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 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.

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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.

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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

Liz McNee, Mark McNee, Mark McNee liked this post

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.

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How to choose a tree

The first stage is deciding where the tree is going and why you want it there. This may seem obvious but unless you are clear about this from the start you are almost sure to end up disappointed. A tree will provide height and structure to your garden and with careful placement can provide privacy by blocking the view of overlooking windows or screen an unsightly building.

When choosing your tree bear in mind it will take up a significant part of the garden and is going to cast shade. Therefore think about how the sun moves around the garden and when the tree is going to block the sun and cast shade in the garden.

Once you’ve imagined how you and the tree are going to get along together in the garden it’s time to start considering the actual tree. A mature cedar is a magnificent specimen but in normal sized garden it’s never going to work; that said no tree will just grow to a particular size and just stop. Yes some will end up a lot smaller than others because of their genetics; but climate, soil and may other factors will influence how quickly they grow and how large they are after say 10 or 20 years. You also need to bear in mind that some trees have a lot longer period of interest than others (flowering cherries look lovely in flower but that may be only for a couple weeks and the rest of the year they can look rather drab). A lot of people are tempted by an evergreen tree but this will restrict your choices a lot, the shade is all year round when in winter you want all the natural light you can get, and you will still have the problem of clearing up the dead leaves as all trees lose their leaves, just evergreens do not lose them in one go at autumn.

There are many thousands of trees available and so I’ve made a list below of some suitable plants with their main attractions. That said this is a personal list and I’m sure other people would come up with other names, but I would hope there would be considerable overlap.

Lastly you cannot hope to walk into any nursery or garden centre and expect to find all of these, it would be impractical for many good reasons, but you should be able to find an example of a cultivar  which is very close to it if you are prepared to look around. It is all well and good setting your heart on a particular plant put there is no guarantee any nursery will actually have any for sale. Be prepared to be a little bit flexible.

 

Trees for the garden
Tree Flowers Foliage Berries Bark Ever-green Autumn Colour
Acer campestre
Acer griseum
Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum’
Betula pendula
Betula pendula ‘Laciniata’
Betula utilis subsp. jacquemontii
Crataegus laevigata ‘Paul’s Scarlet’
Eucalyptus gunnii
Eucryphia x nymansensis ‘Nymansay’
Ilex aquifolium
Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’
Prunus ‘Amanogawa’
Prunus cerasifera ‘Nigra’
Prunus ‘Cheal’s Weeping’
Prunus ‘Kanzan’
Prunus pendula ‘Pendula Rubra’
Prunus serrula
Prunus x blireana
Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’
Pyrus salicifolia ‘Pendula’
Rhus typhina
Salix babylonica f. pekinensis ‘Tortuosa’
Sorbus aria ‘Lutescens’
Sorbus aucuparia
Taxus baccata

 

How to make a new lawn

Once we have decided to create a lawn one important question has to be tackled – are you going to do it by sowing grass seed or by turfing and each has its pros and cons.Turfed-lawn

Sowing:

  • Cheaper
  • More tolerant of drying out
  • Needs better preparation
  • Can only be done when frost is not a danger
  • The mixture of grasses shown can be tailored according to the use
  • Once the ground is prepared the seed will be fine in the bag for months if the weather makes sowing undesirable
  • Borders have to be cut out after the lawn is established

 

Turfing

  • More expensive
  • Must not be allowed to dry out until it is established
  • Quicker result
  • Water supply aside it can be done any time of year
  • Physically harder work
  • Less choice regarding the grasses chosen
  • Must be used as soon as it is delivered
  • Borders can be formed as the turf is laid

 

In short turfing will allow you to create a lawn any time of the year so long as you can work the soil but it must not be allowed to dry out until it is properly established and each roll of turf weighs about 15 to 20 kg so a small lawn will involve humping about several tonnes of turfs. Seeding is cheaper and you have more control over the types of grasses to end up with –something else I will have to come back to – but needs longer to make an established lawn.

Preparing the ground

Once you have decided to create the lawn the first thing to do is to clear the ground of any existing weeds. The new lawn will struggle if it has to compete against established weeds before it has had time to become established itself. If perennial weeds are present a total weedkiller based on glyphosate will need to be used. Care should be taken to follow the instructions very carefully, particularly regarding the chemical occidentally drifting onto plants you do not want to damage. Glyphosate weed killers take time to work; 10 to 14 days is perfectly normal. The first thing you may notice is the grasses start to turn faintly yellowy, but you have to look carefully. Watch out for any bits you’ve missed, it’s very easily done.

Once the weeds are well and truly dead, it’s time to prepare the ground. Start by clearing anything you can see on the surface such bits of rubble and woody stumps. You should now have a clear patch of soil with just the remains of some dead weeds ready to cultivate. Much is said in gardening books about digging, single digging, double digging, etc. Little of it covers the problem that is it is very hard work and very slow. I did once double dig a small area, as much as an experiment as anything else and I don’t recommend it one bit. To be realistic you are going to have to use a machine. At this point you have to consider how big a machine can you get in the garden, it’s no good hiring a 600 mm wide machine if it has to be taken through a 450 mm wide gate way, and how big a machine is it going to be practical to use in the space you’ve got.

You now have three options:

  • Buy a machine
  • Hire a machine
  • Get someone to do it for you

The problem with buying a machine is what you are going to do with it afterwards and a machine good enough for the job is going to be very expensive. Hiring a machine means you have to operate it yourself and you have to consider getting to and from the hire shop. Any good hire shop will provide you with good instructions on how to use the machine and for a charge will deliver and collect it but using one is still hard work and you have to consider is it for you. Finally you could pay someone to do it for you and I’m sure you will be able to find a selection of people in the local free papers able to provide the service but you have to accept the cost.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned what machine to use. In reality this is going to be a rotator cultivator, generally known as a Rotavator. (Rotavator is in fact a trade name of the Howard Rotavator Company but has undergone the same transition as Hoover; where a trade name becomes so synonymous with a product it becomes a generic term for it). Rotary cultivators come in two basic flavours: tine driven and rear tined.

Tine driven rotary cultivator

Tine driven rotary cultivator

The tine driven ones have a set of rotating tines set under a motor and controlled by a pair of handles. The main problems with these are they tend to be rather light weight and are more prone to running away. This is where the tines rather than dig in run along the ground dragging the operator behind them. The rear tined machines have a pair of wheels under the motor and a set of rotating tines behind them; with the operator standing behind the tines holding the handles. These are heavier duty machines and less prone, though not immune, to running away. Being bigger and more complex machines they are both more expensive and heavier to use.

Rear tined rotary cultivator

Rear tined rotary cultivator

 

Making a seed/turf bed

Having selected a suitable machine and made sure you are familiar with how to operate it; the time has come to get our hands dirty. Before you go diving in stop a moment and take time to create a plan of action. Your soil should be moist, too wet and you will destroy the delicate structure of the soil and end up with a paddy field that’s dries to a hard crust which will block the roots of the newly germinated seeds, too dry and you will reduce the soil structure to dust which once it gets wet will for the same root blocking crust. That said most soils are quite forgiving but if anything err on the dry side; soils dry on the surface are very rarely so a centimetre down as the dry surface slows the drying of the soil below. You will also find cultivating soil combined with a gentle breeze will very effectively dry a soil that on the wet side. Try to avoid rain as the combination of churning the soil together with rain quickly makes a gooey mess. Perhaps not so obvious the problem of frost; a light frost shouldn’t cause a problem and the action of cultivating is putting energy into the soil anyway but a hard frost will stop things completely. I’ve seen heavy duty cultivators bounce on frozen soil many times!

Before you start make one last check for anything the machine could hit, especially things like tree stumps. They are unlikely to damage the machine but if it hits one it will be thrown up in an uncontrolled and danger manner.

That really bring us to one of the problems of rotary cultivators; if you look at the rotating tines you will see that the front edge of the tines travel down onto the soil so as to push the machine out of the soil. This reluctance to dig in to the soil makes getting them to penetrate the soil often difficult and in hard conditions they want to run along the surface. I remember once being told by a manager at a hire shop how he had been sent to collect a machine from a building site as the hirers had decided it was not suitable. On arriving he started looking around for the machine and found a fence panel with the outline of the machine punched through it. All that was missing was the outline of the operator running after it! This problem of running away is greatest the lighter in weight the machine, the tine driven ones being the worst by far but it can afflict all of this type of machine.

Try to work in a methodical fashion so that you cover all of the area but with the minimal of wasted time and effort. If you find the machine is struggling to break the soil up don’t try to fight it but just go over it a second or third time. Once finished you should have an area of loose fine soil which rakes over easily.

Levelling the ground

Use a rake with solid metal tines and with it push the soil forward and backwards to level it out. The smoother you get the ground now; the smoother the lawn is going to be. As you go rake off any large stones, sticks or other rubbish and get rid of them.

Once satisfied with the surface it needs to be compacted either by rolling or your feet. DO NOT use a vibrating roller, or for that matter vibrating plate, this is soil not hard-core. You can hire rollers from the same hire shops as the cultivator and this is one of the only two times you need to roll a lawn. These rollers are generally filled with water to give them weight and after use emptied to make them easy to transport. For small areas your feet are best and this is done by what is called “toe and heel”. Put you weight on your heels and then shift it onto one heel. Shuffle the other foot forwards the length of your shoe and then shift your weight onto that heel. Now shuffle the other foot like wise. And repeat. You will look faintly ridiculous, but you will provide the neighbours with a little entertainment, and it is still the best way to prepare a lawn. Once you’ve gone over all the area it should be covered with footprints which you rake over (holding a rake as you go I find helps you keep you balance). If necessary you can repeat this if the surface is not sufficiently firm. If you walk on it you should see you footprints but you should not sink in.

 Sowing a lawn

Grass seedMeasure the area to be made into a lawn, BEFORE you set off and read my post “The great grass seed swindle!” I won’t repeat myself here but I would rate knowledgeable sales staff as being way more important than the prettiness of the packaging the seed comes in. One containing a rye grass cultivar is most suitable for a garden lawn and a breakdown of the different grasses in the mixture should always be provided. The fact the names mean nothing to you isn’t as important as it may seem. What matters is someone has taken the trouble to choose the cultivars they feel are suitable for the job and not just thrown in the cheapest they could find. The latter is sadly far too common.

In addition to the grass seed you are going to want some fertilizer. The cost is quite small but the benefit in improved establishment is well worth the cost. You can get specific pre-seeding fertilizers for this job but they are not widely available and ordinary general fertilizer will do just as good a job. The name on the packet is unimportant and most will list on the packet a recommended rate for applying when sowing a lawn, if not use the rate for general use. To give you a guide weigh out enough for one square metre, spread that over a square metre and use that as a visual guide. The evenness is not as important as for the grass seed and the fertilizer should be raked into the surface before the grass seed is sown.

Grass seed is typically sown at 50 grams per square metre, though the rate varies so check with supplier. To get an even cover of grass you need to sow the seed evenly. To gauge this get four canes, one to one and half metres long, and set them on the ground to form a square with sides one metre in length. Now spread over this half the quantity you are going to sow per square metre as evenly as you can. This should give you a good idea what the correct sowing rate should look like and aim to reproduce this pattern over the remainder of the lawn. This should use half your grass seed. Now repeat the process with the other half. Sowing the grass seed half at the time will help even out any unevenness in the sowing. Don’t be tempted to increase the the amount of grass seed beyond what is recommended. It’s very tempting to think more grass seed will mean a thicker covering of grass quicker but in practice you are likely to end up with the fungal disease damping off.

Establishing the grass

All you need now is warmth (which is out of your control), moisture (which is) and patience. If no rain falls after the grass is sown, these things can be hard to control; you will need to water the seeds. This, in addition to providing the seeds with the moisture they need, helps to firm the seeds onto the soil. When watering the seed use a sprinkler on a hose pipe, if you don’t have an outside tap get one, and make sure you put plenty of water on. Try to get a sprinkler which will cover all the lawn if possible, at least the biggest you can, that way you can set it up and leave it in place; so avoiding walking on the newly sown and picking the seed up on your shoes. Put on enough water to soak the soil without washing the seeds about and top up the moister with more water as you need to.

Once the grass seed germinate and you start to see the thin green shoots watch for the grass reaching about 25 mm high. The grass will benefit from being lightly rolled to make it branch out and thicken. The water filled roller you may have used when you prepared the seed bed BUT WITHOUT the water in it will be fine. Do you remember I said there was only two occasions you roll a lawn? Well this is the second one. Now get rid of it.

The final state is when the grass reaches about 50 mm high. Get the lawn mower out and cut the top third off. NO MORE. You now have a 35 mm high established lawn. From now on you can keep reducing the cutting high to the level you want, but remove no more than a third of the height at any one go. The final height will depend on personal preference but the smoother the surface you managed to create before sowing and the finer the mixture of grasses you sowed the low you will be able to cut the grass.

One final word on weeds, it is quite possible that a lot of weeds will germinate along with the grass seed. Don’t panic. The majority of the weeds will be annuals which will die out because they cannot survive being cut and/or because they never get the chance to flower and so die out that way. Some will be perennials but very few of these can survive being kept cut down to below 50 mm. Either way, very nearly all the weeds will die out anyway just leaving the few normal lawn weeds which you are going to get anyway and can be treated next year if they are a problem. Why you ask, did we start off by killing the weeds in the first place? The reasons are:

  • It would be very difficult to cultivate the soil if it’s bound together by weed root.
  • If you chop up and mix in lots of vegetation with the soil that makes the seed bed very spongy mixture which will not compact to form a stable seed bed.
  • The grass seed will not survive the competition from the established weeds.
  • You kill off as many off the weeds which could survive in a lawn before you start so you are starting with a weed free lawn.

Turfing a lawn

It’s often said that you don’t need to prepare the ground for turfing as well as if it is to be sown. I don’t believe this is the case as in both cases the better the area is prepared the smoother the finished lawn will be. Again the surface needs to be cultivated, raked and compacted as for a seeded lawn. Fertilizer should also be applied and raked in the same. The difference comes from then on.

The first big difference is if the weather turns bad grass seed will happily stay in the bag in a cool dry place until the weather improves. Turf will not. In summer turf needs to be laid they day it is delivered. The best policy is then to prepare your ground for the turf so ounce it is delivered you are ready to lay it straight away. Measure your area in square metres and decide if you are going to be able to lay it all in one go. Bear in mind a roll of turf is sold in rolls weighing about 20 to 30 Kg. That in itself may not seem that much but remember each roll has to be picked up, carried to where it is to be laid, positioned and unrolled. Be realistic about how much you or you and your helpers can do. Also if the area to be the lawn is very irregular it may not be possible to accurately work out the area. Turf suppliers do not take back turf once sold. It may well be best to order part of what you need, say half or two third, lay that and then order the remainder.

Now comes the job of sourcing your turf; there are two types available meadow turf and seeded turf. Meadow turf is a farmer’s field someone has stripped the turf off and the grass is therefore very suitable for grazing cows and sheep on. If you are planning to keep a sheep, and I can’t imagine why, meadow turf could be suitable but for a garden lawn it is a waste of money. Avoid it! Seeded turf is grass that has been sown using a good quality lawn seed mixture solely for the purpose of producing turf. This is what you want and there are many turf growers spread across the country. Go and have a look at what’s available, any reputable grower is only too keen to show you the turf they produce. It should be a rich green, the turfs a uniform thickness, width and length, and the turfs should hold together well. In the field it should look just like a really good garden lawn.

Laying the turfs

Once delivered you want to get straight on with the job; so it is best to get prepared before it’s delivered. You will need plenty of timber boards to work from as you lay the turf, enough to reach the full width of the area to be turfed plus sufficient extra to stretch from the nearest hard surface to the furthest part to be turfed. The other things will be stout gloves for everyone, a wheel barrow or two if you are moving the turfs any distance and a good sprinkler and hose – the last being essential.

Start nearest to where the turf is and unroll the turf in a straight line across the width of the site. At the end of the first roll butt the end of the next turf up to it and unroll that. Carry on like that until you have a row across the lawn. Now place timber boards onto this row of turfs and start the next row butting the turfs close together but start about half a roll in. This way you will stagger the joints between the ends of the turfs. Carry on across the area to be turfed in this manner keeping the turfs butted close together. Keep working off the boards at all times or you will sink into the newly laid lawn. If the edge of the lawn is not retained by paving or fencing finish the edge by running a row of turfs along the edge to form it. Avoid any short pieces of turf at the edge. Any gaps can be either filled in as you go or near the end, it’s a matter of personal preference. The best way I’ve found to cut them is with a strong replaceable blade craft knife, at least that way the fact it ruins the blade doesn’t matter.  Knee pads are also very useful, the more padded the better, but either way by the end of the day your knees are still going to ache, along with your back.

Once you have finished for the day you must water the turf really well. Set your sprinkler up and leave it on until the water has soaked through the turfs and saturated the soil underneath. This can be easily checked by lifting up a corner of a turf. DO NOT stand on the lawn once soaked; you will sink straight in spoiling the lawn. Keep the lawn really well watered until it’s established. This is easy to gauge by lifting up a corner, at first you will see the fine new roots growing on the underside of the turfs and then you will just not be able to lift up the turf from the soil. At that point it is established and can be treated as an ordinary lawn. You must not let the turf dry out. If it does it will shrink and no amount of watering will reverse that, you will be left with a lawn which is a mass of gaps along the edges of the turfs.

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