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.

Note:

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.

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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

Liz McNee, Mark McNee liked this post

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.

How to clean mortar stains off paving

This involves using a concentrated acid from a builder’s merchant and so all the manufacture’s safety advice must be carefully followed.

Equipment:

  • Brick acid
  • Hose pipe
  • Cheap plastic watering can with a rose
  • Stiff broom
  • Wellington boots
  • Safety equipment (read and follow the safety recommendations that come with the brick acid).

Summary:

 

  1. Check the paving is suitable and read the safety instructions carefully.
  2. Get all the equipment ready and put on the safety equipment.
  3. Wet the paving with a hose pipe.
  4. Pour the cleaner over the paving.
  5. Scrub the paving with the stiff broom.
  6. Rinse the paving with lots of clean water.
  7. Repeat if necessary.

 

  1. Check the paving is suitable and read the safety instructions carefully.

Brick acid is not suitable for all paving so read the manufacture’s information for both the paving and the acid. If necessary, try using it on an area that doesn’t matter to check its suitability prior to starting.

  1. Get all the equipment ready and put on the safety equipment.

Get all the equipment together before you start and get yourself ready before you start. You don’t what to have acid everywhere only to discover the hose doesn’t work or you forgot your wellies and you have two very wet feet.

  1. Wet the paving with a hose pipe.

Wet all you paving with clean water from a hose pipe. You may feel you are watering the cleaner down but it works much better if you apply the acid to wet paving. This is to stop the acid soaking into the paving rather than spread the dissolving the mortar stains.

  1. Pour the cleaner over the paving.

Spread the brick acid over the paving, a cheap plastic watering can with a rose is as good a way as any. Do not use a metal one and the acid will attack it and keep it just for jobs like this.

  1. Scrub the paving with the stiff broom.

Scrub the paving with a stiff broom. The small bristle ones they sometime sell as deck brushes are ideal, but back sure they have a shaft and it is securely attached. You may find some larger lumps of mortar need a tap from a hammer and chisel as you go.

  1. Rinse the paving with lots of clean water.

When you feel the acid has worked rinse the paving with lots of clean water from a hose. This will stop the acid and cleaned the surface so you can see how clean it is.

  1. Repeat if necessary.

Once you have cleaned the paving down you will probably see a few persistent stains and you can now re-treat these areas with the acid in the same way. If you have done the first treatment properly it is though very unlikely that you will have to re-treat the whole areas a second time.

How to prune a rose bush

Equipment:

  • Secateurs
  • Long armed pruners (parrot bills)
  • Strong gloves

Before you start:

  1. You are going to get scratched even with gloves on.
  2. Use good quality tools which will give a clean cut and are safer to use.
  3. Cut the stems just above an outward pointing bud. You will see these if you look carefully just above the scar left where the leaves fell off.

Summary:

  1. Traditionally done in mid-winter.
  2. Remove damaged or diseased stems.
  3. Remove any crossing braches.
  4. Remove any very weak stems.
  5. Shorten the remaining stems to one third of their length.

 

  1. Traditionally done in mid-winter.

Traditionally this is done in February in the United Kingdom when the plants are fully dormant but unlikely to be forced into growth too early and be damaged by frost.

  1. Remove damaged or diseased stems.

Any stems that are diseased, pay a particular look out for coral spot, clearly are going to be a danger to the long term health of the plant and must be removed. Make sure you cut out all of the diseased parts. Damaged parts are never going to be viable in the long term but also they provide an easy site of entry for diseases.

  1. Remove any crossing braches.

There are two reasons for this, first you want an open branch structure which is more stable, shows the plant off well and allows the free movement of air through the plant which discourages diseases like mildew. Second where branches cross through the bush soon or later they will end up rubbing against other branches as the plant moves in the wind. This will quickly damage the bark and provide an easy entry point for pests and diseases.

  1. Remove any very weak stems.

These are never going to give you a strong bush which can carry a good show flowers.

  1. Shorten the remaining stems to one third of their length.

By shortening the remaining stems by a third you should balance way you remove with what you can expect the plant to put on in the next growing season.

How to lay crazy paving

Finished crazy paving

Finished crazy paving

Crazy paving has fallen right out of fashion; killed first by release of the modern mottle coloured concrete riven flags by Bradstone in the early 1980’s followed by the cheap imported stone flags from the Far East more recently. That said it still has its uses, particularly where an informal path is needed or a low cost solution to matching locally sourced stone. These days the likes of builders’ merchants no longer stock stone crazy paving so you will need to contact a local sandstone quarry. Sandstone is the preferred stone as it gives a good mix of workability, durability and slip resistance; although like all stone it can easily become slippery in the in the right conditions.

Equipment:

 

  • Crazy paving
  • Subbase
  • Ballast or mixed sand and gravel
  • Yellow sand
  • Cement
  • Cement mixer
  • Shovel
  • Wheelbarrow, or better still 2 wheelbarrows
  • Bricklayer’s trowel
  • Pointing trowel
  • 4lb Hammer
  • Cold chisel
  • Tape measure
  • Gloves
  • String line and pins

Estimating Materials:

 

As a rough guide for every square metre of paving you will need about 100kg of ballast, 20kg of yellow sand, 14 kg of cement and 200kg of subbase. These are only approximate figures and should only be taken as a guide.

 

Summary:

 

  1. Mark out the area to be paved
  2. Dig out, removing the topsoil
  3. Set out the falls
  4. Make up to the level with subbase and compact it
  5. Set out the pieces of stone to see how they will fit
  6. Bed the stones onto concrete and point
  7. Clean up the pointing

 

  1. Mark out the area to be paved

How you chose to make the area out doesn’t really matter, you can get aerosols of paint, length of rope, sand or even a garden hose, but it will give you a change to check it’s the right size and in the right place. It’s easy at this stage to play around with the dimensions and be sure it is going to work. If is to be a path try it out, push any machinery along it to check is the right size and shape, if it’s to sit on put some chairs on it and have a sit. It’s much better to find any problems now than be left thinking if only.

  1. Dig out, removing the topsoil
Ground dug out for the paving

Ground dug out for the paving

The paving will need a solid base so remove any topsoil and if necessary dig further down so you are at least 225 mm below the finished level of the paving. If this does not take you down to firm stable ground then this depth needs to be increased, also in parts of the world where the winters are more severe that those experience in the UK again the excavation needs to be increased to prevent the ground under the paving becoming frozen and lifting the paving.

  1. Set out the falls

Due to the uneven surface of natural riven stone the paving should be laid to string lines. These lines should be set out at the level of the finish paving with one line at each side of the paving. These lines should set the fall on the paving for its surface to drain.

  1. Make up the level with subbase

Spread sufficient subbase over the area excavated in part 2 above up to bring it to within 125 mm of the level set up by the lines in part 3 above, making sure to compact the subbase well. Small areas can be compacted with a sledge hammer but for larger areas it’s worth hiring a vibrating plate. Remember, don’t try to compact more than a 150 mm thick layer at a time.

  1. Set out the pieces of stone to see how they will fit

Before you actually start laying the stones set them out in place to see how you are going to fit them together. Start with the largest pieces along the edges and fit the smaller ones in to suit, you don’t need to arrange every piece but it will help if you know how you are going to fit them together as it is rather like a giant jigsaw puzzle with no picture to go by.

  1. Bed the stones onto concrete and point
Concrete and mortar ready for the paving to be laid onto it

Concrete and mortar ready for the paving to be laid onto it

Move the stones to one side, you may wish to take a quick picture first to remind yourself, and mix some mortar using 6 parts of yellow sand to 1 part of cement and put the mixed mortar to one side. This is where a second wheel barrow comes in useful. Now mix a load of concrete using 6 parts of ballast to 1 part cement and spread it over a corner of the area you’re going to pave. Start at the far side and think carefully about out you are going to work without painting yourself into a corner. Once you have some concrete mixed and spread start placing your stones onto it. You may have to adjust the thick of the concrete as the stone will vary in their thickness; but once you are just above the level of you string lines you can tap the stone down with a rubber mallet or by placing a block of wood on them and hitting it with a heavy hammer. Once bedded into the concrete the top of the stones should be just below the surface of the lines and following the fall you created with the lines.

Crazy paving laid but not pointed

Crazy paving laid but not pointed

Once you have 2 or 3 stones down start to point between them using the mortar you mixed at the beginning, this way the pointing will get good bond with the concrete the flags are pointed on and be less likely to come loose. Continue spreading the concrete, laying the flags and pointing them as you go. You will probably find you will have to use a hammer and cold chisel to get the pieces all to fit together, particularly the smallest ones.

The reason the mortar was mixed first was because if you don’t clean out the mixer when changing from mixing from mortar to concrete you will end up with lots of bits of gravel in the mortar which courses problems. This is not a problem going the other way.

Crazy paving just pointed

Crazy paving just pointed

  1. Clean up the pointing
Crazy paving part completed

Crazy paving part completed

When first used the mortar the paving is pointed with will be very wet, so once the joints are filled with mortar leave it to firm up (“go off”) a bit and then tidy it up with a pointing trowel. How long you will have to leave it will depend o the weather and in hot summertime it could be minutes while in winter it can take until the next day.

It is quite possible there will still be some mortar stains left and these are best clean up with brick acid. Carefully read and follow the instructions that come with it but for bets result let the mortar have plenty of time to harden first. Wet the paving with a hose pipe before pouring on the acid and then scrub it with a stiff bristled broom. Once the stains are removed rinse the area thoroughly with clean water.

Mark McNee liked this post

How to create a low maintenance garden

Over many years of designing and creating gardens the most frequent request I have received is for a “low maintenance” garden. I have never been asked for a high maintenance one! This is usually followed something along the lines of “so we want most of it just lawn”. The real problem is that people muddle up low maintenance with simple maintenance. Low maintenance is about limiting the time and effort need to keep the garden looking good where as simple maintenance is all about following a mower around and avoiding those strange things in the borders with long funny names! The thing is low maintenance isn’t difficult and just needs a little thought and a lot less back ache.

What needs the most work!

Of all the aspects of a garden the traditional lawn is the most demanding in time and effort, nothing else requires this much the weekly attention all summer. A good contender for this top spot is also the vegetable garden but the people who put this much effort in to growing vegetables do so because they want to and aren’t looking for a low maintenance solution, otherwise they would not do it. The next suspect is annual bedding but this has largely fallen out of fashion at least in part because of the time and cost involved. Now annual bedded is really seen well done outside of municipal planting where it’s in often very well done. In private gardens, sadly, normally annual bedding mean a few lonely alyssum and aubrietia dotted sparsely along the edge of borders. The final culprit is bare soil; they say nature abhors a vacuum and gardens are no exception to this.

What needs less work

First off all gardens need some looking after, the trick is to balance what you want, what you have the time and resources for and what you need. At some point you will have to compromise as with all things in life. Obviously paving requires very little looking after but a concrete yard is going to look rather boring, so the temptation is going to add pots of plants but these need more caring for than plants in borders. Borders are often looked on as for more work than a lawn but for any given area they require far less time and effort than a lawn. I believe people are really just scared off because garden articles are full of all the things they say you need to do and knowing which plant to do what to. YOU CAN IGNORE THE VAST MAJORITY OF THIS IF YOU WISH, THE PLANTS WILL STILL GROW! Yes you might get less flowers or the foliage may not be as dramatic, but you will be a lot less intimidated by the idea of borders. Why then you ask do gardening books and magazine articles list all these things you are meant to do at specific times? Partly it’s because they are enthusiasts, often with a great deal of specialist knowledge, who want the plants at their very best. Another reason I fear is it’s about filling copy. If our expected to produce x number of words every day/week/month you are not going to last long if all you put is “Sit back and enjoy your garden”!

 

How to make a low maintenance garden

 

  1. Get rid or reduce the amount of the lawn
  2. Avoid bedding
  3. Use paving and gravel
  4. Start off without any perennial weeds
  5. Use borders and make them big enough for the plants
  6. Chose easy plants

 

  1. Get rid or reduce the amount of the lawn

In a small garden this is more practical than in a large one, also if you have children the practically of family life may mean this is not desirable. In a small garden that doesn’t have to double up as somewhere for the children to play then extending the borders and replacing the remaining lawn with paving, gravel and or bark is going to reduce the work needed. In larger gardens you are going to need to use grass as the alternatives are going to look very hard. Large area can be managed in easier ways though. Not all the grass needs to be cut short, cutting paths through the area and letting the rest grow long can look very effective. At some point the long grass is going to have to be cut but instead of cutting all the grass every week you just need a smaller mower to cut the paths each week and then hire in a bigger machine in autumn to cut it down and then a day disposing off the cut grass, which will be a lot less than the amount of grass you would have to dispose of if you were cutting it each week. If you hire in a 65 cm wide flail mower two of you should be able to do half an acre in a day.

  1. Avoid bedding

The problem with bedding is it needs replacing every year and leaves you with a bare area to do something with from autumn to spring. Also to be effective you need a lot which is a lot of work and expense. That said nothing gives such a rich display of flowers, even if it is rather out of fashion. If you do what a splash of summer colour use a few pots filled with plenty of plants so there is no room for weeds.

  1. Using paving and gravel

Though at first this may seem hard and drab there is a vast choice of materials which can be mixed to break up the appearance. The simplest way to break up a paved area is by mixing the sizes of paving used, for more contract a second type of paving can be added either a random blocks or in some form of pattern. Areas of gravel or chipping are cheaper and if there is only going to be people occasionally walking over the area the chippings can simply be laid over a porous membrane once the ground has been cleared of all the weeds and levelled. These area can be broken up with cobbles and boulders so long as they don’t get in the way of people walking across the area. Gravel has the added advantage that plants can be grown through it with the gravel or chippings forming a weed suppressing surface. Both paving and gravel can also be broken up with the odd container of plants. The trick being striking a balance between variety and messy; if in doubt less is better.

  1. Start off without any perennial weeds

You cannot stop the annual weed blowing into the garden but these are easily controlled; perennial weeds with an established root system are a lot harder, especially among garden plants. No matter how hard you try you will invariably leave a little bit of the roots left when you dig them up. This is sufficient for the plant to re-grow and soon the weed is back. Even if you cover them they will simply grow through or round the covering. The solution is to get rid of these before you start, a glyphosate based weedkiller is by far the most effective (make sure it isn’t a residual weedkiller). This way all you have to do is create conditions that are unsuitable for weed seeds to germinate. Four things are need for seeds to germinate and establish; light, moisture, air and a growing medium. Therefore shading by plants, a surface which dies out and the absence of something to grow in is going to inhibit any weeds becoming established.

  1. Use borders and make them big enough for the plants

Containers like plant pots will only support a plant for so long before it outgrows it and needs regular watering if the plant is not going to die from lack of water. This is true regardless of how big the container is. Planting them in borders is easier and watering, once they are established, is far less critical. The biggest mistake people make is to make the borders too small with the result that the plant quickly out grows the space it has. The plant then has to be replaced or continually cut back in an attempt to make it fit the space. This just makes more work.

  1. Chose easy plants

Most of the plants you find for sale in garden centres are there because they are easy and reliable. This does mean there is a tendency to see the same plants in every garden centre. Before you go out to buy your plants check a few basic things, how much space is available for the plant, how much light is it going to get and is the soil acidic ( if in doubt assume not) and bare these things in mind as you walk around the garden centre looking at the plants and reading there labels. If in doubt ask a member of staff. If the staff are no help walk out. Good nurseries and garden centres rely on employing staff that are enthusiastic about plants and they will be only too happy to spend a little time sharing their knowledge.

Cheryl Liddell, Mark McNee liked this post