Planting Bed #1 is the smallest of the planting beds that I’m building. I started work on it first because it’s at the back of the house. Because I started it first, I also finished it first.
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.
The good lady wife wanted a bed in the corner where we could plant some tall grasses and the like. She wanted to hide the fence and some of the garage wall. The cheek of it! I only just put that bit of fence up 🙁
Kas 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.
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.
A Bit of Background
In the early part of August I was sitting at the PC one night and I got round to thinking about geocaching. I hadn’t done any for ages (not since March, just before the COVID lockdowns started). OK, I’d been a bit busy trying to fix up the back garden over the summer, and by mid-August I’d got quite a lot done. But there had been plenty of opportunities to go caching and I hadn’t. I lost my mojo, couldn’t be bothered with it, and generally felt a bit “Meh!” about the whole thing. So I got round to pondering on why that was. Whilst pondering I thought I’d attempt the Oceania and Asia loops of the Flags of All Nations series, to see if it got me back in the zone.
Two things sprang to my mind. One of them was that it was a continuation of the previous year, when despite not doing much over the summer I made a (relatively low) 650 finds in the year. A part of that was the absence of nearby mega-series. A part of it was the lack of GeoNord event in Northern France. I did drive up to Aberdeen for the 2019 UK Mega, and I enjoyed it, but that was definitely the highlight of my caching year.
So what to do?
I guess I’d got a bit weary. That had combined with a general sense of antipathy in the rest of the family. They weren’t quite trying to persuade me not to go, but equally they showed no interest in discussing it with me when I came back.
2019 was probably my first year when no others members of the family came with me apart from our family holiday. Even on the holiday I made most of the finds alone. So 2020 was a continuation of that, combined with the general misery of being in COVID lockdown and theoretically not being able to travel far, nor go caching with anyone outside the family. That wasn’t good.
The second reason was one that is more or less the reason for this post. It occured to me that I had started to think about geocaching almost totally in the context of maintenance trips I would need to do around the Flags of All Nations series. Once we were allowed to restart caching again I would have commit at least six full days to doing maintenance of those. At 2020’s rate of progress, six full days equated to the rest of the year. So, and I know this is not in the general spirit of geocaching, that the reason for my lack of enthusiasm was the perceived burden of having to spend time doing maintenance. There are, sadly, only two ways to address that issue – archive them, or adopt them out.
I’m never one to blow my own trumpet, but since I started work on them the Flags have developed a bit of a cult following, not just around Milton Keynes but across the whole of Southern England and beyond. I guess they are an easy way to score lots of puzzle finds in short order. I sensed therefore that there’d be a bit of a backlash if I just archived them all. They are still highly active. People still like them, so it would be a shame to get rid of them completely. That left me with the option of adopting them out. It’s a big series, so I contemplated approaching a number of local cachers, but then one night I was exchanging messages with Pesh and he pretty much volunteered to take them all off my hands. He apparently needs loads of places to walk his dog.
So in the middle of August a transfer was effected, and the Flags of All Nations were no longer mine.
I did still have a lingering sense of ownership (on the negative side). But then also found myself with a whole stash of new caches on my doorstep that I’m allowed to go and find. No armchair logging, you understand. I’m genuinely planning to walk all the way around every one, and as a gift to Pesh I will take a bag full of spare containers and logs whenever I do.
I’ve got previous
I’m afraid to say it’s not the first time I’ve done this. I’ve shed previous series at Stowe National Trust for much the same reason. The truth is that I quite like owning caches, and I like setting them, but I hate maintaining them. The only solution to that really is for me to stop setting them, and instead focus on finding more, but also on being a good citizen and maintaining those I find where they are in need of it.
All of the above is, then, a very long preamble into the point of this post. I went caching around a part of the Flags of All Nations series. And I enjoyed the experience of doing so.
The Beginning of the End
It was a Sunday and I’d obviously decided I needed a rest from laying paving slabs. It was a warm and humid afternoon, with a little cloud and a bit of breeze. Ideal for caching, you would think. Not too hot, not too cold, not too wet.
I decided to have a go at the “Oceania” loop and also the smaller (eastern) “Asia” loop. These are centred around the village of Whaddon, but as I knew I was doing both loops I parked in my customary spot on the edge of a housing estate on the west side of MK. I was surprised when I parked up that what had been fields when I set the original caches was now a full-on housing estate.
OK, not a total surprise because I’d reset the Oceania loop 18 months previously when it became apparent that the original route was no longer good. I placed the first of the Oceania loop in a hedge in the middle of nowhere. It’s now overlooked by a large house that’s no more than 20m away. Oops! This side of Milton Keynes is one of the two current areas of rapid growth. One week it’s a field, and the next it’s a housing estate.
I started by walking the Oceania loop in number order, but actually starting the walk from #249 because Pesh also placed a multi nearby and I wanted to know where the end of it was. I kind of guessed, to be honest, because there’s not exactly a lot of cache-free real-estate around here, but I started with that and then moved to Flags of All Nations #225. The Oceania loop is mainly urban, skirting down the edge of Tattenhoe Park. A lot of it runs alongside MK’s famous redway system, on sections that are also close to a main road. It’s therefore not the most peaceful part of the series, but it’s one of the fastest to walk round and it is accessible all year regardless of the weather. That was a good thing, because it rained a lot and I was getting wet.
So back to the plot. Once you’ve done the redways there’s a section where you cut through some woods and onto some open fields. About a year earlier I had an issue in this area because an old gate had been replaced with a fence, and a supposed route into the woods had become so overgrown, and blocked with barbed wire, that it wasn’t passable. On the very day I went to rearrange the caches on that part I discovered that the farmer had fitted two spangly new kissing gates and the footpath was now properly accessible all the way across again. Irritating on the day, because the maintenance was unneccesary, but very handy when trying to find them because the integrity of the original route is preserved.
After this section there’s a brief walk out onto a road and then back into another problem cache. A problem because the hedge it’s in borders a field which often has cows. I don’t like cows unless they are accompanied by pepper sauce and chips. Or Yorkshire puddings. I think they understand this, so they don’t like me either. On this day there were no cows in this field, but two fields along there were some. They looked intent on getting in my way, so I had to back-track around a 2km loop to avoid walking through 400m of field. At least there were no caches in that field though.
This bit leads to the outskirts of Whaddon village, from where I joined a bit of the Asia loop to get me back home again. The whole course for the day made sort-of a figure-of-eight shape, if you look at it in a certain way. I was getting a little tired, because it was warm and I was running out of drinks. My speed over the ground reduced, but I was still finding the caches easily enough.
There’s one on this stretch that disappears very regularly, so I replaced it. Where this stretch joins the old North Bucks Way, which forms the boundary of Milton Keynes at this point, there was another cache where essentially I’d moved the final location, changed the puzzle, and then went to the old location and found a cache. What the actual? I had to go check everything when I got home and a couple of days later I went back and removed the old one and signed the new (proper) one.
Along with these Flags caches there was a smattering of others that Pesh had laid nearby. So by the end I’d made a creditable 42 finds. Not a bad afternoon out. I’d walked just over 13 km in 4 hours to find them.
I wanted the back of the garage level with the rest of the patio, and a little bit wider.
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.
The side of the house is completely invisible from inside, but it is a total sun-trap. It faces 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 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.