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Build a patio over part of your lawn without digging.
Recipe for an Informal Patio
September 5, 2001 by Evelyn J. Hadden
 thyme blooms among patio stones
On this informal patio, low-growing mother-of-thyme blooms in the gravel between slabs of limestone.

Step-by-step instructions follow for building, over the top of a lawn, a square or rectangular patio with:

  • pavers (stone or cement) set in sand or gravel OR
  • packed wood chips, alone or punctuated with pavers.

This patio will smother your lawn just as the newspaper and mulch method would.

List of Ingredients

You'll need the following items. Quantities depend on your measurements and design.
  • Tarp (a foot larger in each dimension than patio)
  • Edging timbers (six inches by six inches recommended)
  • Sand to spread (one inch deep) under timbers
  • Gravel, sand, or wood chips to cover patio at roughly four-inch minimum depth
  • Pavers, if desired, of any material appropriate to your climate and design
  • Mowing strip materials (pavers or poured cement), if desired

Step 1: Choose a location for your patio.

Here are some considerations that will make your job easier:

  • If it's adjacent to a building, you'll have to worry about the grade and proper drainage. If it's in the center of a lawn, you won't.

  • If it's under a tree, you'll have shade but also bird droppings, leaves, and berries. If it's on the Northeast or Northwest side of a tree, you'll still have mid-day shade without the projectiles, you'll get morning (or evening) sun, and you won't damage the tree roots when you build it.

  • If it's far from the kitchen, you'll have to work harder (carry things further) to eat outdoors... but you'll be further from the phone.

  • The ground doesn't have to be perfectly flat—you can fill in small dips later--but the patio will be laid above the highest point.

Step 2. Decide how large the patio will be.

You may want to choose your patio's dimensions based on the lengths of your edging timbers, to minimize or avoid cutting them. You might also visit the hardware store first to check out tarp sizes. Buy a camping tarp that's about a foot bigger than the planned patio in each dimension (buy a 16 by 20 foot tarp for a 15 by 19 foot patio).

A comfortable area for four people is probably eighteen by eighteen feet. If you're going to put a table and chairs on it, make sure the patio will be large enough that people can walk around the other seated people to get to their chairs, and that they can pull back their chairs to sit in them.

If you plan to set up a screen tent on your patio (highly recommended in buggy or sunny areas), make sure that the patio has room enough for the tent and that the tent stakes will pierce either the patio or adjacent planting beds and not lawn--unless you don't mind the added chore of trimming grass around tent stakes. Stakes will easily pierce a mulch patio, but on a paved patio, you might need to mess with the tent placement so the stakes are positioned above the filler rather than the stones.

Even if only two people will use the patio regularly, you may want to size it large enough that it will adequately hold two lounge chairs, with space for little tables to hold drinks and books and such.

A note about drainage: If your chosen site is low-lying or generally soggy, you may be concerned about drainage. A plastic tarp will not let water drain through it, so you may want to investigate landscape fabric, which is supposed to let water through while smothering plants. Or you could try what I've done—live with the lack of drainage until the plants are smothered (six months to a year), then poke a few holes in the tarp through the patio.

A note about shape: It will be far easier to build a square or rectangular patio than a curved one, unless you can find edging materials within your price range that can be fitted to your desired shape; will keep out weeds; and will hold your patio filler in place. Poured cement comes to mind, or perhaps an elastomer. We'll concentrate on right angles here in this recipe, but feel free to modify it to suit your needs.

Step 3. Build the patio base.

  • Find or buy enough edging timbers to surround the tarp. You can often find used railroad ties cheap or even free from landscaping companies, but they are treated with creosote, which leaches arsenic into the soil, so don't use them near food plants.

  • Spread the tarp over the grass in the desired location. (Tip: If it's windy, spread some mulch or sand on the tarp to keep it from blowing up.)

  • Along one edge of the tarp, dig a trench a couple of inches shallower and just wider than your edging timbers (so for a six-by-six timber, dig a trench about seven inches wide and four inches deep). This is the main digging your patio will require.

  • Overlap the tarp a few inches down into the trench and across the bottom. Fill the bottom of the trench with an inch of sand, which should hold down the tarp edge and give you a smooth surface on which to lay the timbers.

  • Place the timbers in the trench and tamp them down with an iron mallet, or by jumping on them. Make sure they're as straight and flat as you want them to be. Add or remove sand as necessary to straighten them properly. As you place each timber, use the mallet to pack it as close to the previous one as you can.

  • Repeat for all sides of the patio, until your tarp is surrounded and held down by edging timbers.

Step 4. Add a mowing strip.

If the timbers will border a lawn, you may want to add a mowing strip between timbers and lawn. Is the reduced maintenance worth the extra effort up front? You decide.

For Steps 5 and onward, follow the steps for either Pavement or Mulch below:


A paved patio lends a permanent feel to the garden, provides a solid surface for furniture, and keeps feet dry and clean.

Step 5. Lay a sand or gravel base.
Spread a two- to four-inch layer of sand or gravel (filler) evenly across the tarp, and smooth it using an old two-by-four.

Step 6. Place pavers in the filler.
Start from one corner of the patio and continue by placing adjacent pavers. If the pavers vary in depth, you'll need to dig away or pile more filler under them to keep the patio surface flat. You can gauge the flatness by laying your old two-by-four across several pavers and looking for gaps between it and them. You may also want to set a leveler (one of those instruments with the bubble) onto the two-by-four and follow its advice to keep a patio level—unless the patio is adjacent to a building, in which case it should be sloped to carry water away from the building. Change the orientation of the two-by-four to check flatness in all directions.

Keep the filler an inch below the surface of the pavers to prevent tracking it around. Leave unpaved spaces in the patio if you want to plant plants larger than those that will creep between pavers.

Step 7. Pack down filler.
Water the cracks between pavers with a low-flowing stream to pack down the filler, then add more filler as needed to create a level surface. If you're using sand, the water alone may pack it down. If you're using gravel, however, you may also want to poke the cracks repeatedly with a finger-sized branch or pole to compact the gravel. Be careful not to dislodge your pavers as you pack.

Step 8. Add plants.
Add plants, if desired, to gaps between pavers.

  • You can plant most creepers right away, since you won't need to poke a hole in the tarp for them. Scoop away some of the filler, then add a handful of soil and plant into it. Cover again with filler.
  • For larger or hungrier plants, wait six months to a year until the lawn under the tarp is smothered, then scoop away filler, punch a hole in tarp, add soil, plant into the soil, and cover with filler.

Step 9. Maintain patio.
You may need to adjust the level of the pavers if they shift over time (this usually involves adding filler), but the only regular maintenance will be occasional weeding of air- and water-borne seedlings.


A packed mulch patio will last several years and requires very little maintenance. It can be laid in a weekend, even an afternoon. You can renew it by adding mulch or replace it later with a more permanent patio.

Step 5. Lay the mulch.
Spread a four- to eight-inch layer of wood chip mulch evenly across the tarp.

Step 6. Add pavers if desired.
You may want to add pavers for any of several uses: to cover the patio, as stepping stones, or for decoration. On the other hand, they're often expensive and unadorned mulch will absorb sound better and be easier to remove later.

I use stepping stones in my mulch patio because they're more comfortable for bare feet and cut down on the mulch that otherwise is tracked onto the sidewalk and into the house. I also made a decorative border of pavers around the edge of the patio. I scooped away some mulch and set each paver so that its surface is roughly half an inch above the mulch surface, then I packed mulch between them.

Step 7. Pack down mulch.
Dampen the mulch with a hose. Walk over large areas to pack it down. Use the toe of a shoe or the edge of a rock to tamp down smaller areas of mulch between pavers.

Step 8. Maintain patio.
A tightly packed mulch patio will inhibit weed germination; however, some plants will be brought in by wind or animals. Pull any seedlings when they are small. Keep water off the mulch to minimize weeds, but you can sprinkle it occasionally if it's generating too much dust. This is more likely for a patio that's sited out in the open than for one sheltered by vegetation.

Whatever method you choose to build your patio, make sure it suits your needs and preferences, and most importantly, set aside time to enjoy it!

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