Topping spring bulbs with violas

A couple of weeks ago I re-planted last year’s spring bulbs in tubs, around the front of the house to keep out of the way of all the landscaping going on. Although I had dutifully split up the spring bulbs back into genera and species, and then diligently labelled each container as they went back in, I think I’m going to have trouble sorting them back into their relevant brownpaper bags at the end of the season:


Maybe permanent marker would’ve worked best on actual lollipop sticks, which seem to really soak up soil-y water.

Las year, my bulbs were often unearthed: it could be by a fox or it could be by other local cats (or it could even be by our own little bloody darling). So this year I’d covered the tops of the containers with sticks, but a tip from Gwenfar was to overplant bulbs with violas, as it tends to be “empty” earth that gets dug up.

With that in mind, I’ve added two colours of Viola to the containers:




Occasional apple sticker aside, I think they look pretty neat. “Yellow Blotch” and “Raspberry”: something like £2.50 for a block of 12 from Homebase. A shame they had to come in unrecyclable polystyrene, but I think that’s the industry being set in its ways. Once they’ve rooted and look healthier, I might live a little, and remove the sticks.

The first bit of terracing is done!

After having decided that it was subsoil I’d unearthed, and not some kind of semi-decayed hard standing, I finally finished off the first ever bit of terracing!


The ground is roughly levelled to the bottom of the gravel boards on the left, and then raked over: but only a bit, as this is only going to be for compost bins. You can see in the top centre of the picture some kind of root which I’ve since grubbed up. And while I was raking, I uncovered more of the hard, yellow, bricky soil: so it definitely wasn’t hard standing, and I was probably OK to bury it again.

The dug-out soil has formed something of a scree all over where the stone wall(s) were:


So I’m glad I dug the stones up for reuse while I could still see them!

Now I’m only a few stakes away from putting up the first of my pallet-based compost bins, on this new site:


Helen Johnstone put one together with screws, but I’m going to see if, in the first instance, I can get away with stakes and maybe some ties made out of electrical wire to stop everything splaying outwards.

One limiting factor for me is the stump of what I think is an old laburnum, which is all of the rust-coloured ground in this picture:


This means I’ll need to offset one of the pallets from being perfectly square: the final shape will have a tail, making it slightly more “letter F” than “letter C”. Even then, a single bin should take all of the compost currently stored elsewhere, unlocking work on the rest of the garden.

I’m so pleased. I’ll be extra-pleased when the bins are all in place.

Knock down a wall to find a wall

Now that the garden is clear of most of the wood, there’s space to start thinking about the two retaining walls for the backmost terraces:

Garden elevation

The terraces will be as follows, as measured from the back:

Four metres, straight, from left to approx. 5m:
Replacing the existing, curved wall, this will support the orchard and greenhouse terrace. The bins area will slope gently down into the meadow slope without any soil retention.
Eight metres, straight, from left to right:
Cutting into the existing slope, and running for the full ten metres (with a gap for steps) this will support the growing terrace and the bottom edge of the meadow slope.
Ten metres, zigzagging to twelve metres under the decking:
This is the existing decking support, and will not be modified especially.

The backmost wall, unlike the existing one it will replace, should run straight: straight… through where the compost bins currently sit!

Taking a step back, then: the next job on the list is to level off the back-right corner, where the new compost bins can then be constructed out of pallets. Once this is all done, then the bins will be in their final position and out of the way of everything else. In effect, they’ll be the first completed bit of our new garden design. Even though it’s only a set of bins, that does feel quite exciting.

However, as soil from the corner is pushed into the body of the garden, it’s important to not bury the stones of the curved wall: after all, we’ll need them, to build the new walls! I want to re-use as much as possible, and this stone will be a big part of that. So, with the rubbish weedproof membranes peeled back, I started to use a cold-chisel and lumphammer on the curved wall:


All was going well until: what’s this, behind the curved wall? It’s a previously buried straight wall!


I thought that might be hard-standing down there; or maybe it’s even some kind of patio from the trace of red brick on it:


What to do?

Well, the first thing to remember is that we’re going to be putting a wall, further down the garden slope, and backfilling everything to the bottom of the gravel boards at the very back. So if it really was hard standing down there, it’s going to be close to a metre down. Also, we’re only putting compost bins here! If there are no surprises further along the wall, the actual content of the ground is somewhat moot. The main thing, really, is to remove as much stone as possible: we’re going to reuse it, after all.

Deep breath, and a couple of hours later; it’s all gone:


I was worried for a second that I’d discovered and then ruptured some kind of cable tidy in the top centre of that photo, but no:


It was a root of (I think) the long-dead Prunus I recently cut down.

Thanks to the discovery of that other wall, I now have a large amount of rock from this corner alone:


Some of the stones have been dressed in a manner that makes me think of the old mill workings I saw in Endcliffe Park at the weekend:


So heaven knows how old that brickwork is. It’s substantially different from the other stones, but maybe I can make that a feature….

I did have a go at the “hard standing” with the cold chisel, and it seemed to give to some extent:


So at worst I think it’s a pan; it might even just be subsoil, and can be safely buried. But I’ve asked on Twitter and I’ll see what people say. In addition (note that this is an earlier photo) there’s some progress above the wall too:


The corner is starting to level off, even if earth has been moved as much to the left as towards the house. And at least the buried wall has given me even more raw material for the new, straight walls. I just hope I don’t encounter anything else!

… After all, what kind of a monster buries a wall, behind a wall?

Planting 2017’s garlic

Using some of the remaining bulbs from this year’s harvest of Solent Wight garlic, I’ve planted up a potential crop for next year. Usually I plant in December, but the more noticeable voices in gardening are saying that now is almost too late, so I’ve rushed and pushed them into pots this weekend.

The last harvest suggested that planting several in bigger pots, rather than two or three in smaller ones, would lead to more consistent bulbs across all the crop; also, Gwenfar’s garlic experiments suggest that more cloves per pot lead to more garlic, albeit smaller bulbs. With that and last year’s pot sizes in mind, I’ve planted two lots of six:


And three quincunctes:


(Actually, I just get a thrill from inventing Latinate variants on “quincunx.”)

The arcane pattern of pebbles shows where cloves have been planted; the bits of twig are to try to keep the cats or fox or whatever it is from digging them all up. The green leaves are the privet sticks’ wilting last hurrah.

Just because I can (now we no longer have either privet or privet-removers all over it) I’ve positioned the pots at the back of the garden, by our new fence:


We won’t be doing much in the top left corner for a while (the next jobs on my list include levelling off the top right) so hopefully they can laze around here for a while, where they’re warmest and get the most sun. It’s all right for some.

Build a bonfire

Even if I’d had access to a mulcher or shredder, there was just too much wood left from the removal of the apple tree. So, after constructing that new woodpile:


I set to work burning the remainder. First I built a kind of rough kiln out of bricks on an enormous paving slab, to try to contain the fire. I’m only sorry I couldn’t take a picture as it looked quite neat; but the daylight was starting to die. If only I could have some form of artificial light to illuminate the garden by…. Wait!

In constructing the “kiln” I tried to leave ventilation holes, but it was still difficult to get the wood hot enough to burn itself:


Firelighters went nowhere, and so I resorted to occasional capfuls of methylated spirits. This raised the core temperature of the fire enough that it went off like a rocket (stove):



At this point, I think I tweeted merely “Blimey.” Once it all died down, the great pile of ashes happily glowed on:


The next day, they were wildly hot and smoky when disturbed:


And two days later, the stored ashes would still give off heat when moved in any way.

Although it felt initially like there was a lot of ash, after transferring from the kiln to an almost-empty compost bin (to stop rainwater leaching it of nutrients for a day or two); then from the bin to a trug; then back to the active compost bin to be mixed in: there wasn’t a huge amount left. Still, at least that goodness will go back into the soil. When we start using it in earnest!

Apple tree aftermath: log store and rediscovering pallets

Sadly, while I was away for the weekend, nobody tidied up the back garden following replacement of the privet with fencing and then removal of the apple tree. So I had to do it myself today.

The first step was finding and bagging all the concrete-mix bags, Tizer cans, chocolate wrappers, energy drink bottles and one suspiciously festive mince-pie-sized foil container. Along the way I also found a number of other objects that I won’t be wanting in our new garden:


I’m sure that lead flashing will come in handy at some point, and maybe those corroded pegs; less sure about the old bouncy balls, or sharply rusted netting.

I also unearthed our five pallets, destined to be new compost bins:


Annoyingly, they’ve been damaged somewhat by having boots arbitrarily bounced over them, as the privet was removed and my old woodpile dragged somewhat to bits:


(The cat, by the way, has loved playing around in this. I think she thinks she’s seen a shrew.)

I’m hoping that, based on my neighbour’s pyrotechnics a couple of weeks ago, the presence of new privet in all of this means it should burn nicely, but I’m rather waiting for a dry winter’s day and evening to do it, so I can store the ashes somewhere for use later in the garden.

The apple wood, on the other hand, is too nice to burn straight away (we’re hoping for a wood-burning stove in the new year, if worries of Brexit don’t price us out.) So I’ve elevated the logs on a couple of segments of concrete fenceposts, and stacked them against the wall:


I’ve taken care to leave the dampproof course, and its associated vent bricks, uncovered. Wood piles dry because of air flow rather than being covered entirely from the elements: all the same, I’m glad I’ve done it today, as snow has been forecast for Yorkshire, and that sloping roof should keep it off nicely. Assuming—none of it’s fixed in place—it doesn’t all just collapse under the extra weight….

Extracting the bigger logs has left me with a huge pile of apple brushwood to probably burn:


When the leaves come off it then I hope it’ll be easier to see just how much of it is big logs hidden among the twigs.

As the garden starts to look more and more bare, I’m more and more grateful for the plants that do remain. The hebe, euonymous and vertical shrubby tree I haven’t identified yet are some of the few survivors of Fenceocalypse:


It makes me feel a bit sad for being slightly tongue-in-cheek rude about the euonymous previously. The ones you get on housing estates everywhere might be uninspiring, but they’re used for a reason: they’re stalwarts.

Meanwhile, the acer still looks lovely, even with only a handful of leaves left; especially now it can be seen silhouetted against the sky:


Whereas the apple tree was both in the wrong place and unsalvageable, I might have to see if we can work miracles with this, next year.

The apple tree is gone

Once we’d replaced the privet with fencing, it really brought home to us how much the apple tree dominated the garden:


Although other people have often said “oh, it’s lovely having such a big apple tree!” they don’t have to deal with it. I’ve discussed it before, but the tree really is a pain, and I mean that at least in part literally: not only did I nearly get concussion from a low-hanging branch; but only two weeks ago I slipped on rotten apples and fell full length, whacking the back of my head in the process. And the only reason there was a pile of rotten apples is that the tree has filled our compost bins. It’s pointless to clean the decking, if there’s one big Health and Safety disaster staring us in the face.

Towards the point of no return, I started to quail in the face of removing what (if it were in one of Sheffield’s many parks) could be considered a lovely tree: it’s just the wrong plant in the wrong place, a seven-metre canopy in a ten-metre garden. We were only putting right what the house’s previous owners had done wrong, so I had to keep strong, despite my instinctive doubt. After all, even though the Welsh rose was “Team Apple Tree” originally, she’s been gradually convinced: it has to go.

And go it has. The same firm who swapped our privet for fencing, came back the next day and dismantled our tree. Just before you see a photo of the garden as it is now, here’s the garden almost exactly one year ago; November 10, 2015:


And here was the garden on November 1, 2016:


I still have some slight bad feels, and feel a kind of shock of empty space. But even though I speak as someone who usually loves expanses of green, I’m really excited by what’s now a not-quite-blank canvas. The acer at the back is in completely the wrong place, but I love it, and I’m so glad it’s now all “ta-DAH!” in the sunlight.

What’s also interesting is that the microclimate in the centre of the garden has completely changed. Last night was the first frost of the year, and although there was barely any evidence of them in the back garden last winter, the ground was frosty this morning around the crater of the tree:


Of course, now I’m no longer blocked on all the jobs that this canvas will require. More on that later. For now, we’re just trying to get used to the sheer amount of emptiness we now have to play with; to step back, and breathe: now that we’ve got room to do so!

Privet gone; fencing up

The first and most important part of the landscaping of our new garden is now complete: all of the privet has been removed, and all of the fencing is in place!

The long and boring history

Long-time readers will know that we’ve been waiting for this, for literally the whole of summer. A couple of local landscapers just visited, then never provided a quote! One did quote, but it was for a lot of stuff all together (including the next couple of steps in our landscaping) and we weren’t sure it was worth it, given that there was also work going on next door: we’ve had no boundary between our gardens for months too.

When the workers from next door (related to the occupants) said they could de-privet and then fence both gardens at once, we were keen; but as the months went on, it was clear that they were overcommitted on other jobs. Because of the family relation next door, it got difficult for us to be the ones to push for something to happen. Luckily our neighbours lost patience before us, and a separate firm of fencing landscapers—recommended by the original team—were booked in.

They started bang on time, which amazed us, and boded well.

Work required

Next door needed fencing on three sides: the next boundary down they didn’t own; their back boundary, and the boundary with us, which they did. We needed fencing on two sides, to complete an E-shaped structure of fencing, with each piece about ten metres long: say, 50m.

Next door already had their adjoining privet out, as mentioned above. We both needed our back privet out, and our garden needed the privet removing on its own side boundary, to remove entirely an L-shaped hedge of privet: say, 30m.

There were additions along the way—next door asked for extra trellissing above the height of the fence at the back, and we’ve snaffled a couple of gravel boards to help with the levels as I’ll discuss below. But no major surprises: if you already know, like I do, that longstanding privet is a bugger to remove by the roots.

How it progressed

Although they were here on the day and hour promised, we were still surprised, and a little worried, that two workers plus no landscaping plant (a digger or similar) were going to attempt the job. On day 2 and 4 they did have another colleague, but the lack of earthmoving machinery still accounted for some of the slowness.

End of day 1

They began work on next door’s boundaries first, meaning arguably I needn’t have been here for the first day:


On that far-far boundary, the hedge was staying (it was owned by next-but-one) so that first day was really just a sprint on the fencing.

End of day 2

Even though I wasn’t needed all the time, I did find it difficult to stay away: as soon as I left, e.g. to help Gwenfar out with her garden, they started asking the Welsh rose complicated questions about the privet and levels. It felt a bit like, as long as I was hanging around, it would all go OK; as soon as I left, they’d never quite manage to meet my own tediously picky standards. What’s that, you say: I found it hard to let go? Why yes, I did!

By the end of this day they’d completed two sides of next door, and started on our party boundary (really owned by next door):


Left unattended, they’d already got the levels slightly wrong and low, despite the visual cues I’d left to try to make it clear:


(Tizer cans not originally included!) When we discussed this, I did get their point: that it felt unnaturally high without the landscaping in place, and that it’s probably best to get the fencing in place at a reasonable height, and maybe let that dictate bringing the heights down a bit. Everything is a compromise! They said they were happy to leave some gravel boards behind, to lean against the fenceposts, should the level need to end up a bit higher.

Pickiness aside, the work was looking great. The addition of a third person on Day 2 definitely helped (see far below!)

End of day 3

The adjoining boundary was complete:


The levels still weren’t perfect; but again, we might find we can tweak the terracing (or indeed that it might have been too high anyway.)

All of the privet was down at the back, revealing a considerable embankment of earth (the lawn behind was practically a sunken one!)


Some of the roots remained, but they were slated for removal:


The privet had almost all come up by its roots, in fact; they’d used a non-powered machine they’d called a turfer, which was basically some 50kg of ratcheting device with a long, reinforced-canvas belt. Our hated apple tree was used as the anchor, and try as it might, the privet had no chance.

At the back, because of the embankment, they’d begun to fit a couple of gravel boards where we might have manage just one. Annoyingly, the back neighbour came round after a fence post had already gone in, to say that they’d only banked up the earth at their side because of the privet, and they could possibly drop it if need be.

We did consider switching to a single board but, painfully aware as we were of how long it takes to get landscaping jobs scheduled; and also aware that all the fence posts would need to be the same height, to avoid one sticking up like a lamp-post, we let the work continue. If need be, we can always remove gravel boards later, drop the fences down and add trellis to the top.

End of day 4

The top boundary was complete:


I think it lets that acer show itself off nicely, actually. The newly-built hit-and-miss boards look lovely and richly wooden, up close:


We didn’t realise (or photograph) it, but they’d gone back to do the extra work next door on this day, which is why there wasn’t any further progress with our remaining privet.

End of day 5

An entire day of privet, removing the last ten metres of our right-hand boundary:


The roots of the privet had (as the workers had warned us) undermined the unmortared boundary wall completely:


Spelling the end (which, again, we’d agreed in advance I’d accept) for our Kerria japonica and the Rose With No Name:


The terracing plan would be to bury these under a metre of earth anyway, so they weren’t long for this world. But the hebe, euonymous and some kind of tall, broad-leaved thing have survived to give the garden at least a bit of winter colour.

Note that flimsy panel of fencing by our other-neighbour’s house: strictly speaking, that’s on his side of the boundary. So even though they did actually pull it down at one point (!) it went hastily back up again.

End of day 6

This was really only half a day, so let’s move swiftly on to….

The end result

Generally, we’re really happy with it:


Almost none of that fencing is ours, but it shows that they’ve managed to get some unity from doing it all at once, and match the existing three panels on the drive. Further up, our own fencing begins in the corner:


Continues behind the acer:


Forms a wildlife-tight join at the other corner (we’ll need to do something about that):


Then drops down to the house:


I know I’ve nitpicked about the levels. The poor buggers would probably never have got it perfect. But all of that aside, this is a great start for us, and we can move on with the next stages safe in the knowledge that our boundaries are sound. Soundaries. Suit yourselves.

In fact, with a good rectilinear boundary, we can now work out just how great our garden might be (and how the levels might be changed) with…

A few measurements

When we were turning Sheffield Sow & Grow’s design into a terracing guide, we tried to imagine how much space we’d have without the privet. While SS&G had measured a “top square” of garden (from the top of the driveway, to the far corner) of around 9.3×9.3m, we dreamed of having 10×10.1m instead.

And that’s pretty much exactly what we have! When you work out the areas, that means we’ve gained about 20% of garden, from removing the privet, and ended up with almost exactly one are of square space. That doesn’t include the driveway or the decking, which is another 2×10m strip, and the patio and back door area….

From the bottom of the wall at the top of the driveway, we now know garden climbs up to 1.8m±0.1m in the corner behind the shed, plus perhaps an extra 40cm as it slopes up behind the acer to the other corner (which we’ll level off). Three terraces divide that neatly into 60cm per terrace which is very close to our original prediction.

And finally, I also managed to live-tweet estimates of progress at the end of each day, which means (ever the quantifier!) I can put together a graph of progress:

Graph showing how the landscaping was completed over time

The privet removal was arguably a much harder job, by a factor of 3 not indicated on this graph. So Day 2 was clearly the day when most progress was made: when they had a third worker, in fact. There’s lots of other hints I could take from this, but they’re probably too vague for writing down just now!

That’s it!

Again, we’re really happy with the result. But we have to keep looking at the next step: in fact, as I type, there are monumental changes afoot. More on them, later!