How to Plant up an area with grown cover shrubs

Hydrangea macrophylla 'Merveille Sanguine'
Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Merveille Sanguine’

The secret to making a low maintenance garden border is to start off with no perennial weeds, after that the maintenance is no worse than a lawn in the first couple of years and far less thereafter. When creating a border most people make the mistake of making it too narrow, a 300mm (1 foot) deep border will just not work. If that’s all you can manage your better off with climbers or wall shrubs. 1.5 to 2 metres (5ft to 6ft 6inches) is the sort of depth you should be aiming for, not all gardens may be able to accommodate this but the closer you can stretch to this the better. In a very small garden you may do better having one deep border at the bottom of the garden and climbers and wall shrubs on the other walls.

Urtica dioica (Stinging Nettle)
Urtica dioica (Stinging Nettle)

Once you’ve chosen your area you need to remove any perennial weeds before you start to plant. Removing them once the plants are in and growing is far harder and the reason many peoples’ borders fail to work. Weeds like couch (Elymus repens ), ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria) and stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) have a spreading root which can quickly grows through the root ball of newly planted shrubs making the weeds extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to get rid of. Where the area is an established lawn these weeds will have not been able to become established because of the regular mowing. Here the grass can be stripped off but some weeds will be left behind such as dandelions (Taraxacum species) with their deep tap-root. The most reliable way is to kill off all the vegetation with a glyphosate weed killer (sold as Roundup, Gallup and other brand names). Leave the weeds to die down, this

Elymus repens (Couch grass).
Elymus repens (Couch grass).

can take a week or two and then turn the ground over with a garden fork, removing any roots and large stones. If the border is edged by a lawn, tidy up the edge to form a clean line and spread 25 to 50 mm (1 or 2 inches) of organic matter and use a garden fork to combine it into the soil. If the soil is very sticky with clay, mix some sharp grit (about 1 to 4mm) to open the soil up making it better draining, easier to work and with more air in it.

The source of the organic matter is not important so long as it’s free from contamination and weeds, your choice can be bases on price and availability. Well-rotted garden compost is ideal but few gardens have a large supply of it, peat was the traditional alternative and although it is a good soil improver these days its environmental cost makes it undesirable. Many councils now sell recycled waste as compost and these are normally well made, just don’t pay a premium for an “organic” label it does make the compost any better; just allows the seller to claim a higher price! If you live in a rural area you may be able to get farm yard manure and if rotted down this is very good, but in practice farms don’t want to leave the manure heaped up for a year or two to rot down so if you are going to use it you may have to except you must leave it to rot down before you can use it or the rotting straw can soak up any available nitrogen.

Photinia 'Red Robin'
Photinia ‘Red Robin’

You are now ready to plant the border. Choose shrubs which have a good dense canopy of leaves in summer so they smother any weeds before they can become established. Being evergreen is not important in this context as weeds germinate doing spring and summer, but some will provide some interest during the winter. Try not to focus on what’s in flower at the time as you want as long a period of interest as possible and bear in mind foliage lasts a lot longer than flowers. When walking around the nursery or garden centre make use of the labels and staff, if they’re not helpful go somewhere else! A good supplier will take pride in their stock and gave a good knowledge of it. Deciding how far apart the plants should be is tricky and it can be very difficult to visualise how big a plant will be in a few years’ time. The tendency is to over plant, especially in small areas so have a look at the label and ask if in doubt. Also bear in mind a 1.8 metre (6 foot) high plant is generally going to end up as wide as it is high.

Skimmia japonica 'Bowles's Dwarf'
Skimmia japonica ‘Bowles’s Dwarf’

Once you made your choice and paid for them pack them in your car carefully, DO NOT have them sticking out of sunroofs and windows, they will travel perfectly well laid on their sides; even if some end up gently laid on top of one another. When home get them out of the car as soon as possible, stand them in a sheltered corner and water them well. Like this, so long as they are keep watered they will be fine for up to a week if you run out of time.

Planting can be done on any frost free dry day and start by setting out your plants in their intended positions. Now is the time to make any last-minute adjustments to the arrangement before planting.

Viburnum davidii
Viburnum davidii

To plant use a garden spade to dig a hole larger than the plant pot, remove the pot, place the plant in the hole and firm the soil back around the root ball with your heel, making sure the top of the compost is level with the border soil. To remove the pot grasp the plant where it emerges from the compost and give the rim of the pot a firm tap with the palm of the hand. After all the plants are in rake over the surface to tidy up and water the plants really well, in part to settle the soil in around the root ball.

Give the borders a quick check over once a week for any weeds emerging, and remove them; most weeks there will be nothing to do and the next spring feed them with a general fertilizer.


Of all the landscape parks of England, Stowe is perhaps the most typical of the tradition which it represents

–Dame Sylvia Crowe,  Garden Design

Stowe - The Temple of Venus.
Stowe – The Temple of Venus.

Stowe is rightly regarded as a defining example of an English Landscape Garden. Though not as beautiful as Stourhead; it is better than any other garden at capturing the spirit of this school of garden design.  It was effectively constructed in the 18th century and was the product of the century’s great garden designers. Sadly, subsequent development has meant the garden can no longer be truly seen as its creators intended but its structure still shines through.

This is a garden built to impress, and it does! The approach to the house starts proper at the village of Buckingham two and a third miles from the house with the one and half mile long, dead straight, tree lined Stowe Avenue. As you approach the house up Stowe Avenue the view of it through the Corinthian Arch changes as the road follows the undulations of the countryside and having arrived at the arch the visitor can view the vast house across open country and a lake but, true to the spirit of the English Landscape school, they must wait to explore this Elysian Field. Instead they were taken west around the outer edge of the garden only being allowed glimpses of the house and garden as they are taken in a long arc to the house entrance at the north. Unfortunately, and annoyingly common, you no longer approach the gardens as the creators intended but this access can still be walked if you feel energetic or followed on Google Street View if you’re not. You now approach the garden by turning east at the Corinthian Arch and enter though the New Inn where the National Trust has set up its carpark and shops before walking down to an entrance by the West Pavilion.

Stowe - the house viewed over the lake.
Stowe – the house viewed over the lake.

This is the problem with the garden, the garden is no longer approached as intended, the house and some of the grounds have be taken over by a private school with its own needs and a large chunk of best part of the garden has become a private Golf Course. In a perfect world, the whole house and garden would be reunited and the approach reworked to return it to much nearer to the original intention. This is unfortunately unlikely to happen as the National Trust is hard pushed to fund the upkeep of what it has at Stowe

The idea behind this school of design was the creation of the Elysian Fields by the subtle manipulation of the English countryside which was then presented and viewed in a controlled way. So, successful was this at Stowe it is now often to distinguish where nature stopped and man took control. It was a rebellion against the more formal French style and lead to many fine examples both in the UK and the continent being destroyed, but far better suited the English countryside in which it was situated. It also reflects a growing confidence in England with greater political stability and economic prosperity.

Stowe - The Palladian Bridge.
Stowe – The Palladian Bridge.

This great wealth allowed gardens to be created on a truly lavish scale and Stowe was furnished with a very large number of garden buildings and ornaments; nearly all for pure decorative purposes and those from necessity were lavishly ornamented. This is perhaps the problem with the English Garden School; however beautiful and well-crafted a Greece temple has no place in an English countryside. It clearly looks contrived. Beautiful, stunning: but still contrived. That is not to say Stowe is not a great delight to walk around and marvel at: it is without question. It can never though totally blend in with its surrounding countryside and its reliance on quite a narrow range of plants lead to the style giving way to a more plant centred one as the Victorians looked to show off the new plant introductions flooding into the country from the rest of the world.

How to look after a pony paddock

By a pony paddock I am referring to a small field used to keep one or more horses or ponies in usually under a couple of acres.


  • Chain harrow
  • Roller
  • Fertilizer spreader
  • Quad bike or compact tractor
  • Pasture topper

Annual routine:

Once the grass begins to grow in spring, chain harrow the grass and start to feed it, a little at regular intervals over the summer is far more efficient as it reduces the about of fertilizer lost to leaching. As the surface of the grass becomes pitted by the hooves it needs rolling and when the grazing starts to have clumps of course grass and/or weeds go over it with a pasture topper. Any poo picking should be done prior to chain harrowing and pasture topping to prevent it being dispersed over the field.

Rejuvenating a paddock:

Start off by getting a professional soil analysis so you can see what fertilizer and lime the soil needs. While you are waiting for this to come back have a good walk around the paddock and check for drainage problems (often indicated by clumps of course sedge), damaged or missing fencing, the condition of the water supply, check and treat any ragwort and if the grass needs to be cut back with a pasture topper.

How you tackle a drainage problem depends on its course, an isolated area could be a broken or block land-drain which needs to be dug out and repaired, but if on digging down you may find a spring then it needs to be lead away to drain if possible. Excessive damp around a pond could well be caused by the pond overflow being silted up and needing clearing out. Generally, poorly draining land will have to be drained by land-drains which leads the water to somewhere it can be disposed of.


Once you have sorted out these problems you can chain harrow the grass and over-seed the paddock; prior to starting the fertilizer regime recommended by the soil analysis. It will take time for the grass to start to come right and if there are a lot of weeds such as dock and nettle you will have to repeatedly cut them back until they weaken and die out or use a selective weed killer if practical.



The grass being grazed is constantly losing nutrients by several routes: the most important being the removal of the plants by grazing, exasperated by the necessary practice of poo picking to reduce the parasite load, and leaching, as the rain washes the nutrients down out of reach of the plants. As the quantity of available nutrients in the soil becomes less not only will the growth of the grass, and therefore the available grazing, fall also the grass will become more susceptible to competition from weeds but also it will become more susceptible to pest and diseases. It follows then that if an area is to provide good grazing it will need to have the lost nutrients replaced.

The only way to find out what nutrients a soil is short of and therefore what fertilizer it will need is to chemically test the soil. Most companies that specialise in selling the appropriate fertilizer can arrange to have a sample of your soil tested at a laboratory for a fee and will provide a recommended fertiliser treatment for the field. A great variety of do it DIY kits are also available but none of them will provide the accuracy of one undertaken in a soil science laboratory and you still must work out what fertilizer you need to apply.

The report you will get back will give to the levels of the important soil nutrients, their recommendations for the fertilizer to apply and when, the pH of the soil, their recommendations for any lime needed and possibly also the soils cation exchange capacity. The last of these is a measure of how well the soil can hold nutrients and is for information only as it cannot be altered. The lime requirements are essential as this affects the soil pH which in turns affect if the nutrients in the soil are available to the plants.

The easiest way of applying the fertilizer is by using a spreader towed behind a quad bike or compact tractor. These normally work by allowing the fertilizer to run out of a hopper onto a rotating disc which flings the fertilizer out in an arc behind the machine. The rate of spread is controlled by adjusting the opening at the bottom of the hopper and the speed the machine is traveling at. They normally come with instructions for setting for a range of materials.

Chain harrowing:

Chain harrows
Chain harrows

This is the same process as scarifying a garden lawn and is to clear dead grass from around the base of the grass plants so improving the movement of air and moisture around into the base of the plants and between the air and the soil. It is normally done in spring and autumn by dragging a set of chain harrows over the grass.

Chain harrows are a very old piece of agricultural machinery and normally come in sections which hook into a bar which is pulled by a machine. The sections are made from steel rod folded and worked to form a mesh, not unlike chain-link fencing, with regularly shaped spikes pointing down from this mesh. These spikes slope slightly back from the vertical when the harrows are pulled forward.

They are simply pulled over the grass at about 2.5 to 5 mph (4 to 8 kph) but care should be taken and you need to plan ahead before you start. First of all, you cannot reverse with them, a few models come mounted on a frame which can be lifted on a tractor’s 3-point hitch – but they are the exception not the rule! Therefore, make sure you can always drive forwards out of where ever you drive into. Next, they turn tighter than the vehicle pulling them so when you turn at the end of a pass you cannot immediately follow the edge of the previous pass. This tendency also means if you turn too tightly the bar at the top of the harrows will catch on the back wheels and can end up joining on the machine! Finally, like rollers they tend to be wider than the towing machine so they can catch on trees and posts.


This is done with a roller pulled behind a tractor or quad bike at about 2.5 to 5 mph (4 to 8 kph). The rollers are normally a hollow cylinder with a screw in plug to fill them. Move the roller until the plug is at its highest and fill with water using garden hose before refitting the plug. The manufactures often recommend water or sand, but how you are supposed to fill one with sand is beyond me!

When using a roller, the moisture of the soil is critical; too damp and the roller will leave ruts at its edges and can even become bogged down, too dry and the hoof marks will be left. The ideal level of moisture will vary widely depending on the soil type and needs to be found by trial and error.

When pulling a roller pay careful attention to the sides of the roller as they are wider than the machine pulling them and will have a tighter turning circle. This is particularly important when working between trees as the roller can catch tree trunks and even suddenly yank the machine pulling it to one side. Also, if you cut the corner too close going around a tree, or similar, you can end up with the obstruction between the pulling machine and the roller. A situation which it can be very difficult to get back out of.

Pasture topping:

Horses are notoriously picky eaters only taking what they view are the best from the grass and leaving others. This leads to the courser grasses getting left and being allowed to outgrow the better ones. To counter this, it is necessary to cut down these courses grasses at regular intervals with a pasture topper. In practice, these are either rotatory or flail mowers powered by a tractors PTO shaft or a motor mounted on the machine, though for small areas a small flail mower can be hired in. There is considerable debate over the relative merits of flail verses rotary but in practice there is probably little real difference except that if you are likely to hit stones, tree stumps, bits of wood and the like a flail mower is a lot less likely to be damaged.


The range of plants that make up the grass in an area of grazing can deteriorate with time and neglect. To reverse this the area can be over-seeded by spreading a new seed over the existing grass where it will germinate amongst the existing grass and fill in any gaps. This is cheaper and quicker than replacing the grazing and starting again. It is important to choose a suitable grass seed mixture from a firm which provides specialist agricultural grass seed mixture as they have become very sophisticated over the last 30 years or so. The grass seed should be sown when there is no risk of frost and ideally when rain is imminent.

Selective weed killers:

These are chemicals designed to kill weeds growing in grass and rely on the board leaved weeds being more susceptible to the chemical than the grasses. This means the rate the chemical is applied is critical as too little and nothing will be killed but too much and the grass will be damaged and even killed. Most of these chemicals are designed for professional use and must be applied by a sprayer. A further problem, and possibly the greatest, is that it is often preferable to have broad leaves plants in the mixture of plants that make up the grazing and any selective weed killer will kill these as well as any weeds.



How to build a sleeper raised bed

As well as retaining walls timber sleepers can be used to create raised beds. A great variety of shapes can be created using these, but the shape of the sleepers only really work well with shapes based on right-angles. This though still provides great scope by interlocking  the basic squares and rectangles,  and varying the height of different sections.


  • New railway sleepers
  • 200mm/8 inch Timberloc screws or similar
  • Granular sub-base
  • Battery drill/driver
  • Circular saw with at least a 65mm/2½ inches max. depth of cut
  • Sledge hammer
  • Topsoil



  1. Mark out the outside edge of the raised bed
  2. Dig out the strip of ground the sleepers are going to sit on, making it 50mm/2 inches wider than the sleepers.

    The base dug out for the sleepers.
    The base dug out for the sleepers.
  3. Level the base of the trench with a minimum of 50mm/2 inches of granular sub-base and tamp it down with the head of the sledge hammer.

    The sub-base foundation for the base of the planter.
    The sub-base foundation for the base of the planter.
  4. Lay the bottom course of sleepers in place, leaving a 25mm/1 inch drainage gap between the ends.

    The first whole sleepers laid to form the bottom course.
    The first whole sleepers laid to form the bottom course.
  5. Level this course by adjusting the sub-base under them and knocking them down with the sledge hammer.

    The first course of the planter with the cut sleepers fitted in.
    The first course of the planter with the cut sleepers fitted in.
  6. Lay the next course on top of first making sure to overlap the joints and butting the ends up close together.

    The second course of sleepers.
    The second course of sleepers.
  7. Secure the two courses together with the Timberloc screws, making sure all the pieces are screwed together.
  8. Lay the next course on top, screw down and repeat until the desired height is reached.

    The first four courses of sleepers.
    The first four courses of sleepers.
  9. Fill with topsoil.

    The completed raised bed filled with topsoil.
    The completed raised bed filled with topsoil.

St. Nicholas Gardens

St. Nicholas - The Long Border.
St. Nicholas – The Long Border.

This is the garden created by The Honourable Robert James and Lady Serena James at Richmond in North Yorkshire. Bobbie James was an avid plant collector and member of The Garden Society, an exclusive group of Fellows of The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). He was in the same social circle as Lawrence Johnson, of Hidcote fame, who was a fellow member of The Garden Society, Fellow of the RHS and both men sponsored some of the same plant hunting expeditions. Bobbie James, as he was known, moved to St. Nicholas in 1905 with his first wife Lady Evelyn, two years prior to Johnson moving to Hidcote and it seems most likely that both men were aware of the developments of the others’ gardens.

Following Lady Evelyn James death in 1922 Bobbie married the much younger Lady Serena Lumley who was a keen gardener in her own right and she continued to care for the gardens after her husband’s death in 1960 until her own in 2000. After her death, the property remained in private hands and is presently open to the public a few days each year.

St. Nicholas - The Rock Garden.
St. Nicholas – The Rock Garden.

Bobbie James was very much a plantsman and his garden reflected this, a factor which caused his widow a great deal of problems and regret as she was unable to find suitable staff to maintain a garden full of rare plants. Sadly, when a garden is neglected it is the planting which tends to suffer the most and this has been a long-term problem for this garden. About 30 years ago Lady Serena showed me around the garden and back then she was struggling to maintain the garden. This shows; many of the paths and steps require maintenance and much of the planting is missing, repetitive or of poor quality. Some of the original planting does survive, such as Rosa ‘Bobbie James’ which rambles over the front of the house and Lady Serena was very proud, but little is made of it.

St. Nicholas - Gate into the Herb Garden and Privet Allee.
St. Nicholas – Gate into the Herb Garden and Privet Allee.

There is though still a lot of the structure of the garden, particularly the walls and hedges which divide the garden into separate areas. This was a popular design style at the time the garden was being created and allows the garden to have a number of separately themed areas. These allow them to show off different types of garden and plants but Bobbie James was unable to draw the surrounding countryside into the garden layout.

St. Nicholas has a long history and a place in the history of plants and gardens but needs a lot more work before it’s ready to be open to the public. The potential is clearly there and with time and money it could be a great garden, but it’s future is unclear as it was placed on the market again in May 2017.

How to fix trellis to a wall

Fixing trellis onto a wall.
Fixing trellis onto a wall.

Trellis is a very effective way of training climbers against a wall and can either be bought or made from scratch. Fixing it to the wall though can present problems but with a little care result can be both durable and effective.


  • Drill driver
  • Heavy duty SDS masonry drill and bit
  • Plastic wall plugs
  • Wood-screws
  • Spirit level
  • Claw hammer


  1. Choose a wood-screw about 50 mm thicker than the trellis, more if the wall is rendered, and some plastic wall plugs recommended for the size of the wood-screws.
  2. Fit the masonry drill with a bit the recommended size for the wall plugs, you may want to hire a drill in (a 4 Kg drill which takes SDS drill bits will be sufficiently large).
  3. Position the trellis where you plan to have it and drill through the trellis into the wall. Chose a place half way across the trellis and near the top. Always aim for the centre of a brick or stone, avoid mortar joints.
  4. Move the trellis and tap a wall plug into the drilled hole. Put the trellis back and thread a wood-screw through the hole you drilled in the trellis and into the wall plug. Tap the screw head to start it off and drive it almost home with the drill driver. Check the trellis is level and vertical, the first screw will support it, and tighten the screw until it is flush with the trellis surface.
  5. Drill a second hole through the trellis vertically below the first and near the bottom; checking the trellis is still level and vertical. Push a plug into the hole, there is no need to move the trellis, and use a wood-screw and hammer to drive the plug into the wall until you feel the screw bite into the plug. Tighten the screw with the drill driver.
  6. Carry on repeating the process in part 5 above so that the trellis is screwed to the wall every 600 to 900 mm, checking the trellis is firmly attached to the wall.

Biddulph Grange

Biddulph Grange, looking over towards the china garden.
Biddulph Grange, looking over towards the china garden.

The gardens at Biddulph Grange were the creation of James Bateman (1811- 1897), though what you see today is the product of one of  the greatest garden restoration programmes undertaken. James Bateman moved into the property in 1840, two years after his marriage to Maria Egerton Warburton, and was in the fortunate position of starting with a blank canvas. On this site, he created what was at the time a truly original garden. He divided up his grounds into a series of separately themed gardens show casing a range of themes. The rear of the house faces roughly south of south-west and as nearly all of house has been divided up to flats and sold off the garden is entered via extreme west end of the house and into the Italianate garden. This starts a journey through a whole range of garden styles.

Biddulph Grange china garden detail.
Biddulph Grange china garden detail.

This was more though than just experimenting with styles; it was about Bateman’s vision of creation and man’s place in the order of things. Like many of his generation he was a creationist and passionately believed heaven and earth were the creation of God for Man. Though rightly a highly-regarded botanist he could never accept Darwin and Wallace’s theories of evolution which burst onto the world in 1859. The garden was originally entered through a corridor at the east end of the house and this was decorated to show Bateman’s vision of how the emerging knowledge of fossils could be blended with the account of creation in Genius.

His belief in God’s divine order is further reflected in this desire to place the new plant introductions he filled his garden in appropriate locations with a Himalayan garden for rhododendrons and Chinese garden for plants from the orient. This leads to a garden of individual areas or zones each with its own identity; at the time, a new original approach to garden design.

How to make trellis

All of the pieces of the trellis in place and showing some of the screws which hold it together.
All of the pieces of the trellis in place and showing some of the screws which hold it together.

Trellis can be purchased ready made from garden centres and DIY stores but it is in a limited range of sizes, you only have one spacing for the lathes and it is often quite light weight. A far better way is to make it yourself from pressure treated timber and you can chose any sizes and the spacing of the lathes. Closer together for more screening or to provide a wind break they can be spaced to give you the 50% optimal permeability.


  • 50 mm x 25 mm Tannalised softwood (tile lathe)
  • Wood saw
  • Battery drill/driver
  • 40mm x 3.5 mm countersunk woodscrews
  • Tape measure
  • Set square or combination square


  1. Decide on the overall height and width of the trellis panel.
  2. Enter the dimensions into the table below.
  3. Adjust the the spacing of the lathes to get the spacing you would like. For a wind break a trellis density of about 50% is idea.
  4. Cut the length shown at the bottom of the table.
  5. If you plan to stain the trellis do it now before you assemble it.
  6. First vertical pieces of the trellis.
    First vertical pieces of the trellis.

    Take two of the pieces which are to be the vertical parts of the trellis on a level surface the width of the trellis apart.

  7. First horizontal pieces added to the trellis.
    First horizontal pieces added to the trellis.

    Connect the ends with two of the horizontal, fixing them with width a wood screw.

  8. Trellis showing the first intermediate verticals being added.
    Trellis showing the first intermediate verticals being added.
    Trellis with all the vertical pieces in place.
    Trellis with all the vertical pieces in place.

    Arrange the remaining vertical pieces under the horizontal pieces attached in part 7 above.

  9. The spacer piece used to set the gap between the pieces of wood.
    The spacer piece used to set the gap between the pieces of wood.

    Cut a piece of wood the length of the distance between the vertical pieces and use it to space them. Adjust if necessary and secure to the top and bottom pieces by screwing through them into the ends of the vertical pieces.

  10. The trellis showing the first horizontal pieces in place with screws.
    The trellis showing the first horizontal pieces in place with screws.
    All of the pieces of the trellis in place and showing some of the screws which hold it together.
    All of the pieces of the trellis in place and showing some of the screws which hold it together.

    Arrange the horizontal pieces between the top and bottom pieces, spacing them with a piece of wood as in part 8 above and secure them at ever intersection.

The different parts of the trellis which relate to the form for working out the spacing and quantities.
The different parts of the trellis which relate to the form for working out the spacing and quantities.

Vertical Lathe Spacing

Overall width of the trellis (a): mm

Width of vertical lathes (b): mm

Number of vertical lathes (c):

Gap between the vertical lathe (d):

Horizontal Lathe Spacing

Overall Height of the trellis (e): mm

Width of horizontal lathes (f): mm

Number of horizontal lathes (g):

Gap between the horizontal lathe (h):

Trellis density:
% (The higher the density the less you will see though the trellis.)

Cutting list:

  • vertical lathes
    mm long
  • horizontal lathes
    mm long


How to make compost

Plastic compost bin
Plastic compost bin

All gardens produce some waste be it weeds, grass cuttings or dead flower heads and virtually all have soil which benefits from some additional organic matter. The local authority will take it away, often for a charge, or you can recycle your garden waste as compost and reduce the amount you have to buy. The problem is there is a little more to it than just making a heap of garden rubbish and hoping for the best. People complain that that they end up with a foul smelling mound and this is always the result of believing that just heaping up all the grass cutting will make compost. It doesn’t! To be a success a compost heap needs a varied diet.

The way to start is to create an area for the compost and decide how you are to contain it. The easiest way in a small garden is to buy one of the plastic compost bins, they come in various sizes and can be place in a discreet corner out of sight. They need no base to sit on, if anything they are better placed straight on to the bare earth. Larger gardens may need something a little more ambitious but here it need not be very fancy. Some cheap fence post with strong netting stapled to them will do, the kind sold for pig netting should do. Now the important part filling it.

Home made compost bin
Home made compost bin

A lot of research has been done on composting and it has been found that a successful compost heap starts with 30 times as much carbon in it as nitrogen but a lot of things you want to compost do not have that golden mix of carbon and nitrogen. Some things like grass cuttings have a lot more nitrogen than this and some like cardboard have a lot less. Now in addition 3 more things are important the temperature, the amount of water and the amount of air.

In the UK the outside temperature is going to be beyond your control and in practice is of little importance. How moist the heap is also usually not an issue unless you add a lot of dry material or we have a long dry spell. In practice as long as the heap is moist, not sodden, you should be alright.

This only leaves the carbon to nitrogen ratio. In practice though this can be simplified by dividing material into high nitrogen, generally green, waste and low nitrogen, generally brown, waste and mixing them in the ratio of 2 green waste to 1 brown waste.

Green waste is things such as grass cuttings, weeds, plant clippings, manures and vegetable scraps.

Brown waste tends to be leaves, hay and straw, sawdust, wood chippings, shredded paper, old compost.


Some brown waste, such as dry leaves, can be very bulky so try to imagine them pressed tight together when gauging how much your adding.

Try to mix the different materials to stop dense layers forming, grass cuttings are particularly bad for this. If you have a lot  of grass cuttings you may be better taking it to the council recycling centre and letting them compost it.

Don’t get too hung up on the proportions; the natural course is for things to breakdown, you’re just encouraging things along. Just make sure the heap gets a varied diet.

If the heap starts to look dense and slimy with a smell you need to mix in some brown waste like shredded paper, compost heaps shouldn’t smell!

If the heap looks dead and dry it needs some green waste, compost heaps hardly ever need to have water added to them.

How to choose paving materials for your garden

Block paving detail at Blois France
Block paving detail at Blois France

With the vast range of possible paving materials, it can feel a bit daunting when you first start looking at paving materials. To try to reduce the selection down to a more manageable size, it is well to consider the practicalities imposed on you by what you are planning to use the paving for. You can then check how much of each type you are hoping to use, compare the costs of using different materials and if need adjust your plans.

Though there is considerable overlap; the uses for paving in a garden can be divided into four main categories: drives, patios, paths and utility areas.


When choosing a material for a drive the first consideration must be what will
happily withstand having a car regularly driven over it and parked on it. The second consideration, is that for many people it will be the first thing visitors see of their home though quiet a lot of the time most of it may be hidden under a car. How suitable a paving material for a drive will also be effected by how it is laid. No material if the base under it is too soft will support a car but materials like domestic 35mm paving flags, which would not normally support a car, may if laid onto concrete. Once you have eliminated the impractical options the choice comes down to cost and personal preference. Please note if you paving an area of your front garden planning permission may be needed.


Flags and cobble path at Robin Hoods Bay
Flags and cobble path at Robin Hoods Bay

Whereas a drive is something you park a car on, a patio can be a major feature of a garden and so your budget should try to reflect that. The important thing is that it forms an attractive feature and not a slab of paving. So break up the area by mixing different sizes of flags and/or using a mix of materials. You often see paving broken up with planting pockets; this is rarely successful with the plants getting stood on and heels and chair legs dropping down the planting pockets.


The idea of a garden path is as old as the garden itself, but a path has to have a purpose. And that will influence the materials used. If the path for instance, is going to be in a vegetable garden, where you are stepping on and off the path onto the bare soil you are going to have problems if you use gravel. Every time to step from one to the other soil and gravel will be transferred from one to the other; ending up with a muddy path you can’t clean. On the other hand, an informal path winding along the edge a border it is going to be difficult to achieve with square and rectangular flags and runs the risk of looking messy if its full of cut bits of flags.

Utility areas

Most gardens have some area dedicated to the necessary but unattractive bits of a garden where things such as the shed live. Here the importance has to be the functionality of the material. Something that is cheap, durable and easy to clean. A smooth flag is a lot easier to sweep clean than a riven one and a plain concrete slab, though unattractive, leaves few gaps for weeds to grow through.

Paving materials

Brick path detail
Brick path detail

The trick when designing your paving is to make it blend into the surrounds while adding to them. To do this you are free to use every trick in the book. You can use materials which contrast with their surrounding or complement them but care should be taken when trying to match materials as a bad match will be the worst scenario. Nor should you restrict yourself to just one material as mixing in an additional material is a very good way to break up areas of paving and differentiation between different areas. Just don’t overdo it!

Below I’ve put together a table of most of the paving/drive materials currently available, the list though is not exhaustive. The cost column is really only to give a very broad indication of the relative expense involved in using different ones The exact cost would depend on many factors including site conditions and how much if any of the work was undertaken on a DIY basis.

Paving Materials 

Bark Low Low cost
Water permeable
Can look very effective in informal areas
Tends to spread about
Needs edging
Gravel Low Low cost
Comes in a very wide variety of colours and shapes
Water permeable
Tends to move about
Needs edging
If too soft it will quickly disintegrate
Only suitable for level areas
Plain concrete flags Low to medium Low cost
Readily available
Provides a smooth surface
Does not need pointing
Good under sheds and for utility areas
Visually unattractive

Very heavy

Coloured concrete flags Low to medium Low Cost
Readily available
Provides a smooth surface
Do not need pointing
Visually unattractive
Very heavy
Colours fade – particularly reds
Budget riven flags Low to medium Low cost
More attractive than plain flags
Do not need pointing
Not as attractive as the more expense flags
Limited range of colours and sizes
Poor finish
Limited range of patterns
Premium riven flags Medium Very wide range to choose from
Large range of flags shapes and sizes
Can be as expensive as imported flags
Care needed to ensure they are laid with the correct fall
Limited life
Imported stone flags Medium Almost limitless life
Very hard wearing
Cost is equivalent to/or less than premium man-made flags
Needs a diamond blade to cut them
Brittle so hard to work
Block paving Medium to high Very wide range of colours and patterns
Very hard wearing
Small size makes them very flexible
Must be securely edged
Red ones fade
Large areas can look like a car park even if it’s not
Cannot be cleaned by pressure washing
The surface must be 600mm above the water table
Stone setts High Hard to very hard wearing
Small size makes them very flexible
Difficult to lay
Need a very solid base
Need to be pointed
New sandstone flags High Almost limitless life
Natural product
Very attractive
Requires skill to be laid well
Reclaimed sandstone flags Very high Almost limitless life
Laid well are very attractive
Particularly prone to becoming slippery
Very heavy
Very expensive
Require skill to lay them well
Mosaics High to very high Can look very attractive
Requires a lot of skill
Sandstone crazy paving Medium Flexible
A cost effective alternative to sandstone flags
Needs skill to lay it well
Can be hard to source
Tarmac High Makes an excellent hard-wearing surface
Comes in a range of colours
Requires specialist skills to lay
Only practical if sufficiently large area
Must have a secure edging
Limited range of colours
Not very attractive
Cobble paving High Can look very good in the correct setting Hard to source good worn cobbles
Very uneven surface
Prone to being slippery
Requires a lot of skill to lay it well
Decking Medium Can be laid in a range of patterns
Comes in a range of finishes
Very good for levelling sloping sites
Prone to being slippery
Limited life
Requires more maintenance
Needs to be lifted off the ground
Any decking surface over 300mm above the ground level requires permission from your local authority
Concrete slab Medium Smooth
Can be textured
Laid well it is very durable
Capable of supporting heavy loads
Very good for utility areas
Requires skill to lay
Large areas require good access
Difficult to make good if it is damaged
Large areas will crack if movement joints are built in
Pattern impressed concrete Medium Visually much better than plain concrete
Can be laid in a range of patterns and colours
It is only a surface treatment so prone to surface damage
Very difficult to make good if damaged
The colour will wear away where car wheels repeatedly run over it
Large areas will crack if movement joints are built in
Brick High Small units allow flexible designs
Small their small sizes make them good for small areas
Bricks must be carefully chosen because of the risk of frost damage
Skill required to lay
Reinforced grass Medium Provides a visually “soft” appearance
Water permeable
Only really suitable for car parking or intensely used footpaths