Choosing and Using Pavers, Setts, Tiles and Cobbles

While the word “patio” automatically conjures up the instant image of an area of paving slabs in almost everyone’s mind, despite their widespread use, those 18-inch (45cm) pre-cast concrete squares are not the only option available.

Many garden centres and builders’ merchants stock a good variety of slab designs, offering far more scope than the traditional chunks of municipal-style grey paving, while an increasing number also cater to the growing popularity of the likes of setts, pavers and cobbles.

With whatever material you choose inevitably forming a major and fairly permanent feature in the garden, it is well worth taking a little time over the decision and getting the effect you are really after.

Pavers – “Flexible” Paving

Pavers – sometimes written paviors – come in many different kinds, varying in thickness, colour, shape and finish. Some are unusual interlocking shapes, others are regular – square or rectangular; some kinds have a natural look, perfect for the informal design, while more finished varieties are ideal for formal gardens.

The big difference between pavers and slabs is that whereas slabs are set in a good quality mortar, pavers are firmly bedded into sand, each lying close to its neighbour, but designed to fit with a small gap between. Although laying pavers requires careful firming into place with a plate compactor – from your local tool hire – and the gap being filled up with sand once everything is in place, it is possible to lift them and relay them should the need ever arise. This makes them a remarkably flexible choice and has earned them the alternative name of “flexible” paving which sometimes causes a little confusion – at least until you know!

Setts and Cobbles

Setts and cobbles are more at home in an informal overall design, largely because they tend to have a slightly roughened finish, which gives them more of a natural look. Setts are cut and roughly shaped blocks of stone – typically granite, which makes them incredibly hard-wearing. Alternative imitation setts, often sold under the name “Belgian blocks,” are made from reconstituted materials, which makes them lighter, and much cheaper, than using hewn granite.

Stone cobbles – once a routine sight on British streets – were originally made smooth and round either by the action of the waves, or by being scoured along the ground by moving glaciers during one of the Ice Ages. With coastal erosion such a big issue around much of our shoreline today, if you do opt for cobbles, try to make sure you source them from an inland commercial quarry – guaranteeing yours came along with the ancient ice, rather than being stripped from a modern beach.

Although cobbles are not comfortable to walk on and make a very poor base for garden furniture, they can be used to very good effect decoratively, particularly if they provide a focal point amongst well laid setts.

Laying both cobbles and setts involves using a layer of good mortar mix, around 2in (5cm) deep, on top of a suitably compacted base into which the stones are then bedded. Once everything is in place and level, more mortar needs to be brushed into the joints and the faces of the stones washed to clean them off. As always, it’s important to let the mortar dry thoroughly before subjecting your newly paved area to too much traffic.


There are few materials to beat the warm hues of terracotta tiles, particularly if the garden design is looking to capture that Mediterranean feel when their contribution to the overall effect can be considerable. However, in the more northerly climes of Britain, unless your intended site is very sheltered and frost-free throughout the cooler months of the year, it is best to avoid any unsealed tiles – no matter how authentic – as their porous nature can make them prone to cracking.

How much use we make of our outdoor space as a place to relax and entertain is a key factor in modern garden design, making the patio a long-established essential element – although for some time it has remained a rather anonymous, utilitarian patch of concrete. With the variety of paving styles available today, there is no reason why it cannot now reflect the same amount of individuality as the rest of the garden and become as much of a feature as it is functional.