Design Class: The Secret to Successful Garden Steps

Steps and stairs are all around us, so common that we barely give them a moment’s notice.

Often, the only time we do notice is when they’re not working: a rotten timber tread that we have to leap over to get to a front door, or a huge flight outside a city building with no ramp or lift.

It’s the same with garden steps.

Well-considered ones can lead us on a journey of discovery so easily that we barely notice how far up a hill we’ve travelled. Poor ones can have us cursing even if we’re only going a short distance.

So no matter how big or small a level change you have to negotiate, here are two things to consider when planning steps for your garden.

1.  Function

Let’s start with an obvious one: have you got lawn anywhere? If so, how are you going to get your lawn mower to and from its target?

Those new steps make look sweet, but the first time you try bumping the mower up ten steps – clunk, clunk, clunk – you’ll regret it. Either ditch the lawn all together, or if you can’t live without it, think about where it’s located, and how it will be maintained.

The same goes for all the other things you want to do in the garden.

We use ramps and step/ramp combos in parks and public places all the time, so think if something similar might work for you, too.

2.  Height and Width

In buildings, step tread widths (the 'going') and heights (the 'riser') are dictated by the Building Code of Australia (BCA). Minimum and maximum dimensions and ratios are given, along with the maximum number of steps you can have in a flight.

The final dimensions are dictated by the available space and, sometimes, the height of the occupants: tall folk can manage tall riser heights without feeling like they’re climbing the north face of the Eiger every time they set off for the top floor.

Outside it’s a bit greyer.

We usually find that taking the step dimensions directly from the BCA results in garden steps that feel steeper than they would inside. Additionally, we don’t normally have handrails alongside our garden steps, so we need to make our steps slightly shallower and slightly wider in order to feel safe and comfortable.

I like to make garden steps with a riser of 150mm and a minimum tread width of 300mm.

Another thing you’ll find with internal steps is that they’re usually all grouped together, so you can go up to the next level quickly, and without taking up all the room in the house with steps.

In gardens we’re often moving at a slower pace. This means we can play around with the dimension of the steps to help create the mood and experience we're after.

We can go up and down quickly, or step up, then take a couple of paces before stepping up again. Of course we can think about the materials we use: solid steps and paths, or smaller pavers or stones that let the planting ramble between.

Small flights of steps can be gathered together with generous landings between.

All the dimensions can be fine-tuned to suit your stride, the levels and gradients of your garden, and how you'd like to move around. 

There are many other things about garden steps we could discuss, but I hope these couple of pointers will give you a helpful starting place, and show that steps should not be an impediment to creating an inviting and useable garden.

Now it’s over to you.

Have you ever experienced steps in a garden or park that just didn’t work? Using the principles above, what do you think was the problem, and how would you suggest fixing it?

Let us know in the comments below.

And in the spirit of helping others with their climb, if you know someone who might find this story interesting, please feel free to share it.