Wood work: It's a mystery that so many people favour paving over decking

Floorboards, planks and timber provide a far more sympathetic environment, says Anna Pavord

Decking is slightly sneered at by the style icons of the garden. I wonder why? While painted and distressed woodwork, pretend survivors of storm and tempest, dominates chic and centrally heated living rooms, you rarely see the real thing outside. On the patio, concrete paving rules.

You could argue that there is a certain unity of form and texture between the concrete walls of a house and the same material used for paving, but it is a harsh unity. If you cover the same area with wooden decking, the atmosphere will change immediately. The environment will be quieter, softer, more sympathetic to plants with which wood has a natural symbiosis.

Decking gives you the chance to experiment with different wood stains. There are some excellent colours on the market. Watered-down green, or soft grey could look brilliant in the right setting: faded-grey stained wood with mounds of magenta osteospermum standing on it in pots; patchy olive green setting off white daisies and gold helichrysum.

Both those combinations would need sun, but I can also see decking, laid in long thin planks, working well in the narrow passages that you often find outside the back entrances of terraced houses. Sometimes these are pleasantly paved in brick. Often they have been gagged with a hasty concrete screed. You would not have to go to the trouble of drilling out the concrete to transform it with wood. You could lay the narrow planks on their joists on top of it.

The effect would be even better if you continued working in the same wood to make a close-boarded fence. Use one or two really thick planks (the type that scaffolders use are about right), set horizontally, as plant stands against the fence. Use thick baulks of timber to make separators between the plant shelves. The correct scale is important. So is a general feeling of ampleness. If you have thin shelves sagging between a couple of loose brick supports, it will look as if you expect the bailiffs at any moment.

Decking can also be used to make a smooth transition from a first floor to the garden level of a house. In town houses, at least those with semi-basements, you often come in at the front door at what seems to be ground level and find that the sitting room at the back of the house is actually at first-floor level. A wide balcony with double doors leading on to it will make the room seem larger, provide extra outside sitting space, extra places for plants in pots and a new way down into the garden proper.

Much would depend on what is under the proposed balcony. If there is a window, it will be badly starved of light by the overhang. If not, the covered space could be used to advantage to store bikes or garden tools. You may need shade on the balcony, but I wouldn't make it permanent. Any permanent covering will take away light from the room inside. Instead, put up a temporary arrangement of parallel wooden poles and supports which could drop into brackets on the edge of the balcony. Cover this with an exotic-looking and leafy annual climber such as Cobaea scandens. Or do what professional designers do and rig up a canvas sail.

A raised wooden bed (Alamy) A raised wooden bed (Alamy)
It is far easier to get a properly smooth surface with decking than it is with concrete slabs. Decking rests on a stable underpinning skeleton of wooden joists. Concrete slabs need, but often do not get, a properly levelled foundation of rubble and sand. Wood may not be > as long-lasting as concrete, but the deck that we inherited in our present house was apparently installed in the Seventies. We've just patched in a couple of new planks, but 40 years is as long a life as most of us would expect.

And before Disgusted of Hampstead sends off the knee-jerk email, can I say, again, that this kind of wood planking has nothing whatever to do with any rainforest anywhere. Typically, decking is made from northern redwood or western red cedar, grown as a crop in Canada and the north-west of the US, Russia and Scandinavia.

The deck at our place sits directly outside double doors leading from the sitting room. In front, the ground drops steeply in two directions: to the front and to the right. The deck provides an easy and effective transition between the different levels. On one side it sits flush with the brick terrace in front of the house.

On the other, it drops in three wooden steps to a gravelled yard at the side of the house. It's shaped like half of an uneven hexagon, with wooden post and rail round the edges to stop anyone falling off. The surround is mostly covered with a white-flowered summer jasmine, planted in the ground below the deck. As a structure, it's useful (it gets the last of the sun) and fits easily into its setting. I can't think of a better way of getting round the design problems here.

Used in the garden, for decking or fencing, steps, furniture or edgings, wood has a warmth entirely lacking in concrete or plastic. You want to reach out and touch wood. The pattern of the grain, the occasional hiccup of a knot, draws the eye in a pleasantly mesmeric way. It is always interesting, without being demanding.

Decking works well with water, but scale and restraint are the keynotes. The best water garden I ever saw was a Japanese one: a simple rectangle, the lip disguised with narrow slatted boards. The same slatted board made a flat drawbridge across the pool. The cleverness lay in the route this path took – not straight, but not unnecessarily contrived. It started straight, then made a right-angle turn to the right, then another to the left, so the path finished in the same plane as the first section. Each of the three sections of the path was slightly detached from its neighbour. The wood was plain, greyish in tone. The planting was of iris, nothing but Iris laevigata in three blocks of colour: purple, mauve and white.

Wood in various forms is also good for edging paths and for making raised beds. Skips often provide useful material to recycle in this way (ask before you take). Wooden boards, kept in place with unobtrusive wooden pegs, give a firm and permanent edge to a lawn where it butts on to a path. Heavier baulks of timber are needed to restrain the earth in planted borders.

You can use old floorboards (but nothing too thin and flimsy) to make raised beds for vegetables, or decorative plants that require drainage sharper than anything available in the rest of the garden. Again, the thickness of the wood matters. Unless it is about 2cm/1in thick, it will look uncomfortably temporary. And bulge when filled with compost.

If you build them directly on top of the earth, planting boxes such as these do not need bottoms. If you want to add them to a concrete paved patio, remove the paving stones directly under the boxes, which will improve drainage. But remember, however many copies Mel Bartholomew may have sold of Square Metre Gardening, good crops are not produced entirely because of the shape of your raised bed. It's what you put in that counts.

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