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Functional elements for modern garden design

by Timber Press on July 24, 2017

in Design, Gardening

Modern gardens need to be multifunctional. To create a garden space that is fully utilized, it’s important the design includes thoughtfully-placed landscaping details like paths, edging, driveways, terraces, and water features.


Paths should allow comfortable access around the garden, linking the spaces you have designed, but they must also be practical. When choosing materials for paths, comfort and ease of use must be uppermost in your mind. Aesthetics are important, but the functional aspects must dictate: rough or uneven paths that are uncomfortable to walk on, or paving materials that may become slippery in wet or damp weather, especially in shady areas where moss and lichen may accumulate, will end up being unused. How the client intends to use the space will dictate the size or width of paving or paths, and the choice of suitable materials.

Consider the views that will be taken in while walking along the path. Is there a particular place you want people to stop and admire the surroundings, or should they move through the space swiftly? You can control these outcomes by carefully choosing the materials you use. Simple, continuous paving material will help serve the purpose; large slabs, gravel, hoggin, compacted gravel, or resin-bonded gravel all enable the garden visitor to progress easily and to focus on what is around them.

Setting the path on a slightly arched surface using a cross fall or leaving gaps or gulleys at the edge can help to deflect excess rainwater.

The pattern of brickwork on paths can also directly contribute to the walking pace. By interspersing planting across the path like the rungs of a ladder, or perhaps creating patterns within the paving using low-growing plants, you direct attention to the path rather than the surroundings. If paths are uneven and require the pace to be slow, incorporate stepping stones to focus the attention of garden visitors on where they are stepping. For added interest, a combination of two or three different surfaces will elevate the path from purely functional to a decorative feature in its own right. Recycled slabs, cobbles, granite setts, or tiles can be set together to create something attractive and distinctive. Using bricks to pick out geometric shapes within a gravel path will provide that small detail which can elevate a design. Mosaics or upturned glass bottles in patterned paths can look spectacular but can easily dominate; use them with discretion.

Paths can appear to elongate a view by exploiting perspective. Physically narrowing the path as it stretches away from the viewer can be a useful trick in a small space. To be successful, the illusion needs to be carefully worked out on the ground prior to construction. All paths should be laid to a camber, that is, their surface should arch slightly to allow water to drain away quickly. Path edges may need occasional gulleys or drainage channels to drain away excess water in areas prone to high rainfall or flooding.


Edging is often used decoratively to provide a border around an area of hard landscaping, but it also has the important function of providing a separation between two areas that would otherwise converge, such as a planted area and a gravel path. Most paths require an edging to hold them together and separate them from the border or lawn. If abutting a lawn, the finished level of the edging ideally needs to be flush with the lawn or up to 2.5 cm (1 in.) below it to allow the mower to skim over unimpeded.

A wide range of materials are suitable for edging—pressure-treated timber, bricks laid on edge, cobbles, stone, purpose-made Victorian “rope” edging tiles, metal edging strips, or salvaged roof slates. Timber, which soon weathers and becomes unnoticeable, may need to be cut into shorter sections to follow the lines of a curved path. Avoid the unnatural appearance of plastic edging.

In terms of construction, path edging should have a concrete foundation and will usually be haunched to solidly retain the path.


Space for car parking is usually a priority, the average number of cars per UK and US household now being two. Most clients require space for car parking to be incorporated into a design, either for off-road parking or via access to a garage, and the layout should be as practical as possible. Check on any changes in level because if an entrance is being moved, then the kerb bordering the public highway may need to be dropped for vehicular access. In the United Kingdom an application should be made to the local council; in the United States, a Highway Occupancy Permit (HOP) will be required from the local highway agency or public works department.

Access to a driveway needs to be generous, and whether arriving or departing, both driver and passengers should have enough space to exit or enter a vehicle, which will depend on the width and length of the car plus the door openings. The ground beneath the main body of the vehicle can be porous, filled in with easily drained loose gravel or stone, low-growing plants, or a combination of these materials; but hard standing—two strips of brick paving, for example—is necessary beneath tyres. Consider the likely route of the tyres, including reversing, to ensure they won’t drive over any planting.


Founder and principal of The English Gardening School at the Chelsea Physic Garden, London, Rosemary Alexander writes and lectures worldwide on garden design. She was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society and lived as a tenant of the National Trust property in Kent. Her current Hampshire garden has been featured in most major gardening magazines.


Rachel Myers is a garden designer based in Oxfordshire. She has designed gardens in France, Belgium, and Colombia. At the English Gardening School, Rachel lectures on both garden design and practical horticulture diploma courses as well as overseeing and grading all plant portfolios. Her work has been featured in numerous books and magazines, including The Book of Garden Plans, The Book of Small Garden Plans, and Gardens Illustrated.

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