Decks and Patios
The addition of a hard outdoor surface, whether deck or patio, increases living space considerably, and will greatly increase the usefulness of your garden.
If you have any interest at all in spending time outdoors a hard area is almost as essential to a garden as plants are. A transition area between house and garden can become a part of both and greatly extend the season when you can enjoy your garden after the hard work of gardening is done.
The alternatives are wooden decks or stone patios. Gravel doesn't provide a satisfactory surface to sit or play on, and while grass can be perfect for both, for much of the spring and autumn, it will probably be too wet and muddy to be pleasant to use.
Hard surfaces are the most expensive form of ground cover (more so than many fitted indoor floorings), so make sure you are using all of the area usefully. Pots can be placed in corners where you are unlikely to tread, but it seems a waste to me to put them on useful parts of the patio or deck, you may have paid £100+ for the area where your petunias are standing.
Forest Forest 130x249x244cm Patio Deck Kit
Forest Forest Patio Deck Tile - 90x90cm - Pack of 4
Forest Patio Deck Tile Kit 39mm x 0.6 x 0.6m 4 Pack (5806F)
Position & Size
The first thought of a patio or deck is often of sitting out sunning yourself, drink in hand while contenting yourself that you are master of all you survey (well at least as far as the fence anyway). A little thought of the details in advance will give you an area that can used more frequently.
The obvious position for a deck or patio is usually immediately outside the patio doors or back door of the house. This is convenient for many reasons, particularly if you have small children so they feel close to the house when playing and can easily be kept an eye on. Don't underestimate the importance of this with small children - garden makeover programmes often have the play area at the bottom of the garden, well we all know that's where the ghosts and monsters in a child's imagination live. Have the play area near where the adults will be and it will get used much more unless you are prepared to sit out with the children not doing much.
If you intend to eat al fresco very often and have barbecues or parties outside, it's easier to service these if the kitchen is nearby. Bear these in mind if you are thinking of an area away from the house.
As an absolute minimum, 3m square (10ft x 10ft) will allow you to get a small round table and 4 chairs with a bit of elbow room. 3m x 5m (10ft x 15ft) is more realistic for a family with one or two children or a couple who like to entertain. If you go larger than this, pay more attention to how the area fits in with the rest of the garden. Is it beginning to dominate? Is privacy becoming more of an issue?
Forest Deck Bearer Decking Kit 2.4 x 0.07m (8406K)
Forest Deck Joist Decking Kit 2.4m x x 5 Pack (5106K)
Forest Patio Decking Kit 2.4m x 0.12m x 28mm 20 Pack (2700K)
Sun, shade, shelter & other matters
These are the other major considerations. It is better to have a sunny patio than one in the shade as you can always make shade but you can't make sun!
Remember that sitting in direct sunshine in summer can be uncomfortably hot. Parasols can provide an elegant solution and have the advantage of being removable when the sun doesn't shine. Another solution is something to give dappled shade, a pergola with trellis as a roof, or - climbers supported with wires, give a nice effect, choose deciduous climbers and they will give shade in summer but allow the light through when they lose their leaves. Ideally, to extend the season of use there should be some possibility of shade in mid-summer, but not in spring and autumn when the sun is warm without being overpowering, deciduous climbers can help here.
Avoid most trees near your patio or deck, exceptions are those with a light open canopy such as birches (Betula spp.) and Robinia pseudoacacia "frisia", though be wary of these being too close to the house. Most other trees would give too dense a shade. Almost any tree planted within 1-2m will in time begin to lift your patio with its roots, decks are not affected in the same way and can be constructed around the base of existing trees.
Shelter from wind is also very important when sitting your deck / patio, if everywhere seems to be windy, consider erecting a pergola screen for protection. 6ft tall trellis panels held up by 3" square posts are effective and you can plant climbers at the base of the trellis to soften the effect. Trees, a hedge, or large shrubs on the windward side of the garden can also help considerably to curb the wind. An extra 2 ft of trellis on top of a boundary fence works well too, and doesn't usually need the planning permission that a taller fence might.
Decks should really only be positioned where they are in the sun for most of the time. If too shaded, they remain wet and slippery (or at least more slippery than when dry) for longer, which will also reduce the life of the wood. Patios are better for shady places and whereas wet wood can look rather dreary, wet slabs / bricks aren't so bad. If you are reading books on decking most of them are written in and for countries that don't have our damp maritime climate.
Patios will last longer than decks, this may or may not be a consideration depending on how long you will be living in your present house. While decks can last several decades, there are many variables and the wood will eventually rot or need repairs whereas patios once laid are generally down for good unless you change your mind.
Dealing with manhole covers. Houses, particular new houses it seems for reasons that are not entirely clear, are frequently surrounded by one or more manhole covers that look unsightly and make it difficult when laying a patio around them.
One solution is to deck over them. It may seem rather drastic but it certainly works very well, there are some new houses that have four of five covers within a small area and there's really little that can be done to disguise them. The usual device of getting a pot and placing it on the cover tends to draw attention which defeats the object. Decks are raised about 6" or more above ground level and so make it easy to hide the covers which can be accessed fairly easily by lifting a couple of boards if necessary - when was the last time you needed to access a manhole cover?
DIY or not
Cost - can vary quite bit, however whatever patio slabs you use, the preparation and sub-base will be the same, similarly for decking, support foundations and the sub-base will be the same whether you use the cheapest or most expensive decking boards. Make sure you know what slabs / bricks or wood you are getting before you commit.
Decks and patios can be installed by the competent (important word that) DIY'er. They are not for beginners, they are major projects and will involve some hard heavy work. Make sure you know what you're taking on before you start, that you have the right tools, that you are carrying the work out to the correct standards and that you are using the right materials.
Q. We have a back garden that measures 40' deep and 60' wide, which is on a slope that goes from the back of the house upwards in one corner more than the other, by about 5' at it's highest point. We have been considering retailing walls to make a number of flat levels. However, I was wondering whether decking would be a possible option. The reason that I ask is that everywhere I look decking is displayed as an ideal solution to gardens that go downwards rather than upwards.
A. The brief answer to your question is that there is no reason that decking couldn't provide you with a level area with a garden that slopes upwards.
You just need to be a bit more careful about where the deck will be and its position particularly in relation to what surrounds the garden. You should also consult your local council planning department as permission may well be required for elevated decks, even if it's only 45-60cm.
Decking is recommended for downwards sloping gardens as the level of the deck is usually the same as the house level with the far end of the deck being elevated relative to the surrounding ground. With an upward sloping garden the whole deck is going to be at a higher level than the house and also possibly than the fence / hedge. Decks are ideal for sloping sites as they can be supported on posts without needing to level the area. You need to think carefully about how an elevated deck will fit into your garden. If the answer is "not so well" and you need to dig in and place a retaining wall, I'd go for a patio as you would lose all of the cost savings in leveling the site anyway.
I visited a similar garden locally recently where the owners were considering an elevated deck until I pointed out that if they had a table on the deck, it would be 6" above the level of their 6ft fence and they'd be sat up there looking down on their neighbours patio! Your situation may not be so extreme, but it requires careful thought and measuring out of sizes and levels.