Steps can be used to great effect in the garden. They not only enable you to get from one level of the garden to another with ease, but draw together otherwise separated features of the landscape.
The rough shape of the flight is dug into the bank and the steps are then bedded in mortar on a hardcore base. With some soils, well-compacted earth alone can make a firm enough base for the treads and risers. On a soft crumbly soil you may find it necessary to build low retaining walls at the sides of the flight before you lay the treads, to prevent the soil from spilling onto the treads.
Planning the site
When planning you should consider the site as a whole or the steps might end up looking out of place. You have a considerable amount of freedom in the design of your steps as construction rules are more relaxed outdoors than they are for buildings, but you should adhere to the design principle that the new element should fit into its setting. Because you’re using the lie of the land as your foundations it’s as well to plan the flight so that it traces existing gradients or skirts flower beds, trees or other features.
Make a sketch of the garden, plotting possible locations for the steps and transfer this information to a more detailed plan on graph paper, including a cross-section of the ground slope. With this plan you can calculate quantities of materials – always try to design the steps with particular sized bricks, slabs and blocks in mind to avoid having to cut them or alter the slope dimensions unduly.
Match materials that have been used elsewhere in the garden – as boundary walls or raised flower beds for instance – for a feeling of continuity. Also remember the basic rules of step design: although you should avoid creating steep steps, which can cause strain, shallow flights are also not recommended because you can easily trip on them.
Bricks, blocks and natural stone come in sizes that are suitable for building risers in one or more courses. Riven- or smooth-faced concrete slabs or quarry tiles make convenient, easy-to-use and non-slip treads for these materials. You can also use the smaller-scale materials such as bricks and blocks for the treads as well as the risers, although they’ll need a much firmer base than slabs.
The colour of the steps is also important and most materials are available in a range of reds, greens, browns and greys.
Whatever combination of materials you choose, keep the dimensions of the steps constant throughout the flight – a jumble of sizes not only looks untidy but also upsets a comfortable walking rhythm and so can be dangerous.
Where your flight is larger than 10 steps it’s wise to build in a landing. This will visually ‘foreshorten’ the flight, provide a broad resting place and more practically, will serve to ‘catch’ anyone accidentally falling from the flight above. You should also include a landing when changing the direction of a flight at an acute angle.
Include railings to aid balance on steep or twisting flights, or those likely to be used by children and elderly people. They can continue the run of existing fences or walls along a path for a sense of unity.
You should also allow for a slight fall towards the front of each tread so that rainwater will drain quickly away. Don’t slope the light a treads to one side as this can give the lopsided look.
Planning awkward slopes
Your plans for building in steps will seldom run true, as your slope probably won’t be regular in shape. If the riser height doesn’t divide equally into the vertical height of the slope your steps will have inconsistent dimensions – not only unattractive but also likely to upset constant walking pace. One solution is to remodel the slope. Use earth from another part of the garden placed at the top to increase the slope’s height; remove earth from the top to decrease its height. Any extra earth must be compacted before it can be ‘stepped’.
You can often use any undulations to your advantage: because you’re using the firmed ground as your foundations you’re able to build much longer and twisting flights. So base your plan on the shape of the ground rather than vice versa.
Marking out the flight
Before you can mark out the flight on the slope you must calculate the number of steps you’ll need by measuring the vertical height of the bank.
To mark out the steps stretch strings between pegs from the top to the bottom of the slope to indicate the width of the flight. You can then set other strings across the slope to indicate the top edges of each step’s nosing. You should check the level of these nosing strings using a spirit level.
Constructing the flight
Starting at the base of the slope, excavate the rough shape of the first step, digging behind and below the nosing marker to a depth that will allow for a hardcore filling and the thickness of the tread and riser.
Compact the earth, then use the cut-out as a standing base for excavating the next step. Work in this way up the slope. When the whole flight has been excavated in this way, and compacted, lay a hardcore base (if necessary) followed by the treads and risers. Use the back of each tread as a base for the next riser and back-fill with hardcore, which should be well compacted with a fence post tamper, taking care not to dislodge the newly-laid riser.
The first riser should ideally be laid on a cast concrete footing to support the weight of of the flight, preventing it from ‘slipping’, although on small flights where the soil is firm this might not be necessary. The footing should be about 100mm (4in) deep and twice the thickness of the riser.
An alternative way to build steps into a slope is to cast a concrete slab flight in timber formwork and either face it with bricks, blocks, slabs or tiles, or leave it bare.
Garden Planning Tips
One of the basic principles of planning your garden successfully is to combine into one scheme a number of separate areas, such as lawn, patio, vegetable garden and flower beds. You can link these in a number of ways using paths, steps and walls. Here you can see how each can be used in a split-level garden – just the sort of setting to demonstrate them to best advantage.
Landscaping a sloping garden might seem, at the outset, a daunting prospect, yet this type of site offers tremendous scope for imaginative design. One of its major difficulties is that it’s often tiring to work on, especially with heavy equipment such as lawnmowers and rollers, so you should keep your plan as simple as possible by dividing it into easily-manageable sections.
Even the shallowest of gradients can be ‘modelled’ to make an interesting split-level garden; a rise of just one or two steps is sufficient to create a visual break in an otherwise featureless area.
The site can be designed to give an ornamental, function or wild and rambling effect, though you’ll need to choose your materials accordingly. Plain concrete slabs, for example, suggest more formal gardens, whereas the irregular shape of crazy paving is more suitable in a natural-looking scheme.
To prevent your scheme from looking disjointed, plan the various areas of the garden in keeping with each other. One way of visually linking them is to use materials that have been used elsewhere in the garden for walls, paths and flights of steps.
For curving flights – or those on gradual inclines – build the steps into the slope, using the ground as their foundations. Build freestanding flights to link a flat area and a higher terraced one. Carry on path runs in the same materials as the step treads for a unified look.