How to Build a Loose-Material Patio
Nothing beats having an area in your own backyard for escape and enjoyment. A beautiful backyard is a place to sit and read, entertain, or just to relax in the sunshine.
As a society, we spend too much time indoors, and we really need to get outside more often. The best way to encourage this is to create an inviting outdoor room in your own backyard.
Our 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 not so. The loose material option is a super easy "do it yourself" weekend project.
Your backyard beckons!
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
Which Material Is Best for Your Patio?
Ask yourself these questions:
- 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).
- Is it just a place for yourself and your family to hang out? (Wood chips will work well for everyday, casual use).
- Is it more of a focal point than a functional space? (River rock is a beautiful decorative material.)
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.
Tools You'll Need
Hammer or mallet
Drum Roller (optional)
Hose and water
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. Another popular edging is pressurized wood posts. Cut it to the lengths you need and remember to miter your 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
- First, determine the layout and dimensions of your patio. Outline with stakes and strings to define the area before you dig.
- Dig out the entire area to a depth of four inches.
- While you're digging, remember to grade the patio 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.
- Cover the area with landscape fabric that you've cut to fit. If more than one strip of fabric is necessary, overlap the pieces by six inches.
- Fill with gravel that can be compacted.
- Compact the gravel with a hand tamper or power tamper to a depth of two inches.
- Install 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.
- Fill with your loose material! Add two inches or more of the river rock or wood chips. For the crushed stone, add between one and two inches.
- Tamp it down with your tamper or drumroll it.
- Spray your new patio down with the hose 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 Rocks
Rock patios, such as this one, are pleasing to the eye and highly decorative. Walking on river rock can be challenging, so consider using it as an accent around more stable entertaining surfaces.
Patio With Rocks and Flagstone
Rock patios create a very natural looking backyard escape made entirely with stones, rocks and boulders placed randomly around the yard. Included is a tranquil water feature that is also created using some stacked rock. Flagstone is used to create one sturdy area for seating. You can do so much with loose material—get creative!
Mulch Corner Patio
Mulch can be used in any corner easily. With the addition of some well-placed boulders, you have instant seating. This would be perfect around a fire pit.
Mulch area with a boulder "edging" providing a place to sit. This is so natural and blends well into the environment. Let's all sit around the fire! Marshmallows, anyone?
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.
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!
Mulched Patio With Rocks and Stairs
This is an attractive layout that combines mulch with some randomly-placed rocks for interest. This 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.
Easy Crushed Stone
This is a super-simple crushed stone corner patio with a flowerbed 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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 is no real construction here, so it is a 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.
Front Path Interest
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.
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.
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.
For more Examples of Loose-Material Patios; watch the video below!
What's Your Favourite Patio Material?
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
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?
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.Helpful 2
© 2012 Sharon Bellissimo