Designing the garden – step 5: build it

After thoroughly planning the projects, it was time to get stuck in.

I had been planning all winter starting after Christmas, therefore the timing for starting project work was pretty obvious: as soon as the snow was gone and it would be warm enough to work outside. I thought I would be starting with the terraces, but although I had the decking board already in early April, first it was too cold, and then we had agreed with the neighbour to build the fence.

Once the fence was completed, I started to work on the terrace in the back. Next, I built the front-entrance terrace following the same pattern.

Before I had really started with the terrace in the back, we went on holidays to Andalusia in Southern Spain and visited many gardens, including the Alhambra  and many courtsyards in the Cordoba courtyard garden competition that is carried out there every year end of May. We picked up two new requirements for the garden from this trip: we wanted an ornamental water feature making “refreshing splashing noises” and at least some ornamental paving. We integrated both of them into the path at the side of the house, adding a large circle half-way with a water feature in the middle to the design.

waterfeature-andalucia Fountain in Alhambra gardens, Andalucia

Ornamental paving, Alhambra gardens, Andalucia

With all decking areas done, I started to use the earth removed from the decking area to level out the area for the new lawn. I marked the path and the circle area and dug up all earth from where the path would be and from the paving area. The excess earth I used to raise the beds along the path, overall we significantly raised the garden as the level lawn required hight adjustments of up to 40 cm and I had to even out the slope of the path that this height difference created.  I did not have much of a plan for this landscaping and made it up as I went. I used cheap timber boards to separate earth from areas that needed gravel for proper drainage, mainly a 30 cm wide bed of coarse gravel along the house, so that no earth would mix and spoil the draining property of the gravel. At this time we had also figured that there would be space to create a small run of a fake brook along the path and that there would be space enough for a small bridge so that the path would cross over the brook. I landscaped this and left a gap in the path where the bridge would go.

As with the terrace, I lifted all the earth until meeting the gravel layer from all to-be paved areas. Once this was completed, I ordered a lorry of gravel, that I used to create a well-draining foundation for the paving that will not raise when freezing (as earth does), filling up to create the required height. This meant to level the paving area and creating a smoothly sloping path, level at the circle area. Although all literature prescribes to get some sort of heavy roller to compact this gravel layer, I decided against it. Whilst using a wheelbarrow to move the gravel into place, I had very well condensed all gravel along the path. Also, small sinking of path and paved areas would not be so bad, as we were aiming for a natural garden with old feel to it.

With the gravel in place and distributed carefully, it was time to order the slate paving and the paving stones. We had decided on using white and dark granite in alternating rings for the ornamental circle. I also ordered stone-ash for bedding the paving on and also to be used as gap-filler between paving stones. Using water-permeable sheet, we covered the gravel and spread a 5 cm layer of stone-ash on top. The sheet prevents the gravel and stone-ash mixing, which would mean that the stone ash would eventually completely disappear into the gravel.

Starting with the paving area next to the terrace, I laid out the largest pieces of slate and added and removed smaller pieces of slate until I got a satisfying puzzle together. Then I eased the slates into the stone-ash positioning them as level as possible. Once all were in place I filled the gaps with stone-ash. Then I hosed the area down so that the stone-ash could settle. Luckily we had some torrential rains at the time that helped to settle the stone-ash even further. I then placed the edging stones of dark granite, for the step from the paving down to the lawn we had bought large granite blocks (of the like used to separate the pavement from the road). For the edges I folded a root-blocking thick fabric into U-shape underneath the edging stones, hopefully preventing grass and bedding plants to spread too eagerly. The fabric I left a bit longer than intended and I would cut it back to the required height later. I did the edging for the entire lawn, in other words, I made a large oval shape.

At this point I set out to create the vegetable patch. At that time the area was a large mount of earth. To increase the area and to get sufficient depth, I started tidying the edge of the rock and dead root balls of the large fir tree that was there at the time (it was cut down later by the council to prevent storm damage). There I found a one meter long somewhat obelisk-shaped piece of granite that had been broken of the rock-foundation by water and roots. This I pried loose and moved to the side of the path. I was able to make it stand, and there it still is, the perfect rock feature, just where we had designed one (a heap of stones was in the original design). To manage the height difference between forest and lawn, about 60 cm, I built a wall from the edge of the to-be lawn out of the granite rocks gathered during digging work. I created a small gravel foundation under the wall to prevent expanding frozen earth to tumble the stone wall down every winter. Leaving a 40 cm band of earth, I raised the wall to a second terrace. Then I encircled an area of two meters with rocks and filled it with earth – there was my vegetable patch. Initially the rock wall raised a few eyebrows as it looked rather rustic, but now it is a well-established detail in the garden.

At this point I ordered and picked up the roll-out lawn. I evened the earth, but did not roll it, as is recommended by literature. Laying the lawn and cutting the round shape of the oval against the already completed edging stones was as easy as they make it look in garden makeover programs. I must admit that, particularly due to the fact that I had levelled the lawn with recaptured earth and dug-under grass, and that I omitted rolling the site before laying the earth, has resulted in a somewhat uneven surface.

Although I had not planned this before, I envisioned the bridge over the brook as being slightly arching. Using concrete slabs as foundation, I took 1,50 m left-over beams from the decking framework and cut a soft arching shape using the electrical jigsaw. Those I screwed onto the concrete slabs and screwed a run of decking boards to them, resulting in a perfectly arching bridge. I paved and edged the path from the lawn to the bridge and from the bridge to the circle.

We picked and bought the water feature for the circle and also bought a 60 liter water reservoir. I dug a hole for the reservoir in the centre of the circle and placed the reservoir. I filled the reservoir with water and filled the surrounding gaps with gravel, using water to settling it in. I kept the lid on the reservoir to prevent animals, children and me from dropping into it.

Using sheet and stone ash underneath, I started building concentric circles around the reservoir, using an alternating colour pattern . To allow for a cable for the water feature pump, I placed a hard-plastic cable tube under the paving and left a string running through it so that I could later run a cable through it without lifting the paving (I had not decided what pump to buy at this time). I encircled the ornamental circle with edging stones and continued laying the path all the way to the road.

I also used the back granite for lining along the gravel road from the front-terrace to the path (in front of the shed and the bedding at the side of the house) and from the path to where our garden ends and the neighbours strip starts.

To take care of the height difference between my garden and the neighbour’s, resulting from my landscaping, I built 10 cm dry wall using the granite rocks that I earlier had dug up, all the way underneath the fence and up to the road.


Garden path and ornamental feature after completion

What to grow from seeds this year?

There is this time every year in January when christmas has been left behind, work has started, the initial fitness and dieting frenzy has settled to a steady routine and outside is merciless winter with lots of snow and harsh wind. For the past three years this has been the time when my mind started to work out what to grow, when and where. There is nothing better to beat the winter than watching small green shoots raising in the kitchen window, just the thought of it gets me through.

That is also the moment to take my seed box out and sort through. Seeds I collected last year, seeds that I never managed to grow into proper plants, and also reliable vegetable seeds that will perform.

My seedbox

Today I sorted through the lot and found a couple of ideas that I had planned last summer when buying or collecting seeds. How nice of me to leave this little reminder to myself as a surprise in the middle of winter…

Well, this is what I got, I sorted into two stacks, indoor sowing from February and indoor sowing from March:

Sowing from February:

  • Lobelia ‘Red Cascade’ and ‘Crystal Palace’
  • Rhodochiton atrosanguineum (collected last summer)
  • Basil for kitchen use, red, and two green varieties (some of the seeds bought on a holiday in Italy)
  • Pea ‘Serge’ for kitchen use (the shoots, like in fancy restaurants)

Sowing in March or April:

  • Callistephus chinensis (2 different varieties that I got very cheap last autumn)
  • Tomato ‘Garden Pearl’, trailing cocktail tomato, did not work out last year as my tomatoes last year failed.
  • Tomato ‘Beijbino’ F1, cherry tomato
  • Helianthus Chocolate, annual ornamental grass, tried last year but it did not germinate
  • Cosmos ‘Antiquity’, last year I started in late April which was too late as it flowered only in autumn.
  • Petunia, 4 packs of hybride that I got on sales last autumn and some self-collected seeds from last year.
  • Stipa tenuissima ‘Pony Tails’, still got some self-seeded of those annual feather grass in the garden, but I want some for pots this year.

One pack I could not sort as I have only my home-made seed pack saying “lewisia 19.8.2012” but no instructions on when to sow.

Surprise seed pack

In a forum discussion people report success with and without cold treatment of the seeds, so this looks like the perfect seed to start messing about with from January onwards. Cold treatment seems quite logical to me as this is a plant naturally occurring in the Rocky Mountains where it sees harsh winters. Anyways, I like the flowers and the leaves of the plant very much and could do with more of them in the rock garden. And if the indoor seeds fail, I remember that I sprinkled some seeds about when I collected those seeds last August.

Lewisia seeds

Here is a picture of this plant:

Lewisia x longipetala ‘Little Plum’

Yet again I notice how poor documentation is available on plant propagation. My big RHS encyclopedia of plants and flowers does have pictures and descriptions of lewisia, but no instructions on propagation, the RHS encyclopedia of gardening has categorised lewisia with alpin plants and mentions leave cuttings, seed propagation and division propagation methods for the entire category. But there are no hints to the particulars of lewisia, never mind the hybrid that I have. Even the best lists of propagation and germination techniques per plant that I have seen are only scratching the surface. Despite the internet, there is no certainty yet for gardeners. Google usually yields some hints, but by far not always. Anyways, I’ll experiment several ways and will find out.

Designing the garden – step 4: Plan the details

Once and while the material was selected and suppliers were found, I planned the technical details of the larger projects. For this I had to learn about the less obvious functional and technical aspects that need to be considered to create a garden that will stand the test of time.

For the terrace, I had to figure out how to build a solid foundation and framework so that the structure will not dip or sink, swing, or move. I planned to remove earth and shift gravel to have a drainage that leads water away from the houses foundations to prevent water damage. I had to decide on the kind and quality of screws and the size and quality of the wood for the framework. For my special feature, the tree in the terrace, I planned how to stabilize the decking around the hole, and planned the size and depth of the hole that would be filled with earth so that a tree actually can grow there. I also planned how to cover rainwater drainpipe sewers so that things look tidy but I can open and clean the sewer sieve. I also invested in some tools for the work, and buying good tools needs planning. I also figured the quantities of decking board, screws and framework timber I would need. I drew a detailed plan of the whole piece.

For the paving, I needed to figure out the surface-size of paving materials I would need, the volume of stone-ash and gravel needed. I also translated the length of edging into amount of stones needed.

For the fence I needed to measure the site and plan the number and height of sections to be built (design and material was supplied by the housing cooperative) and have my neighbour agree.

I needed to measure out the to-be lawn and calculate the amount of roll-out lawn required.

For the path and the bedding I had to measure the height differences of the site and plan how to distribute this over the length of the path.

I also had to check that the planned “lazy steps” from decking to paving to lawn and for the front terrace would be following the stair-formula, and therefore would be safe.

As schedule, we planned that I would build first the back terrace, then the front terrace, the fence I would build together with the neighbour at a set date for as long as it took. I would, using the earth from the terrace area, start the levelling of the lawn area and then landscape the path and surrounding flower beds. At this time I would also dig out the foundations for the path and paved area. After that I would get the gravel foundation and stone-ash bedding for all paved areas, and then I would lay the slate and complete edging. The lawn we would get once the back-garden paving was completed. Planting up the beddings would come after that. We did not schedule all the projects in detail, as we did not know how long each would take, but principally reserved all summer for the work.

After designing, planning and buying the materials, it was time to build the garden.

Designing the garden – step 3: you can get it if you really want it

With the garden design completed, all that was left was to implement the design…

It is one thing to see something that you like in a magazine, book or the internet, and another thing to find a place where you can get it (never mind the price). This is probably were the professional garden designers beat us amateurs, because they will only design with materials that they know they can source, and they probably know how to plan to a budget. This is were for us reality kicked in and we found out the hard way what is the done thing in Finland. Quite frequently in books, but also in magazines we found details highlighted that you cannot get from a Finnish retailer. But I also learned that you can get it, if you really want it, and it doesn’t even have to be expensive.

For the decking, I quickly ruled out conifer wood, as I did not want chemically treated material, I had been shown poor longevity of thermo-treated conifer decking by the neighbour of my in-laws and I did not fancy Siberian larch (larix sibirica) that does not need treatment. I also had bad experience with knotholes and splinters in deckings made from conifer wood. This is no easy decision, as Finland is a large producer of conifer decking wood with several companies specialised on thermo-treatment exporting worldwide. In effect this means, that all people I know happily buy Finnish conifer decking wood and look no further. Decking made from imported wood – not the done thing. I also ruled out the plastic-wood mix boards and fully synthetic boards on offer, as I do not like their unnatural look and feel. In the internet I came across thermo-treated hardwood decking board and started to trace down manufacturers. I ended up buying thermo-ash from directly from the factory in Estonia – they delivered to my door (very certainly not the commonly done thing).

Thermo-ash decking after being laid, untreated. 

For the paving, we got slates from Orivesi in Finland, this is actually standard stuff here. For edging we got black granite originating from China and for some ornamental paving we got also white dotted granite from Finland. There are plenty of retailers for standard pavings such as slate and granite cobbles here, we bought from Kivikopla. However, I noticed that the mainstream here must be man-made concrete paving stones, as the usual retailer caters a far larger selection of those than natural stone products. There is one exception,, which back in 2009/10 did have an unbelievable selection of stock in stone and rock of all kind imaginable. Unfortunately, they were forced to close shop in Espoo for what I understand was a local political plot, and they continue only as a tiny outlet much further out from were I live. I have not visited them since close-down sales.

We did not need to order additional earth, as we would reuse the earth from the paved areas and terrace area, I calculated at the time 4-5 cubic meters.

Trees we bought all from our local nursery. We took our time for selecting the apple tree and the tree for the terrace, the other trees we selected in the nursery. Today, with my increased knowledge, I would select all trees prior to visiting a nursery or garden center, researching the candidates thoroughly, but as far as I can tell, no damage was done. We did take care to select slow-growing trees though, and I hope we wan’t be in deep shade twenty years from now.

The old lawn was not of too great quality and I decided to dig it under and get roll-out lawn for the new patch, as there is a producer just down the road.

I tracked down a local lorry company that would deliver gravel for foundations of the path and paved area by the lorry-load. The stone ash to settle the paving into I would buy from the same place where I bought the slate. As I would be doing some height adjustments to the garden, I would also need some small gravel to fill up the drainage next to the walls of the house to meet the new level of the bedding.

Sheet for separating gravel and stone-ash, root-blocking fabric and permeable weed-blocking sheet I got from a DIY store. Also tools, screws and other small metal bits I found in local DIY stores easily.

To find suppliers of specific materials I can recommend the following approaches:

  • Check the local DIY stores, garden centers and nurseries. Also check the gardening and tools sections of large supermarkets.
  • Check yellow pages to find less-known local suppliers of specific materials
  • Talk to friends and neighbours, they might know about unique sources (someone willing to part with an excess stockpile, retired craftsmen, the small shop down the road that does not advertise).
  • Check the classified sections of local newspapers. A lot of business is seasonal, therefore small companies spend their advertising budget in the season, here in Finland that is spring and summer. Sales advertisements for gardening supplies are usually out from late summer to autumn.
  • Gardening and building magazines have references in articles, are full of advertisements and may have a classified section that cater for niche markets, usually in the end of the magazine. Some books have also references, but they are often out of date.
  • Attend gardening and building fairs and exhibitions. There you can discover and meet suppliers and see samples. Small products are also sold there. Take the program booklet with you, it contains a list of exhibitors that is a great source for suppliers, also for stuff you were not looking for when attending the event. The website of the fair might also contain a list of exhibitors.
  • Find the name of the manufacturer and find the website. Some manufacturers sell directly from their website, others have a list of retailers that sell their products. They always will have contact information, I have more then once emailed or called manufacturers and found a way to buy their products that was not published on their website. Particularly if manufacturers are abroad and focused mainly on local markets, creativity is needed to find someone willing to take the trouble of shipping overseas. I also have had need to be very creative to sort out a way for payments, as some small companies do not take credit card payments.
  • Try to find the product on Amazon sells and distributes goods for a network of shops and manufacturers, and ships such goods for free to nordic countries when ordering for £25 or more. However, Amazon also advertises goods from shops that are sold and distributed by the shops themselves. In those circumstances, shipping will not be free. It is possible to filter out products for which shipping is not free. I also noticed that Amazon sells different goods from different countries, also prices are different. That is easily explained: companies try to reach a certain market through Amazon, so they hook up to a certain Amazon country site. Therefore, when looking for example for goods from a German manufacturer, might have a better selection and better prices than the UK site, although shipping is not free to Finland. I have also resorted to having goods shipped to relatives in Germany when they are coming over for a visit. The relatives can bring the goods and I save the shipping costs.
  • Use Google search and price comparison sites to find suppliers. This works well for technical items, but I find it rather tedious to find anything this way for manual items.
  • Use Google image search with the product name. Sometimes the images originate from a web shop or manufacturer.
  • Find forums and blogs specialising in the area. People might be able to advise where to buy or how to build things yourself.

Now it was time to plan each project in detail.

Designing the garden – step 2: create the vision

Previously we had listed the functional requirements for the garden. Now we set out to visualise the garden and to come up with a garden design plan.

Starting off with the floor plan of our house, I created a basic plan showing the house with ground floor windows, doors and outer walls, the area covered by the balcony, the boundaries of the garden, the road and major features such as the rock edge to the forrest, an existing fence and the fence that I had loosely agreed with the neighbour. I created this with a simple drawing tool in a reasonably high resolution, so I was able to utilise this further and print as much as I like in reasonable quality. Using the drawing tool, I also added a grid with thick lines indicating meters and thin lines indicating 20cm, allowing for placing and sizing in relative scale. I further added key measures of wall lengths etc.

Basic plan of the garden

The garden has an L-shape with the long side being the north side of the house, the back garden towards the west and the front garden towards the east. In the back, 5 meters from the house, a vertical 80cm rock face rises where the rock foundation of the forrest was exploded away to make place for the building site. From there the rock rises slowly and after an opening as wide as the garden, the forrest begins.

This plan I printed ten times and I took out two pencils and colour pens. Over several evenings my wife and I drew various drafts, discussed ideas, trying various ways for meandering a path with or without an ornamental area, various shapes for decking, shapes and places for lawn and beddings, until certain features became stable and the design started to take shape.

I also took a stab at modelling the garden with available free garden design tools, but found they could not help to visualise the height differences present nor the adjacent forrest. I found that the basic plan coloured in was the best tool to create a visualisation in 2-D, allowing me to visualise the garden in my head.

The books and magazines that we browsed previously were a great source for ideas for this creative process and we kept all that we could at hand throughout, as the photographs of certain details aided in visualising.

Once the design stabilised, I checked against the requirements, and we concentrated on how to achieve most requirements. Some had to give, there was just not enough suitable space for more than one fruit tree and we decided that the sandbox on the playground 50m away would have to do. Nevertheless, most of the requirements were eased into the design without too much difficulty.

Within the space of a week, we had drawn up a design for the garden. I am still amazed when I look at this today, as we have pretty much implemented the garden following this design.

Finished garden design

In the front we envisioned a terrace as entrance area, levelling the sloped walk up to the front door, bridging the hight with two lazy steps. A small flower bed with space for a small ornamental tree would be left in front of the front terrace. The original solution was ill-conceived as entering the house with a pram or pushchair required quite some technique, holding it with one hand, while with the other hand unlocking the door. It would also be easier to get stuff into and out of the shed.

On the side of the house, we would create a snaking path, making a mystery garden entrance with lots of beddings and some strategic trees that would, once high enough, cover the view from the road and the neighbours windows. A fence would separate our garden from the neighbour’s and provide protection from winds and views. The three trees at the fence would also create strong symmetry and create a backdrop for the view from the kitchen and living room. Some kind of water feature half-way would create a point of interest and add to the view from the dinner table. Maybe a heap of stones next to the path would create further interest. The garden at the side would divert curious views from straying into our back garden, the tree at the corner of the house would further block the view. The path would be paved with slate and all edges would be done with dark stone.

The back garden would have a large decking area creating an extension of the 5m x 5m living room of the same size outside. There would be enough space to place a round table seating four or more outside of the balcony-covered area. An ornamental tree would be incorporated into the terrace, giving interest in spring and autumn and shade in summer. The decking would be following the rock-edge towards the forrest, breaking the straightness of the decking boards and creating a transition. An oval-shaped lawn would be all there is, large enough for children to run around, but no football field. The path would be easing onto the lawn, the other corners cut by the oval would be put into use: the corner by the house and terrace would be a rose bed, the other corder towards forrest and terrace would be paved and could be a site for a small barbecue. The paving would reach up to the rose bed and also act as a lazy step, as the lawn would be lower than the terrace and the paved area. The corner towards the forrest and fence, we would squeeze in a raised bed for vegetables. The two trees in the corner were tall fir trees not removed during building work. At the level of the terrace we would plant a shrub or tree to create view protection from the forrest (there is a little-used public footpath) a bit higher up. An apple tree would be placed were path and lawn meet, the only place sunny enough for fruits to ripen. As a backdrop for the lawn, we would have climbers covering the fence. From the terrace and the lawn steps would lead up the rock.

With the vision firmly set, we started to prepare the implementation.

Designing the garden – step 1: think big

When we bought our house, it was a new build and the only “garden” there was a lawn sloping away from the house. We knew that we wanted a lovely garden, not just lawn, but a garden with a large terrace, with apple trees, flowers, some berries, maybe some vegetables… We had many dreams at that stage, but as yet no vision of the garden. We now have created that garden, but dreams were not what got us there – rigorous planning did.

We started off jotting down our various requirements, dreams and visions. The list contained things like: a lawn for kids to play, pleasant views from dinner table and living room, view protection from neighbours (into windows and into the back yard area), fruit trees, berries, vegetable and herb garden, flowering throughout the season, separation from neighbour’s garden, a terrace large enough to fit family and guests on it, paths that allow for wheelbarrow and pram passage, wind protection from exposed directions, shade in summer heat, sun otherwise, connecting garden and forrest in a natural way.
At the time we loaned lots of garden books with plenty of pictures from the library and got one year’s worth of a gardening magazine from my mother-in-law. Browsing those and reading the design sections added further to the list: place to heap snow from paths, tree on the terrace (leaving a hole in the decking), prevailing colour scheme for flowers, a child-safe water-feature. Through all the browsing we got also plenty of ideas on details and started to see what are the done things here in Finland, which I found very different to what I knew from Germany and England.

What we had done at the time without realising, was to identify mainly functional requirements for the garden, or what the important things for us would be to utilise the garden. This is really an important thing to get right, as some decisions resulting from those requirements cannot easily be undone and a good garden should meet the requirements that arise throughout the various stages of life. At this stage it is really hard to think big enough. I find that in garden make-over programs the requirements are usually simplified to two or three and the designer does then all sort of extras to wow the customers. In contrast, I think it is possible to have tens of requirements on the list and even implement most of those, regardless of the size and lay of the garden. It is all down to creativity to get there. But having articulated what is required is the first step to getting there.

Our list did at this time not yet include too many technical requirements of the likes of: pavings must drain well, the quality of the ground, steps must be safe for toddlers and elderly people – in other words stuff that is needed for the garden to function but that may not be even obviously visible.

Next, we visualised the garden.