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.

Drives

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.

Patios

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.

Paths

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 

MATERIAL COST ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES
Bark Low Low cost
Flexible
Soft
Water permeable
Can look very effective in informal areas
Tends to spread about
Needs edging
Gravel Low Low cost
Flexible
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
Expensive
Need to be pointed
New sandstone flags High Almost limitless life
Natural product
Very attractive
Heavy
Expensive
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
Unusual
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
Smooth
Flexible
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
Flexible
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

How to take over an established garden

Over grown garden near Scotch Corner
Over grown garden near Scotch Corner

Most people when they buy a new house find they are taking over an existing garden and this will present certain challenges; you have, after all, bought their house not their tastes. It is therefore inevitable not everything in the garden you are going to like and/or want. It is reasonable to assume on first moving in that the garden will not be your most pressing concern, so we need to start by prioritising. The first thing to consider is what is the time of year, mid-winter little is happening in the garden but in the height of summer any lawn will be growing fast so you are going to need to cut it once a week and if there is a pond it needs to be kept topped up and any filter maintained. The rest of the garden should survive all right with the exception of any plants in a greenhouse. If its summer and you’re pushed for time the easiest thing to do is to take them out of the greenhouse, up them with any other plants in pots and keep them watered.

The next stage is to have a really good look around your new garden; you should have plenty of opportunities to do this while escaping the paint fumes. What do you like, dislike or simply don’t understand. Look where gets the sun and when, are you over looked and to what extent; most gardens will be overlooked by some bedroom windows but in practice people spend little time looking out of their bedroom windows – so they are not as much of a problem as a kitchen or sitting room window. While you’re at it consider which plants you like and how much space large plants are occupying, but don’t be too quick to condemn; that large bush could be there to hide an eyesore.

One of the problems with plants is that you are not really aware of them growing; they kind of do it sneakily behind you back, so you just don’t notice how big they are getting. This is where the new home owner’s fresh pair of eyes comes as a big advantage. Have a good dig, metaphorically speaking, in the back of borders; you could be surprised what you find. If nothing else, you may well find a lot of underused space. While you’re at it take a good look at the trees in the garden because if these need attention now is the time to do it.

Are the trees appropriate for the garden? Are they going to, or have they got, too big for the garden? If you have large mature trees in the garden do they need a professional to look them over to check they are safe? If the trees need any major work it will both create a lot of upheaval and dramatically change the garden so it’s best to get it done as soon as is practical. Beware there are many very good professional arboriculturist (tree surgeons) but sadly there are also a lot of butchers out there. So check they have a proper formal training, carry appropriate insurance, get more than one written quotation and remember if a price sounds too cheap, and tree work isn’t, be suspicious! One common tree problem is people buy Christmas trees with the roots on and then come the New Year can’t bring them to throw away a living tree they’ve spent the holidays keeping alive. Then comes the problem of what to do with it, so it gets planted in a corner of the garden. This all sounds nice and remarkably quite a few of these Christmas leftovers survive, looking quite nice tucked in the border. The problem is the type of trees sold as Christmas trees are the type that grow quickly into big trees, which makes sense if you’re trying to produce trees that are sellable at the best price. You can probably see where this is going, they sit quietly at the back of the border growing! These are not a good choice for a domestic garden. People get attached to trees. So you soon end up with what is in effect a large and growing arboreal pet in the garden. I’m afraid the only realistic solution is to remove it before it gets any more of a problem, or more expensive to remove.

Having got a rough idea of what you’ve inherited sit down with a pencil and plenty of paper, draw on the boundaries and the house, and anything you want to keep. Don’t worry about being too accurate, just get your thoughts down on and try different ideas out. There may well be a number of things you decide you would like to keep, some of them it may turn out are not practical to keep, and others you just don’t like. Don’t be afraid to change your mind; paper’s cheap, so try out different ideas.

While trying out ideas a few things to consider are:

  • Do you need space for parking?
  • What storage are you going to need?
  • Do you want to grow fruit or vegetables?
    • They need space and a sunny position.
    • They take time.
  • Are you going to sit out?
    • Ideally a patio should be a minimum of 5 metres by 4 metres if you are going to put a table and chairs on it.
    • It needs a sunny position.
    • If not near the house it needs good access between the two.
  • People rarely allow sufficient depth for borders – if space is limited wall shrubs and climbers may be a better option.
  • Many large shrubs will come away if cut hard back.
  • Have you the space and time for lawn?
  • Do you want a greenhouse?

 

Start with the things you feel are most important and place them, letting the other things fall in around them. You will undoubtedly have to compromise so it’s better to do so about the less important things.

Don’ be afraid to play about with ideas and take your time to decide what you want to keep, what has to go and what just need cutting back. Once you feel happy with your ideas be bold and start taking out what you don’t want. Once you start you will most likely make new discoveries and your plans will have to be adapted, but you will end up with YOUR garden.

How to make a garden hedge

Hedging at Les Jardin du Manoir d'Eyrignac
Hedging at Les Jardin du Manoir d’Eyrignac

Hedges have been an integral part of gardens since the earliest times and encompass a vast range of ideas. Their main purpose though is to divide up space; be it marking the boundaries of a garden or dividing up the area within them. Many people shy away from hedges on the grounds that they take too much work to maintain or will take to long to establish. While it is true a formal hedge needs cutting at least once a year and you have to allow time for the plants to grow nothing provides the same sense of structure to a garden, just look at Hidcote Manor!

Choosing a hedge plant

When deciding on a hedge it has to be remembered that you are going to need a lot of the same plant and its going to be there for a long time. Cost and availability are clearly going to be important, particularly if a long hedge is planned. It also has to be suitable to its location: is the soil limy, shallow, free draining, water-logged? Also is the site exposed or sheltered, in open sun or shade? A good hedging plant needs to be hardy and suited to its location, the last thing you want is to lose chunks of you hedge the first hard winter, but also has to be amenable to being treated as a hedge. Most hedges are keep clipped and a good hedging plant needs to be a mass of dense smart leaves; as an open habit will never look good. The size of the leaves also matters as large leaves that look tatty when cut with shears; meaning they are best suited to informal hedges and screens, unless you have he time and patience to trim them carefully with secateurs.

Mixed hedges

Hedging at Chateau de Losse
Hedging at Chateau de Losse

Nobody said a hedge has to be only one type of plant, in fact most hedges usually end up with some lodgers in them over time. The red flowered climber Tropaeolum speciosum is often seen scrambling through yew hedges to great effect and wild clematis and ivy are seen doing the same thing in field hedges. So long as the hedge is sufficiently established and the climber not too vigorous a great range of combinations will add to a hedge. But you do not need to restrict yourself to mixing in climbers; the plain green of a hedge can be broken up but the inclusion of variegated plants in the mix. Care has to be taken to ensure one doesn’t swamp the other but say a plain green hedge with variegated buttress can lift an otherwise ordinary hedge. Mixed hedges are also sometimes used to recreate a more natural hedge for wildlife. For example 75% Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), 10% Field Maple (Viburnum opulus), 5% Beech (Fagus sylvatica), 5% Field Maple (Acer campestre) and 5% Holly (Ilex aquifolium) spaced 300mm apart, or 500mm apart in a pair of staggered double row 400mm apart, will produce a pleasing effect. Better still have a good look at the near by hedges and copy those, being careful not to be tempted by elder (Sambucus racemosa) as it’s short lived and tends to swap its neighbours and you will probably end up with self seeding themselves anyway!

Formal or Informal

Does a hedge have to be cut? The traditional image is of carefully trimmed walls of green, but where a more gentle appearance is called for a natural unkempt look can be more fitting. In a larger garden a screen of bushes can serve to define areas. For example a wild flower area could be separated from the remainder of the garden by an uncut screen of hawthorn and if needs be the side facing a more formal area could be keep cut. Even smaller gardens could benefit from an edging of lavender left to grow over the edge of a path to soften it.

Wildlife and hedges

There is no doubt that wildlife benefits from gardens, it is a two way street, and shrubs provide valuable cover and nesting sites so a hedge will benefit the wildlife in the garden which in turn adds to the garden. To this end any hedge cutting must be avoided if it could disturbed nesting birds, which in the UK, at least, is a criminal offence. In the UK the RSPB recommend that hedge are not cut from early March until the end of August for this reason, but these are guidelines and some years bird nesting could extend beyond this time frame.

Establishing hedges

A hedge is a long term investment in a garden so prior to planting the area needs to be well prepared. The ground needs to be clear of any perennial weeds which will be very difficult to eradicate once the hedge is growing. Any drainage problems have to be sorted out and with plants which will not tolerate water-logging, like Yew, it is prudent to install effective land-drains in all but the most free draining soils. As hedges are made up of closely packed large shrubs they tend to be greedy neighbours as their roots spread out looking for food and moisture and in some instances setting a barrier between them and any adjoining planting may be a sound investment, corrugated sheeting, builders damp proof membrane or cheap pond liner would suffice.

Maintaining a hedge

Topiary at Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac
Topiary at Les Jardins Suspendus de Marqueyssac

Hedge cutting became much easier once the powered hedge cutter became widely available but still most hedges will need cutting at least once a year; so it is best to plan ahead to make the task as easy as possible. First off make sure you not only leave room for the hedge to grow when you first plant it, but leave plenty of room to get in to cut it. Most plants will only create leaves where there is sun so cutting the hedge so it slopes slightly in toward the top will help get light all the way down to the base, this is less of an issue with plants like Yew which seem un-bothered by shade but most will tend to develop an unsightly sparse bottom! While on the topic of hedge cutting you should consider how high you actually need your hedge, yes a 6 metre high hedge will no doubt afford you great privacy but is also going to create an awful lot of shade, and in the UK you are also in danger of falling fowl of the high hedges act! This aside you have to consider the practicalities of cutting the monster, a 1.8 metre high hedge will still block the line of sight but the top can still be cut from the ground or a small step. Steps always present plenty of opportunity for accidents without powered hedge cutter being thrown into the equation.

Clearing up after the cutting is also a time consuming exercise and specially so if the clipping land in a herbaceous border, so throw a dust sheet over the plants and the sheet can then be gathered up with the clippings contained. Once you’ve cleared up remember you removed a lot of nutrients with all your cutting and so the hedge will benefit with a feed of a slow acting fertiliser in spring.

Hedge Plant Selector

Plant Common Name Formal Hedges Informal Hedges Evergreen Shade Foliage Colour Flower Colour Single Row Spacing Double Row Spacing Comments
Acer campestre Field maple Yes No Green Pale green 450 A native plant that makes a good hedge, though more commonly used mixed with other plants. Very tolerant of soil and aspect it turns a very attractive pale gold in autumn.
Berberis darwinii Darwin’s barberry Yes Yes Yes Partial Green Orange 600 Makes a good impenetrable evergreen hedge 0.9m to 1.2m high. If left unclipped you get yellow spring flowers and blue berries in autumn. If clipped do so after flowering.
Buxus sempervirens Box Yes Yes Yes Green 450 to 600 The classic for dwarf compact hedges for edging and dividing up areas. The more vigorous forms will make 3.6 to 4.5 m high if wanted. The plant seems to attract snails!
Carpinus betulus Hornbeam Yes Partial Green 450 Like beech but more tolerant of heavy soils. A native plant it makes an excellent hedge in exposed locations.
Chamaecyparis lawsoniana Lawson’s cypress Yes Yes Green 450 to 600 Makes a good densse hedge but likes adequate moisture and good drainage. C. ‘Fletcheri’ makes a good dense hedge and being slower growing than the type takes longer to form a hedge but is less demanding of clipping there after.
Corylus avellana Hazel. Hazelnut Yes Partial Green 600 A native plant that is very tolerant of soil and aspect. Makes a good hedge on its own or mixed with other natives.
Crataegus monogyna Hawthorn, May Yes Partial Green White 300 The native Hawthorn is the commonest hedging plant in England forming many miles of hedgerow. It is very tolerant of dry and wet soils of all types in any situation. It makes a tough impenetrable hedge, often mixed with other native species. Very tolerant of being cut hard back.
X Cupressocyparis leylandii Leyland cypress Yes Yes Green 600 900 with 450 between the rows The rapid growth of this plant has lead to its over use and abuse by people looking for fast hedge. If keep regularly trimmed it make a good dense hedge but if left to grow it soon becomes a problem. Like most conifers it will not grow back from old wood and has a reputation for being poorly rooted.
Escallonia cultivars Yes Yes Yes Partial Green White through pink to red 450 As a formal hedge its smallish leaves repond well to clipping to form a neat hedge. As an infromal one it makes very attractive one and which will form hedges in a range of sizes depending which of the many cultivars are grown. Trim after flowering if necessary.
Fagus sylvatica Common Beech Yes Partial Green 450 This ever popular hedging plant is a hardy evergreen, happy in any soil but heavy waterlogged ones. When cut as a hedge it retains it leaves until they are replaced by the new leaves in spring. If grown as a pleached hedge you get the smooth silver trunks.
Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea Group Copper Beech, Purple Beech Yes Partial Dark purple 450 As the plain green form but with dark purple leaves in summer.
Hedera helix Ivy Yes Yes Yes Green Green 450 Though not an obvious choice Ivy can make a very good hedge; it is easy to grow being happy in any reasonable garden soil, hardy and very tolerant of shade. To start it off some form of cheap fence is need for it to grow up, chestnut palling or cheap trellis will suffice, and once it gets going it can be clipped with shears once or twice a year. The fence will rot with time but by them the plants should be self-supporting. A vast range of cultivars are available to chose from.
Ilex x altaclerensis ‘Golden King’ Yes Yes Yes Yes Variegated green and gold 450 Makes an attrctive verigated hedge like the native holly and has it strengths and weaknesses but is if anything a little slower growing.
Ilex aquifolium Common Holly Yes Yes Yes Yes Green 450 A popular and native which makes a good intruder resistant hedge. It doesn’t transplant very well so it is normally sold in pots and its relative slow growth makes it expensive. It will make a hedge any where from 1.5 to 6.0 m high. It has two draw backs, apart from possibly its slow growth, its very sharp dead leaves it scatters across neighbouring borders and its attractiveness to rabbits which love its green bark.
Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’ Lavender Yes Yes Yes Grey Violet 300 This aromatic herb has long been used to create low hedges and will grow on most soils, though it prefers a free draining one, where it gets plenty of sunlight. It never makes a very dense hedge and resents being cut back into dead wood. Probably at its best when allowed to grow as an informal border edging and just clipped over once the flowers fade to keep it tidy.
Ligustrum ‘Aureum’ Golden Privet Yes Yes Partial Variegated green and gold White 300 400 to 450 with 200 between rows The gold verigated form of privet makes a good bright hedge. Semi-evergreen, only lossing its leaves in the coldest areas, it is tolerant of most soils and aspects. It will come back from being quiet hard pruned and will make a hedge anywhere from 1.2 to 1.8 m high. Buy plants 300 to 600 mm high and cut them back to 225 to 300 mm on planting
Ligustrum ovalifolium Common Privet Yes Yes Yes Variegated green and gold White 300 400 to 450 with 200 between rows Once a byword for suburbia privet has fallen out of fashion these days but is still makes a good hedge. Semi-evergreen, only lossing its leaves in the coldest areas, it is tolerant of most soils and aspects. It will come back from being quiet hard pruned and will make a hedge anywhere from 0.6 to 3.0 m high. Buy plants 300 to 600 mm high and cut them back to 225 to 300 mm on planting
Lonicera “Baggesen’s Gold” Yes Yes Gold 300 A gold form of Lonicers nitida. It can be used with the plain green form to create some interesting effects.
Lonicera nitida Yes Yes Yes Green 300 A very popular fast evergreen plant which can make a very dense hedge 1.2 to 1.35 m high. Its fast growth does means it needs regularly clipping, up to four times a year, but it is very tolerant of being cut hard back. It’s not terribly hardy and can damaged by cold winters so it is best where there is some shelter.
Photinia ‘Red Robin’ Yes Yes Partial Green with red shoots White 450 to 600 This evergreen New Zeland shrubs has started to become popular for hedging and makes a good hedge from 900 upto 1500 mm high. It is adaptable happy in most soils and situations it is best cut back once the red foliage starts to turn bronze, so getting the bright red shoots in spring.
Prunus lusitanica Portuguese laurel Yes Yes Yes Partial Green White 450 to 600 Can make a neat and close evergreen hedge with glossy dark green leaves. Its relatively large leaves mean it is best trimmed with secateurs though shears cut ones can still look very smart if you lack the time and/or patience.
Rosmarinus officinalis Rosemary Yes Yes Yes Grey green Blue 300 to 380 Its open habit make it better as an informal hedge but makes a sented hedge up to about 900mm. Though tolerant of most soils it does best in a warm sandy soil and can bea bit tender. Avoid cutting into old wood and ide3ally plant in spring.
Taxus baccata Yew Yes Yes Yes Green 450 to 600 The classic dense evergreen hedge and probably the best. Oftern over looked on the grounds of its much exaggerated slow growth it is reconed a Yew hedge can out last a brick wall. They tolerate most soils and situations including heavy shade and will make a hedge in 10 years if clipped regularly to encourage dense growth. A native plant is is very toxic to both humans and other animals. Its achilles heels is it will not tolerate waterlogging and so when planting it drainage should be installed in all but the most free draining soils.
Taxus baccata Aurea Group Golden Yew Yes Yes Yes Variegated green and gold 450 to 600 A gold variegated form of the classic hedge material. They tolerate most soils and situations including heavy shade and will make a hedge in 10 years if clipped regularly to encourage dense growth. A native plant is is very toxic to both humans and other animals. Its achilles heels is it will not tolerate waterlogging and so when planting it drainage should be installed in all but the most free draining soils.
Viburnum tinus Yes Yes Yes Yes Green White 600 Makes a good hardy evergreen hedge, V. ‘Eve Price’ is a particularly good dense form. Grows well on both chalk and non-chalk soils and tolerates both shade and maritime exposure.

 

Note: All measurements are in mm

Spacings are for guidance only, wider spacing will use fewer plants but will take longer establish. Normally use 450 mm to 600 mm tall plants, larger plants can be spaced further apart.

All the plants in this list will tolerate lime and grow in any reasonable garden soil.

How to build a free-standing timber pergola

Garden Pergola.
Garden Pergola.

Equipment:

  • 100 mm by 100 mm notched posts (4 inches by 4 inches)
  • 150 mm by 50 mm sawn and preservative treated timber (6 inches by 2 inches)
  • 100 mm by 50 mm sawn and preservative treated timber (4 inches by 2 inches)
  • String lines
  • Timber pegs or steel pins
  • 10 mm dowel or M10 coach bolts
  • A pair of sawhorses or similar to rest the post on
  • Handsaw
  • Carpenter’s or combination square
  • Pencil
  • Tape measure
  • Drill
  • Large wood bit (about 20 mm or ¾ inches)
  • Sharp wood chisel and a hammer
  • Concrete or post mix
  • Tile lathe or scrap timber for bracing
  • Large square
  • Spade
  • Assorted nails
  • Spirit level

Summary:

  1. Check the site is level.
  2. Set up a parallel pair of lines the width of the pergola apart.
  3. Set up a line at 90° to these to mark the start of the pergola.
  4. Dig a pair of post holes where the lines cross.
  5. Prepare the post with a notch to take the top.
  6. Place the post in the first hole so that it is vertical and is next to the lines where they cross.
  7. Brace the post in place.
  8. Repeat steps 5 to 7 for the second post.
  9. Measure along the parallel lines to the place for the second pair of posts.
  10. Dig the post holes and repeat steps 5 to 8.
  11. Cut the first 2 horizontal beams to length and put them in the post notches.
  12. Secure the horizontals with 2 dowels or coach bolts through the posts.
  13. Fix the rafters above each pair of posts
  14. Re-check!
  15. Concrete the posts in place.
  16. Prepare your next pair of horizontals.
  17. Use them to check the place for the next pair of post holes and dig them.
  18. Set up the posts and horizontals and connect them with a rafter.
  19. Check the horizontals and rafters are level and the posts vertical.
  20. Concrete the posts in place.
  21. Repeat for the length of the pergola.
  22. Once you reach the end go back and put any intermediate posts and rafters in and check all the fixings are secure.

 

  1. Check the site is level.

It is very easy to be fooled into thinking an area is level when you look at it, but once you start building the pergola if the ground slopes you will soon find out and you can quickly find yourself in trouble. Carefully check using a level of some sort, a spirit level and a straight bit of wood will do, and then you can make allowance in your design. If needs be you can incorporate a step or steps into the top of the pergola. The important thing is to make sure that any part of the pergola you are going to walk over has sufficient head room. As a rule, you need 7.1 metres the surface you are walking on and the bottom of whatever you are walking under. Less and you will be fighting the urge to duck as you walk. Also work out how you are going to space out the post, sawn timber comes standard lengths and careful planning at this stage can prevent a lot of wastage.

  1. Set up a parallel pair of lines the width of the pergola apart.
The lines set out to mark the inside edge of the pergola posts.
The lines set out to mark the inside edge of the pergola posts.

Decide how wide you what the inside of the pergola to be, remember if you are going to grow plants up the sides they are quickly going to encroach into the space inside the pergola. Also consider how wide it needs to be to feel comfortable as you walk down inside. Once you are happy with the width, set out two lines that mark the inside edges of the pergola and walk down it to check the width works and that the position is what you want.

  1. Set up a line at 90° to these to mark the start of the pergola.
The cross line marking the outer edge of the first two posts and so the start of the pergola.
The cross line marking the outer edge of the first two posts and so the start of the pergola.

Chose where you are going to start the pergola and set up a line across the first two lines. Check this is at 90° to the first two with a large square and double check the first two lines are parallel.

  1. Dig a pair of post holes where the lines cross.
The holes dug for the first two pergola posts.
The holes dug for the first two pergola posts.

The two points the lines cross mark the inside corner of the first two posts. Dig holes for each of the posts making sure the posts will sit next to the lines but not pushing them out of line. The holes need to be at least 600 mm deep but no wider than necessary. You will need to pull the lines a little to the side while you dig the holes otherwise you will end up snapping the line. Just make sure to check the lines are still taught once you’ve finish digging the holes.

  1. Prepare the post with a notch to take the top.

Prepare the first two posts by making notches in their tops as shown in the post “How to notch the top of a post to take a 150 mm horizontal beam” .

  1. Place the post in the first hole so that it is vertical and is next to the lines where they cross.
The first pergola post placed in situ.
The first pergola post placed in situ.

The post must be vertical and next to but not actually touching the two lines so that they do not push the line out of line. Make sure the notches on the top of the post line up along the length of the pergola to take the horizontals. Also the post needs to be set so the bottom of the notch is same height as you want the underside of the horizontals to be. To make this easier fix a piece of scrap wood across the post at the ground level to support it. This stage is probably the hardest but if you don’t get it dead right you will never get the pergola right. So take your time and draft in any extra help you can.

  1. Brace the post in place.
The first pergola post braced.
The first pergola post braced.

Once you are happy brace the post in place with so bits of scrap wood. Make sure the post can’t move when you start placing the concrete around it. Once you start concreting in the post in if it moves you are going to have to take everything apart and dig the concrete back out as you will not be able to push it back in line.

  1. Repeat steps 5 to 7 for the second post.
The second pergola post braced in place.
The second pergola post braced in place.

Set up the other one of the first pair of posts and keep checking all the time to make sure the posts are vertical in both directions, the correct height and the correct distance apart. The pergola’s success will depend on how well you do this part as the rest of it builds off these posts.

  1. Measure along the parallel lines to the place for the second pair of posts.

Take care to avoid confusing the internal gap between posts and the spacing between the centres of the posts. Make sure you are on the same side of the line as the first posts.

  1. Dig the post holes and repeat steps 5 to 8.
The second pair of post holes dug.
The second pair of post holes dug.

Now dig the post holes, being careful not to damage the lines, and repeat the steps from 5 to 8 inclusive.

The second pair of pergola posts braced in place.
The second pair of pergola posts braced in place.
  1. Cut the first 2 horizontal beams to length and put them in the post notches.
The first pair of horizontals in place.
The first pair of horizontals in place.

The length horizontal should be the distance between the centres of the posts, half the width of the post plus any overhang, say 300 to 400 mm.

  1. Secure the horizontals with 2 dowels or coach bolts through the posts.

Place the horizontals in the notches so the ends are at the centre of the second pair of posts and secure them with two 10 mm bolts or dowels. Secure the horizontals to the first posts with another pair of bolts/dowels.

  1. Fix the rafters above each pair of posts
Pergola with the first two rafters in place ready for the posts to be concreted in place.
Pergola with the first two rafters in place ready for the posts to be concreted in place.

Fix a rafter cross each pair of posts using a 150 mm nail or landscaping screw. If using a nail pre-drill a hole for the nail through the rafter. This helps to keep the nail straight and makes it easier to drive in. This braces the two rows of posts. Make sure the posts are perfectly vertical before fixing the rafters. Typically, the rafters will over hang the outside of the posts by 300 or 400 mm.

  1. Re-check!

Go back and check everything that should be vertical is and anything that should be horizontal is. If it isn’t; do something about it! If you start with everything plumb and square is straight forward to keep it right, if you start out wrong you will NEVER get it right. Small errors can be corrected by adjusting the horizontals and rafters but if all else fails you may have to take a post down and redo it. This may seem drastic, but the alternative is it looking a mess for years to come.

  1. Concrete the posts in place.
Pergola with the first four posts concreted in place.
Pergola with the first four posts concreted in place.

Once you’re absolutely sure that everything is correct, this is no time for near enough, concrete in the first four posts. Don’t just chuck the concrete in! 40 or 50 kg of wet concrete landing on the side of a post, regardless of how well the post is braced, will move the post out of line. Place it a shovel full at a time around the post, checking as you go, and packing it round the post with a piece scrap wood or similar. The concrete can be mixed in the conventional way or one of the bagged post mix can be used. The former is cheaper but you need to leave it over night to develop sufficient strength, the latter is a lot easier to use and quicker as the concrete will have developed sufficient strength in minutes.

  1. Prepare your next pair of horizontals.

You should be able to get a horizontal to span two pair of posts so the length should be twice the distance between centres two posts.

  1. Use them to check the place for the next pair of post holes and dig them.

You can now use these to measure out the position of the next posts and dig the holes for them.

  1. Set up the posts and horizontals and connect them with a rafter.

Assemble this pair of posts, horizontals and rafters which will help to make sure everything is correctly braced and spaced.

  1. Check the horizontals and rafters are level and the posts vertical.

Make sure everything is horizontal, vertical, square and correctly spaced. If you don’t keep everything right you will end up in trouble.

  1. Concrete the posts in place.

    Pergola with the next pair of posts and horizontals in place.
    Pergola with the next pair of posts and horizontals in place.

Once you’re happy everything is correct carefully concrete in these post like the ones before.

  1. Repeat for the length of the pergola.
The full length of the pergola.
The full length of the pergola.

Now you just keep repeating the steps 16 to 20 until you reach the end of the pergola. Just keep checking that you’re keeping everything horizontal, vertical, square and correctly spaced. It’s a good idea to keep going back and checking what you’ve already done and take you time, don’t rush it.

  1. Once you reach the end go back and put any intermediate posts and rafters in and check all the fixings are secure.
The pergola with all the posts in place.
The pergola with all the posts in place.

Once you’ve got the basic structure up you can go back and fill in any intermediate posts and rafters and check all the fixings are secure.

The pergola with all the wood work in place.
The pergola with all the wood work in place.

Wallington

Wallington
Wallington

Though there has been some form of building on this site from the middle ages what is visible today is the result of work from the 18th century up to the late 20th century as the property passed through a convoluted chain of inheritance. The structure of the garden dates from 1728 when Sir Walter Calverley Blackett inherited the house and estate. He developed it in the contemporary style which was evolving into what became known as the landscape movement.

The gardens themselves could not be called truly of the landscape style but elements of it are there. The grounds rely largely on grassland and woods with little decorative planting and contain a number of follies and other buildings including a Palladian style bridge but it lacks the bold sweeping statements that the style was to come to represent. The great proponent of that movement, ‘Capability’ Brown, was actually born very nearby but while he may well have been aware of the property there is no know proof that he had any direct involvement it its design.

The walled garden at Wallington.
The walled garden at Wallington.

Over this structure are Victorian influences that have shaped the garden as fashions changed, leaving a garden which has a largely woodland feel to it. If you walk east through the woods, you come to what was the kitchen garden. Originally this was to supply the house with food but on inheriting the property in 1886 Sir George Otto Trevelyan developed it into an ornamental garden which was strongly influenced by the then Arts and Crafts movement. The walled garden fell into disrepair, partly due to the wars, and so it was redesigned in the 1960’s and early 1970’s by Graham Stuart Thomas, working for the national trust, but still in the Arts and Craft style.

A seat in the walled garden at Wallington.
A seat in the walled garden at Wallington.

The walled garden is what today we would see as the most ornamental part of the garden but it does feel out of keeping with the remainder as it shares very little in terms of style with the remainder of the garden and is stuck on the very east edge of the garden, a good 500 metres from the house as the crow flies.

Cornus controversa

Cornus controversa 'Variegata'
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’

Best known in gardens in the form of Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ this plant has had a convoluted history. The species C. controversa Heml. was first “discovered” in cultivation. In January of 1909 an article was published in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine which discussed the naming of Cornus macrophylla and the authors noted that there appeared to be confusion regarding the name. Though introduced back in 1827 it was not widely grown but it was known to be a tall and bushy plant when observed in the wild and this varied little over it wide natural range.  William Botting Hemley who had retired as Keeper of the Herbarium and Library at Kew the year before had studied this and noted that the examples in cultivation were a mixture of two species: one with opposite leaves and the other alternate.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata' foliage
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ foliage

The simple fact was that the naming had got into a mess but when the original specimen that Wallich had named C. macrophylla was checked it had opposite leaves and the original description in Flora indica of 1820 described the leaves as “sub-opposite”. Next Meyer in 1845 had also described the plant in a Saint Petersburg publication but naming it C. brachypoda. All this resulted in America and continental Europe using Meyer’s name of C. brachypoda for the form of the plant with opposite leaves and C. macrophylla for the alternate leafed form while in Britain both forms were known as C. macrophylla. In an attempt to clear things up the German botanist Bernhard Koehne tried to split the species in the belief that the Himalayan form was a distinct species which he called C. corynostylis but got confused between the opposite and alternate leaf arrangements. To clear up this confusion William Hemley proposed that if the plant had its leaves arranged opposite one another on the branches it should be called C. macrophylla Wall. as has been Nathaniel Wallich’s intention and the alternate leafed form should be a separate species Cornus controversa Hemsl. meaning cornus controversial, a most appropriate name. And that is as it has remained; apart from an attempt to place several of the cornus species, this one included, in the genus Swida in the 1960’s.

Cornus controversa 'Variegata' foliage close up
Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ foliage close up

That would be the end of it with C. controversa Hemsl. providing us with a very garden worthy small tree with tiered branches and masses of cream flowers in May, but towards the end of the 19th century a variegated from was found and shortly before 1890 Veitch Nurseries introduced it as Cornus brachypoda ‘Variegata’. Now known as Cornus controversa ‘Variegata’ this is a plant which stands out to gardeners and non-gardeners alike. Smaller growing than the original but retaining the tier arrangement of branches, the leaves are longer and narrower and tend to be asymmetrical in shape with an irregular creamy-white margin. Known by the common name The Wedding Cake Tree its hardy in the UK and was awarded an AMG by the RHS in 1993.

Its size and shape means it is best suited to a larger garden where it has room to grow and show off its tiered habit and would look particularly effective in a large border with an under planting of spring bulbs. The flowers are followed by berries and on some soils attractive autumn foliage. The plant is often produced by grafting and so care should be taken to watch out for suckers from the more vigorous rootstock which need to be removed as soon as seen.

How to notch the top of a post to take a 150mm horizontal beam

Equipment:

  • 100mm by 100mm post (4 inches by 4 inches)
  • A pair of sawhorses or similar to rest the post on
  • Handsaw
  • Carpenter’s or combination square
  • Pencil
  • Tape measure
  • Drill
  • Large wood bit (about 20mm or ¾ inches)
  • Sharp wood chisel and a hammer

Summary:

  1. Place the post on a stable surface raised off the ground.
  2. Mark a line 150mm down from the end of the post on opposite sides.
  3. Find the centre of one of the marked sides and measure 25 mm out from this.
  4. Mark a line from this point between the end of the post end and the first line.
  5. Repeat 25 mm from the centre the other way.
  6. Complete this over the end of the post and down to the horizontal line at the opposite sides of the post.
  7. With the hand saw cut diagonally from the top corner down to the first line and the bottom of the post end.
  8. Turn the post over and complete the cuts down to the first lines.
  9. Mark a line half the diameter of the drill bit parallel to the first cut.
  10. Drill a row of over lapping holes along this line between the saw cuts.
  11. Complete the holes from the other side.
  12. Remove the waste wood to form a flat base.
  13. Cut the post to the desired length.

 

  1. Place the post on a stable surface raised off the ground.

Pergola-post_1To work safely and well you need the post on a stable and strong support at a comfortable height to work at. If you don’t have any sawhorses most DIY stores sell foldable ones. You may also find it helpful to clamp the post to the sawhorses to make it more stable.

  1. Mark a line 150 mm down from the end of the post on opposite sides.

Pergola-post_2If you are using a 150 mm by 50 mm horizontal beam the bottom of the beam is going to be 150 mm down from the top of the post, this distance can be adjusted for different sized beams. When marking the posts bear in mind you are using sawn timber and so it probably will not be perfectly square and you may have to adjust your lines accordingly.

  1. Find the centre of one of the marked sides and measure 25 mm out from this.

Though sold as 100 mm by 100 mm the posts will not be exactly this so measure carefully where the centre of the post is or you will end up with the notch off centre.

 

  1. Mark a line from this point between the end of the post end and the first line.

Pergola-post-top-markedThis is going to be one the side of the notch so the line joins the first line with the end of the post.

  1. Repeat 25 mm from the centre the other way.

This forms the other side of the notch.

  1. Complete this over the end of the post and down to the horizontal line at the opposite sides of the post.

This marks out the shape of the notch in the top of the post. Be very careful are the sides of the post and the top of the post will probably not be perfectly square.

  1. With the hand saw cut diagonally from the top corner down to the first line and the bottom of the post end.

Pergola-post-with-sawWhen you start to cut the post start on the inside edge of the line. The saw cut has a width, be it only a few millimetres so you what the outside edge of the cut to follow the line. Take your time and only cut as far as you can see otherwise you have no idea where the saw is going and if it’s following the correct line.

  1. Turn the post over and complete the cuts down to the first lines.

Once you have cut down the two line on one side turn the post over and complete the cuts down to the first mark you made in part 2 above. The cuts you made in part 7 above will guide the sawn blade on the underside you now cannot see.

  1. Mark a line half the diameter of the drill bit parallel to the first cut.

This line will give you a guide so that when you drill into the post you will not end up cutting below the bottom of the notch.

  1. Drill a row of over lapping holes along this line between the saw cuts.

Pergola-post_holes_startedMake sure your drill holes fit between the cut lines for the sides of the notch, you are aiming to cut through the piece of waste wood between the sides of the notch to remove it. Be very careful to keep the drill bit square to the post and only go about halfway through the post.

  1. Complete the holes from the other side.

Pergola-post_holes_completeTurn the post over and repeat the above two steps but this time drill though so that the hole on both side join up.

  1. Remove the waste wood to form a flat base.

Pergola-post_waste-_removedThe wood above the drill holes should come away easily with any splitting and the bottom of the notch can be tied up with a sharp chisel. Make sure the bottom of the notch does not rise up, if it’s a little low than the outer edges it will not be seen.Pergola-post_complete

  1. Cut the post to the desired length.

Finally check the height of the post, including the part in the ground and cut it to length. This is best done last as if the worst does happen and the notch goes wrong you should still be able to turn the post around and have a second attempt.

The Forbidden Corner

Forbidden_corner#1This started simply enough when two friends decided that it would be nice to have somewhere to sit and enjoy the view down Coverdale. That was in 1989 and they are still building! The Forbidden Corner was never conceived as a public garden or visitor centre, it was and largely still is a private folly that has had the role forced onto it. It may not seem a garden in the traditional sense but it actually encapsulates many garden features with centuries of traditions. The idea of a sheltered seat to admire a view from can be traced back to the pleasure gardens of the middle ages, follies also have a long and illustrious history with many fine examples still with us from the 18th century, the use of hidden water jets to wet and shock guests have long been popular, mazes and trompe l’oeil have long been used to surprise and confuse visitors, and the shear self-indulgence of creating such a thing for your own amusement is one of the defining features of what a garden is.

Forbidden_corner#3Though often seen as about growing plants a garden is much more than simply that and the Forbidden Corner does an excellent job of illustrating that. Gardens are about pleasure, their history can be traced back to the pleasure grounds, and it is often forgotten that a garden must give pleasure to its creator and hopefully also its visitors, so by providing further pleasure for its creator.

Forbidden_corner#4In this garden though the creator has reversed the roles of plants and structure so that now the plants largely serve as a supporting cast while the hard landscaping provides the entrainment. Personally the role of the plants has been pushed a little too far to the back but still experience does an excellent job of reinforcing the message that gardens should be fun.

Forbidden_corner#2

The Eden Project

Eden_projectThe best way I can describe this is a plant zoo, as it falls in to a category of its own. It’s not a garden, though it does in some ways actually resemble a Victorian Municipal garden, but nor is it a botanical or physic garden. What it is, is a plant centred visitor attraction with the goal of informing people about the plants of the world and their importance to humanity. To do this Tim Smit and his team throw a great deal of technology, and other peoples’ money, at a worked out clay pit transforming it into a design show piece.  In this he has been very successful and his aim of using technology to both benefit and raise awareness of the environment are to be praised. Problem is somehow I don’t think he is a gardener at heart.

The mass ranks of formal plant displays and elaborate greenhouses showing plants from foreign climates growing in near natural conditions chime with the Victorian parks at their most formal. Married with the ethos of a heart felt wish to inform and educate the public leaves you with the strong sense of deja vu. All of this is very noble and shows there is a great managerial talent behind the Eden Project but the love is of the environment not horticulture. For all the money and praise the project has received any benefit to the art of gardening has been only collateral.

Though the Eden Project has been a great success, not least as a visitor attraction, the success has been more of reclamation and public entertainment than pushing back the boundaries of horticultural excellence.  In this respect it more like the garden festivals of the 1980s and early 1990s. These did provide a vehicle for some much needed urban regeneration and I hope the Eden Project can provide a vehicle for an increased awareness of the importance plants pay I the lives of humans.

The Lost Garden of Heligan

Lost_Garden_of_HeliganThis garden has received great praise but I’m not really sure why. My first reaction on visiting it, and one I haven’t change was “they dug up the body but they haven’t brought it back to life”. I think the problem is Tim Smit is extremely good at visitor attractions, and for that he should be admired, the problem is he’s not a gardener at heart. By training he is an archaeologist and anthropologist and this comes through in his treatment of the garden. Heligan is about the social history of the garden and not the horticultural history; as a result, the plants seem to get pushed to the background.

Heligan was never a terribly important garden historically, in part due to its geographical location. It’s heyday was the Victorian era, as with many gardens, and the Tremayne family who owned it managed to secure some very garden worthy plants for it. Unfortunately, the first World War and the social and political upheavals that followed it made the estate uneconomic; as was the case with so many of the large country house estates. The garden was therefore abandoned and the house ultimately converted into flats and sold off.

When the gardens were rediscovered by Tim Smit and John Willis in 1990 the gardens had been derelict for decades and the house was now separated from the garden. This is one of the main problems with garden. The house had been the focus of the gardens and this connection was irrevocably broken leaving a collection of disjoined bits of garden with nothing to pull them together to form a whole. Originally the garden was there to set the house and support it both visually and nutritionally but now the house is there but separate the result is disjointed. Some garden can survive this; at Nymans the house remains as a burnt out shell but is still eternally woven into the design and at Studley Royal the scale and strength of the design can stand on its own. Sadly, Heligan can’t pull this off. Possibly with a more horticulturally centred management the garden could be better, it took the National Trust quite a while to get to grips with looking after the gardens in its care and Heligan, because of the problem with house, will always be difficult; until then it won’t come to life for me.