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 a bit of work on the garden, patio, and general tidy up of the house. 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 quite badly laid and slabs generally looked shabby and in need of being reset. The old retaining wall was rotten and the lawn was very uneven, as well as being mainly composed of moss.

As 2020 started, I got fed up and started planning in a bit more detail, finding reasonable products, and so on, but still with no anticipation of actually doing anything about it for at least another year.

And then there was a global pandemic. All of a sudden it was apparent that we wouldn’t be going away anywhere on holiday, but I’d have to take the time off somehow. And also, we wouldn’t be spending any money on going away anywhere.

There was a period of time after the COVID lockdowns started when I did a lot of mental planning but was unable to do anything, as a result of not being able to get hold of any materials. By the middle of May that eased a little. I’d managed to get some deliveries of bulk materials like sand, walling blocks and hardcore, and DIY stores had started reopening, meaning that those “extra little bits” that a job always needs were now available again.

So enough of the potted history. Let’s talk about the plans. They were quite significant plans, reflecting the anticipation of a lot of time at home. The plans also reflected my total inability to estimate how long it takes me to get things done, especially when they are big, heavy things. But anyway, a summary of jobs we decided to attack:

  • Raise the level of the standing space behind the garage – When I first had the patio done we left a step down between the patio at the side of the house and the back of the garage. The lands falls away to this side of the house. I decided to try to bring it all to the same level.
  • Replace the old retaining wall of railway sleepers – 20 years of weathering had turned them into an interesting habitat for insect life that had little structural integrity.
  • Remove some old planting beds that contained either no plants, or plants that were far too large.
  • Remove the old pergola, which was being used to support a rather over-sized jasmine plant and which made the walk from back to side of the house feel rather claustrophobic.
  • Build some raised planting beds – We’re a bit rubbish at keeping potted plants alive but we used to have some raised, brick-built beds that kept plants alive for years. More of those please.
  • Improve the step into the garage – the old one was too small/ and low and the paving slabs had detached from the base
  • Replace the fence between the house and the garage – a short length of fence that was the only piece I didn’t replace in the great fence-building programme of 2018.
  • Replace all of the paving slabs – The old ones were cheap concrete jobs. A lot of them were damaged and they were all badly stained, plus some were not laid very well (not by me, I might add). They sloped the wrong way, resulting in water pooling against the side of the house.
  • Build a path from the back of the house to the deck, so the deck can be accessed without having to cross soft, wet grass.
  • Raise and flatten the lawn to remove all the bumps and unevenness.
  • Split the back garden into separated areas of lawn and gravelled planting, like we used to have – using the new path from deck to act as a divider.
  • Reshape the transition from the back of the house to the side, extending the planting area and replacing a step down with a gradual slope

Anyway, all of that amounts to a pretty significant amount of effort. More than enough to keep me busy during a year of no holidays, no weekends away, not much caching, no parkruns, and a distinct lack of other normal things to spend time on. And now it’s September as I’m writing this, so we’re getting to the point where there isn’t enough light in the evenings to be working outside, and as a result I’m inside typing.

So what products did I decide to use ? – Roughly as follows:

  • All of the decorative bricks used in the walling are Marshalite Rustic in 300x100x65 buff – They give a pleasingly rough look and are ideal for someone who’s bricklaying skills are questionable. It proved easiest to order these directly from the manufacturer.
  • For the paving slabs, I went for Natural Paving’s Classicstone in the Harvest colour(s) – It’s an Indian sandstone that comes in project packs of various sizes and colours. I ordered these through an online retailer,
  • I couldn’t find any coping stones I liked that were the correct width, so I’ve ended up buying a few more slabs and a lot of discs for the stone cutter, and I’m making my own. The sandstone is plenty tough enough for the purpose and I found I’ve got a few offcuts available anyway from areas where whole slabs didn’t fit.
  • I got all my bulk materials from BuildBase – There was no particular brand preference here – it was just a matter of them being the first people who could supply the materials once the lockdown started easing. They won the business and have continued to do so ever since. They’ve provided breeze blocks, cement, building sand, sharp sand, concrete ballast, pea gravel and hardcore.
  • And then there were some random products I hadn’t thought about or realised that you needed. Paving slurry helps bond the non-absorbent slabs to the mortar. A hydrochloric acid solution removes cement dust from the surface of the slabs, and an “invisible” sealant keeps water out of the surface of the slabs (and helps keep them clean). The joints between slabs are filled with a brush-in joint filler. For the joint filler, slurry and sealant I used Natural Paving’s “Pavetuf” brand and ordered them from the same online retailer. The hydrochloric acid is available on Amazon (as are long rubber gloves, face masks and goggles – stay safe).
  • For the little bit of fence that needed to be done, I used the same products from Wickes as I used two years ago. I wanted to make sure it was identical to the other fencing, and I needed so little that I could get it all in my car in a single go. I paint it with a Cuprinol One-Coat Sprayable colour called “Forest Green”
  • And finally, the work generated a lot of waste, especially at the start when I was digging out old railway sleepers and smashing up random heaps of concrete. So I rented a 6 cu.yd. skip from a local supplier that I believe separates the concrete and crushes it for re-use as building aggregate. Better than sending it to landfill. The first 6 cu.yd. skip did the first wave of cack, and the second got me round to the back of the garage. A third may well be needed, but not until 2021, when I’ve finished all of the paving.

Small Fence

Open the photo gallery >>

One of the first jobs that had to be done was to replace the bit of fence between the house and garage. It was in pretty bad condition. It needed to be done 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 the bed has to be built before the new patio is laid, and the fence has to be done before the bed. That’s all decided then.

I managed to get the materials from my nearby Wickes store on about the second weekend after they’d reopened following the COVID lockdown. 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.

It turned out that the two supports at the ends were both sound and well fastened to the wall, so I just sanded those and repainted them. As the ends didn’t need any work it then became a very easy job to cut arras rails to fit the existing length and then nail on some new featherboards. As with the 2018 job I used wider (150mm) boards. I think they look nicer than the thin ones.

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

Retaining Wall

Open the photo gallery >>

Our garden is about a foot higher than the neighbour’s garden all along one side. When we first did work on 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 for a while, but as time progressed the wood in the sleepers degenerated after 20 years of dampness and attention from insects. The top of the wall was also somewhat lower than the soil in front of it.

I decided it was therefore time to have another go at that section.

As we had plans to rework everywhere else too, I decided that replacing the wall with more sleepers just wouldn’t cut the mustard. It needed to be done with something a little harder (and cement-based). So I decided I’d replace it with a brick wall.

I did the thing in several stages, as you can see from the photos.

Getting the old railway sleepers out was a nightmare, partly because they were rotten, partly because they were still heavy, and partly because various plants had got their roots embedded into them. Net result was that I ened up having to cut them in-situ to reduce them into pieces small enough to remove. There was a famous moment during which my neighbour asked if I was OK after a very loud scream of exasperation. This resulted from me being still unable to remove one troublesome chunk despite having (or so I thought) cut it into manageable-sized blocks. Apparently I hadn’t cut it enough.

The whole process was made more painful by having to work in a very long and narrow corridor alongside a fence. On reflection, it would have been better to replace the sleepers at the same time as the fence, two years previously, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Once I’d got all the sleepers out I then had to dig a trench in which to lay a concrete foundation. This is also quite tricky when you’re working a foot below the ground surface and have a fence on one side. It took a while to dig it all out to a sufficient depth. This part of the process also refreshed my memory of how hard clay can be when it’s not wet. And how soft it can be when it is wet.

Laying the concrete base was fairly easy except for, again, having to work below my feet in a very narrow trench.

After this had hardened I laid a line of breeze blocks (eventually three courses high, but lying on their side). This filled most of the stretch from the corner of the garden to the part where the wall would become visible at the front end. I remember havering a while here because I wasn’t entirely sure how I was going to build this section. Ultimately I decided on a plan to extend the planting bed in this corner, and as a result I extended the concrete base a little further until it reached the “industrial strength” blocks we’d used to support the original edge of the patio, and then built an extension to the wall using the decorative bricks. As breeze blocks aren’t that nice to look at, I also laid some of the decorative bricks on top of the breeze blocks.

The deal was finally sealed by adding some coping stones. I started doing this using offcuts from the patio behind the garage (because the offcuts were just the right width for a coping stone on top of a double-width brick wall. I’d already generated enough offcuts to do about 3 metres of the total length, but the wall is nearly 10 metres long in total. A couple more offcuts from the “back of the house” section of the patio accounted for a couple of metres more, but the others had to be made by cutting new paving slabs. It looks pretty decent now I’ve finished though.

Back of the House

Open the photo gallery >>

The back of the house is the most important area to get looking nice. The back of the garage is invisible, and the large area to the side of the house can only be seen when you’re there. The back of the house can be seen from the windows, and 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 long narrow path outside the kitchen and then expanded to a somewhat deeper patio in front of the lounge. We didn’t really want to do a major redesign except that we decided we’d like to make the wide area a bit smaller. We also decided we wanted to raise and level the lawn behind it, which meant either digging out the whole lawn area, or building a small wall and raising the front edge of the lawn. We decided on the latter.

We did toy with the idea of 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 happy that I’d decided against trying a circular kit.

It’s a big enough area to have to be done in stages, and I needed to lay the square outside the lounge window quickly so that I could build the rest of the retaining walls. There was too much risk in building the wall first, so 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 join up the walls afterwards.

The first part of the job was to dig out the area and prepare the base. When the original patio was laid this was the area where the original contractor decided he’d taken on too big a job. I suspect the reason was that he’d just dug out too much soil, and as a result he only had half the hardcore he needed. Anyway, 20 years ago, that individual just didn’t turn up after the second day. I didn’t pay him. What this meant was that there is a lot of hardcore under this area and also a lot of sand. When having the pointing redone earlier in the year we cleared to about 3 courses of bricks down and were still hitting the hardcore. As you can see from the first photo on this page, once I’d removed the slabs I was faced with a bit of a beach. I’d always anticipated that there would be useable sand beneath the slabs, but wasn’t sure how much, so I have a couple of tonne bags to hand. But just from this 9m2 area of patio I managed to reclaim 2.5 tonne bags full. There was enough to mean I didn’t use any of the purchased sand at all, despite having to mix enough mortar for a solid 50mm depth mortar bed. All I did was to buy a garden sifter (aka a riddle) from Amazon and sift all the stones out, filling one wheelbarrow with sand that was perfect for mixing the mortar, and another wheelbarrow with small stones that could just be chucked 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, but as it happens the way Kas had drawn the slab-laying plan for the 3m square could be rearranged slightly into four 1.5m squares, so that’s how I did it.

It took me a couple of days to lay the square, 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. So that bit had to wait until the following weekend.

At the end of August my folks came down to visit – the good news being that the lockdown had been relaxed enough and my mum was confident enough that they were happy 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 he was here we managed to remove the old slabs from the back of the kitchen and then prep the base and lay all the slabs there. As with the “big square”, the amount of sand we removed was about the same as the amount used to mix the mortar. We also managed to remove most of the changes of height on the old patio, leaving a more-or-less flat plane sloping slightly away from the house. We’d also left a 150mm gap between path and house, as you’re supposed to, which allows any water that does reach the house to simply run into the sub-base rather than sitting against the bricks like it used to.

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 then attacking the final job of filling all the joints. I found I was using quite a lot more of the joint filler than the packets said, so I order a couple more packs to see me through the next few weeks, and progressed quickly through. At the time of writing the first draft of this post, I have completed just over half of the hydrochloric acid and water sealant activity. So I’ll shortly be finished with slabs in this area and will be looking to sign it off completely by finishing the coping stones before the winter sets in. I bought more cutting discs too.

I am looking forward to being able to say that this important strategic area at the back of the house is finished. Apart from the path to the deck, and relaying the lawn and replanting the beds and…. It never ends.

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. On 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. This meant that 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. This means that making coping stones has become the ultimate messy, noisy and generally unpleasant part of the process, and because of that I’ve been a bit reticent about doing it. Sunday morning though, the neighbours were out and so was Kas. It took me about 3 hours to cut enough to cover the whole of the back, and it then took me about another 3 hours to put them onto the walls. It does look a lot better with the coping on and the amount I did on Sunday was about a half of the total I’ll ever have to do, so that sets the scene quite nicely. The main part remaining to complete this initial “back of the house” activity is to fill the joints on the coping and then clean and seal them. That’ll be about 2 hours work.

Skip another week or so forward and I managed to the job finished. We even managed to plant up the bed that’s around the back, meaning that the paving part of the back can be put through the final acceptance test, signed off, and brought into business-as-usual operations, so long as your usual business doesn’t involve straying around either side of the house.

Side of the House

Open the photo gallery >>

Over the course of the years we’ve lived in this house, the side of the house has been the biggest “unexploited” resources. There’s quite a big area around the side, but it presents several challenges that have made it either difficult to plan or low priority to complete. We originally planted a load of low-level beds and had some rather oversized plants in them. These gradually degraded over time as the plants became too large and the paving slabs around them discoloured and stained. We also has a pergola right at the narrowest part. This had a massive jasmine plants all over it, and the net result was quite a narrow opening from the back of the house to the side. It was plant that needed chopping back 2-3 times a year. There was also a step in between this area and the back of the house which I wanted to remove by creating a sloping patio. Finally, the area to the side of the house has very few right angles. It’s narrower at one end than at the other, and at the wide end the wall of the garage is not at right angles either to the house wall or to the fence. When we originally had the area paved the contractor did a bad job and gradually the paving sank so that the lowest point was against the house, meaning that water pooled at the edge.

The area should be one that we love to go and spend time in. It’s a big area and it faces south and is quite sheltered from winds, so it catches the sun and gets nicely warm whenever the sun shines. We’ve never really used it much because it looks a bit shabby and always makes me think that it just needs a load of work doing on it. It should be a nice relaxing area to sit in the middle of the day or, alternately, an area that is more sheltered in the evenings if we’re having a go with the firepit.

So the overall plan was to address all of those issues (apart from the lack of right angles, which we can’t really address without buying the house next-door). The first job was to remove all of the old beds and the pergola so we could, as it were, see the size of the task. Then there were plans for several new, brick-built planting beds and I decided that rather than leaving the new sloping patio with a bare (and not straight) edge of slabs I’d build a retaining wall down the edge and lay slabs up to that. When we originally did the patio here we laid a line of heavy-duty concrete blocks along the edge (to build up the land properly in comparison to next-door). We didn’t lay them quite straight because the fence line and house boundary aren’t quite straight. These blocks were still nice and sturdy, so it was easy to clean the old slabs off the top and then lay a brick wall directly onto the top of the blocks.

I didn’t really take photos of this area before starting, so the first photo on this page shows how it looked after I’d already cleared the edges and started laying bricks for the planting beds. The second photo shows what it looked like when I’d put the wall down the edge.

Of all the areas to work on, this one has caused me the most headaches. How do I pave down a slope? How do I cut around the beds because of the shape? Where do I send the excess water? What’s going to be planted in each bed? Many of the questions remain unanswered at the time of starting to write this post, but things moved on quickly as my level of confidence increased and as further effort was applied.

The third photo here shows how the slabs looked when I finished descending the slope. On this one the slabs aren’t finished (joints are empty and the faces aren’t cleaned or sealed) but you can see the picture. The area around the corner and down the slope represents about half of the total area around the side of the house. I was at this point by mid-October 2020.

During the final week in October, I took holiday again and set myself the objective of getting all the slabs down in this area. It proved to be a challenging target when it shouldn’t really have been. Three things got in my way. Firstly, when I removed the old slabs on my first day of effort it became apparent that the original patio guys hadn’t done a great job with the base. It was a bit damp and I was sinking straight into the wet clay – there was virtually no hardcore under much of this area. I therefore lost nearly two days digging out a load of what Geordies might refer to as clart, and then waiting for delivery of a bulk bag of hardcore to fill the hole in. On the Monday I spent the day dumping further rubbish into a skip I’d hired because I didn’t have the materials to do anything else. Secondly, on the Thursday it was precipitating quite badly. It was so wet that I really couldn’t do anything, so I went out and bought a new bike instead. To be honest, it rained on Wednesday afternoon too, but I persisted through it even though I should really have stopped. Finally, on the second Saturday I was interrupted by having to do some work. It rained much of that day too, but there would have been 3 hours in the morning and a further 2 in the afternoon if I’d been doing this instead of reviewing technical documents.

The net result is that after a further week of effort I found myself with about 3 sq,m. of slabs still to lay. All required cuts, so I expected it to take at least another full day. On the bright side though, I did manage to reach the back step of the garage and the fence, and all of the remaining parts could be reached by standing on the new slabs, so no more mucky bits. All the bases are laid, I just needed another day of cutting and mortaring down a few slabs. I guess I was being rather optimistic in assuming that a week in October wouldn’t ever be interrupted by rain.

The following weekend was dry enough to have a go at it. I didn’t quite get up early enough on the Saturday, so it was going distinctly dark when I’d finished the area around the garage. That left me with just a small area between the two planting beds (against the chimney breast) and really didn’t want to leave that for the following day, so I worked into darkness to finish it.

The weekend after that I finished all the edges on the Saturday and on Sunday I cut enough coping stones to do most of the sidewall and all of the funnily-shaped corner bed.

And the weekend after that, I filled all the joints, leaving the whole thing in the state shown in the fourth photo on this page. The joints need to be cleaned then the slabs needed to be cleaned and sealed. And I need to add coping stones onto the remaining three beds. If I finish this area before Christmas I’ll be happy.

Back of the Garage

Open the photo gallery >>

When we first did the patio we wanted to use up a bit of space behind the back of the garage. It was even lower than the rest of the ground and consisted 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, including it having a plastic shed full of children’s toys.

For the grand rework project I decided I wanted to lift it to the same level as the rest of the patio, removing an irritating step downwards. The area was also a mish-mash of building materials as I’d paved it with “things I had left”. 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 very annoying feature of it being narrowest at the entrance. When I re-did the fence in 2018 I discussed this issue with my neighbour and 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 his land at the end closest to the house, and gave him a bit of land 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 so I could clear out the whole base and start again, but 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.

Once I was able to get mortar I was quickly able to upcycle some big concrete blocks that next door had given 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, but for the retaining wall I’d bought a lot more breeze blocks than I needed, and 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. As I was laying them onto the previous paving I was able just to chuck down a thinnish layer of mortar and drop the blocks straight in.

As I moved 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 some of the concrete rubble, but 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 managed to get the slabs laid in here in about 8 hours of total effort.

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. Whilst the instructions were to use a brush to put the filler in, I found it easier to control the mess by using a hand trowel and a small sweeping brush. The filler isn’t cement based, so it doesn’t leave grey strains, however it does need to be kept 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, after which it’s then possible to work with 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 as the water doesn’t absorb into the surface very much, they don’t look as dark as untreated slabs.

Anyway, this was the first decent-sized area of paving that was fully finished.

Beneath the Bamboo

Open the photo gallery >>

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

When we first had the patio done we had a step between the side of the house and the back. There’s quite a big drop and we had to do something. Anyway, as time progressed, and after a couple of other plans for the back 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, although it does occasionally put a long runner under the soil in an attempt to start a whole new colony. As I was working on this corner I found one runner of about 1m length coming out under the lawn and another of 1.5m that ran alongside the old retaining wall of sleepers. That one had come to an abrupt end when it met the brick wall at the end, but it hadn’t actually put any shoots out.

Back at the plot, we had a bit of planting bed on one side of the bamboo that wasn’t really big enough for much to grow, and it does tend to suffer from shade in the afternoon. So 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, so long as we can find some plants that can cope with only having direct sunlight in the morning. Shouldn’t be too hard.

So back at this bed, the plan was to frame it with the new retaining wall and also to have a low wall all the way across the back that frames the square bit of the patio. Not too difficult apart from having to build a wall in a straight line all the way across the back of the house, but with a 3m wide gap in the middle until I’d laid the new patio there. There were some strings involved, and some swearing because the string kept getting blown around in the wind. To do the new little bit of wall here I had to shore up what used to be the edge of the patio (as I’d undercut it), so I laid a bed of breeze blocks fairly roughly onto a concrete bed, safe in the knowledge I could lay decorative bricks on the top along the right line. I knew the breeze blocks would be completely buried, so if they didn’t quite align with the bricks on top it wouldn’t be a problem.

When excavating in this area it turned into an exercise in remembering previous phases of the garden and fishing out heaps of old materials. I can’t remember whether it was me that buried all those old bricks or whether it was the original layers of the patio. 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 quite a lot of back-filling with soil and sand, but hopefully now it’s got a decent base to work with. That’s been a feature of this rework. Because I’m working on patios, whenever I am working on a bit of the soil I have found myself with a handy pile of sand, much of which I’ve dug into the soil, along with the old compost from a load of empty plant pots, to try to improve the condition of the soil. When I say “improve” I actually mean “turn it into soil” – many areas of our back garden consist of a substance that could be used directly on a potter’s wheel. It seems to have an infinite capacity for absorbing compost and sand without ever turning into something which doesn’t clump into massive balls that are sloppy in the winter and rock-hard in the summer. The term “prefers free draining soil” that’s found on the labels of many plants does not apply in our garden. Clay is quite fertile, but it’s very heavy and is not good for things which like to put out a load 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.

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.

Big Bed

Open the photo gallery >>

The perimeter of the house where I did the new fence contains a 25m length from the back of the garage to the corner of the garden. That’s why it took me a while to do the fence a couple of years ago. Anyway, of that 25m length, 5m is behind the back of the garage and 8m or so is behind the planting beds round the lawn. The other is a straight run of fence that is pretty much 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.

For the base I had the advantage of being able to use the existing row of big concrete blocks they lay along the perimeter. There was nothing wrong with these and they formed a nice straight and solid edge. I only had to dig a trench for a three-sided concrete base then, which I took down to a similar depth to the concrete blocks.

As with the other beds, I didn’t put a concrete bed across the whole base, as that would mean having to find somewhere to send excess water, so 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 so long as we had some gravel soakaways to take water off the patio and didn’t put the slabs right up to the edge of the house then it would be fine. It would be better than it used to be, anyway. I made the mistake of not planning to do this from the offset, which means there’s been some retro-fitting of gaps in the mortar joints to allow the water in. The water that gets trapped in this bed ever so slowly seeps below ground level under next door’s path. If it comes down like stair rods for any length of time then it flows around the bed and straight over the edge, but it always 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.

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.

Corner Bed

Open the photo gallery >>

One of the things Kas asked for, and which was duly painted onto the old patio for the purposes of visualisation, was a tallish bed in the corner between the garage and the house (right where I’d put a new bit of fence). She wanted it to be tall so it helped hide my beautiful new bit of fence. Officially, she was looking for tall grasses and similarly vertical plants to help create a wall of green stuff to break up the solid wall of the garage.

The base for this one needed to be laid 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. What that meant in practice was that it was going to be messy trying to lay the bricks.

Thankfully 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 took me several goes to get the bricks up to the right height and I discovered that the bricks were sufficiently rough and irregularly shaped that the non-right angles don’t look too bad. It was all right-angles on the front anyway, so that worked out nicely.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to finishing this one off with some coping stones and getting it planted 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

Open the photo gallery >>

I guess it’s a sign that your kids are growing up a bit when one of them asks if, as part of the grand garden rework, she can have a planting bed of her own to design and plant. 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 and then build bricks to an appropriate height, topping them off with coping stones. That is, pretty much, the most frequently used method for building planting beds in the garden.

This bed, along with two of the others, is quite close to the house, so 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

Open the photo gallery >>

There was 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.

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 it 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.

Might this one end up being the ericaceous bed? The soil round here is a very heavy clay. I guess that equates to it being rather alkaline and hence we’ve never been able to get any acid-loving plants like rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolias to survive. We have a rhododendron in a pot, but it’s totally pot-bound. Maybe we should fill this one with ericaceous compost and try a few acid-lovers in here.

Planting Bed #3

Open the photo gallery >>

This bed 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.

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.