than a plain surface. You may find that the best solution is to concentrate on stocking the surroundings with colourful plants.


These smooth rounded stones look very attractive if you use them on a small scale/setting them around a tree for instance, or infilling an odd corner, where it might be difficult to cut larger paving materials. But they are not suitable for a large area, since they become dangerously slippery when wet, and they are totally unstable to stand garden furniture on. However, they can look very attractive when7 used to break up a large expanse of concrete – set in a circular swirl for instance, or ranged into a square. Granite setts, too, can be used in the same way, to provide patterns on what might otherwise be a dull expanse of paving or concrete. Bed them in carefully to achieve a flat surface.


Although it is used a great deal on the Continent, particularly in France, gravel is seldom used over here for patios, though it has many advantages. It makes a relatively inexpensive and quickly laid surfacing material. Curves are much easier to form with gravel than with paving slabs, and slight changes in level are readily accommodated. Gravel offers the advantage, too, that it can easily be taken up and later re-laid if underground piping and other services need to be installed at any time. Finally, if you become bored with it, the gravel is likely to form a good base for an alternative surface. The main disadvantage is that, unless it is carefully graded, the surface will be loose: pieces of gravel spilling on to an adjacent lawn could cause serious damage to a mower, while they are easy to bring into the house on the soles of shoes.

Gravel is available in two main forms: crushed stone from quarries, and pea gravel from gravel pits. The former is of better quality, but will be very expensive unless the stone is quarried locally. Gravel occurs in a variety of attractive natural colours, and your choice should if possible complement any stone employed in the garden for walling or rock gardens. The alternative, washed pea gravel, comes in shades from near white to almost black. Whichever type is used, ensure that the stones are neither too large (which makes walking uncomfortable), nor too small (they will stick to your shoes). For most purposes the best size is in the range 10 to 20mm (3/8 to ¾ in) in diameter. Be sure that it is all of one grade; a mixture tends to settle out into layers and looks less effective.

Gravel is good at suppressing weeds. The only maintenance it should need is an occasional raking over to keep it looking trim and to remove any bumps or indentations.


You need to choose your patio surface as you would a good carpet: you are looking for something that is going to wear well, of course, but it must also be attractive to the eye and blend in with the surroundings. In other words a solid, unimaginative, grey concrete slab would detract from rather than add to the charms of a period house, whereas herringbone brick paving, or large slabs of (albeit imitation) York stone could look very attractive indeed.

If your patio is any size at all, vary the paving materials you use – don’t stick to just one type. Give your patio ‘professional’ touches by breaking up the line of the paving, here and there, with something else – cobbles set around a newly planted tree on the patio, for instance, or small, narrow pavers outlining a large square of paving stones, or even a selection of decorative ceramic tiles (make sure they are suitable for outdoor use) forming a stone ‘rug’ in front of the back door. One of the easiest ways to add variety to the smaller patio is to mix small and large size slabs of the same material; most of them are made in modules that can mix so it is quite easy to do this.

If you are using slabs the easiest way to finalise your design is to buy graph paper and work it out on that. Don’t feel that you have to pave the entire area; if there is space for it, why not plant a decorative tree or, at the least, a flowering bush? (But ensure that it is located where it is not going to be in the way of the main traffic runs, and where it can be seen and appreciated.) Think carefully, too, about what you are going to do with the edge of the patio, where it meets the lawn, if there is one. Avoid that ‘station-platform’ look at all costs by legislating for a low wall, at the very least, to finish it off.

08. July 2013 by admin
Categories: Featured, Garden Management, Top Tips | Tags: , | 16 comments

Comments (16)

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