CONCRETE is an old favourite in South African gardens. Utilitarian, of course, and also ornamental; sometimes classic, often kitsch, but no matter. The line between these two depends on time and taste: a garden is not only a lovesome thing, it's also a personal thing and if Peter Pan and Wendy, giant eagles or the odd gnome spell home sweet home, why not?
Rock solid and yet plastic, simple and amazingly versatile, concrete is also a favourite material in modern garden design. Widely used by designers for construction of retaining walls, steps, paving and decorative features, it provides an elegant framework and finish to some of our most stylish new gardens.
"I'm very pro-concrete," says leading landscape architect Jan Blok. "It's so versatile and durable; it combines so well with other materials such as brick, stone and wood and with all styles of architecture. It's also extremely cost-effective.
"For instance, a square metre of concrete paving is a fraction of the cost of a square metre of decking – and will also last much longer."
Pigment may be added to the mix for subtle colour, which can be very effective, but too much pigment will affect the strength of the concrete. Blok uses coloured concrete in some designs and specific applications, but always advises that plain unpainted concrete is best in features and walls.
"If you want a boundary wall to recede and disappear, leave it plain," he advises.
He also loves the way concrete ages and the patina it acquires over time.
Concrete is an ancient and complex building material, a composite of stone and cement and sand in various proportions according to the purpose. It needs to be correctly mixed and poured and must also dry slowly to prevent cracking. Different shades of grey, from sombre to pale, can be achieved, depending on the cement used. White Portland cement, which gives a much paler finish than the usual grey Portland cement, is more expensive and often used for classic decorative work. Standard dry-bagged concrete mixes are available at all builders' supply stores for small do-it-yourself jobs. For proper mixing, pouring and curing on any large project, it's best to call in a professional.
There are also numerous excellent precast products out there from classic ranges of pillars, planters, fountains and statuary to pavers, walling, coping and useful bits and pieces of all kinds. It's important to note that some decorative items and planters are reinforced with fibre, which makes them a lot lighter but not as durable.
A vast range including everything from ponds, fountains and seats, birdbaths, sundials, animals, birds and statuary. A well-placed (important as these are so difficult to move) and well-weathered piece can be a great addition to any garden.
Paint new concrete regularly with yoghurt to encourage ageing, or brush over with a very watery solution of grey-green paint and wipe off artistically.
PATHS AND PAVING
An equally vast range of different pavers, from simple square municipal grey versions to larger and smaller sizes and different textures including exposed aggregates, are available. Lay them dry and you will not only reduce runoff, but also be able to change your mind.
Banks interlocking and hollow retaining blocks are perhaps not the most aesthetic but certainly the most practical solution for steep banks and slopes, particularly between properties. They are easy to plant and once well-grown you will have a lush green bank instead of bare, dangerously eroding soil.
The precast concrete wall has been both a blessing and a curse, but design and finish have improved over the years and it's hard to beat as a solid, rapidly installed and cost effective barrier. Go for the plainest possible.
What is important: solid installation and plenty of screen planting. New woven wattle screens that are exactly the width of the panels transform the look of new walls instantly and are well worth the extra investment. Concrete palisades generally used for municipal and industrial fencing, are another option worth considering.
Concrete is not exactly green; it's the most-used man-made material in the world and cement factories are responsible for a fair percentage of greenhouse gases. However, a huge amount of research has gone into recycling old concrete as well as other materials in its manufacture and once in situ, as paving or decor, concrete requires no maintenance.
Paving blocks can also be laid dry to allow for permeability. And if you're breaking up an old floor or patio, the larger pieces will make excellent crazy paving or retaining walls. The rubble can be used to improve drainage or levels or as a base for paving. There are also excellent fixers for old concrete surfaces as well as antique stains and other finishing products.