May 2016: Long time, no post.

It’s been a while. Having embarked on a degree, I thought the garden might become fully neglected. Instead, it has only become partially neglected… June/July 2015 saw the ‘hot’ border grow to this epic magnitude.

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Impressive? I felt it was worth the hard work to get it to that point. It had grown incredibly full (this was late summer, when all of the ‘jewel’ colours in the garden are at their peak). In the foreground, the heuchera and sedum compete for darkest leaf award, the sedum winning out with its nicely contrasted dark pink flower. Behind it are a dark pink monarda, Burgundy Ice rose, cannas, dark leafed dahlias and a stunning pink salvia. Behind them are the yellows and some oranges. Scorching.

Below is an image of (mostly) both sides of the first section of the garden after one full year’s growth. It is clear from this image how one side has been planted with cool colours and the other with hot colours, and how well it works. Flame the German Shepherd is enjoying the garden too (she likes to chase the buzzy things). You can also see pink sedums, pink Japanese anemones and some antique pink sweet peas in this image.

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You can see that the newly laid brick path we put in last year has wintered, weathered, cracked in places, become overgrown with moss and a few weeds, and generally looks like it has been there for years. That was the idea!

After overwintering and dying back – as herbaceous borders do – I spent a bit of time on it in February, pulling out weeds and throwing on a thick layer of bark mulch to try to control them this year. I’m going fully ‘no dig’ in 2016 so it is all hand pulling of weeds and keeping on top of them, whilst spending as little time as possible doing it as I simply don’t have a lot of time to devote to this section for the next couple of years while I complete my degree.

Here is the border newly mulched and cleared, ready for all new growth. Since this image was taken (below) the hot border has really grown thanks to the lovely warm weather we’ve had in early May in the UK, coupled with the odd torrential downpour!

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All cut back and looking bare! This was taken at the end of February 2016. What a difference a few months of cold weather makes. Hopefully, it will be back to lush, vibrancy in no time. I will update.

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July project: A reclaimed brick path

This week's project - up the garden path.
This week’s project – up the garden path.

So, this is this week’s project. Of course, it had to be the hottest week of the year, in a South facing garden. Lots of sun cream needed! But, hey, we need paths, right? Can’t get from A to B in a garden too easily without one, and you might as well do it in style.

The choice of pathing is endless. You only have to take a trip to a garden centre, builders merchant or local DIY centre to find a crazy and bewildering array of pathing options. You can have pebbles bedded in cement, crushed glass, slate, wooden decking style paths, gravel, grass or other low-growing plants, and of course all of the usual paving slab options and arrangements. I’m sure there are more options still. I’ve decided on old, reclaimed bricks.

My trusty gardening companion and all-round enthusiastic handyman, Alan, is here to help with this project. Phew. We’re using weed membrane underneath a bed of builders sand, with the same yellow builders sand used to point and fill in the bricks once they’ve been laid out. We aren’t cementing the bricks in – no need. I want to create a nice, laid-back, natural path, with irregularities and bits of brick missing, all of its foibles taken into account and used to create an overall naturalistic, ‘cottage garden’ effect.

Any gaps in bricks along the path will be filled over time with a bit of Saxifraga or Thyme – perhaps Thymus ‘Silver Posie’ or Thymus pulegioides ‘Aureus’. These mostly stay small, very low growing and neat, with some flower and scent interest.

Some might turn their noses up at a higgledy-piggledy reclaimed brick path, full of gaps, slight drops and rises in level. Well, in the wrong situation they’d be absolutely right to do so. You have to choose the path for the garden, and even the area of garden, in question. In this case, there is a slightly formal design of deep herbaceous beds on either side of a straight-down-the-middle, one metre wide path. Whilst a neatly trimmed grass path works well in that situation, and gives the right impression of relaxed and laid-back yet still relatively formal, this path leads straight on from a pathed patio area and I felt it required some harder landscaping to connect the two areas.

Hard, machined slabs straight to soft grass wasn’t working for me. A brick is man-made and yet much softer to the eye than a square slab of concrete made to look like stone. Bricks crumble and soften at the edges. They can, indeed, look quite natural; they are, after all, made of a natural substance. Old, reclaimed bricks are the way forward (pun intended).

Corrr, just look at these sexy bricks with their bits of grout and chunks missing… Makes me think of Lego blocks, and makes me want to build stuff.

A pile of lovely old bricks.
A pile of lovely old bricks.

Two days in. Turf stripped, ground levelled, membrane down, bricks going in…and this is what we look like today. Wahey!

Me laying an informal, reclaimed brick path.

The key to a successful path is to ensure the ground is level first. In fact, I’m going to use that word a lot in this paragraph just to stress the point… Lightly dig out the ground with a border fork and level using a rake. Use a spirit level to check ground levels. Use a single layer of weed membrane above your base soil level, and use at least an inch or so of builder’s sand above this. Bed each brick in lightly, tapping it in and ensuring that each brick is level with the remaining bricks. Check levels all the time. Even with a more rustic, relaxed path, you still want to ensure that the path is relatively level throughout. You get the idea – level, level, level! The end result will be so much better.

Once the bricks are bedded in, fill in all gaps with completely dry builder’s sand. Be prepared to have to go over the bricks again with more sand in a few weeks, once the path has settled and sand has seeped into cracks and holes. Pointing may need re-doing annually, depending on rainfall and usage. There are a few coloured sand options available now. This could be used to interesting effect when pointing bricks in a path.

Well, today we are almost finished. The weed membrane ran out at exactly the end of the last row, which was fortunate, and we seemed to have exactly the right amount of bricks. I finished off the path that leads into the rose arch using less bricks per row, and using broken half bricks to create a worn away/eroded impression, which then leads straight into lawn. This seems to work nicely, but we have had to raise the level of the ground where turf has dropped over time with heavy footfall. This needs to be seeded so that it grows seamlessly into the turf already here, and back into the half bricks and brick path. It will take a few months for the final result here. Otherwise, all that we need to do now is spend a lot of hours brushing sand into all of the gaps between bricks! This always seems to be the most time-consuming and mundane part of the job!

This was Alan earlier, having reached the quarter way mark!

wpid-wp-1406034885212.jpgTomorrow I will post up the finished product.

Alan’s tips for constructing a brick path:

  • Select a pattern for layout of the brick path
  • Level the area out well to firm ground
  • Use weed membrane to keep weed growth in check
  • Use a decent inch or two thickness of fine sand as your base for the bricks
  • When using reclaimed bricks, choose each brick carefully as you lay them, selecting thickness and size according to the specific spot and allowing for old grout attached to bricks
  • Use broken bricks to fill smaller gaps and awkward areas
  • Use a spirit level with each row and each section of bricks, in all directions, to ensure they’re consistently level
  • Keep lines parallel and straight
  • Fill in and point bricks with fine sand

If you would like a consultation with a view to professional construction of paving or paths in your garden, please contact us using the form below.

June: Herbaceous beds

Here’s a quick update of the growth and development of the two herbaceous beds on either side of the main path.

Right-hand bed, containing all the cool colours. As can be seen, there is a lot of growth.

Herbaceous border: Cool blues
Herbaceous border: Cool blues

And the left-hand bed, containing all the hot colours.

Herbaceous border: hot bed
Herbaceous border: Hot bed

The hot border was only planted at the beginning of April, yet is already starting to fill out. I admit to leaving quite a lot of gaps and spaces around each plant. I’ve been both criticised and applauded for this. One friend admired my constraint (her garden is full of plants and each new plant gets shoehorned into the tiniest gaps imaginable). It is entirely deliberate. I’ve planted up many gardens in the past (my own and others), often without leaving space for each plant to grow to its fullest potential, and have regretted it within one to two years. Plan them too close together, and you both limit the space for larger shrubs to expand to their natural and glorious size, and you choke out light for the plants next to them to thrive.

I’ve lost too many smaller plants this way; I’ve found myself wandering around the garden a year after planting, remembering specimens that used to be in the border here and there but which have disappeared, then realising they’ve been reduced to a small space deep beneath a shrub’s lower branches. I’ve found too many much-loved and treasured perennials reduced to one pathetic, weedy stem, desperately searching out the light and failing, and I’ve lost quite a few plants this way. It is now my rule #1 when planting – always take into account the final size of a plant, when you put them in, and allow them a decent growing area accordingly.

Having said all of that, I still make the same mistake now and then. Just look at the Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’ in the first image. That plant grows! I’ve put a number of smaller shrubs around it, some of which will have to be monitored to ensure they don’t become overshadowed, quite literally. I’ve also put a Picea pungens ‘Hoopsii’ right next to it, within around two feet. That’s going to have to come out and move at some point. Moving mature shrubs is never a good thing. Planning is everything.