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How to Build a Loose-Material Patio

Sharon is a human resources manager with a passion for reading, research, hanging out in her own backyard.

Decorative stones

Decorative stones

There is nothing better than having an area in your own backyard to enjoy being outdoors. A beautiful backyard is a place to sit, read, entertain, or just relax in the sunshine.

As a society, we tend to spend too much time indoors, and we should get outside more often to soak up some of that Vitamin D. The best way to encourage this is to create an inviting outdoor room right outside on your own property.

The patch of green grass is inviting enough but why don't we kick it up a notch by creating an outdoor room? You may think this is a costly project that requires skilled workers but this is just not true. The loose material option is a super easy "do it yourself" weekend project.

Your backyard beckons!

Sitting in your backyard

Sitting in your backyard

What Is Loose Material?

Loose material is a portable, flexible substance, such as crushed stone, rocks, or wood chips. It's possible to buy a bag full of one of these materials and just pour it into an area of your yard, quickly producing a functional surface for an outdoor room.

Sounds easy, right? However, if you want a loose-material patio that will really last, there are a few more steps to the process.

The steps to creating this simple patio type—along with all the equipment you'll need to get started—are outlined below. Loose material can be installed in as little as one day with some help from your friends and, of course, your friendly neighborhood home and garden center!

Loose material is a natural blend into nature

Loose material is a natural blend into nature

The Many Ways to Use Loose Materials

Often loose material is thought of as a supporting material for more static and formal patio installations. It is often used as the filler between a large solid surface and the yard. However, loose material as the primary surface of your patio has many advantages!

  • It can be easily installed over uneven ground.
  • It provides good drainage - water won't pool.
  • It is generally less expensive.
  • It can be easy to maintain - just add filler or rake it up for a fresh look

Loose material as a decorative accent provides a variety of interesting colors and textures to accent hard surface patios such s brick and concrete. It can soften the appearance of these traditional patios to create a more natural look.

Common Types of Loose Material

The most common loose materials used for patio installations are as follows:

Gravel

Gravel is a natural substance that can range in size from one inch across to 1/4 inch across. It can be compacted into a fairly solid base. One popular size used as a primary patio surface is "pea gravel." Just as the name implies the gravel is about the size of peas and is easier on bare feet than larger sizes of gravel.

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Crushed stone

This is the hardest type of surface. Crushed stone is not naturally occuring but is produced by a machine that crushes rocks. After being this process it is sorted into similar sizes and colors. Crushed stone doesn't pack as well as gravel but it still provides a solid base athough a little hard on bare feet!

Wood Chips and Mulch

These will create a soft, spongy surface that is easy on the foot. Wood chips are the waste product from mills that process wood. This material will eventually decompose and will need regular refurbishment but it is very inexpensive to replace and maintenance is achieved with a good raking. Wood chips will also naturally turn grey over time.

River rocks

These rocks are natually smoothed by the flowing water of a river. They come in various sizes from quite large to very tiny. The larger river rocks are more decorative than functional as they do not pack well and although they are smooth, they will create an uneven walking surface. Smaller, flatter river rock can be used as a more walkable surface but this is an expensive option.

Large stones, small stones and mulch

Large stones, small stones and mulch

Which Material Is Best for Your Patio?

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it going to be used for lots of social gatherings? (In that case, crushed stone, which is hardy, might be a good bet for more formal entertaining).
  2. Is it just a place for yourself and your family to hang out? (Wood chips will work well for everyday, casual use).
  3. Is it more of a focal point than a functional space? (River rock is a beautiful decorative material.)

Other Considerations:

Wood chips, sand and gravel may not support furniture since the surface can be somewhat uneven and/or soft. However, if you are using gravels or crushed stone these can often be compacted into a fairly stable surface.

Some loose materials are not comfortable underfoot if you like to go without shoes or sandals. Smaller stones, such as pea gravel or using mulch/woodchips are more "barefoot friendly" options.

It is a good idea to visit some garden centers and look at the materials in person to see what appeals to you most.

Shopping List: Supplies You'll Need

  • Hammer or mallet

  • String

  • Tape Measure

  • Level (and two by four)

  • Shovel

  • Hand Tamper

  • Stakes

  • Rake

  • Gravel

  • Landscape Fabric

  • Wheelbarrow

  • Drum Roller (optional)

  • Loose Material

  • Edging Material

  • Hose and water

Check for underground cables before you begin digging.

Check for underground cables before you begin digging.

Check Before You Start!

Remember to check before you dig: there may be underground cables where you want to place your patio. Be safe!

Edging Your Loose Material

Before you begin assembling your patio, gather your edging material. This will keep your loose material from spilling out all over your yard, and will give it some stability and definition.

A common edging is paver stones, available in a variety of sizes and colors, they create a decorative as well as functional finish. Rocks and stones can also define an edge and provide support.

For a square or rectangular shaped patio a popular edging is pressurized wood posts. Cut it to the lengths you need and remember to miter your corners so they fit snugly together at the corners.

Common rubber flower bed edging is another choice, although it is more functional than decorative. It doesn't call attention to itself and is great if you don't want a noticeably defined edge.

How to Create Your Patio Using Loose Material

  1. Layout:

    Determine your layout and the dimensions and outline it with stakes and strings to define the area before you dig.

  2. Dig:

    Cut out the entire area within your stakes to a depth of four inches.

  3. Grade:

    While you're digging, remember to grade the excavated area away from your house about one-eighth of an inch per foot, to allow for water runoff. You can use a two-by-four with a level on top to ensure that the area is even

  4. Level:

    A great way to ensure your base is level is to use a two by four with a level attached to the top to ensure the area is even. Don't get too caught up in perfection at this stage.

  5. Fabric Cover:

    Cover the area with landscape fabric that you've cut to fit your dimensions. If more than one strip of fabric is necessary, overlap the pieces by at least six inches. The fabric inhibits the growth of weeds.

  6. Fill:

    Pack the area with gravel and spread thoughout.

  7. Compact:

    With a hand tamper or power tamper compact the gravel to a depth of at least two inches.

  8. Edge:

    Install an edging such as pavers, pressurized wood, or rubber flowerbed edging around the perimeter. The edging should rise about one-half inch higher than the area you've dug out.

  9. Fill It up:

    Now you can fill the area with your choice of loose material! Add two inches or more for river rock or wood chips and for crushed stone, add between one and two inches.

  10. Tamp:

    Press it down with your tamper or drumroll it to create an even surface.

  11. Spray:

    Get your hose out and spray down your new patio to clean and settle the material.

    Now stand back and admire your work!

Need Some Inspiration?

Scroll down for some ideas for loose material patios. A picture is worth a thousand words!

Patio With Accent Rocks

There are many varieties of rocks ranging from the very large to pea gravel or crushed stone. River rocks are best as an accent feature as they remain in their natural state which is quite beautiful but not a good choice underfoot.

An example is the patio below. The rocks are used as an accent feature surrounding a stable, flat entertaing surface. River rocks are pleasing to the eye and highly decorative however, walking on river rock can be challenging!

White stones patio

White stones patio

Patio With Rocks and Flagstone

You can incorporate many types of rocks into you patio to create a very natural looking backyard area. This example is made entirely with stones, rocks and boulders placed randomly around the yard. The water feature is also created using stacked rocks. Flagstone is used to create one sturdy, flate area for seating. You can do so much with loose material—get creative!

Flagstone with loose rocks large and small

Flagstone with loose rocks large and small

Mulch Corner Patio

Mulch is a very soft option for patios perfect for underfoot, even barefoot! Mulch can be used in any area quite easily. In the example below only a small corner is used sso you don't have to have a huge yard to create an outdoor romm. The addition of some well-placed boulders creates instant seating. This design would be perfect around a fire pit.

Mulch corner patio

Mulch corner patio

Mulched Patio

This example of a firepit area combines mulch with a boulder "edging" that provides place to sit. This is a very natural combination that blends well into the environment. Again, you don't need a lot of space, however, the circular design creates seating for many. Let's all sit around the fire! Marshmallows, anyone?

Mulch patio with a boulder edging that serves as seating.

Mulch patio with a boulder edging that serves as seating.

Combining a Hard and Soft Surface

Flagstone is very pretty and natural-looking hard-surface stone. By blending flagstone with mulch, as in the two examples below, you create a hard walking surface, but with the soft appearance of mulch.

Flagstone and mulch pathway.

Flagstone and mulch pathway.

Flagstone and woodchips

Flagstone and woodchips

All-Mulch Patio

Stop cutting the grass and turn your entire yard into a loose-material patio. A wooden porch addition creates a solid place for the table and chairs. There is loads of room here to entertain, and the mulch is very soft under foot!

Large soft mulch yard with no grass to cut!

Large soft mulch yard with no grass to cut!

Mulched Patio With Rocks

An attractive layout that combines mulch with some randomly-placed rocks for interest. One backyard slopes upward and incorporates stairs to make it all tie in together. The main patio is composed of flagstone with loose stones in between.

The second design is much simpler version with mulch and smaller rocks placed randomly around the area. This will look nice with more flowers and plantings. The rocks are a quick seat for gardening in the area.

Mulch, rocks and stairs.

Mulch, rocks and stairs.

Mulch and rock garden

Mulch and rock garden

Easy Crushed Stone

This is a super-simple crushed stone corner patio with a flowerbed rubber edging. It would be perfect for a small yard where space is at a premium. Situated in a tiny corner, it leaves just enough room for a couple of chairs and a small table. Very cozy.

Small corner patio of crushed stone with rubber edging

Small corner patio of crushed stone with rubber edging

Crushed Stone Patio Among the Trees

Crushed stone is laid down and tamped into a perfect square within the grass. You can create little corner areas by just adding a few patio stones for a hard surface. This is a very easy design to create with the straight edges. To keep the stones in place you could incorporation a simple brick edging or even flexible rubber edging used in gardens.

Perfectly squared crushed stone patio

Perfectly squared crushed stone patio

Little Wooden Bridge

This patio area is mostly mulch with some strategically placed rocks. A little wooden bridge creates a focal point. I can envision the beauty of this patio area when the shrubs and flowering plants start to grow and fill in the gaps.

Mulch with stones and a little wooden bridge.

Mulch with stones and a little wooden bridge.

Natural Pathway

A lovely soft material pathway made with mulch and stepping stones that leads to a grassy backyard. This blends with nature and is an easy DIY project. Flagstones are a good choice to create the walkway

Stone foot path through mulch

Stone foot path through mulch

Walk the Labyrinth

Now for something completely different! A labyrinth. If you have kids, this might just keep them busy in imaginary play. This is so easy to put together with loose materials such as mulch or pea gravel and bordered by large stones or pavers. The labyrinth is a spiritual path. When you feel the need for contemplation, nothing could be better than walking the labyrinth in your own backyard.

Labyrinth made with natural rock

Labyrinth made with natural rock

Labyrinth made with pavers

Labyrinth made with pavers