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.

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.

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.

How to build a sleeper retaining wall

Retaining walls are never cheap or easy but building one from timber railway sleepers is probably as cheap and easy as you are likely to find. As the sleepers are simply screwed together their construction is well within the abilities of most people without any specialist building experience.New sleeper retaining wall

Equipment:

 

  • Spade
  • Sledge hammer
  • Tape measure
  • Pick axe
  • Shovel
  • Drill driver
  • 190mm circular saw
  • 200mm landscaping screws
  • Sub-base
    X

    Subbase

    This is a layer of crushed stone used under paving to form, in effect, a stable foundation for it and is found between the bedding course and the subgrade. It is made of stone which has been crushed and sieved stone to end up with a mixture of sizes from  normally about 40 mm down to dust. The proportions of the different sizes should be such that the smaller stones bind the larger ones together to stop them moving and these are bound together by the smaller onesl. The source of the stone varies widely according to what is the cheapest local supply and includes limestone, dolomite, and waste concrete and waste tarmac. It goes by various names; dolly, dolomite, crusher run, type 1, MOT type 1, road plannings, 40mm down  and many others. Ministry of transport type 1 is a type of subbase produced to stringent standards which while making it perfectly suitable for garden use it is a degree of over engineering. There is also type 2 and when I asked a technician at a quarry the difference compared to type 1 he just said “very little”!

     Dolomite has the disadvantage that it becomes saturated with water when you attempt to compact it there is a tendency for it to turn to something resembling plasticine in texture, although it hardens on drying out and road planning tend to become greasy when wet. Only hard stone should be used as even the hardest sandstone, for example, will rapidly breakdown to sand in use. Once spread subbase should be compacted with either a vibrating roller or plate BUT do not attempt to compact more than a 150mm deep layer at any one time.

  • Spirit level
  • String line
  • Square
  • pencil

In Summary:

  1. Plan out your wall.
  2. Dig down to firm ground.
  3. Lay the first course of sleepers, levelling them with sub-base and leaving gaps for drainage.
  4. Install a drain behind the wall.
  5. Lay the next course, butting them together and staggering the joints.
  6. Screw the courses together.
  7. Repeat with subsequent courses until you reach the required height.
  1. Plan out you wall.

When deciding on the line of you wall think carefully about the space you need, always allowing for the thickness of the wall. For example if it’s along the edge of a path how wide does the path need to be? Not just to walk down but will you need to take wheelbarrows and lawnmowers? Also do you need to consider drainage, if all you are creating is a level area of soil on free draining land this is not going to be much of a problem but if on the other hand you are paving the area the water needs somewhere to go. Lastly what happens at the ends of the wall? If the end of the wall is near a fence or wall you are going to have to support that and you may need specialist advice.

  1. Dig down to firm ground.

Once you have marked out the line of the wall you need to excavate the excess soil, keeping the topsoil separate. Moving even small qualities of soil is hard heavy work and you are at the very least going to have to spread the work out. If there is much to move there are a large range of excavators available for hire and some will go through a standard doorway. (While excavators can save a great deal of work without care they can also do a great deal of damage!)

Once the area is cleared you can prepare the foundation for the sleepers. Make sure you are down to good solid ground and you can simply build up from that.

  1. Lay the first course of sleepers, levelling them with sub-base and leaving gaps for drainage.

First set up a string line along what will be the front edge of the bottom course of sleepers and lay sufficient subbase over the ground the sleepers are to be laid on to level them. Use no more subbase than is necessary, not thicker than 150mm, and lay the sleeper widest face down onto it. Bed the sleepers down onto the subbase with a sledge hammer to get them level. It is important to get the sleepers as level as possible as you will not be able to correct this later on. Make sure they are level not just along there length but also front to back or the wall will end up leaning either out or in.

  1. Install a drain behind the wall.

New sleeper retaining wall end viewThe new wall is going to block the natural drainage down the slope so level 50 mm wide gaps between the sleepers along the bottom course and put a length of perforated drainage pipe behind the sleepers and cover it with gravel to stop it blocking up with soil and roots. This should make sure any water behind the wall is collected up and can drain away.

  1. Lay the next course, butting them together and staggering the joints.

Once the first course and drainage are in place you can lay the second course on top of it, but starting with a short length to ensure the joints are staggered. To cut a sleeper measure off the length needed and make around the sleeper using a set square and pencil. Then simply cut the sleeper from both sides using a circular saw with a cutting depth just over half the sleeper’s thickness. The sleepers can then be laid butted up end to end and screwed into place. Screw the two courses together.

  1. Screw the courses together.

New sleeper retaining wall screw detailUse landscape screws at least 50 mm longer than the thickness of the sleepers with at least two to ever sleeper. These are driven in with a drill/driver.

 

  1. Repeat with subsequent courses until you reach the required height.

Keep adding courses as you did in parts 5 and 6 above until you reach the desired height making sure to stagger the joints between the sleepers.New sleeper retaining wall close up

 

This technique will work well for low walls around the garden, including raised beds, and with a little ingenuity you can also built steps in!New sleeper retaining wallside wall

How to cut back over grown shrubs

Before reaching for the pruning tools you need a clear idea of what you are hoping to achieve and in the context of this post it is a healthy plant which fits, both physically and aesthetically into its location in the garden. When you have finished you want something which does not overwhelm the area around it or look unattractive to the eye.

Pruning is not the easiest of things to teach, partly because of the different requirements of different plants but equally because it is as much art as science. To start with a few preliminaries:

  • Plants don’t always respond well to pruning – not all plants will come again if you cut into old wood, this includes nearly all the conifers but also a number of others.
  • Those that do, don’t always do as you expect – often a plant will respond to pruning by producing a mass of soft shoots rather than one or two useful ones.
  • Once you’ve cut it off you can’t put it back – so if in doubt delay cutting and then take off a bit at a time to see how it looks
  • Think ahead to prevent accidents – you would be amazed at the number of people who actually cut off the branch they are sitting on!
  • Make sure you are suitably equipped – as you will never make a tidy job using poor/blunt tools.
  • Plan first, act second – have a really good look at what you’re tackling and how your cuts are going to affect the plant before you do anything.

The first step is to remove any dead and diseased material, the second remove crossing branches and the final one is to shape the plant.

Any dead or diseased parts of the plant are going to be no benefit to you or the plant and if not yet diseased it probably soon will be. Yes that branch may be in just the right place for what you wanted but if it not healthy it’s never going to look right and will end up causing problems further along the line so cut it back to healthy growth just above a bud or close to where it branched off a larger part. If it’s a larger branch do it in three stages to prevent it damaging the rest of the plant when it breaks away from the plant. Work methodically, starting with the larger branches so that any damage caused by removing them can be cleared up as you go.Branch pruning

Once we’re left with a collection of healthy branches we can turn our attention to any which are crossing through the bush. This is not a hard and fast rule as the first but  there are reasons for it. First such branches almost always end up rubbing against one another as the plant moves in the wind. This causes the bark to be worn away at these points and it is the bark which acts as the plant’s main defence against diseases getting in. This means that sooner or later these places will be where problems are going to occur. The second reason is that plant diseases tend to benefit from a still moist atmosphere and this is more likely to occur in a tangle of branches than a nice open structure which the air can move  through freely. Finally it tends to be more visually pleasing not to have a lot of branches crossing through.

Now we can come to shaping the plant and this is much more a matter of personal taste.There are though a few things to consider. If by nature it’s a big plant and you are going to cut it down a long way , then it will quickly re-grow and you will soon need to repeat the process. Should you allow it more room or is it simply not in a suitable place? If you are trying to lower the height of the plant, remove the tallest branches completely low down where they divide and allow the shorter branches which are left to form the new top. Nothing looks worse than just choosing a height and cutting everything off in a level line at this height, but you regularly see this done and often by people claiming to be professional. Once done the plant is very unlikely ever to recover aesthetically.

The important thing is to take your time and regularly step back to get an overall view of the job as you go. Whatever plan you start with you will have to fine tune it as you go as the job progresses and new ideas occur.

How to tackle an over grown garden

The first stage is to have a really good look around your garden and decide what 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 a hidden 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 arborculturalist (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 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 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 sell-able 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.

How to tackle woody garden rubbish

After cutting back overgrown trees and shrubs you will find that you will be left with a surprisingly large amount of woody rubbish which you need to do something with. There a several ways of dealing with this waste: take it to the tip, put it in a skip, re-use it or grind it up to make it into compost. All these have their advantages and disadvantages and in practice most cases will need a combination of some or all of these.

The easiest solution with small quantities is to cut it into manageable sized pieces and take it to the local tip in the car. If there’s a lot, and when cutting back its surprising how much rubbish you will create, a skip might be a better solution. The waste you produce will be very bulky so you will probably need a large skip and over sized skips are sometimes available for this very reason. You will need to explain you are only putting green waste in, and make sure that is all you do put in, as then you my get a better price. It may seem a waste just to throw it away but these days garden waste doesn’t just get buried in the ground. Its ground and shredded up, before being made into compost for reuse. The advantage is that it’s done on a big scale so the machines doing the shredding and grinding will happily swallow things like tree stumps which are very hard to recycle any other way. Also as the material is coming in from a wide range of sources so the compost doesn’t get overwhelmed by one type of material, an important consideration when making compost. Finally the process of making the compost is a commercial operation so it is carefully managed to make a usable and therefore resell-able product. The main disadvantage is that if you what to benefit from this compost you have to pay to buy it, so you can end up paying twice; once to get rid of it and once to get it back.

Log car
Log car

That considered you may well feel you would rather recycle the rubbish yourself and this has its advantages. You are not paying someone to do the work and you can be more flexible in the way you use the material. Smaller material can be shredded and added to the compost heap provided it is mixed with plenty of green waste. Larger material though is going to take imagination, space, hard work and patience on your part, but the results can be worth it. First off have a really good look at what you have and start planning how you could make use of it. There is no point in chopping everything up and then finding you could do with some big pieces of wood for something. This may well mean you have to adapt your plans; but this often turns out for the better.

Tree Trunk Armchair
Tree Trunk Armchair

A simple use of small branches as an edging for informal parts of the garden and these can be built up to form low retaining walls and steps if needed. If you only have a small amount the branches can be cut into equal lengths, say 600 mm long, and heaped up to provide valuable shelter for wild life and most importantly the things they feed on. Thin pieces of stick can make simple summer plant supports amongst hardy perennials and in the vegetable garden. Traditionally garden peas were supported by “pea sticks” which they could climb up to keep the plants off the ground. If you are in the fortunate position of having more substantial pieces of tree trunk; these can make very impressive garden seats. Alternatively they can be made in simple but very effective pieces of play equipment.