The side of the house is completely invisible from inside, but it is a total sun-trap, what with it facing more-or-less southwards. It therefore deserves a lot of attention. The plan was to make it into an area that we can actually use, rather than just hurriedly walking through on the way to the garage.
Over the course of the years we’ve lived in this house, the side of the house has been the biggest “unexploited” resources. There’s quite a big area around the side, but it presents several challenges that have made it either difficult to plan or low priority to complete. We originally planted a load of low-level beds and had some rather oversized plants in them. These gradually degraded over time as the plants became too large and the paving slabs around them discoloured and stained. We also has a pergola right at the narrowest part. This had a massive jasmine plants all over it, and the net result was quite a narrow opening from the back of the house to the side. It was plant that needed chopping back 2-3 times a year. There was also a step in between this area and the back of the house which I wanted to remove by creating a sloping patio. Finally, the area to the side of the house has very few right angles. It’s narrower at one end than at the other, and at the wide end the wall of the garage is not at right angles either to the house wall or to the fence. When we originally had the area paved the contractor did a bad job and gradually the paving sank so that the lowest point was against the house, meaning that water pooled at the edge.
The area should be one that we love to go and spend time in. It’s a big area and it faces south and is quite sheltered from winds, so it catches the sun and gets nicely warm whenever the sun shines. We’ve never really used it much because it looks a bit shabby and always makes me think that it just needs a load of work doing on it. It should be a nice relaxing area to sit in the middle of the day or, alternately, an area that is more sheltered in the evenings if we’re having a go with the firepit.
So the overall plan was to address all of those issues (apart from the lack of right angles, which we can’t really address without buying the house next-door). The first job was to remove all of the old beds and the pergola so we could, as it were, see the size of the task. Then there were plans for several new, brick-built planting beds and I decided that rather than leaving the new sloping patio with a bare (and not straight) edge of slabs I’d build a retaining wall down the edge and lay slabs up to that. When we originally did the patio here we laid a line of heavy-duty concrete blocks along the edge (to build up the land properly in comparison to next-door). We didn’t lay them quite straight because the fence line and house boundary aren’t quite straight. These blocks were still nice and sturdy, so it was easy to clean the old slabs off the top and then lay a brick wall directly onto the top of the blocks.
I didn’t really take photos of this area before starting, so the first photo on this page shows how it looked after I’d already cleared the edges and started laying bricks for the planting beds. The second photo shows what it looked like when I’d put the wall down the edge.
Of all the areas to work on, this one has caused me the most headaches. How do I pave down a slope? How do I cut around the beds because of the shape? Where do I send the excess water? What’s going to be planted in each bed? Many of the questions remain unanswered at the time of starting to write this post, but things moved on quickly as my level of confidence increased and as further effort was applied.
The third photo here shows how the slabs looked when I finished descending the slope. On this one the slabs aren’t finished (joints are empty and the faces aren’t cleaned or sealed) but you can see the picture. The area around the corner and down the slope represents about half of the total area around the side of the house. I was at this point by mid-October 2020.
During the final week in October, I took holiday again and set myself the objective of getting all the slabs down in this area. It proved to be a challenging target when it shouldn’t really have been. Three things got in my way. Firstly, when I removed the old slabs on my first day of effort it became apparent that the original patio guys hadn’t done a great job with the base. It was a bit damp and I was sinking straight into the wet clay – there was virtually no hardcore under much of this area. I therefore lost nearly two days digging out a load of what Geordies might refer to as clart, and then waiting for delivery of a bulk bag of hardcore to fill the hole in. On the Monday I spent the day dumping further rubbish into a skip I’d hired because I didn’t have the materials to do anything else. Secondly, on the Thursday it was precipitating quite badly. It was so wet that I really couldn’t do anything, so I went out and bought a new bike instead. To be honest, it rained on Wednesday afternoon too, but I persisted through it even though I should really have stopped. Finally, on the second Saturday I was interrupted by having to do some work. It rained much of that day too, but there would have been 3 hours in the morning and a further 2 in the afternoon if I’d been doing this instead of reviewing technical documents.
The net result is that after a further week of effort I found myself with about 3 sq,m. of slabs still to lay. All required cuts, so I expected it to take at least another full day. On the bright side though, I did manage to reach the back step of the garage and the fence, and all of the remaining parts could be reached by standing on the new slabs, so no more mucky bits. All the bases are laid, I just needed another day of cutting and mortaring down a few slabs. I guess I was being rather optimistic in assuming that a week in October wouldn’t ever be interrupted by rain.
The following weekend was dry enough to have a go at it. I didn’t quite get up early enough on the Saturday, so it was going distinctly dark when I’d finished the area around the garage. That left me with just a small area between the two planting beds (against the chimney breast) and really didn’t want to leave that for the following day, so I worked into darkness to finish it.
The weekend after that I finished all the edges on the Saturday and on Sunday I cut enough coping stones to do most of the sidewall and all of the funnily-shaped corner bed.
And the weekend after that, I filled all the joints, leaving the whole thing in the state shown in the fourth photo on this page. The joints need to be cleaned then the slabs needed to be cleaned and sealed. And I need to add coping stones onto the remaining three beds. If I finish this area before Christmas I’ll be happy.
We came up with a bit of a grand plan to rework the garden during the course of 2019. The original patio was quite badly laid and slabs generally looked shabby and in need of being reset. The old retaining wall was rotten and the lawn was very uneven, as well as being mainly composed of moss.
As 2020 started, I got fed up and started planning in a bit more detail, finding reasonable products, and so on, but still with no anticipation of actually doing anything about it for at least another year.
And then there was a global pandemic. All of a sudden it was apparent that we wouldn’t be going away anywhere on holiday, but I’d have to take the time off somehow. And also, we wouldn’t be spending any money on going away anywhere.
There was a period of time after the COVID lockdowns started when I did a lot of mental planning but was unable to do anything, as a result of not being able to get hold of any materials. By the middle of May that eased a little. I’d managed to get some deliveries of bulk materials like sand, walling blocks and hardcore, and DIY stores had started reopening, meaning that those “extra little bits” that a job always needs were now available again.
So enough of the potted history. Let’s talk about the plans. They were quite significant plans, reflecting the anticipation of a lot of time at home. The plans also reflected my total inability to estimate how long it takes me to get things done, especially when they are big, heavy things. But anyway, a summary of jobs we decided to attack:
- Raise the level of the standing space behind the garage – When I first had the patio done we left a step down between the patio at the side of the house and the back of the garage. The lands falls away to this side of the house. I decided to try to bring it all to the same level.
- Replace the old retaining wall of railway sleepers – 20 years of weathering had turned them into an interesting habitat for insect life that had little structural integrity.
- Remove some old planting beds that contained either no plants, or plants that were far too large.
- Remove the old pergola, which was being used to support a rather over-sized jasmine plant and which made the walk from back to side of the house feel rather claustrophobic.
- Build some raised planting beds – We’re a bit rubbish at keeping potted plants alive but we used to have some raised, brick-built beds that kept plants alive for years. More of those please.
- Improve the step into the garage – the old one was too small/ and low and the paving slabs had detached from the base
- Replace the fence between the house and the garage – a short length of fence that was the only piece I didn’t replace in the great fence-building programme of 2018.
- Replace all of the paving slabs – The old ones were cheap concrete jobs. A lot of them were damaged and they were all badly stained, plus some were not laid very well (not by me, I might add). They sloped the wrong way, resulting in water pooling against the side of the house.
- Build a path from the back of the house to the deck, so the deck can be accessed without having to cross soft, wet grass.
- Raise and flatten the lawn to remove all the bumps and unevenness.
- Split the back garden into separated areas of lawn and gravelled planting, like we used to have – using the new path from deck to act as a divider.
- Reshape the transition from the back of the house to the side, extending the planting area and replacing a step down with a gradual slope
Anyway, all of that amounts to a pretty significant amount of effort. More than enough to keep me busy during a year of no holidays, no weekends away, not much caching, no parkruns, and a distinct lack of other normal things to spend time on. And now it’s September as I’m writing this, so we’re getting to the point where there isn’t enough light in the evenings to be working outside, and as a result I’m inside typing.
So what products did I decide to use ? – Roughly as follows:
- All of the decorative bricks used in the walling are Marshalite Rustic in 300x100x65 buff – They give a pleasingly rough look and are ideal for someone who’s bricklaying skills are questionable. It proved easiest to order these directly from the manufacturer.
- For the paving slabs, I went for Natural Paving’s Classicstone in the Harvest colour(s) – It’s an Indian sandstone that comes in project packs of various sizes and colours. I ordered these through an online retailer, pavingsuperstore.co.uk.
- I couldn’t find any coping stones I liked that were the correct width, so I’ve ended up buying a few more slabs and a lot of discs for the stone cutter, and I’m making my own. The sandstone is plenty tough enough for the purpose and I found I’ve got a few offcuts available anyway from areas where whole slabs didn’t fit.
- I got all my bulk materials from BuildBase – There was no particular brand preference here – it was just a matter of them being the first people who could supply the materials once the lockdown started easing. They won the business and have continued to do so ever since. They’ve provided breeze blocks, cement, building sand, sharp sand, concrete ballast, pea gravel and hardcore.
- And then there were some random products I hadn’t thought about or realised that you needed. Paving slurry helps bond the non-absorbent slabs to the mortar. A hydrochloric acid solution removes cement dust from the surface of the slabs, and an “invisible” sealant keeps water out of the surface of the slabs (and helps keep them clean). The joints between slabs are filled with a brush-in joint filler. For the joint filler, slurry and sealant I used Natural Paving’s “Pavetuf” brand and ordered them from the same online retailer. The hydrochloric acid is available on Amazon (as are long rubber gloves, face masks and goggles – stay safe).
- For the little bit of fence that needed to be done, I used the same products from Wickes as I used two years ago. I wanted to make sure it was identical to the other fencing, and I needed so little that I could get it all in my car in a single go. I paint it with a Cuprinol One-Coat Sprayable colour called “Forest Green”
- And finally, the work generated a lot of waste, especially at the start when I was digging out old railway sleepers and smashing up random heaps of concrete. So I rented a 6 cu.yd. skip from a local supplier that I believe separates the concrete and crushes it for re-use as building aggregate. Better than sending it to landfill. The first 6 cu.yd. skip did the first wave of cack, and the second got me round to the back of the garage. A third may well be needed, but not until 2021, when I’ve finished all of the paving.