Succulents Simplified by Debra Lee Baldwin

First off I was kindly lent a review copy of this book by the publishers Timber Press.

Its is clear from the book that Debra is a very knowledge and experienced grower of a group of plants which is often overlooked by UK gardeners, but non the less a very useful one. She does fall into the trap of all specialist plant books of seeing the subject of her interest as the solution to a gardens wants; but still finds many interesting and original uses of succulents.

The book is very richly illustrated with some mouthwatering plants and interested uses making it a useful reference book. The only real drawback is that the author is living and gardening in southern California where she enjoys a far milder climate that the UK, or for that matter most of America. This means a large majority of the plants are only going to be suitable as house-plants for most of us.

 

Bond, English

This is one of the commonest method of constructing a brick wall which is more than ½ a brick thick and consists of alternating courses of heads and stretchers.

English bond brickwork
English bond brickwork

The minor wall building materials

Metal

Though important in building is garden use is rather limited but can if used carefully can be very effective. The term metal encompasses a vast range of material, many used since ancient times, and the suitability of a particular one will depend on the individual use planned.

Reinforced concrete

This material combines concrete and steel to create a material with excellent compressive and tensile strength. This provides the potential to provide some very graceful and elegant structures but the complex nature of the material means is design and specification requires specialist expert knowledge.

Concrete reinforcing should not be confused with crack control in concrete, by weldmesh or polypropylene fibres, which serves a very different purpose.

Plastic

Traditional plastic has not been used a great deal in garden construction but the vast range of different forms of plastics means it has great potential. It has the advantage that it is very rot resistant, can be moulded (and some can be machined), pre-coloured and even some is made from recycled materials means it is beginning to be used for more than pond liners and roofing sheets.

Glass

Used for hundreds of years, recent developments in glass technology means this is a material with great future potential.

Peat blocks

Traditionally these have been used to make raised peat beds, but have they have fallen out of favour in recent years as a result of the environmental concerns around peat harvesting and use.

Peat block wall
Peat block wall

The main wall building materials

Brick

Reclaimed brick walling
Reclaimed brick walling

One of the oldest and most durable building materials; its variability, flexibility, durability and strength has made a ubiquitous walling material. Traditionally made from dried earth the centuries of use and development has lead to a very sophisticated produce now mass produced in millions each year in the UK alone.

The earliest bricks were probably made of mud and date back at least 5000 years, and probably considerably more. Modern bricks are still normally made from fired clay (a natural extension of sun-baked mud) but they now come in a vast range of colours and surface finishes. It must be remembered that most facing bricks, while very strong are damaged by frost if their exposed surfaces are saturated with water. The only real exception to this is engineering bricks which are not as absorbent as facing bricks, but are only available in plain red or blue.

 Concrete

The use of concrete dates back at least 2000 years; it was used extensively by the Romans and there are Roman writings on its mixing, placing and use. Though its use has waxed and waned with changing fashions is seems every new generation re-discovers it, finding original uses for it.

Years of use and study have meant that what may appear to be a very simple basic material has become a very complex subject. What is frequently not appreciated is concrete, while having excellent compressive strength1, has so little tensile strength2 that is it regarded by engineers as having none.

Stone

The stone mason is one of the oldest trades and stone walls have been found wherever stones can be sourced. The earliest were probably dry stone walls built from stones found laid on or near the surface of the soil.  The durability and effective ness of these can be seen from the miles of dry stone wall which snake over the North Yorkshire Dales, where the shallow topsoil means the stones could be sourced by gradually picking up stones laid about the fields. Once metal tools had been invented stone could be cut, worked and polished allowing the creation of the pyramids and temples of the ancient world.

Wall detail at Dornoch Cathedral
Wall detail at Dornoch Cathedral

Stone comes in a vast range of forms and this determines it suitability for building and what results can be achieved. As one of the main costs of stone is haulage, traditionally it was sourced close to where it was to be used so lending distinctive local styles to walls.

 

Timber

Though not as durable as stone or brick, its easy of working and availability has meant it has long been used as a building material. It has also has other advantages over brick and stone work: it is a lot lighter, possesses tensile strength2, can be readily coloured with stains and paints, and although it does weather it is unaffected by frost.

Timber pole walling
Timber pole walling

Wood is though a very variable materials depending mainly on the tree species it comes from, but also the environment the tree grew in and the part of the tree it is harvested from. When used in construction this can lead to concerns about its structural strength and for this purpose it is “stress graded” but in a garden context the size of the timbers chosen for aesthetic considerations means this is unlikely to be important.

Notes:

1)      Compressive strength is simply the ability of a material to resist being crushed.

2)      Tensile strength is simply the ability of a material to resist being pulled apart, something that brick, concrete and stone walls actually lack. Hence the need for arches or solid lintels over openings in walls.

Parts of a Wall

Garden walls are constructed from 5 distinct elements:

Parts of a wall
Parts of a wall

Subgrade

Foundation

Walling materials

Mortar

Coping

 

The first, the subgrade, is the ground the entire structure stands upon and so its stability and load bearing ability determines on whether the wall is going to remain standing. For these reasons the wall foundation should be onto undisturbed ground that has not been built up from material such as old construction rubble or compacted hard core. For the same reason sufficiently deep so that there is no risk of frost and therefore frost heave.

The foundation of the wall is normally concrete and acts to spread the weight of the wall. Historically wall foundations could vary from nothing at one extreme to quiet complex structures and this depends more on the ground conditions and the builder/architect than the date they were built. A roman building could have a concrete foundation not unlike a modern while a country cottage built in the last few hundred years may be built straight onto the topsoil.

The walling material is the bricks, stones, etc. which forms the walls.

The mortar is the sand based material generally used between the pieces of the walling material and it serves the function of keeping the pieces of walling apart. It does not hold the pieces together, so walls have no tensile strength, but instead keeps them apart; so stopping them wobbling and stabilising the structure. The sand itself is held together by incorporating lime or more normally now cement to prevent it being washed out of the joints.

The coping tops the wall and protects it from becoming saturated with rainwater.

Walling Materials

Brick wall detail at Lartington Hall
Brick wall detail

Historically walls have tended to be built from the nearest suitable materials and this has to very individual regional building styles. Since the advent of modern mass transport this has begun to be broken down; except where local planning restrictions have protected it. That is not to say the local traditional building style has to be followed slavishly, if any is discernible in the first place, as often the use of a contrasting material can be very effective. Making a clear demarcation between the old and new; always fair better than a poor match.

Traditionally walls have been associated with bricks or stone pieces with a mortar between them to stabilise the structure. As a building technology this is a very old one; and was well established by the time the Romans combined this with the arch allowing them to create their major engineering feats. The individual units that create a wall tend to be small, partly from practical considerations and partly from aesthetic ones. The small individual units imparts great flexibility into any design for a wall, allowing the same wall to be both straight and curved at different points. Its appearance can also be uniform if the same material is used throughout or broken up if the sizes and/or colours of the materials are varied.

Walls though don’t have to be brick or stone; the material used for their construction is only limited by the designer’s imagination. Concrete, timber, recycled bottles and wire cages filled with cobbles have all been used to make walls. The choice of materials dramatically alters the effect wall will have within the garden, as will its detailing and height.

When choosing the material to build a wall the range of possibilities is vast, with hundreds of different bricks alone to consider. When deciding on a walling material a number of factors have to be taken into consideration:

What materials have already been used?

How much are you prepared to spend on the wall?

What is the danger of frost damage?

How solid does it need to be visually?

How high does it need to be?

What if anything does it have to support?

How important is it to the appearance of the garden?

What finished appearance is wanted?

What shape is it going to be?

What is the purpose of the wall?

While this list won’t make the selection for you; it will narrow down the search, help focus your mind and hopefully broaden your mind to less obvious possibilities.

New Year – New Vegetable Plot

The arrival of the New Year inevitably starts you thinking about next summer’s vegetable crop and what to grow. This will of course be influenced by how much space you have available to grow food in and how keen a vegetable gardener you are. The vast majority of us only have so much space available, so compromises have as always have to be made.

For some people vegetable growing is a hobby; but for an increasing number of us it’s a way of using a bit of our garden to supplement our supply of food for the kitchen.  With this in mind, how are we going to gain the most benefit with the time and space available? The competing demands of work, children and family life are going to limit how much time we can realistically expect to spend on growing vegetables.

The next problem is where in the garden are you going to use and how much space can we spare. Everyone who uses the garden will have their own demands on the space available, growing flowers, playing football, sunbathing, eating out and so on. Whichever space is chosen it will have fit in with these competing demands and so its fair to say you are not going to be self sufficient in vegetables. So what are we going to chose to grow?

The first step must thinking what do we actually use in our cooking, lettuce may be easy to grow, but if no one in the house actually likes lettuce there is no point in wasting time growing it! The next step is what is practical, you may love asparagus but if you are going to move in a few years you will be gone by the time it starts cropping. Likewise if you are on stony, gravelly soil you are going to struggle to grow decent root crops such as carrots.

This should leave you with a list of possibilities. Now look down the list. What are you going to gain the most benefit from growing? In many cases just as good can be bought from the supermarket. Potatoes take a lot of space so are very unlikely to have the space to grow more than a fraction of your needs. If on the other hand you like green tomato chutney you are going to have to grow them yourself. Tomatoes are a good case in point, commercially grown tomatoes have the advantage that they are available all year round and they will only produce a small crop if grown outdoors in the UK, but the sad fact is the flavour of the varieties grown commercially is very poor.

By a process of elimination you will whittle your list down until you are left with what you can grow and will get some real benefit from. The collection you end up with may seem an eclectic mix, and in coming years you will adjust the range grown, but you should end up gaining some real value from a small corner of your garden.

Garden walls

A sketch of a garden gate leading into a further part of the garden.The wall is one of the oldest manmade structures, and its use in gardens is as old as gardens themselves. The word comes from the West Saxon weall which in itself comes from the Latin vallum meaning a rampart and in the garden walls are used as a natural development of earth ramparts. Initially walls in gardens were to divide the gardens private space from the rest of reality, but over the centuries their roll has evolved.

It must have quickly become apparent that walls change the immediate environment around them; providing shade, shelter, warm and support. A wall facing the south will create an area of warmth immediately in front of it both by reflecting the suns warmth and by absorbing this heat and then gradually releasing it after the sun has gone down.  An east facing wall will heat up early in the day and then release its heat when it is in shade in the afternoon, where as a west facing one will heat up later in the day preventing the rapid and damaging thawing of delicate spring blossoms. A north facing wall on the other hand will be cool and shady demanding plants suited to those conditions.

What is often over looked though is the effect walls have on the moisture in soil immediately beside them. The porous nature of brickwork will tend to draw moisture from the soil against it.  A greater effect though will be from the tendency to prevent rain being blown onto the leeward side of the wall; making the side sheltered from the prevailing wind drier. This effect will be further exasperated by any over hanging coping and more so by the eves of a roof.

In addition walls have a psychological effect; changing the way we perceive the space they enclose and its relationship with what is beyond them. Their presence can create a sense of privacy and security to those on both sides of the wall. Even a low wall creates a strong dividing line between the parts it separates; allowing the areas within the garden to be compartmentalised according to their form and/or function. Thereby creating uniformity: stopping different styles and uses clashing; in forcing a sense of order.

A further layer is added to this relationship by the openings placed in walls. Large ornate gates form an imposing status symbol, framing and thereby controlling the view of the area with in. Small openings control both the access to the interior space and what can be seen of it creating a different sense of drama. This can be further manipulated by the choice of how this opening is filled. A solid door will block the view out of the walled area while creating a sense of mystery: while one that you can see through will entice the viewer though into the space beyond.

Each wave of garden design style has found new uses for walls, as the demands we place on gardens change and new materials to construct them from become available. Thus the role of the garden wall continues to develop with each generation of gardeners.

Utility areas

Most gardens end up with an area for the bits you would rather not show off; where pots, wheel barrows and the like need to be stored. These areas need to be kept clean and tidy, so the paving needs to be smooth and easy to clean. As this is the working part of the garden, cost is an issue and often the cheapest smooth flags will the best. Where the area is going to be heavily used; or a greenhouse or heavy shed are to be set on them the solid 50mm thick flags are a better bet. Alternatively a plain concrete pad can be laid. In any case, as with all paving, care should be taken to ensure the paving is laid onto a good base capable of supporting the weight of what ever is going to be placed on the flags. Consideration should also be given as to the drainage of the area with a good fall towards an area of the garden any water can safely soak away into.

Sometimes the line between the garden and the utility area can be blurred, particularly where fruit and vegetables are to be grown. Gravel paths look very good running between vegetable beds but the work in them invariably involves stepping between the path and the soil. This will always result in soil ending up on the path and you want to be able to easily clean this off if the path is to remain usable. Clearly this is going to be very difficult with a patterned flags and impossible with a gravel path. Here pragmatism should not be sacrificed for appearance. Grass paths do provide an alternative to paving stage-manage but you have to consider if their appearance outweighs the problems of cutting them and their becoming muddy. While grass paths through provide a softer organic appearance to say a vegetable garden they are not easy to clean, can be difficult and time consuming to mow and can quickly become muddy if used a lot in wet weather.

Path design

A broad straight path drawing you along
A broad straight path drawing you along

Paths need a purpose. They have to take you somewhere. Of course this journey is not necessarily a physical one; many of the greatest journeys are ones of the mind. The upshot of this is that before “putting a path in” you must first ask the question – what is the path for? This in most cases will be to provide a means of getting from one place to another. For example, the front gate to the front door but it can equally well be to lead the eye to a view.

The commonest type of path in a garden is intended to provide a clean dry route between two regularly used parts of the garden; this could be the entrance and the front door, back door and the garage or the patio doors and the patio. This sort of path needs to be as direct in its route as possible, or people will forever be cutting corners bringing mud onto it and it will be irritating to all its users. It also needs to be reasonably wide so that anything that needs to be carried down, such as shopping, can be done so as easily as possible. Finally it needs to be all weather, durable and if things like bikes are to be ridden down it solid.

Where a path is of lesser importance its width can be reduced, and if a minor path branches off from the main one a reduction in width can be a useful visual indicator. It helps to show people where you want them to go; if you are taking people on a journey they need some directions. Curves can also play an important roll in guiding the visitor. A clear straight path allows you to easily see the intended destination, such as the front door, hurrying the walker along. In contrast, a gently meandering path slows the walker down and a hidden destination invites exploration. But such a path to nothing will lead to disappointment. You want to find a hidden view not the compost bins!

Finally there are the paths that lead the eye not the feet. Where you want to draw the eye to a feature, be it an ornament, view or part of the garden not yet reached, a path leading to it will draw the eye to it. The path need not be one you can actually walk down and it may on occasion be an advantage if it is not.

At worst the garden path can be the source of wasted effort and frustration but at its best it can enhance the whole experience of being in the garden. The garden path, used well, can be a vital component in how a garden is viewed and perceived: guiding the visitor through the garden in a controlled manner.