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. This one belongs to Izzy. She wants to plant it with something to attract insects.
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.
A feature area of the garden. In fact, the main part that you can see from the house. This bit needs to look good.
The 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.
It’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
I 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.
Having done the top half of the Minions a couple of weeks ago I thought I better go do the rest. After my first trip to the Minions around I had 38 left to do. That’s not really enough to last all day, so I supplemented Minions Part 2 with a couple of extra circuits. There are a couple of series of Traditionals near to Ashwell that I noticed. These plus a few more made a possible 90-95, which is definitely a good day out.
I set off fairly early as I knew it might be a long day. When I head in this direction I normally stop at a garage on the way out of Milton Keynes to grab a mobile breakfast and some provisions for the day. Today was no different, and I added a fill-up of the fuel tank for good measure.
I tried to park in the same place in Dunton as a fortnight previously, but there were no spaces. There aren’t any other car parks in the village, so I needed to find a suitable roadside. I needed a couple of attempts to find somewhere I was happy with. It’s not good to park on main roads and I also don’t like parking in residential streets unless there’s loads of room. Dunton doesn’t have many streets like that, but I found one eventually. Even then I had several goes at parking before I was happy.
The Morning Walk
The start of my route went north out of the village in a vaguely clockwise circuit. All the caches were, as ever, quite easy to find and in decent condition. The walk was pretty quick and quite pleasant apart from one section where I didn’t read the map. Well, I had the map, but I assumed the ditch would have a bridge but it didn’t. That resulted in a lot of messing around. Eventually I found a very well hidden railway sleeper that I could use to get over the problem ditch, which was good.
Not long after that I was on a stretch of road and made some fantastic progress until I was level with Dunton again. There were a few more heading south, including one by JazzyJessups as a tribute to ryo62. That one was hanging from the bottom of a bridge in the middle of a stream. I was really quite surprised I reached it without getting wet.
After that one though, I slowed down quite a lot. It was warm and I hadn’t taken enough drinks, and the caches seemed a bit more awkward to find. In total this first loop was 11.5km long and took me 31/2 hours.
The Afternoon Walk
I eventually made it back to my car and grabbed a drink to see me on the not-so-long journey down to Ashwell. Once there I again had trouble finding anywhere to park. It was a nice late summer afternoon and loads of people were out. It’s a small village with a narrow main street that doesn’t really suit parking a big car, but I got lucky at the cricket green.
The walk from here involved two series of traditionals called the Steeple Morden Shuffle and the Ashwell Agadoo. They meet up close to Ashwell, allowing a single big loop. I’d promised ryo62 I’d do some maintenance on the way round. These two loops needed more maintenance than the Minions did.
This second part of the walk was a couple of kilometres further and took me 4 hours. By the time I got back into Ashwell village I was very tired and I wanted to stop. I had intended to do a couple of drive-bys on the way home but when I got to it, I couldn’t face it. I just drove home for some beer and relaxation.
A total of 90 finds over the day.
The original railway sleepers we placed as a retaining wall had degenerated somewhat, so I replaced them.
Our 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.
Removing 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.
After 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.