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Creating an outside seating area is like adding an extra room to your home. Done well, it can massively enhance the visual appeal and practicality of your garden space. A seating area can open up a whole new world of possibilities – from al fresco dining and entertaining groups of friends through to simply providing somewhere quiet to relax and and enjoy your garden in peace. But there is a sting in the tail: it all comes at a cost.
To create a garden seating area on a budget it may be time to consider a bit of DIY. You don’t need to be an expert! Once the ground is prepared, using stone or slate chippings as a surface is a practical, easy and attractive alternative to slabs or pavers. To edge the area you can either make use of existing structures or look at using materials like garden sleepers or decorative bricks. Add a set of table and chairs once complete and a few select potted plants as finishing touches and you’re done!
Keep reading to find out more information on how you could bring your vision to life. I will show you how, as a complete novice, I was able to successfully design and build my ideal garden seating area to enjoy for many summers to come.
In the Beginning…
I was desperately in need of a dedicated and comfortable space in my garden to sit out, relax and entertain. Garden chairs placed randomly on the uneven grass were no longer cutting it. An apple tree was taking up a relatively large portion of the sunniest part of the garden. And I had never really been partial to apples….
In advance of starting any project, it is important to plan out what you want to achieve.
To keep costs down I had decided to use slate chippings instead of hard paving. Using chippings, gravel or garden stones can give you an amazing result – plus they are easy, relatively cheap and fast to install. What’s not to like?
I decided to make use of the existing borders – namely the shed and existing fence on the right and the other existing fence on the left. To separate the lawn and slate chippings I will lay a dividing line of engineering bricks. At the back of the garden is an existing hedge, to retain stones here I will use garden sleepers.
Ideally you should try and size your seating area so that it is in rough proportion to the house. Keep in mind what you want to use it for and how many people you want to be able to comfortably accommodate. Primarily, I wanted to be able to comfortably seat around 6 people but have space for more if needed. It is a good idea to plan which furniture you are going to use, whether existing or new, so that you can make sure that everything will fit.
When it comes to location, there may be a specific place you want to locate your seating area in order to take advantage of existing views, or maybe to maximise privacy. If you are going to be dining outside frequently it may make sense to locate it near to the house, on the other hand placing it further away from the house will give your garden a “destination”.
Another factor to consider is the sun – in the UK the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. A south facing position will maximise sunlight, whereas a north facing position will provide shade most of the day. So depending on whether you are a shade or a sun lover, be sure to try and locate you seating area accordingly!
1. – Cut Down the Apple Tree
Now I had a plan it was time to start: the first job was to cut down the apple tree.
The removal of the tree really opened up the space meaning that I could see exactly what I was working with – an area with a maximum width of 6m and maximum depth of 3.5m. I have plans to use the wood from the tree for both kindling and to create a bug hotel, so nothing will go to waste.
2. – Install Garden Sleepers
The sleepers were installed under the existing hedge to contain the new slate chippings. I used a total of five 200 x 100 x 2400 softwood pressure treated sleepers. I decided not to paint the sleepers as I prefer the rustic look. Of course, over time they will inevitably weather, decay and rot. The pressure treatment gives additional protection against this decay, meaning that the sleepers should have an expected life span of around 8 – 10 years. For a longer lifespan you could try hardwood sleepers which are from slower growing trees and can last between 15 – 20 years.
The best way to lay the sleepers is to cut them and lay in an overlapping pattern – similar to if you were building a brick wall. This adds to the overall strength of the structure aswell as providing a better aesthetic. Beware that if you cut pressure treated sleepers it is advisable to treat the cut section to maintain the protection against rot.
As the height of my structure was only going to be 2 sleepers high, I decided to lay the sleepers without foundations directly onto the soil. Also, as the sleepers were located under a hedge where they were unlikely to be disturbed I just laid them straight on to of each other without any additional brackets or steaks which did the job fine. If your structure is going to be higher than 2 sleepers, or is going to be in a high traffic area, it would be advisable to secure them in place – this can be done by either setting wooden stakes into the ground to fix them to or by fixing them to each other using metal securing brackets.
* The plastic sheeting in the picture above was laid over winter to minimise grass growth and stop weeds in an effort to make my next job of removing the grass easier!
3. – Remove Grass
Next I used a spade to remove the top layer of grass. I decided to compost the old turf for use in the garden at a later date by stacking it grass side down, grass to grass, soil to soil. This is a great eco friendly way to make use of the old turf – as long as you have space and as long as the grass had not previously had weed killer applied. Over a 12 to 18 month period this will break down and form a good quality topsoil.
4. – Level Ground
Once the grass was removed and the sleepers were installed I was left with a clear, but sloping, area. No one wants their table and chairs on a gradient so the next job was to level things out. I did this manually with a spade to achieve a level site. Tiring but worth it!
5. – Construct Brick Edging
The next step was to construct the brick edging between the lawn and the seating area. As I have no building experience I decided to use “u can” mix in the bag mortar for this job (this is not an affiliate link). It is really simple to use, basically shake the bag, add water, shake some more and you’re ready to go! Obviously, remember, safety first – always read the label and follow instructions.
Luckily I had a large pile of surplus engineering bricks which I used for the edging. I laid the bricks two deep on a bed of mortar, ensuring everything was level and in line by using a spirit level, string and tape measure.
6. – Lay Weed Proof Barrier Membrane
The slate chippings cannot be laid directly onto the surface of the soil otherwise within a few weeks or months you will find weeds and other growth breaking through your newly laid surface, as well as the stones being discoloured by the soil beneath. You will need to use a weed proof membrane.
Weed proof membranes are designed to allow rainwater and nutrients to infiltrate through to the soil and are available in varying thicknesses. If, like me, you are using them for walkway areas you will want to use a heavy duty, puncture resistant membrane: stones have jagged edges and can be sharp!
Before you lay the the membrane check that the area you are intending to cover is free of weeds and jagged objects such as rocks and stones. The membrane should be cut to shape to cover the whole area, with a slight overlap between sheets. The membrane I bought was 14 x 1 metres so I laid it in slightly overlapping strips. You could use stones or rocks to hold the membrane down at regular intervals as you lay it – especially important if it is a breezy day!
7. – Add slate chippings
Now for the finishing touch – laying the slate chippings. This was one of the most satisfying parts of the job as there was an instant transformation.
I used 20mm slate chippings. If you use too small a grade of stone or chippings there is a danger of your new patio becoming the local cat litter tray. I have learnt this from experience. Cats do not bother with 20mm chippings as they are too large and difficult for them to disturb. To cover the whole area I needed 40 bags, each bag covering approximately 0.4mm square to a depth of 35mm:
The Final Result
By using a statement piece of garden furniture you can inject interest and style to your seating area. I added a hanging egg chair and re used an existing table and chairs. A few potted plants or shrubs dotted about can add an extra dimension: in this case I added a bay tree, a Cupressus ‘Goldcrest’ conifer tree and a small fir tree but it is still a work in progress and will evolve as time goes on.
So… How Much Did This All Cost?
At 2022 Prices, including the cost of the bricks (which I had already), the total cost of the seating area before furniture would have come in at £462.38:
40 bags of 20mm blue slate : £220
Weed proof membrane 14 x 1 m : £12.98
2 bags of mix in the bag mortar : £24.40
60 engineering bricks : approximate value £60
5 garden sleepers : £145
I am more than happy with the result of my endeavours. I have achieved my goal of creating the perfect seating area (for me) within my budget – when taking into account labour costs and materials, a professional would have charged a four figure sum to do the same job. And as an extra bonus I have learnt some new skills along the way!