Stone, wood, brick. Whatever they're made of, steps are details which require attention in the garden, be they grand or in a small intimate courtyard.
Details make or break a garden and well-considered steps can enhance the design of your overall space. Steps provide the connection between garden rooms and the style provides atmosphere and helps to set the stage for the intended theme.
I enjoy steps in gardens as they contribute to the presentation of a space. And if the material and design are well chosen they enhance the feel of a house and provide links between home and garden.
When designing steps, the style and era of the house is your main cue for materials and style. If you live in a period house the steps don't need to be period in design, but the choice of material may offer a nod in that direction. Contrasts between curves and straight, formal and informal can work, too. Your design may be guided by the width of an entrance, the location of pillars and so on, as a means to extend the architectural logic of the house.
Steps out of sight of the house need not adhere to this principle. They can respond directly to the garden, be it a narrow link to a secret space, or a broad, open, sweeping platform of steps giving a sense of grandeur, perhaps providing seating as a dual purpose. That leads us to a choice of tread width and depth. This is an important decision, as this, too, will determine how a person walking through the garden experiences the space.
Broad relaxed steps with a shallow tread depth are just that - relaxed - allowing a gentle pace, and perhaps the ease of transporting a cocktail glass or champagne flute (okay, beer glass will do). Steps of this type are suited to a garden designed for entertaining.
A range of step designs, from classic to traditional, caught my attention in the grounds of Larnach Castle in Dunedin. The steps in this dramatic garden included sharp-edged modern, solid timber steps in the striking Out of Africa theme garden. This modern garden was out of sight of the immediate castle surrounds. Close to the castle, narrow basalt stone steps made level changes within a formal symmetrical garden, reflecting the dark stone of the castle walls. Nearby, shallow, broad steps of pale gravel with edges of sandstone fanned out in sweeping curves, meandering past the large old glasshouse. This design would make it much easier for wheeling barrows up. They also provide a link between the formality of the castle's blue stone and the informal South Seas garden hidden behind a holly hedge.
Clever plant choices around your steps will enhance the overall effect. Ground covers blur the edges and blend steps into the garden in a soft, appealing way.
By contrast, formal planters either side make a statement and set the tone, planted, for example, with citrus or cypress in a Mediterranean-themed garden, or flax, succulents or frangipani in a Pacific-inspired garden.
* Stone can be costly because of the workmanship involved. Local stone always looks better than imported. Schist may suit central Otago but it's not naturally found in the upper North Island where it tends to look out of place.
* Don't pillage your local stream for stone and if you hire a stonemason to do the job ensure the stone has come from a sustainable source.
* Consider fuel-kilometres when using imported stone. Local is best.
* Brick can be affordable if old salvaged ones are used and they have added character. It really pays to get a stonemason or bricklayer for these jobs as attention to detail makes all the difference in a permanent structure.
* Railway sleepers (treated), or macrocarpa sleepers (untreated).
* Concrete topped with paving slabs or outdoor non-slip tiles.
* Timber-box framing with compacted gravel, with paving slab or stepping stone inserts.
* For an informal native or rambling garden, large round-cut logs with wire mesh secured over each to avoid a slippery surface can work a treat.