How to Step Up the Look of Your Landscape With Stairs

The design of your outdoor stairs — including materials, dimensions and placement — helps set the mood in your yard



Jay Sifford Garden Design, original photo on Houzz

A change in level is a wonderful design opportunity in a garden. Steps are the obvious way to move from one elevation to the next. They needn’t just be functional; they can also add drama and interest to your outside space. Each garden has a special character, and your choice of steps can reflect and add to it. There’s an intriguing amount of variation in materials, dimensions and positioning of steps, which can really open up exciting design possibilities.

Get your dimensions right. The first thing to consider is the overall height of the flight: How many steps will you need to arrive at the upper level? 

The vertical part of each step is called the riser, and where you place your foot is the tread. The riser for each step should be the same and be somewhere between 4 and 6 inches. There’s a good formula that states that twice the riser plus the width of the tread should equal 26 inches.

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Scale it up. Broad steps can really open up a patio and create an illusion of space. Generous steps can also provide informal seating areas and places for garden containers.

Create an adventure. These rugged steps, cantilevered into the wall, create intrigue, a sense of fun and an opportunity for adventure. They’re not really suitable as a main access point, but they’re certainly an option for the intrepid explorer, large or small!

Cantilevering can be used on larger steps than these, and it can give a light effect without taking up valuable ground space.

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The Garden Builders, original photo on Houzz

Pay attention to the detail. Steps needn’t stand alone. In this space, clever use is made of visually and physically linking them to other elements, such as the seating and the water feature. This creates an inviting journey through the garden, drawing the visitor from one level to the next. 

The steps to each level share the same materials and provide a strong visual link; variety comes from a change in direction and construction. In addition, the steps don’t break the lines of the retaining walls, which gives a wider feel to the garden. 

The clever design and attention to the fine details lend a sense of space, interest and lightness.

Make a splash. Since the first gardens were created, water and steps have gone hand in hand. The possibilities for interplay are endless, from cascades on both sides of your steps to having a falling stream down the middle, breaking the line of the steps in an interesting way. 

The sound, light and movement will add a whole new dimension to your design, which will offer a place to sit and play with the water or to cool a bottle on a warm day.


Patricia Tyrrell Living Landscapes, original photo on Houzz

Be inviting. Wide, shallow steps are relaxing and, even better, invite approach from more than one side. The steps can be extended out beyond the retaining wall, each one wider than its neighbor above. This brings solidity and emphasis to the decked area at the top. 

Here, the Douglas fir seating echoes the steps to unify the space.

Jonathan Snow Design, original photo on Houzz

Blur the edges. For the air of a romantic country garden, allow plants to encroach and release their scent when brushed by visitors. 

A slightly rugged or rustic choice of stone adds to the appeal of these steps. Their simplicity fits in, rather than stands out, so they don’t compete with the natural feel of the garden.

Step lightly. In a small space, one can still climb to heights with the most elegant solution of all: a spiral staircase. Not only can it be a thing of beauty in itself, but it also allows for some vertical gardening as a support for climbers or hanging baskets. And it can open up a raised area for sitting and appreciating your garden from above. 

Unlike a more solid structure of steps, it’s light and airy in character, and casts little shade.

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Keep it in proportion. Whether your steps arrive at a front door or, as in this case, a path leading to a seat, their width should relate to the main feature or destination, as your eye will automatically try to line up everything.


Acres Wild, original photo on Houzz

If the steps are too narrow or too wide, they will look jarring and uncomfortable.

Rise to the challenge. Some of the best designs are born out of challenging spaces. Here, a tight area with a steep approach has been made into a feature. Brick and terra cotta create the steps and terraces, and are linked inside by a brick plinth. 


Kirkwood McCarthy, original photo on Houzz

 The interior steps could double as a table or a seat when the door is closed. I love the clever simplicity of this design.


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