Beneath the Bamboo

Beneath the Bamboo

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We extended the planting bed underneath the big black bamboo (Phyllostachys nigra), having removed the step in the patio. It needed to be tidied up a bit.

This is the part of the garden that can be seen through the back windows of the lounge, so it was quite important to get it right. There were a few plants that were right underneath the bamboo. The plan was to extend the planting bed to give them more light and space. The area is big enough now for more plants, if we are ever allowed to go out and buy any.


Beneath the Bamboo

Beneath the Bamboo

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Beneath the bamboo? What’s he going on about now?

When we first did the patio we had a step between the side and back of the house. There’s quite a big drop and we had to do something. As time progressed we made a couple of other plans for the garden. We moved a massive black-stemmed bamboo so that it was against the fence and near this corner of the patio. It’s fair to say that the bamboo has thrived – its tallest stems are now a good 4m high. It’s a clumpy one rather than a spready one, which is also a good thing. It does occasionally put a long runner under the soil, but not very often. I found one runner of about 1m length under the lawn and another of 1.5m alongside the retaining wall. That one came to an end where it met the brick wall. It hadn’t climbed into the light.

Back at the plot, we had a planting bed near the bamboo that wasn’t big enough for much to grow. The area tends to suffer from shade in the afternoon. We decided to rectify the situation by extending the bed, and by removing the step. From the first photo on this page you can see how much we extended it. The area that looks like sand is, actually, sand. That’s because it used to be under the patio. So I guess we added about 1.5m. This will give us a nice big new area to plant up beneath the bamboo. I will need to find plants that enjoy only having sunlight in the morning, but that shouldn’t be hard.

The plan was to frame this new bed with the new retaining wall and with a low wall around the square bit of the patio. Not difficult apart from building a wall in a straight line all the way across the back of the house. Again not difficult apart from needing to leave a 3m wide gap until I’d laid the new patio. There were some strings involved, and some swearing because the string kept moving in the wind.

To make the new wall here I had to shore up what used to be the edge of the patio. I’d undercut it, so I laid a bed of breeze blocks roughly onto a concrete bed to hold everything. The plan was to lay decorative bricks on the top for that straight wall. I knew the breeze blocks would be buried, so if they didn’t quite align with the bricks it wouldn’t be a problem.

When excavating here I had flashbacks to previous phases of the garden and to fishing out heaps of old materials. I can’t remember whether it was me or the original pavers who buried all those old bricks. There was a lot of cack and not a lot of soil in the edge of that bed. And there was some strange stuff buried under the reclaimed patio. The completed bed needed a lot of back-filling with soil and sand, but it should now be good for planting.

That’s been a feature of this rework. Whenever I’m working on the soil I find myself with a handy pile of sand. I’ve dug much of this into the soil, along with the old compost from a load of empty plant pots. It improves the condition of the soil significantly. When I say “improve” I actually mean “turn it into soil”.

Much of our back garden consists of a substance you could put straight onto potter’s wheel. It has an infinite capacity for absorbing compost and sand without ever turning into good quality soil. It always clump into massive balls that are sloppy in the winter and rock-hard in the summer. Plants which “prefer free draining soil” just have to put up with it. Clay is quite fertile, but it’s very heavy and it prevents the spread of delicate filament roots. I kid you not, we’ve had plants in our garden that we tried to move after five years and their roots haven’t spread beyond the shape and size of the original plastic pots that they came in. How they managed to find enough nutrients to keep growing I’ll never know. Anyway, lesson learned. Make a really big hole and back fill it with something a young plant can grow in.

At the time of starting this post, in late September 2020, you can see I’d just reached the point of having put coping stones on the low wall. The retaining wall at the back is finished. It doesn’t need a lot of work doing on the bed before we plant it. I have still got to do the paving slabs in that corner though. That will be the next phase of paving, which I have lined up for the week’s holiday at the end of October.

By the end of 2020 I’d paved the whole area here and around the side of the house. The only part remaining is to find some plants for the new area of bed.


Planting Bed #3

Planting Bed #3

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Planting Bed #3 was originally unplanned, and resulted from the realisation that one of the others couldn’t be as large as originally planned. It’s not that we were going to be short of planting beds. I mean, I’m going to have to buy enough soil to build a 1/2 scale model of Maiden Castle so that I can fill all these beds, but I have to admit that adding this one gives a certain symmetry to the chimney. Anyway, it’s a long span of bare wall that has been a long span of bare wall for 20 years. Breaking that up a little bit felt like a good idea.

In engineering terms, this was also the area of wall that suffered the worst from the bad slope on the old patio. It got very wet every time there was any rain. So I decided it might be better to put a bed in as part of the big plan.

You can see from the photos that at the time of writing, in late September 2020, the bed has all the brickwork done but doesn’t have coping and doesn’t contain any plants. That time will come. In fact, it already passed. Check out the completed Planting Bed #3 in the gallery.

As with a couple of the other beds, we also have no idea what the planting scheme will be in this one. I fancy either one that contains alpines or one that contains desert plants. Both like very dry soil, so maybe I’ll put both together. There must be a high alpine desert somewhere. What grows there? Although in Milton Keynes they’ll have to be high-alpine desert plants that can cope with a bit of rain.

Fast forward to March. I bought a load of topsoil and filed up all four of the beds round the side. By this stage we’d decided the bed was Izzy’s. It’s in full sun so she’d researched and chosen a few things.

We drove over to our local branch of Frosts Garden Centre to see what we could find. Apparently it was a bit early for summer-flowering things, so we just got some of the earlier varieties and vowed to return a couple of weeks later. I guess that by Easter weekend they’ll has restocked. In the meantime, we’ll leave it with the Choiysa, Hebe and Dianthus.


Planting Bed #2

Planting Bed #2

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Planting bed #2 originated on a weekend back in the early part of 2020, when I walked around the back garden with Kas trying to decide on some remodelling. As part of that plan we agreed some planting beds, and I duly painted the chosen locations onto the patio so I didn’t forget. It didn’t have a name or number back then, but things move on.

Skip a couple of months and the beginning of the rework programme. One of the first things I did was to start setting out these planting beds. The original plan had this bed somewhat larger until I started setting things out. I concluded that it wouldn’t leave enough space for walking past, so I shrunk it somewhat, but only after deciding to put another (previously unplanned) bed the other side of the chimney.

So from the first photo you can see the original planned size. The second photo shows what Planting Bed #2 looked like at the end of September 2020, with all the brickwork done but not yet with coping stones or any actual planting. There’s not much more to say about this one, or at least, nothing more can be said until I finish it. There’s a photo in the gallery of the finished item prior to planting. It will never be any cleaner or tidier than this. It might get prettier though.

This one is going to be Izzy’s and she wants to fill it with things that attract insects. Plants, presumably, rather than the carcass of a dead wildebeest. We’ll have to go plant shopping specifically for insect-friendly things.


Back of the House

Back of the House

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Back of the HouseThe back of the house is the most important area to get looking nice. Behind the garage is invisible, and the large area to the side of the house is only visible when you’re there. But the back of the house is visible through the windows. In particular there’s a large French window in the lounge which looks right out onto the garden. It was therefore quite important to get a decent design and to make it look nice.

The old patio had a narrow path outside the kitchen and then a deeper patio in front of the lounge. We didn’t really want to do a major redesign except that we wanted to make the wide area somewhat smaller. Also, we decided to raise and level the lawn behind it. This meant either digging out the whole lawn, or building a small wall to raise the front edge. We decided on the latter. Since we decided that, Kas has decided she’d prefer a planting bed on the edge. Good job I didn’t have time to do the lawn in 2020.

I thought about laying a decorative circular pattern in the slabs outside the window, but the complexity of trying to lay it put me off the idea fairly quickly. Once I began trying to lay patterns of rectangular slabs, I was glad I’d decided against the circular kit. I’ve done a decent job, but getting the gaps even is difficult, especially when laying the big slabs.

Back of the HouseIt’s a big enough area to have to be done in stages. I needed to lay the square outside the lounge quickly so I could plan the rest of the walls. There was too much risk in building the wall first. I decided it was better to lay the patio and then build the wall around it. We’re only talking about estimating accuracy of a couple of centimetres, but I wanted to avoid either having a massive joint at the edge or having to trim a bit off all the slabs. So I planned to lay a square of slabs and then build the walls afterwards.

The first part of the job was to dig out the area and prepare the base. The original contractor that laid the patio messed this bit up. I think he just dug out too much soil, and as a result he only had half the hardcore he needed. He was too timid discuss it with me, so he just didn’t turn up after the second day. I didn’t pay him. I got someone else to finish it. This meant there is a lot of hardcore under this area and also a lot of sand. I dug the edge out in the spring so I could do the joints. The hardcore went down at least four courses of bricks. Look at the first photo on this page. You can see I uncovered a half-decent beach.

I’d always anticipated that there would be useable sand beneath the slabs, but wasn’t sure how much. I bought a couple of tonne bags but I didn’t need them. Just from this 9m2 area of patio I managed to reclaim 2.5 tonne bags full. I didn’t use any of the sand I bought, despite mixing enough mortar for a solid 50mm mortar bed. All I did was to buy a garden sifter (aka a riddle) from Amazon and sift all the stones out. I filled one wheelbarrow with sand that was perfect for mixing the mortar. I filled the other with small stones that I could chuck straight into the sacks of hardcore for later use.

So I dug it out, moved a few bits around and refilled a couple of holes so that I had a flat base sloping slightly away from the house

Back of the HouseI found the easiest way to get the mortar bed right was to build a frame using wooden battens of the correct depth, and to level the mortar across this frame with a bit of old gravel board. As I could only get 3m battens into the car, this limited how big and area I could set out in one go. As it happens though, I could rearrange the slab-laying plan for the 3m square into four 1.5m squares, so that’s how I did it.

I laid the square in a couple of days, after which I set the concrete bed around the edge ready for the little wall. There was a day of disappointment (putting it mildly) at the end of a week off where I laid the bricks for that bit of wall and then watched it rain so hard for the rest of the day that the mortar was getting washed out. I decided that the best idea was to run out into the rain and lift the bricks again, as they weren’t going to be properly solid or nice looking after that rain. I redid it the following weekend.

At the end of August my folks came down to visit. The good news was that lockdown had been relaxed enough that my mum was confident enough to travel down. My dad offered to give me a hand and it was most welcome. Mixing all that mortar is strenuous and time-consuming.

While they were here, we removed the old slabs from the back of the kitchen and then prepped the base and laid all the slabs there. As with the “big square”, the amount of sand we dug out was similar to the amount used to mix mortar. We also flattened most of the changes of height on the old patio, leaving a more-or-less flat plane sloping slightly away from the house. You’re supposed to leave a 150mm gap between slabs and wall, so we added this. It means that rainwater drains into the sub-base instead of sitting against the wall.

After this, I rested on my laurels for a while (or went to work somewhere else for a weekend). This allowed all the mortar to harden properly. I also took the time to tidy the edges up before attacking the final job of filling all the joints. I used quite a lot more of the joint filler than the packets said, so I order a couple more packs. Progress was quick, though. At the time of writing the first draft of this post, I had completed just over half of the hydrochloric acid and water sealant activity.

So, skip forward a few weeks since the first draft of this post, and….

Back at the plot, and away from the hopeless dreaming that the job would get done somehow without me having to do any work, the last weekend of September saw me make a big push towards getting the back of the house completed. One Saturday morning I finished cleaning the slabs and sealing them. It went so quickly that I was able to put the decorative stones into the channel too. So by Saturday night the whole area was looking good enough to have a go with the firepit. It was a bit cold and windy, but I did promise the girls I’d get enough done to have at least one more firepit night this year. Tick.

On the Sunday I decided it would have to be time to attack all the coping stones. I’m making my own by cutting paving slabs, as I couldn’t find any to buy that I liked. Making them is the ultimate messy, noisy and unpleasant part of the process. Because of that I’ve been a bit slow to do it. Sunday morning though, the neighbours were out and so was Kas.

I spent 3 hours cutting enough to cover the whole of the back, and then another 3 hours to put them onto the walls. It does look a lot better with the coping on. The amount I did on Sunday is about a half of the total I’ll ever have to do. Once on the walls, all that remained was to to fill the joints and then clean and seal them. That’ll be about 2 hours work.

Skip another week or so forward and I finished the job. We planted up the bed that’s around the back, and conducted the final acceptance test. The area is now in business-as-usual operations. Just don’t stray around either side of the house.

So when I “shut down” DIY work for the winter the area was complete apart from plants. I am looking forward having this important strategic area fully finished. I looked at some old photos the other day from before we had kids. The back garden was full of quite mature plants. We need to return to that state, beginning in 2021.


Garden Rework

Garden Rework

Doing up the Garden

In 2020, there didn’t seem to be any possibility of going away on a family holiday, what with there being a global pandemic in progress. The money that would normally be allocated to that got itself redirected to the great garden rework. I would like to say that the time for the holiday also got reallocated to this job, except that my holidays on their own wouldn’t have been enough time. It took up most of the weekends too.

Grand Plan

We came up with a bit of a grand plan to rework the garden during the course of 2019. The original patio was a mess and slabs generally looked shabby. The old retaining wall was useless and the lawn was very uneven and mainly composed of moss.

As 2020 started, I got fed up and started planning in a bit more detail. I chose reasonable products, 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 managed to get some deliveries of bulk materials like sand, walling blocks and hardcore. The 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 we were using to support a rather over-sized jasmine plant. It made the walk from back to side of the house feel rather claustrophobic.
  • Build some raised planting beds – We’re a bit rubbish with potted plants but we used to have some raised, brick-built beds. Plants survived in those for years. More of those please.
  • Improve the step into the garage – the old one was too small/ and low and the paving slabs were loose.
  • 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. The slabs were damaged and 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. We’re at 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. These came from an online retailer, pavingsuperstore.co.uk.
  • I couldn’t find any coping stones that were the correct width. Well, not ones that I liked. I ended up buying a few more slabs and a lot of discs for the stone cutter. I’m making my own. The sandstone is plenty tough enough for the purpose.  And I made a few offcuts 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. An “invisible” sealant keeps water out of the surface of the slabs (and helps keep them clean). I filled the joints between slabs with a brush-in joint filler. For the joint filler, slurry and sealant I used Natural Paving’s “Pavetuf” brand. I ordered these 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. It need to be 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, I generated a lot of waste. At the start I dug out the old railway sleepers and smashed up random heaps of concrete. So I rented a 6 cu.yd. skip from a local supplier. They separate the concrete and crushe 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. The second got me round to the back of the garage. I may well need a third, but not until 2021, when I’ve finished all of the paving.

Small Fence

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One of the first jobs that I needed to do was to replace the bit of fence between the house and garage. It was in pretty bad condition. I needed to do it fairly early in the process because I was planning to put a planting bed right next to it. This meant blocking off a potential entry route for building materials, however I needed to build the bed before laying the new patio. And so I needed to do the fence before the bed. That’s all decided then.

The weekend after the great COVID reopening, I got the materials from my nearby Wickes store. I had a few bits of materials left over from the 2018 fencing effort but I needed more feather boards and one arras rail to be able to do the job. I used Wickes because I wanted this new piece to be identical to the work I did in 2018. OK, so eventually Kas made me hide it all behind a planting bed, but at least I know it’s done right.

The two supports at the ends were in good condition. I just needed to sand and repaint them. Well, obviously I had to take off the old boards and arras rails first. But after that, all I needed to do was sand and repaint them.

As the ends didn’t need any work it became a very easy job to fit arras rails. I cut some to the existing length and then nailed on some new featherboards. As with the 2018 job I used wider (150mm) boards. I think they look nicer than the thin ones.

I completed the whole job over a weekend with plenty of time to spare. Here’s a before and after shot so you can see the difference.

The old small fence
The new small fence


Retaining Wall

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Old wall of sleepersOur garden is about a foot higher than the neighbour’s garden all along one side. When we first set out the garden, about 20 years ago, we built a very simple retaining wall out of old railway sleepers to stop the clay soil from slumping against the fence and into next door’s garden. It worked well, but eventually the wood succumbed to 20 years of dampness and attention from insects. The top of the wall was also somewhat lower than the soil in front of it. All in all, I thought it would be best to replace it.

I chose to replace the sleepers with a brick wall. The sleepers were fine, but as I was planning to work with stone elsewhere I decided it would be best to continue the theme. Anyway, I could easily get breeze blocks from one of the few stores open during the first pandemic lockdown. I did the thing in several stages, as you can see from the photos.

Visible end of the new wallRemoving the old railway sleepers was a nightmare. They were rotten, they were heavy, and several plants had rooted between them. I had to cut some of them in-situ into sections small enough to remove. On one afternoon my neighbour asked if I was OK after a very loud scream of exasperation. I couldn’t get one of them to move, despite cutting it. Apparently I hadn’t cut it enough. I finished the job owning several fewer saw blades than when I started.

I had to work in a long trench with a fence down the side, which made it really painful. On reflection, it would have been better to replace the sleepers when I did the fence, two years previously. Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing?

Once all the sleepers were out I dug a trench for a concrete foundation. This was also quite tricky to do whilst standing in a trench with a fence on one side. It took a while to dig it all out to a sufficient depth. I had to carry waste materials out along the trench in some areas. I refreshed my memory of how hard clay can be when it’s not wet. And how soft it can be when it is wet.

The concrete base was easy to lay except for, again, working below my feet in a very narrow trench. I didn’t quite get a perfect straight line, but it’s adequate. It looks home-built.

New retaining wallAfter the concrete hardened I laid a line of breeze blocks (eventually three courses high, but lying on their side). I figured that a breeze block laying on its side was enough strength for the retaining wall to retain things. Three courses filled most of the stretch from the back corner to the edge of the old patio.

I stuttered for a while here. I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to build this section. Ultimately I decided to extend the planting bed in this corner, so I just extended the concrete base until it reached the “industrial strength” blocks we’d used to support the original edge of the patio. From here I was able to extend the wall with some decorative bricks. As breeze blocks aren’t that nice to look at, I covered the top of them with some nice bricks too.

I finally sealed the deal by adding some coping stones. I started doing this using offcuts from the patio behind the garage. These were just the right width for a coping stone on top of a double-width brick wall. I already had enough offcuts for about 3 metres of coping, but I needed nearly 10 metres in total. A few offcuts from the “back of the house” accounted for a couple of metres more. This left me about 5 metres to cut from new slabs. It looks pretty decent now it’s done.


Back of the House

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Back of the HouseThe back of the house is the most important area to get looking nice. Behind the garage is invisible, and the large area to the side of the house is only visible when you’re there. But the back of the house is visible through the windows. In particular there’s a large French window in the lounge which looks right out onto the garden. It was therefore quite important to get a decent design and to make it look nice.

The old patio had a narrow path outside the kitchen and then a deeper patio in front of the lounge. We didn’t really want to do a major redesign except that we wanted to make the wide area somewhat smaller. Also, we decided to raise and level the lawn behind it. This meant either digging out the whole lawn, or building a small wall to raise the front edge. We decided on the latter. Since we decided that, Kas has decided she’d prefer a planting bed on the edge. Good job I didn’t have time to do the lawn in 2020.

I thought about laying a decorative circular pattern in the slabs outside the window, but the complexity of trying to lay it put me off the idea fairly quickly. Once I began trying to lay patterns of rectangular slabs, I was glad I’d decided against the circular kit. I’ve done a decent job, but getting the gaps even is difficult, especially when laying the big slabs.

Back of the HouseIt’s a big enough area to have to be done in stages. I needed to lay the square outside the lounge quickly so I could plan the rest of the walls. There was too much risk in building the wall first. I decided it was better to lay the patio and then build the wall around it. We’re only talking about estimating accuracy of a couple of centimetres, but I wanted to avoid either having a massive joint at the edge or having to trim a bit off all the slabs. So I planned to lay a square of slabs and then build the walls afterwards.

The first part of the job was to dig out the area and prepare the base. The original contractor that laid the patio messed this bit up. I think he just dug out too much soil, and as a result he only had half the hardcore he needed. He was too timid discuss it with me, so he just didn’t turn up after the second day. I didn’t pay him. I got someone else to finish it. This meant there is a lot of hardcore under this area and also a lot of sand. I dug the edge out in the spring so I could do the joints. The hardcore went down at least four courses of bricks. Look at the first photo on this page. You can see I uncovered a half-decent beach.

I’d always anticipated that there would be useable sand beneath the slabs, but wasn’t sure how much. I bought a couple of tonne bags but I didn’t need them. Just from this 9m2 area of patio I managed to reclaim 2.5 tonne bags full. I didn’t use any of the sand I bought, despite mixing enough mortar for a solid 50mm mortar bed. All I did was to buy a garden sifter (aka a riddle) from Amazon and sift all the stones out. I filled one wheelbarrow with sand that was perfect for mixing the mortar. I filled the other with small stones that I could chuck straight into the sacks of hardcore for later use.

So I dug it out, moved a few bits around and refilled a couple of holes so that I had a flat base sloping slightly away from the house

Back of the HouseI found the easiest way to get the mortar bed right was to build a frame using wooden battens of the correct depth, and to level the mortar across this frame with a bit of old gravel board. As I could only get 3m battens into the car, this limited how big and area I could set out in one go. As it happens though, I could rearrange the slab-laying plan for the 3m square into four 1.5m squares, so that’s how I did it.

I laid the square in a couple of days, after which I set the concrete bed around the edge ready for the little wall. There was a day of disappointment (putting it mildly) at the end of a week off where I laid the bricks for that bit of wall and then watched it rain so hard for the rest of the day that the mortar was getting washed out. I decided that the best idea was to run out into the rain and lift the bricks again, as they weren’t going to be properly solid or nice looking after that rain. I redid it the following weekend.

At the end of August my folks came down to visit. The good news was that lockdown had been relaxed enough that my mum was confident enough to travel down. My dad offered to give me a hand and it was most welcome. Mixing all that mortar is strenuous and time-consuming.

While they were here, we removed the old slabs from the back of the kitchen and then prepped the base and laid all the slabs there. As with the “big square”, the amount of sand we dug out was similar to the amount used to mix mortar. We also flattened most of the changes of height on the old patio, leaving a more-or-less flat plane sloping slightly away from the house. You’re supposed to leave a 150mm gap between slabs and wall, so we added this. It means that rainwater drains into the sub-base instead of sitting against the wall.

After this, I rested on my laurels for a while (or went to work somewhere else for a weekend). This allowed all the mortar to harden properly. I also took the time to tidy the edges up before attacking the final job of filling all the joints. I used quite a lot more of the joint filler than the packets said, so I order a couple more packs. Progress was quick, though. At the time of writing the first draft of this post, I had completed just over half of the hydrochloric acid and water sealant activity.

So, skip forward a few weeks since the first draft of this post, and….

Back at the plot, and away from the hopeless dreaming that the job would get done somehow without me having to do any work, the last weekend of September saw me make a big push towards getting the back of the house completed. One Saturday morning I finished cleaning the slabs and sealing them. It went so quickly that I was able to put the decorative stones into the channel too. So by Saturday night the whole area was looking good enough to have a go with the firepit. It was a bit cold and windy, but I did promise the girls I’d get enough done to have at least one more firepit night this year. Tick.

On the Sunday I decided it would have to be time to attack all the coping stones. I’m making my own by cutting paving slabs, as I couldn’t find any to buy that I liked. Making them is the ultimate messy, noisy and unpleasant part of the process. Because of that I’ve been a bit slow to do it. Sunday morning though, the neighbours were out and so was Kas.

I spent 3 hours cutting enough to cover the whole of the back, and then another 3 hours to put them onto the walls. It does look a lot better with the coping on. The amount I did on Sunday is about a half of the total I’ll ever have to do. Once on the walls, all that remained was to to fill the joints and then clean and seal them. That’ll be about 2 hours work.

Skip another week or so forward and I finished the job. We planted up the bed that’s around the back, and conducted the final acceptance test. The area is now in business-as-usual operations. Just don’t stray around either side of the house.

So when I “shut down” DIY work for the winter the area was complete apart from plants. I am looking forward having this important strategic area fully finished. I looked at some old photos the other day from before we had kids. The back garden was full of quite mature plants. We need to return to that state, beginning in 2021.


Side of the House

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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 a 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. I wanted to remove it 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. The paving gradually 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. It always made 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 we made 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. 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 are we going to plant 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 I applied further effort.

The third photo here shows how the slabs looked when I finished descending the slope. I hadn’t filled the joints or cleaned the slabs, 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, 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. 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. There was rain on Wednesday afternoon too, but I kept going 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.  I’d have got 3 hours in the morning and 2 more 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. 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 near the garage. That left me with just a small area next to the house, between the two planting beds (against the chimney breast). I 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. 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. This left the side of the house in the state shown in the fourth photo on this page. I needed to clean the joints plus clean and seal the slabs. And add coping stones onto the remaining three beds. If I finish this area before Christmas I’ll be happy.


Behind the Garage

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When we first did the patio we wanted to use up a bit of space behind the garage. The area was below the rest of the patio. It consists of a narrow strip into which I could only just fit the builders’ “large” paving slabs. It was also low enough down that we needed a step.

That arrangement lasted for a large number of years and went through several iterations. At one point it housed a plastic shed full of children’s toys.

For the grand rework project I wanted to lift it to the same level as the rest of the patio. The step downwards was irritating. I’d also paved it with a mix of left-over building materials. This included a mix of some of the builders’ 900x600mm heavy slabs, some of the newer 450mm square slabs, and a little bit of poured concrete. Did I mention also that the space originally wasn’t straight-sided. The builders put the fence at a slight angle to the wall, with the narrowest part at the entrance.

When I re-did the fence in 2018 I discussed this issue with my neighbour. He was happy for me to straighten it out to be a consistent width. It meant we also straightened out an area of slate-covered border on his side. I nicked a bit of land at one end, and gave him a bit at the other end. He now has a fence that’s parallel to his garage wall too. After building a straight line here (we moved no more than 10cm) I was able to rejoin to the line of the original fence. The fence is now a consistent 105cm away from the garage wall. The original patio was 90cm deep, so I had a few extra centimetres I could use for paving.

So having made myself a straight space two years ago, it was time to exploit that.

To raise the level I would need to add about 120mm. I tried initially to lift some of the old slabs to clear out the whole base and start again. That proved to be a nightmare. I switched solutions and decided to just “chop” the edge off the old slabs so I could lay a course of heavy blocks as a base for the new area. When I say “chop”, I should more correctly say that it was a troublesome activity, which broke a number of lightweight tools and generally caused a lot of swearing. It was hard going and I generated a lot of waste concrete.

I eventually managed to break through the surface of slabs and get down to a combination of hardcore and clay, which is a lot easier to work with. It was dry enough that I could separate the two and use the hardcore as aggregate in a concrete base. That’s just as well, because I was doing this part in April, when it was quite hard to get hold of building materials. I had a couple of bags of cement and some sand left over from the fence work, and it was just enough to get the job going.

When the shops reopened, I was able to get mortar and I quickly upcycled some big concrete blocks that next door gave me (they used to be a base for their shed). They were of the very heavy 300x200x150mm variety. These formed a nice base which I subsequently left for a while until I had finished a first pass on all the planting beds and was ready for some actual paving.

As with the fence, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing when I started laying paving slabs, and the area behind the garage is both hidden and only accessible by carrying materials all the way around the house. So this was my starting point. The next job I had to do was to raise the level up to where I wanted it. I hadn’t really planned this bit. However, I’d bought a lot more breeze blocks than I needed for the retaining wall. These were cunningly just thick enough to bring the level to where I wanted it (at the back at least). They also cunningly fit four across into the 800mm gap I needed to fill. The previous paving made a stable base, I just to chucked down a thinnish layer of mortar and dropped the blocks straight in.

Closer to the house the level came up a bit, so I had a thinner layer to fill. I bridged this by making some concrete out of the rubble. I also had about 300 block paviours left from another past exercise. These had been going to waste for 8 years. I wouldn’t build walls out of them, but I reckon they’re more than adequate for filling a hole. Even closer to the house I only need 50mm of depth, which I just filled with some hardcore. In fact, I suspect this bit of patio base will still be there after the apocalypse. At the end of this, I’d managed to make myself a flat platform of about 5.5m long and 1m wide.

This put me ready to do a bit of actual paving, so I began on that one weekend with a bit of assistance from Ami, who helped me mix some concrete and paint some of the slurry. We also had to cut slabs for this section as it wasn’t possible to make a 1m width without cutting slabs.

As an extra learning point, I’d drawn scale plans of each area of the new patio so I knew what slabs to lay where, but for this area I’d drawn it as if I was starting at the house end. I couldn’t work that way due to lack of access, so I was working all back to front. I had to begin by laying slabs at the opposite end. It sort of worked though.

Laying the slabs turned out to be fairly uncomplicated. It’s a little slow if you mix the mortar by hand, but we got into a nice routine of mixing mortar, laying flat bed, and then putting a slab on the top. We used a semi-dry mortar, so the bigger slabs were actually OK to walk on straight away, but it was still best to be working by reversing out of the narrow space. I spent about 8 hours of total effort in laying the slabs here. It was awkward having the wall of the garage right alongside us, and I left rather a large joint to be filled, but I couldn’t really do it any other way.

The slabs then stood untouched for a few more weeks while I got on with a few other parts. Finally, at the start of September, I got around to experimenting with the joint filler and sealant. Again, when I started I had never done it before. The instructions said to brush the filler in, but I found it easier to use a hand trowel and a small sweeping brush. The filler isn’t cement based, so it doesn’t leave grey strains. It does need to be wet throughout to stop it from sticking to the slabs. Once settled, you have to leave it in place for a couple of days to harden. When it’s hard you can use the edge of a trowel to scrape the surface to remove irregularities, high spots and so on. It was quite easy to do and the finish is really good.

The final stage of the process is to clean the slabs with a hydrochloric acid solution and then (after rinsing and drying) paint it with the water sealant. This only took a couple of hours on a warm day. I bought an “invisible” sealant rather than a “wet look” one. The effect is quite pleasing. The surfaces of the slabs look a little dusty and the original grain shows. When it rains they look a little darker, but the water doesn’t absorb into the surface very much. They don’t look as dark as untreated slabs.

Anyway, I finished this area behind the garage well before anywhere else. I like the overall finish and (as a bonus) I can use the space to store little-used outdoors items again.


Beneath the Bamboo

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Beneath the bamboo? What’s he going on about now?

When we first did the patio we had a step between the side and back of the house. There’s quite a big drop and we had to do something. As time progressed we made a couple of other plans for the garden. We moved a massive black-stemmed bamboo so that it was against the fence and near this corner of the patio. It’s fair to say that the bamboo has thrived – its tallest stems are now a good 4m high. It’s a clumpy one rather than a spready one, which is also a good thing. It does occasionally put a long runner under the soil, but not very often. I found one runner of about 1m length under the lawn and another of 1.5m alongside the retaining wall. That one came to an end where it met the brick wall. It hadn’t climbed into the light.

Back at the plot, we had a planting bed near the bamboo that wasn’t big enough for much to grow. The area tends to suffer from shade in the afternoon. We decided to rectify the situation by extending the bed, and by removing the step. From the first photo on this page you can see how much we extended it. The area that looks like sand is, actually, sand. That’s because it used to be under the patio. So I guess we added about 1.5m. This will give us a nice big new area to plant up beneath the bamboo. I will need to find plants that enjoy only having sunlight in the morning, but that shouldn’t be hard.

The plan was to frame this new bed with the new retaining wall and with a low wall around the square bit of the patio. Not difficult apart from building a wall in a straight line all the way across the back of the house. Again not difficult apart from needing to leave a 3m wide gap until I’d laid the new patio. There were some strings involved, and some swearing because the string kept moving in the wind.

To make the new wall here I had to shore up what used to be the edge of the patio. I’d undercut it, so I laid a bed of breeze blocks roughly onto a concrete bed to hold everything. The plan was to lay decorative bricks on the top for that straight wall. I knew the breeze blocks would be buried, so if they didn’t quite align with the bricks it wouldn’t be a problem.

When excavating here I had flashbacks to previous phases of the garden and to fishing out heaps of old materials. I can’t remember whether it was me or the original pavers who buried all those old bricks. There was a lot of cack and not a lot of soil in the edge of that bed. And there was some strange stuff buried under the reclaimed patio. The completed bed needed a lot of back-filling with soil and sand, but it should now be good for planting.

That’s been a feature of this rework. Whenever I’m working on the soil I find myself with a handy pile of sand. I’ve dug much of this into the soil, along with the old compost from a load of empty plant pots. It improves the condition of the soil significantly. When I say “improve” I actually mean “turn it into soil”.

Much of our back garden consists of a substance you could put straight onto potter’s wheel. It has an infinite capacity for absorbing compost and sand without ever turning into good quality soil. It always clump into massive balls that are sloppy in the winter and rock-hard in the summer. Plants which “prefer free draining soil” just have to put up with it. Clay is quite fertile, but it’s very heavy and it prevents the spread of delicate filament roots. I kid you not, we’ve had plants in our garden that we tried to move after five years and their roots haven’t spread beyond the shape and size of the original plastic pots that they came in. How they managed to find enough nutrients to keep growing I’ll never know. Anyway, lesson learned. Make a really big hole and back fill it with something a young plant can grow in.

At the time of starting this post, in late September 2020, you can see I’d just reached the point of having put coping stones on the low wall. The retaining wall at the back is finished. It doesn’t need a lot of work doing on the bed before we plant it. I have still got to do the paving slabs in that corner though. That will be the next phase of paving, which I have lined up for the week’s holiday at the end of October.

By the end of 2020 I’d paved the whole area here and around the side of the house. The only part remaining is to find some plants for the new area of bed.


Big Bed

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A couple of years ago I built a 25m length of new fence. It runs from the back of the garage to the corner of the garden. It took me a fair chunk of the summer to do it. Anyway, of that 25m length, 5m is behind the garage and 8m is behind the edge of the lawn. The rest is a straight run of fence that is all you can see from that part of the patio. We decided that we should break it up a bit by adding another planting bed. Indeed, we decided to make this the biggest of the planting beds, running a length of about 2.5m. It’s a very simple rectangular bed that runs along the fence line.

I was able to use the existing row of big concrete blocks that lie along the perimeter. There was nothing wrong with these and they formed a nice straight and solid edge. So I only had to dig a trench for a three-sided concrete base. I went to a similar depth to the concrete blocks, more or less.

As with the other beds, I didn’t put a concrete pad across the middle of the base. That would mean finding somewhere to send excess water. What I’m actually doing is digging some of the clay out and refilling the bottoms with gravel, so they act as a bit of a sump for rainwater. We’ve never really had an issue with rainwater escaping from the soil, patio or beds before, so I made the decision that I didn’t need to do too much. I built a number of gravel soakaways to take water off the patio. I also didn’t put the slabs right up to the edge of the house. That would be better than it used to be, anyway.

I made the mistake of not planning to do this from the offset. I had to retro-fit some gaps in the mortar joints to allow the water in. The water that runs into in this bed seeps ever so slowly below ground level under next door’s path. If it comes down like stair rods then the water flows around the edge, but it used to do that anyway. The neighbour has a block-paved path along the edge, which has quite a good capacity for absorbing excess water. There’s a big gravel soakaway under there somewhere too. I therefore didn’t worry too much about drainage.

Back at the plot, this larger bed might become either the “desert” bed or the ericaceous one. Whatever goes into it, there will be a lot of it.

Fast forward to March 2021 and time to start planning the planting. Gardens centres were open despite the lockdown, so we were able to hack on with the plan. We decided that this bed was for me, so I planned a bunch of “partial shade” plants. On the first visit to a garden centre I returned with a prunus laurocerasus, a Sarcococca hookeriana and some vinca minor as well as a few unplanned other things. It now looks like a (part-planted) bed.


Corner Bed

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Before the Corner BedKas wanted a tallish bed in the corner between the garage and the house. She wanted it right where I’d put a new bit of fence). She wanted a tall bed to help hide my beautiful new bit of fence. Officially, she wanted tall grasses and similarly vertical plants to help create a screen wall. Cheeky wanting to hide my fence, but garage wall is dull. Anyway, I duly painted some lines onto the old patio for the purposes of visualisation. The lines are the plan. And if it’s on the plan, I’ll do it.

I laid the base for this one quite early, as I was doing some other work in that corner. The interesting feature (if you can call it that) for this bed is that the corner is not a right angle. It’s slightly acute. And, indeed, the fence is not strictly in alignment with the wall of the house either, so the back of the bed is somewhat off-square. I wanted the front of it to be square though, to make it look nice when the slabs go down. This was therefore the most difficult bed to lay the bricks for.

Half a Corner BedThankfully though, it’s not structural, and if it falls down it’ll make a mess on the patio but won’t really hurt anything.

I started with a nice deep mortar bed as Kas had asked for the bed to be roughly her waist height. It’s the tallest of the beds I built, so I didn’t want to skimp on the footing.

I built the wall in several stages. Essentially, I added a couple of courses whenever the urge took me. It was nearly November before it was high enough. The bricks are sufficiently rough and irregularly shaped that the non-right angles don’t look bad. It was all right-angles on the front anyway, so that worked out nicely. You might even think I planned it that way. The finished effect is good. I just need to add some plants.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to finishing this one off with some coping stones and planting it up. I sort of fancy the idea of some architectural plants in that corner too. It always was a bit of a big and boring wall.


Planting Bed #1

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It’s a sign that your kids are growing up when one of them asks if I can build her a planting bed. It wasn’t just random. That would be weird. “Dad, can I have a planting bed?” No, I started on the great garden rework in spring and Ami asked if she could have a raised bed. She wanted to design and plant it up herself. So planting bed #1 has always been known as Ami’s Bed.

The plan was, as for all of these beds, to lay a concrete base first. On top of this are bricks to an appropriate height, topped off with coping stones. That is, pretty much, the most frequently used method for building planting beds in the garden.

Planting Bed #1, along with two of the others, is quite close to the house. I needed to build walls with enough gap to stop any chance of water creeping above the house’s damp proof. As a result it’s a full 4-wall construction.

This particular one is limited in height because of an overflow pipe coming out of the side of the house that I didn’t want to move. If any water does happen to flow out from the toilet cistern it will land in the planting bed.

I had no idea what Ami was intending to plant in the bed at the time of initially writing this post, but in the picture gallery you can see where she went. There are three low-growing leafy shrubs at the back, a cluster of little “fluffy” things that I suspect will grow into flowing plants in the spring. Then there’s a sedum and a horizontal juniper in the front corners. Nice job.


Planting Bed #2

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Planting bed #2 originated on a weekend back in the early part of 2020, when I walked around the back garden with Kas trying to decide on some remodelling. As part of that plan we agreed some planting beds, and I duly painted the chosen locations onto the patio so I didn’t forget. It didn’t have a name or number back then, but things move on.

Skip a couple of months and the beginning of the rework programme. One of the first things I did was to start setting out these planting beds. The original plan had this bed somewhat larger until I started setting things out. I concluded that it wouldn’t leave enough space for walking past, so I shrunk it somewhat, but only after deciding to put another (previously unplanned) bed the other side of the chimney.

So from the first photo you can see the original planned size. The second photo shows what Planting Bed #2 looked like at the end of September 2020, with all the brickwork done but not yet with coping stones or any actual planting. There’s not much more to say about this one, or at least, nothing more can be said until I finish it. There’s a photo in the gallery of the finished item prior to planting. It will never be any cleaner or tidier than this. It might get prettier though.

This one is going to be Izzy’s and she wants to fill it with things that attract insects. Plants, presumably, rather than the carcass of a dead wildebeest. We’ll have to go plant shopping specifically for insect-friendly things.


Planting Bed #3

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Planting Bed #3 was originally unplanned, and resulted from the realisation that one of the others couldn’t be as large as originally planned. It’s not that we were going to be short of planting beds. I mean, I’m going to have to buy enough soil to build a 1/2 scale model of Maiden Castle so that I can fill all these beds, but I have to admit that adding this one gives a certain symmetry to the chimney. Anyway, it’s a long span of bare wall that has been a long span of bare wall for 20 years. Breaking that up a little bit felt like a good idea.

In engineering terms, this was also the area of wall that suffered the worst from the bad slope on the old patio. It got very wet every time there was any rain. So I decided it might be better to put a bed in as part of the big plan.

You can see from the photos that at the time of writing, in late September 2020, the bed has all the brickwork done but doesn’t have coping and doesn’t contain any plants. That time will come. In fact, it already passed. Check out the completed Planting Bed #3 in the gallery.

As with a couple of the other beds, we also have no idea what the planting scheme will be in this one. I fancy either one that contains alpines or one that contains desert plants. Both like very dry soil, so maybe I’ll put both together. There must be a high alpine desert somewhere. What grows there? Although in Milton Keynes they’ll have to be high-alpine desert plants that can cope with a bit of rain.

Fast forward to March. I bought a load of topsoil and filed up all four of the beds round the side. By this stage we’d decided the bed was Izzy’s. It’s in full sun so she’d researched and chosen a few things.

We drove over to our local branch of Frosts Garden Centre to see what we could find. Apparently it was a bit early for summer-flowering things, so we just got some of the earlier varieties and vowed to return a couple of weeks later. I guess that by Easter weekend they’ll has restocked. In the meantime, we’ll leave it with the Choiysa, Hebe and Dianthus.


Geocache Finds 2020-09-20