By Jill Morgan
Garden steps ideas can be so much more than just a way of getting up and down the garden. Straight, curved, neatly set into your lawn or jutting out from a wall, they can make a huge style statement and really add finesse to the overall design. There are endless materials to choose from too and exciting combinations to discover. From industrial corten steel and smooth limestone paving to patterned tiles and wooden sleepers, they will all add character and work alongside plants, furniture and accessories to create the beautiful look you're after.
Of course, as with all garden design ideas, safety is important too. Stairs after all need to be comfortable and secure to use, and in some instances they need to comply to building regulations too. Always seek professional input for complex projects as the design specifications will need to be carefully calculated. Don’t worry about having to tone down your ideas to meet these stipulations as handrails, balustrades and glass panels can all add a chic note to the final look.
So, sit back and scroll through our favourite ideas below and get fresh inspiration for your outside space, then check out our landscaping ideas for more ways to transform your garden.
1. Plant up your steps
Steps don’t have to be a bold, stand-out feature, they can look just as beautiful integrated as part of the planting. Rock and woodland gardens are perfect opportunities to casually mix low growing, creeping varieties with informal steps. Choose a natural, slab-shaped material such as timber sleepers or large, split boulders as well-sized treads and encourage a mix of plants to grow within the surrounding gaps and crevices. Nature will give you a helping hand with many species arriving by accident, so wait to see how they grow and the effect they create before weeding them out. Get more ideas for planting schemes in our guide to garden borders.
2. Consider decorative handrails
Safety is essential when it comes to designing steps, and if there is a drop of 600mm or more to the side you will need to install a side wall or handrail. Yes, this will add to the overall cost but, besides ensuring everyone’s wellbeing, it provides an extra chance to indulge in some gorgeous landscaping ideas and craftmanship. Rails and panels come in a huge range of materials, each with their own distinct characteristics. Smart tensioned cables, glass panels and laser-cut Corten steel panels all make strong statements in contemporary, urban and coastal gardens, while curvy cast-stone balustrades, timber post and rails and ornate ironwork tend to suit period and rural homes.
3. Try an interlocking design
A straight flight of steps is not the only option when your garden needs a change in level. Several larger platforms, offset from each other, is a more subtle arrangement that also adds interest and helps widen the overall space too. This works particularly well with gently sloping garden ideas as the ‘riser’ between each level is minimal – between 100mm-180mm and each platform or ‘step’ is generous and can also be used for displaying a planter, carriage lantern or flow seamlessly into a lounging area.
4. Go for a co-ordinated finish
Opting for the best composite decking is a fantastic choice for a landscaping material as it's so versatile and needs relatively little upkeep. Perfect for constructing steps, seating, retaining beds and decks, it’s a great choice if you want to create a smooth, contemporary outside space where each area flows seamlessly into another. Excellent installation and attention to detail are key to getting a beautiful result. Choose from flat and moulded finishes in a wide selection of shades. For more decking ideas, head over to our dedicated feature.
5. Make steps part of the overall design
Steps, seats and garden wall ideas all work together effortlessly if well planned. Clad them in the same material and paint the surrounding boundaries the same tone, to create a look that is super chic and spacious too. A flight of steps will take up valuable floor space so think carefully how best to position them and how steep you want them to be.
Go for a maximum riser height of 200mm, anymore and they will be dangerous and tricky to use. For steep stairs, aim for a tread depth of around 250mm to strike a comfortable rhythm. Once you’ve worked out the overall stair length required look at whether it’s best to recess them into the slope to maximise the lower patio area or whether to bring them forward and gain more space on the top level.
6. Add drama with lighting
A well-designed set of steps can make a stunning garden feature when combined with garden lighting ideas, as well as being a key safety measure. Installing simple LED strip lighting under each overhanging tread (i.e. the flat surface that you tread on) will highlight the riser below and create a striking striped effect. Go for lighting with a low lumen output in a warm white shade for a soft and gentle effect. It’s also an effective way to highlight the shapes of each step’s profile and any natural marbling.
7. Consider the step profile
The front edge or profile of paved steps can make a big difference to the finished look of the feature. Rounded or Bullnose shaping works well on thicker stone or concrete products and oozes quality and a more traditional feel. For a contemporary finish try a straight flat profile or a chamfered design on the top or both top and bottom edges. Porcelain paving slabs tend to have a similar range of shapes but feature a downstand, essentially a right-angled overhang along the front edge of each step to create a neat, crisp contemporary look.
8. Make steps work extra hard
Short on space and need some clever small garden ideas? Then make the most of your steps and stretch them across the entire width of your space. Looking out onto a series of steps is much more restful than facing a tall, blank wall, especially if you vary their look and purpose too. Use them for planting, a comfy place to perch, a display place and for hidden storage too. Opt for shade-loving plants that can cope with low-light levels; ferns, ivy, Epimedium and hardy geraniums all work well and encourage foliage to overhang each level to soften the look.
9. Impress with a cantilevered design
Definitely a job for the professionals – an outdoor cantilevered staircase makes a big style statement. Bold and undeniably modern it consists of a series of chunky, slab style treads jutting out from a side wall. With barely-there railings providing support on the opposite side, the effect is super modern and breathtaking. Besides any lack of obvious support, the charm and impact also lie in the mix of materials used and the surfaces that surround the steps. Crisply rendered walls, panels of jagged stone and rough brick cladding all work well with this style. Add in plenty of recessed lighting and lush planting and the result is impressive.
10. Accentuate clean lines
Low, wide steps instantly add a relaxed vibe to a garden. In fact, the lower the height of each step the deeper the tread should be, as this will create a practical set of stairs that is super easy to use. A riser of around 150mm between each step is comfortable for most but avoid anything less than 100mm as it could be considered a trip hazard. The sheet glass balustrades used in this garden are elegant and striking while the striated paving adds a touch of lightness.
Looking for more modern garden ideas? Our feature has lots to inspire your garden transformation.
11. Wow with patterned tiles
Max out a small outside space by making the most of every inch. Make steps part of your patio ideas by covering it all in the same flooring. Not only will it help merge the spaces and create a seamless look, if you go for a bold colour or pattern it will increase the impact too. These patterned tiles look chic teamed with simple black iron railings and handrails.
12. Opt for curvy steps
There’s something rather refined and elegant about curving steps. Yes, they take up more space than your average straight flight, but they instantly add interest and movement to a garden, especially when accompanied by a lush, well-kept lawn and smooth stone paving ideas. A rounded edge to each overhanging step – or tread – emphasises the beautiful shape and tiered effect.
13. Lift paved steps with planting
Striking a balance between plants and hard landscaping can be a tricky a business but get it right and the effect is enchanting. As with patios, steps can also prove a place for plants, whether it is the occasional miniature alpine popping up in a crevice or, if there’s space, something larger and more dramatic.
Shrubs and trees with attractive winter bark or foliage are obvious choices and look great in built-in planters or large-scale pots, but for something truly eye-catching take a look at this project by Harrington Porter. Box plants clipped to step height add a touch of texture and elegance to this formal patio.
Love the idea of planting trees but only have a compact space? You'll find what you need in our best trees for small gardens feature.
14. Mix up mellow materials
Want to create garden steps with character, then have fun and experiment using different materials. The secret to success is to stick to finishes that have – or will weather to – a similar tone. Sandstone flags, chunky sawn oak and reclaimed London Stock bricks all have the same warm, golden glow and work beautifully to create a relaxed and informal feel. Be bold in scale to let the materials create impact and minimise any fussy details or unnecessary joins.
15. Create a stepped display
Besides access, steps make a brilliant spot for displaying container plants. Depending on the size of your backyard and the area taken up by steps, the effect you can create is endless. From a ribbon of brightly coloured pots and blooms, snaking up one side of the stairs to a vast ‘potted’ flowerbed that stretches up away from your view it is a great trick for breaking up a sea of hard landscaping. What’s more you can move and change your display whenever you fancy. Experiment with different height plants on different levels or strike a dramatic note by repeating identical black metal planters planted with ferns, as in this design by Ade Architecture.
16. Highlight risers with pattern
Show off a wrap-around steps or unusual interlocking designs by choosing a contrasting finish between each step. The perfect way to add an element of surprise, you can have fun introducing a strong, bold colour or distinctive pattern without compromising the rest of a low-maintenance paved design. These tiles look amazing stretching along the shallow steps, flanked by the smooth, large format grey paving.
Check out our low-maintenance garden ideas for the best ways to create a garden that's easy to look after.
17. Soften steps with planting
No garden approach can be more romantic than threading your way through swaying meadow grasses and flowers, up the garden steps. Few of us are lucky enough to have this very situation at home though, so we need to be a little creative. Reclaimed flagstones make the perfect steps for cottage gardens. Already worn and marked by years of use they can be set into an existing slope, supported by salvaged bricks, to create a pathway full of personality. Cover the neighbouring banks of soil with easy to lay matting pre-sown with native flowering meadow grasses or if you are more impatient, go for plug plants interspersed with more mature perennials right next to the steps.
Learn how to use salvage for garden upcycling ideas in our feature and add character to your space with reclaimed materials.
18. Mix steps with water
A change in height in a garden is a great excuse to incorporate water feature ideas. Rills and pools spilling from one level to the next is a great way to bring movement, light and sound to an outside space and its hugely restful too. Look at ways of using water creatively – it could emerge from a wall spout and travel down through rills to a lower collecting pool. Or try a series of shallow channels that run alongside a central set of steps flowing gently over protruding water blades or down narrowing chutes.
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