Garden Steps and Patios
Well-chosen, well-suited steps are more than just a necessary adjunct to a– they can actually enhance it if you give a little time and thought to their design. They don’t have to be totally utilitarian: you could, for instance, build them with ‘pockets’ at either side of the treads to accommodate trailing and , or make crevices in the risers in which you could grow alpine plants to give a waterfall of colour when viewed from below. Built-in lighting is not only a decorative trick but a safety measure, too, if you use your patio and garden at night.
The way you design your steps will depend very much on the slope that they are bridging, but there are so many attractive materials available that there is no need to make them dull. Ideally, the steps should echo or complement the material used on the patio. If the latter is paved, reserve enough additional slabs to use as the treads; the risers can be made of bricks, reproduction dry-stone walling, or any other suitable material that will blend in with a building material used elsewhere in.
Discarded railway sleepers (if you can get hold of them) make interesting and unusual steps, as do rustic half-logs and old bricks; but they should not be used for a steep flight since they are all likely to become covered with algae and moss and can be slippery. If you are using paving slabs or other similar material, the flight of steps will look much more handsome if you make the treads overhang the risers by about 35mm (1-1/2in).
Remember to keep your steps in scale with their surroundings – a grandiose sweep, complete with balustrades, would look out of place in the typical suburban garden, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have twin plinths at the top and/or bottom on which to place bowls of.
Your first job is to work out the design of the steps on paper. Draw up cross sections from the front and from the sides to work out the number of steps that you need, for a given height of riser and a depth of tread, to fill the overall space. The area the steps cover should be twice as long as it is high. Garden steps need to be broad and shallow for safety’s sake. The treads should ideally be about 375mm (15in) from front to back, and the risers 100-150mm (4-6in) high. In other words the depth of tread should be at least twice the height of the riser, and the treads should all be of equal depth, otherwise they make walking up the steps an uncomfortable business and might cause children to stumble and fall.
CONSTRUCTING YOUR STEPS
First shape and firm the bank up which the steps are to go, cutting out the steps in the compacted soil. Then set in the first set of risers on the base. Now sit the first tread on a bed of concrete laid over a layer of hardcore. From now on each riser is set in mortar at the back of a tread, overlapping it by about 25-50mm (1-2in) to prevent the tread from tipping. Set each tread at a very slight angle, falling about 6mm (1/4in) in every foot to the front or one side to allow rainwater to drain off.
PLANTING AROUND YOUR STEPS
In order to make the steps look established as soon as possible, the bank that surrounds them should be planted up quickly with basic ground cover that will give it a mature appearance. The periwinkle (Vinca major) grows quickly and produces pretty blue flowers in summer; or, if the area is large the bushier Rose of Sharon (Hypericum calycinum) gives close cover. Alternatively, ivy (Hedera) gives a mature look in double-quick time; and, if the steps are built alongside a retaining wall rather than a bank, ivy tumbling over the top, enlivened by ivy-leaved geraniums (Pelargonium) in summer, will give a very attractive display. If you do not mark your steps by pillars or some other sort of ‘furniture’, consider placing twin standard bay trees in tubs at the top for a formal look, or small pieces of topiary that have been grown in pots. The steps might also make a good excuse for a rose-covered arch at top or bottom; suitable arch frames which are easily assembled can be found in most garden centres.
Another idea is to make a mini-waterfall by installing parallel but narrower steps down which a greatly moving sheet of water; the steps will need to be lipped at each side to avoid spillage onto either the bank or the footsteps. The water can be circulated by a pump.