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How to Build a Loose-Material Patio

Sharon is a human resources manager with a passion for reading and research and 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 outside. A beautiful backyard is a place to sit and read, entertain, or just to 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 endeavor that requires skilled workers but this is just not so. 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?

Basically, it's a portable, flexible material, 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 hanging out or entertaining.

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 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.

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.

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.

Edging around a curve

Edging around a curve

Edging combining rocks and pavers

Edging combining rocks and pavers

Natural rocks as edging

Natural rocks as edging

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

Crushed Limestone

Here is another easy material to work with—crushed limestone! Limestone is readily available, as it has many uses in construction; one being it is an ingredient in cement. It is very tough, durable and can withstand any weather conditions, so this makes it a perfect base for a loose material patio. Crushed limestome is also used for driveways as an alternative to gravel. Limestone is relatively inexpensive too! The seating area below was created using crushed limestone.

Round seating area with crushed limestone.

Round seating area with crushed limestone.

The Lush Garden

This is one of my favorites! A beautiful area right in your own backyard that is so natural and lush it has a peaceful, calming affect.

We spend so much time either in our houses or in our offices, it is nice to have a natural area to escape to. There isn't any real construction here, so it is a great DIY project.

Start with the base of loose material, it can either be a mulch (like the picture) or a crushed stone; then surround it with lush plantings that will flourish in your area.

The pergola adds a nice center point and these are available pre-made at your local home and garden center.

Lush garden surrounding a soft surface

Lush garden surrounding a soft surface

Front Path Curb Appeal

This beautiful front yard has a mix of materials which come together to create maximum curb appeal. The use of the wood fence, and creatively placed stones with a patio stone path complement the soft loose mulch and greenery.

Front path though rocks and greenery

Front path though rocks and greenery

The Backyard Pit

Here is a unique idea, create a loose material area for your fire pit and set up chairs on the grass. It's like you have center stage. This is a great focal point to sit around and who doesn't like the feel of the soft grass underfoot.

This is a super easy DIY project. Dig out a small area, fill with pea stone or other loose material and put an edging around it - you're done.

Seats on the grass surrounding a pea gravel and rubber edging firepit area

Seats on the grass surrounding a pea gravel and rubber edging firepit area

The Backyard Fireplace

Kick it up a notch with a full fireplace in own your backyard. A permanent fireplace will extend the enjoyment of your outdoor space well beyond the summer months.

This space uses gravel for the surface area and it might be a little uncomfortable under barefeet but a comfortable pair of slip ons will alleviate this problem.

Gravel seating area around a permanent fireplace

Gravel seating area around a permanent fireplace

Grassy Get Together

The easiest "do it yourself" patio by far is just buying the table and chairs and placing it on the grass. This, of course, will only work if your lawn area is relatively flat so that the patio set is stable.

Its actually a good idea to buy your intended outdoor furniture first and set it up in the yard so that you can visualize your outdoor room. Once you get a feel for how much room you need you can decided on the dimensions of your patio project and bring it to life!

Gathering on the grass

Gathering on the grass

Watch The Video For More Inspiration

An Outdoor Gathering Place

Creating a patio of your own means that you'll be able to spend more time in your backyard. You can start with a small area and gradually improve it with addtions such as a water feature, hot tub, or even a heated enclosure so you can enjoy it in cooler weather as well. A backyard patio will serve as a place for family and friends to gather. Always a good thing.

Gather with family on your loose material patio!

Gather with family on your loose material patio!

References

Schmidt, P., Slack, E., & Schnell, J. (2007). The complete guide to patios: Plan, build and maintain. Chanhassen (Minnesota): Creative Publishing international.

Better homes and gardens Deck & patio planner. (2000). Des Moines, IA: Meredith.



This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: I am excited about the spring so that I can create an outdoor oasis for my friends and family. I have reviewed your instructions and initially thought that mulch would work best. However, after reviewing all the ideas, crushed limestone may be an option. Would I have to replace a crushed limestone patio each winter? What is the maintenance process for crushed limestone?

Answer: Crushed limestone is very low maintenance and may only need a good raking up after the winter. It will settle over time and become more solid. You should not have to replace it each winter but I guess that depends on how severe the winter is! It might be a good idea to cover it with a tarp over the winter months.

Question: Ten years ago, we created a pathway in our backyard lined with pavers, filled with rounded stones and topped with irregular flagstone pieces. The stones have been a nightmare to maintain. Even though we laid landscape fabric, weed control is a nightmare and the rocks scatter everywhere. Can we use the existing stones under crushed limestone? Would using a compactor be advisable to stabilize both the rocks and the crushed limestone? Any ideas would be greatly appreciated.

Answer: I don't think putting crushed limestone on top of the stones is a good idea. I would remove the stones and replace with crushed limestone or pea gravel.

Question: After viewing would I have to replace the mulch every season? year

Answer: That would depend on how much it is used and how the weather affected it each season. You would not usually have to replace it entirely each season but perhaps only add some more mulch to it to refresh.

© 2012 Sharon Bellissimo

Have Your Say!

Jesse Omolo from Kenya on August 19, 2019:

Great article, Beautiful photos

Everette on July 23, 2016:

Great article. I am in the process of creating an extension from our current concrete patio and wanted to use a surface that is functional and affordable. I am planning to use marble chips and concrete pavers, but had not found the right step by step directions. This article is very helpful. Thank you!

Kelsey Elise Farrell from Orange County, CA on May 07, 2015:

Great suggestions, will definitely be passing along to my parents who just moved to a home with way too much room to create a cement or wood patio. Voting up for usefulness, thank you!

Paula Hite from Virginia on June 30, 2014:

I like this a lot. Great ideas! I shared it on our G+ page today, come and check it out!

https://plus.google.com/u/0/b/10593843672309975630...

Cynthia Haltom from Diamondhead on May 14, 2013:

You have some beautiful idea for a do it yourself patio creation, I have been trying to figure out what to do with a section of my yard this could work.

Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on February 14, 2013:

Great options for an easy to "lay" patio surface!

anonymous on January 01, 2013:

I really love the homey feel of the lens, nice to stop by again. :)

BestRatedStuff on November 24, 2012:

So detailed, some of these options would not have occurred to me. Like the descriptive info and photos too, gives me a good idea what I would try out.

Rose Jones on July 08, 2012:

Very helpful - blessed - pinned to my home beautification board for when I can get to it.

Bartukas on July 07, 2012:

Great information .

Sharon Bellissimo (author) from Toronto, Canada on July 01, 2012:

@Lee Hansen: Your patio sounds wonderful, thanks for visiting and your informative comments!

Sharon Bellissimo (author) from Toronto, Canada on July 01, 2012:

@Snowsprite: Thank you, hope it helps!

Sharon Bellissimo (author) from Toronto, Canada on July 01, 2012:

@anonymous: Thank you Tipi for visiting and your comments!

anonymous on July 01, 2012:

I love your loose and natural look and am especially attracted to your fire pit area, that's where you'd find me! Now its time for that backyard party, congratulations on a very well done front page feature.

datakrunch on July 01, 2012:

This is new to me. Very interesting.

milky-way-35977 on July 01, 2012:

nice and informatife

LynetteBell from Christchurch, New Zealand on June 30, 2012:

Lovely lens. I like stones for design impact and love your small areas shown here.

OliviaDaughter LM on June 30, 2012:

Thanks for sharing such a wonderul lens.

alaiamax lm on June 29, 2012:

Wow this lens is really nice!

Mary from Chicago area on June 29, 2012:

this could solve our patio problem -- if I could talk my better half into letting me use part of the yard

Fay from Cornwall, UK on June 29, 2012:

Very useful lens I have popped it on Facebook as my sister is currently in the middle of deciding on Patios and I think it will help her. Thanks.

SandiCaldwell on June 27, 2012:

Thanks for the great ideas!

SandiCaldwell on June 27, 2012:

Thanks for the great ideas!

Keith Winter from Spain on June 27, 2012:

Great lens and instructions. You have given me some ideas for my garden. Crushed stone looks good when combined with flagstones.

intermarks on June 27, 2012:

This is so beautiful, I would like to have a stone patio.

Sharon Bellissimo (author) from Toronto, Canada on June 26, 2012:

@ItayaLightbourne: Thank you so much for the blessing!

Itaya Lightbourne from Topeka, KS on June 26, 2012:

Wonderful article! I love the combo of flagstone and wood chips the best I think. Angel Blessings for this very well done article. :)

ThePerfectPresent on June 25, 2012:

I love the step by step instruction and the photos. Great job!

Lee Hansen from Vermont on June 25, 2012:

I love using loose materials like stone and mulch to make pervious pavement surfaces. They're much better for the environment than hard pavements; they help recharge the ground water and filter storm water, plus they're just more natural looking. We just created a mulch surface area for our back yard patio with natural boulders for seating surfaces and garden borders. Love this lens!

Shelly Sellers from Midwest U.S.A. on June 25, 2012:

Great instructions and photos!

JodiFromFlorida on June 25, 2012:

I wish that I had a yard so that I could make a patio.

Sharon Bellissimo (author) from Toronto, Canada on June 25, 2012:

@FantasticVoyages: Yes, me too, my favourite is wood chips!

Fantastic Voyages from Texas on June 24, 2012:

I have always wanted to do this. I like the look of loose material.