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The what, why, and how of great garden decking

Timber decking in the garden is a surprisingly “Marmite” topic – people either love it or hate it. As a result, I generally suggest this option somewhat tentatively. I have noticed that it is very difficult to change the minds of those who already know that they just don’t like decking!

I, of course, love decking. For me, it can be a great way to complement another material in a scheme. We would never use just a great swathe of decking, any more than we’d pave over a whole garden or do nothing but lawn. Rather, we create pleasing contrasts between different materials that bring out the best in each other. For example, we love using decking with rendered walls, as they can be designed to offset one another in exciting ways.

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The truly contemporary design in the image above features hardwood timber decking, offset by materials like stone and rendered walls, as well as striking plant material

Even clients who share my enthusiasm often ask some very pragmatic questions (and quite rightly). These usually focus on maintenance. Do I have to spend money ongoing to keep my decking looking good? Will treating it every do often take longer than mowing a lawn? Of course, clients also ask, ‘How would my decking look in a few years’ time?’. To answer all of these questions, I have just a couple of tips that show how best to maintain the kind of hardwood timber decking we love dealing with.

Firstly, design carefully (and of course your garden designer can help with this). Some kind of drainage or fall factored in can prevent water build up, which leads to slippery decking, as well as degradation of the timbers, as they soak up more water. Something with a ridged profile, to allow drip-away under the decking, can also help with this.

Secondly, don’t over- or under-maintain your deck! Many products out there claim to make your decking look like a freshly-clipped unicorn, but in my experience, you’re better off going with a good, straight forward oil treatment. Regularly treating your decking will keep the timber from getting excessively damaged, and will also help prevent warping, while minimising discolouration.

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The image above shows how, long after the initial laying of the boards, this decking has of course changed colour (this is inevitable with wood decking). But the design works as well as ever, and the wood still brings its characterful effect to the scheme

Finally, and most excitingly from my point of view, think about your choice of material when you’re thinking about decking. It’s a long time since we used regular (B&Q) treated softwood deck boards, because it’s just not that interesting as a timber. The boards inevitably have the same tone, and look rather industrial. So about ten years ago we upgraded, and have been using exclusively hardwood deck boards, which are imported into this country from the Far East, Africa, and Southern America. We have also experimented with – and abandoned – Western Red Cedar, because although it looks tremendous when it’s first put in,it quickly fades, and it has actually been known to rot over time. Not ideal!

So what exactly do we use for our decking? Well, for a while we exclusively used a hardwood called ipé. This has become really expensive in the last couple of years, so we’ve been working with some other lovely hard woods, such as yellow balau, kumaru, and massaranduba. These timbers have some subtle variations to start with, but as the boards weather, they tend to give very similar long-term effects.

Another option that some clients may prefer is composite decking instead of hardwood. This is easier to maintain and doesn’t fade or get slippery in the way wood does, but has its own downsides too. It’s useful to know that this is an option, though, when you’re making your own decision about whether decking would be right in your garden design.