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 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 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.

How to design a drive

With drives, probably more than any other thing in gardens, the most important thing is it actually functions as it is intended. No matter how nice it may look, if it does work as a drive it is a waste of money. As ever there has to be some compromises, for example: you may what a turning circle in your drive but they need an awful lot of space. To start with you need to decide how many vehicles you are going to what to park on the drive and do you need to be able to pull onto the drive, turn around and then drive back out. You also need to consider how often individual vehicles will be needed, ideally you are not going to want to be constantly moving vehicles around just to get one particular one out. Last but not least you need to consider access to garages and house doors and how much of your garden you want to make into the drive.

Now look at what space you’ve got. An average car needs a space of 2.4 metres by 4.8 metres to park on and this doesn’t include space for manoeuvring it. Make a sketch and some vehicle sized pieces of card and try moving them about on the sketch, allowing for how they are going to swing out when turning. At this point you are going to have to make some compromises so consider what is important. Once you feel comfortable with the layout of your drive mark it out in the garden as you plan to have it and actually try it out. It is far easier to change now than later. To help I’ve includes some dimensions that may be helpful at the end.

You are almost ready to construct your drive but before you start checking the cost of materials it is important to consider if planning permission is needed. The pressure for off road parking has led to more and more gardens being paved over and while this does get cars off the sides of roads it means the rain that would soak into the front gardens now runs off them. The amount of rainwater running off a car parking space in a front garden may not seem much but once this is multiplied up for a town, never mind a city, it amounts to a lot of additional water going into drains and ditches. In response to this the government decided to bring in planning controls to cover non-porous paving in front gardens. What this boils down to is that any water that falls onto you drive you need to get rid of on your property and not down the drains. In many cases this can be as simple as providing adequate areas of borders for the water to soak into naturally, but where this is not an option either a permeable surface has to be used or the water has to be collected into drains and lead to a soak away where it can then seep away into the soil. Further details can be found on the government’s planning portal here. Planning rules are complex and special rules can apply in many situations so a 5 minute phone call to your local planning office at this point can save a great deal of trouble later. Whatever you do don’t try to emulate the Ostrich!

Drive surfaces

No drive surface is perfect and they all have their strengths and weaknesses so you have to decide which compromise is going to work for you.

Block paving

Block Paving
Block paving laid in a pattern using different colours

Pros:

  • Easily forms curved shapes
  • Adapts well to changing slopes
  • Sections can be taken up and re-laid to gain access to buried services
  • Vast range of finishes
  • Some designs are now permeable.

Cons:

  • Not suitable for poorly drained ground. The sand bedding course must be well drained and at least 600 mm above the water table.
  • The edges must be well retrained
  • Prone to sink where car wheels continually run
  • The more ornate finishes can be expensive.

Flags

Pros:

  • Can be very cost effective

Cons:

  • Only the 50mm thick flags are suitable

Grass concrete composite

(Concrete blocks with grass growing through gaps mounded in them)

Pro:

  • Simplify the job of getting rid of surface water

Cons:

  • The grass will not withstand heavy use
  • The grass will not survive under vehicles park continuously over it
  • Take time to establish
  • If the grass cover breaks down it will quickly become muddy.

Gravel

Pros:

  • Adapts to any shape
  • Cheap
  • Self-draining

Cons:

  • Only suitable for relatively level areas
  • Weeds quickly establish in the areas that aren’t been driven over
  • Moves about
  • Cannot be laid onto a hard surface such as existing concrete

Hardcore

Pros:

  • Cheap

Cons:

  • Easily eroded by water running down it
  • Not all hardcore is suitable

 

Pattern Impressed concrete

Pros:

  • Weed free
  • Large range of finishes available

Cons:

  • Must be laid by a good specialist contractor
  • With use the parts receiving concentrated wheel traffic start to fade
  • Very difficult to repair successfully

 Plain concrete

Pros:

  • Weed free
  • Relatively cheap

Cons:

  • Unattractive appearance
  • Needs to be well constructed if it is to last
  • Difficult to repair

Pointed setts

Granite setts
Pointed granite setts

Pros:

  • Combination of small paving units set in pointing makes an attractive finish
  • Adapts to complex shapes
  • Suitable for slopes

Cons:

  • Very expensive
  • Requires a lot of skill to lay

Resin bonded aggregates

Pro:

  • Less prone to move about than gravel
  • Available in a range of attractive finishes

Cons:

  • Not suitable where it is likely to become contaminated with mud
  • More expensive than plain gravel

Tarmac

Pro:

  • Adapts to complex shapes and slopes
  • A good compromise between cost and length of service
  • Well suited to large drives and heavily used ones
  • Available in a range of colours

Cons:

  • Has to be laid by a good specialist contractor
  • Colours only available subject to suitable plant near by

 

Drive dimensions.

These are for guidance only and should be checked before being used.

  • Local regulations and restrictions may apply and you should check before starting any work.
  • The drive entrance should only be at the verge crossing.
    • The verge crossing will have lowered curbs for the vehicles to get onto the road.
    • New or changed verge crossings will normally require permission from the council highways and planning departments.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed to special specifications.
    • Verge crossings must be constructed by approved contractors.
  • Ideally a drive should be 3.2 metres wide (or 2.6 metres if there is a separate footpath).
  • If you are putting gates on a drive opening onto a busy drive you may have to set them back 5 metres from the edge of the highway to allow a vehicle to pull safely off the road before needing the gates opening.
  • Check you can see clearly from the car driving seat when you pull out of the driveway.
  • Any water on the drive must not drain onto the highway, but must be disposed of on site.
  • Long drives need special considerations.
    • Bends need to be wider to allow vehicles to turn.
    • Oil delivery vehicles may only have 30 metre long delivery hoses.
    • Oil delivery vehicles are typically 7.2 metres long by 2.6 metres wide and weigh 18 tonnes.
    • LPG delivery vehicles need to get to within 25 metres of the fill valve.
    • The fire brigade need to get their vehicles to within 45 metres of the house.
Model Drive
Model Drive
Model drive turning circle
Model drive turning circle

Garden Myths: Number 14

It’s a dwarf conifer!

Gardens are littered with 6 metre high conifers with a small group of rocks around its base. Invariably this is the last resting place of a garden rockery with a dwarf conifer planted in it. For some reason people have no problem with seeing an oak seeding will grow into a tree but when looking at a small conifer plant they think it will stay small. There are in fact only a couple of truly dwarf conifers and they are not very common, all the rest are little conifers which just haven’t grown yet.

Garden Myths: Number 13

Lawns are less work than borders.

No, but they take less thought on the part of the reluctant garden. Just think about the time you spend following the lawn mower up and down the garden every year. Now compare this to how much time you spend looking after an established border of similar area. Initially the border does take more time, effort and thought; but once established it should take a fraction of the time the lawn does.

Garden Myths: Number 10

Plants will go to a particular size and stop.

People often ask for plants to do things that are not realistic and the commonest one is for a plant that will grow to a particular size and stop. That is understandable but sadly some people in the horticultural industry will actually tell them a particular plant will do just that. Providing such action is wholly unprofessional and reprehensible.

All plants will grow at different rates throughout their life and ultimately there growth will slow down a lot, but this can be when they are centuries old. Clearly some plants will always outgrow others but their growth is strongly influenced by the conditions they are grown in. To take an extreme example take an oak tree in open parkland and grown as a bonsai.

Garden Myths: Number 8

Waterfalls and streams need a mains water supply.

The first time, on discussing creating a garden pond, the customer carefully explained where the mains water supply was “as I would need it” I was taken aback; but it has happened now a number of times. The logic I presume is that as there is water running it must be from the mains. To clear up any confusion the water is circulated by an electric pump. Using the water mains wouldn’t work for a number of reasons. Tap water contains chemicals such as chlorine and fluorine which are added that could harm the plants and fish, if you’re constantly adding more and more water from the mains where will the excess go to, what is your water bill going to be, what happens as the water pressure goes up and down, what’s going to happen to the water pressure in the house and a domestic water supply does have sufficient water pressure or flow rate for all but the smallest water feature.

Garden Myths: Number 3

Garden ponds need a filter.

Properly designed and planted a garden pond does not need a filter. Long ago when I was a child we had a garden pond, along with many other people of course, but no one had a filter on them. This was for a good reason; they didn’t exist for garden ponds. What changed things was when people in this country discovered the hobby of keeping Koi fish. These fish are large, colourful, expensive thugs that dig up any plants growing in the pond. This meant people wanted ponds with just the fish in them but the fish could not survive in these conditions so Koi keepers invented the pond filter. This allowed pond water to be artificially kept very clear so people quickly realised it was easier to fit one of these to the pond to get clear water without the fuss of making sure the pond was properly planted up.