Series 1 – Gardening Projects

Series 1 – Gardening Projects – 2021
We have the technology to rebuild this …

Her garden is an odd shape, has bad soil, and has never been maintained in any way, shape or form by any of the previous renters, they simply didn’t care enough for it to bother working with it to any degree and neglected it bar the occasional mowing of the back lawn.

Suze took on the rental June 2020, during the pandemic but sadly before any major work could be started she was diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer in July of that year and had to undergo immediate and aggressive combined treatments of radiotherapy and chemotherapy which began in earnest in September. She was already quite unwell in June when she took the house on but neither of us knew she had cancer.

Suze was away from her house from October to February 2021 living with friends in Canterbury as they lived closer to the hospital she was receiving her treatment from and she only returned to her rental late February this year.

I promised her the previous year, that l would help her with the garden however for reasons already mentioned, that didn’t happen. We did start set targets for her garden in April on the areas that were identified as needing some serious working with when she was starting to get her strength and health back and it was in May of this year that we actually started working on it to endeavour to make it more pleasing to the eye and more importantly more self sustaining and low maintenance.

This particular series will look at our work in her garden from May till now.

The gallery below shows how the garden looked in the last week of April when we walked around to see what could be done and more importantly given that the property was a rental, for a small budget. Suze just wanted a garden that was pleasant to look at and sit in when the weather was warm. She didn’t want to run a compost pile or grow vast quantities of vegetables or maintain big beds of flowers, she literally wanted simplicity and an easily managed environment and preferably a container garden.

The lawn is in very bad shape, it was mostly moss and was also quite ravaged by leatherjacket larvae. The row of four houses were built into a surplus piece of land that had been used as the rubble dumping ground for the builders of the estate that the houses reside in, and these dumping grounds were never emptied off, just levelled and wild grasses and weeds were allowed to grow on the top.

Therefore – this lawn was/is going to be hard work and is something Suze and l will look into at later time … maybe. After all it is just a rental and not your own property which must be taken into consideration as a cost factor.

Her brother built the shed for her last year, just prior to her cancer treatment.

A job well done!

One of the first tasks to take to hand was the space directly outside of Suze’s back door. The patio doors were in her kitchen. Prior to us improving that space when you walked out back all that greeted you was a plain looking small area of paving slabs area. The builders who had built the house hadn’t even finished this area off, and Suze and l were fast coming to the conclusion that this small row of 4 look alike houses were a very last minute addition from the company responsible for building the estate itself and were hurried builds. Unlike some of the other marginally bigger properties who at least had functional gardens with sown lawns, Suze’s and the other 3 were a cruddy bunch indeed.

What we wanted to achieve was just ‘something’ a little more aesthetic and pleasing to the eye. Everything was so utterly shambolic and higgledy-piggledy and badly put together . The paved area was much higher than it should have been and blocked three quarters of the air bricks in the damp coursing, any higher and Suze’s house would be a damp property. It was this sort of lack of attention to otherwise important details that these houses were constructed under … how they got passed it beyond me at times. Over the last forty plus years, the state of so called quality British craftmanship has declined.

I remember in my teens living in a town called Woking in Surrey and l lived just opposite what was soon to become at the time one of the largest estates in Europe back in the later 70’s. We arrived back in the UK in 1977, and the estate had commenced building in 1973 with the initial intention of building 4,500 homes for 15,000 residents and by 1978 they had just finished the first thousand and by the end of 1988 l remember reading they had just passed the 3,000 with the balance being completed in the 90’s somewhere – but when the first houses were designed although they were considered even then ‘basically matchboxes’ the quality of the builds was supreme and yet here we are forty years later and cheaper housing is now exactly that! You can see why people want to build their own homes!!

Even the water butt which came with the house build wasn’t attached?? However, l am digressing …. we decided as we were working with a small budget to go for something quite simple but effective and that was to dig out around the slabbed area to make more of a presentation and expand the back part of the ‘patio grounds’. Neither of us are professionals, but that’s the beauty of Google and YouTube you can find anything in the way of advice these days online!

It took us a weekend to dig out the lawn on account of the rain that made that weekend in May a wet start to the month, level it off and include an edging trench trim for draining, lay down the matting and then to simply cover it with a nice depth of pea gravel. Because Suze no longer drives Betsy, our old 4 x 4 and has a new car called Belinda Bee and who is much, much smaller than Betsy – it meant that we couldn’t buy all the gravel we wanted at once and this meant that we were buying it over the course of three different trips and locations hence why you can see a slight colour difference in some of the gallery shots, this was soon rectified with the very last few bags we purchased which were then mixed in with everything else and raked as one.

We are still waiting on Suze’s brother to provide the edging bricks, but so far, he has failed to help. Suze and l will get it sorted hopefully in the next couple of weeks. But already the patio area outside of Suze’s kitchen looks way better than it did.

The second task of that weekend was to erect the outside ‘ tool cupboard’, which had been delivered to Suze’s a couple of weekend’s previously and she was eager to get that boxed monstrosity out of her small loungeroom! That was easily put together by the two of us without incident …… well if you don’t include putting the front doors on the wrong sides, then most assuredly without incident …. and it didn’t take long to get it out the back and into its final location.

All in all it was a good weekend’s work, and Suze – who irrelevant to her cancer recovery – has never been one to shirk getting stuck in, was in her element and we both had a great laugh to boot! We got the patio area expanded and gravelled and the outside cupboard set up and these two tasks whilst relatively small, had to be achieved before we could start the rest of the garden, which l’ll tell you about in the next episode.

Deeply Satisfying!

One of the other tasks that Suze and l had planned for her garden was the refreshing of the bark chips in her front garden. The front garden like the back garden is also an odd shape, it is also very small and badly thought out. Making matters slightly more annoying is that her front postage stamp lawn is on an incline! This makes mowing that grass a real challenge. I didn’t have any plans to do anything with that – but l did purchase several new bags of fresh wood chip and bark to replace/interweave with the existing layers present.

My first task was to have it laid properly as opposed to how the builders of the house had left it from the time the house was originally constructed several years ago and not one renter had thought about correcting.

The best way to lay woodchip and bark is to weed the area, dig it down to a suitable depth, turn it over, lay down a weed mat and then place the bark content on top. Which is what l did on a Saturday about a month ago. The gallery below displays images for a period of three weeks or so. I had originally purchased four 100 litre bags thinking that would be enough and as it turned out, it simply wasn’t, so l then placed another order for a further 800 litres to be delivered.

The first day l weeded and cleared and bagged all of the existing bark chip because l wasn’t going to waste it – we were working with a fixed budget and needed everything to go as far as it could, it could be remixed with the initial 400 litres and spread again. The weeding didn’t take long, raking all the old chip up didn’t take long either, laying the weed mat probably took the longest as we really had to be inventive with the small scraps we had left from the main roll we had used for the patio gravel out back. But we got there. Then all that needed to be done was for the first four bags to be spread over the initial areas including the small strip by the side of Suze’s car Belinda Bee.

Suze had some old log slices from our previous house that were going to waste and rotting out the back, so l transferred them to the front part of the garden and made a small rockery or loggery to characterize the garden a bit more and inserted them into the scattered lavender and privet shrubbery. They worked a treat.

400 litres of bark chip doesn’t go too far however ………..

…. but the remainder of the garden uncovered was taken care of a few weeks back by Suze with 600 litres of the 800 ordered and now it looks really good and as you can see, Suze has planted some additional plants into the front too.

The second main task of that Saturday l was there to work the start of the bark chip was to weed the driveway … a sort of therapy for me of sorts. I have at times a real passion for the most boring of chores – l think it must be something to do with autism. This particular fetish began years ago when l was working part time at a stables in Lincolnshire and my employers had this huge brick driveway and when l say it was big … l don’t mean twice what you see below. Their driveway measured 60 feet across by 80 feet deep and my job was to weed between the bricks to make it smoother and presentable again. it was a job that would take me roughly 12 hours once every three months. The best results were achieved with a ‘hoof pick’

It was a seriously hot day in June when l sat down and worked for 90 minutes on Suze’s driveway, but the results were immense and deeply satisfying! There’s a good chance that’ll be getting ready for a fresh job soon!

Making it pretty!
This is what Suze’s garden looked like on Sunday 6th June.

Suze and l saw quickly that the back lawn grass at her house was in a terrible state – no one could miss how bad it was. It had been the dumping ground of the builders when they were constructing the entire estate. The line of four houses, one of which Suze rents were we believe an after thought. The whole plot had planning permission, but once the main bulk of the residential properties had been built, this ugly rectangle of land was left and once all the foundation debris had been removed, you can almost see how the designers were ticking their brain matter over to see what would best fill the emptiness?

The answer was a line of four semi detached houses that were smaller than all the others in the estate, but would be big enough to serve as perhaps first owner houses or four single occupancy rentals maybe – starter homes or easy renters.

We see it a lot here especially in new build estates, properties that only marginally tie in with the overall designer build – the four would have served as an additional income to someone’s pockets which is fine if the last four houses didn’t resemble the afterbirth of the estate itself, which sadly they do. Last minute thought houses, that were not 100% completed – they were and they weren’t – things were forgotten and they were hurriedly built too – typical for this style of last minute building.

The gardens especially lose out, this is due to the fact that as the plots served as a dumping ground for 100 other houses – when the clear ups arrive, there is still a lot of smaller debris and building rubbish left in the soils. Then they simply turn it over with a bulldozer and then flatten it, throw on some seed and hey presto …. except, the garden that is left is usually under par.

Along comes an unscrupulous buyer with deep pockets and a shallow attitude, buys all four houses, does the bare minimum and then becomes an unscrupulous landlord – one who doesn’t care, provides the bare minimum of service, hides behind a rental agent and expects the renters to improve the property for them ….. they are all around the world and we have all met one during our travels.

Suze’s landlord is exactly like this … they just want your money and they do very little for their properties except the bare minimum which the law insists they do – it’s a business and you don’t always make a profit by being helpful or nice, especially in the rental industry. This is NOT saying there are no good landlords or rental agents, there are … but there are more of the former than there are of the latter.

By the end of Saturday 12th June – this is how we left the garden. You can see also that during that week – Suze had dug and dug over the border beside her fence line. She had seedlings to plant out the next day. we had moved the big green ornamental garden ladder ornament to the corner and we had moved various things around in preparation for the following day.

With Suze’s garden we decided at the start that we would have a budget and l decided that a figure of no more than £600 would be ample enough to help Suze out and in truth – we have kept within the numbers quite well. I have paid for 50/60% of the budget and Suze has covered the rest. The one thing that would be good to get done, would be the back lawn – but no matter how often we sit down and configure the various ways we could achieve this task and stay within budget the more we realise that whilst we ‘could’ get it done, the damage is so great, that we would probably end up spending way, way more than we intended to at the start.

It requires too much work and whilst you could spend three months at the maximum fine tuning it, you might find that the quality of the soil is so bad, that you are wasting your time. If Suze is still at the property next summer – l will probably look into getting a lawn laid for her ….. however as l discussed briefly in one of the previous episodes as well as this – this is not her house, or mine, we don’t own it – it’s a rental so any ‘major’ work undertaken including the costs doesn’t profit us in any other format apart from short term but it will profit a landlord that is not willing to assist in the finances of it at all – she doesn’t care – so as l said to Suze, why should we?

The decision therefore to forget the lawn for the moment was made around a month ago which was the last time l was at Suze’s working in her garden – at that point, all that we had to do, was tidy up her shed, dress the gravel patio area, sort out the pots that were living in a row down her footpath and dig and griddle the border by the side of her fence. Basically, make it pretty! Time to introduce the aesthetics!

Suze had various seedlings of vegetables, herbs and flowers living in her kitchen and she also had established plants living in pots. We wanted to plant some of the established plants into the border but we had to dig that up and over. Suze had started it during the week before l arrived on the weekend and l was to tidy it up for her and try and break down some of the larger clumps to make it more of a suitable soil for her to plant into.

The soils in her garden are rank and old, there isn’t any polite way of describing it in the alternative. Her lawn is mostly filled with moss and dead grass due to the huge quantity of leatherjacket larvae living beneath the surface. Leatherjackets are the larvae of crane flies and they can seriously damage grass, plants and so on because they eat the roots! This is another reason to take into consideration when looking at trying to repair the lawn – we can do it on the cheap and within the budget but just how long would the lawn be safe for? Probably a short period. Which is why the lawn would have to be dealt with professionally …

Suze had tidied up the previous day and had a big shuffle around between her new lawnmower cupboard and the shed itself and now had more efficient space to play with and breathe again, so the following day – Saturday 12th June all that we really had to do was ‘pretty it all up as best as we were able to’. There are still some things that need to be done – but we will get those achieved hopefully in the next couple of weeks.

By the end of Sunday 13th we had achieved everything we set out to do – we had sifted and griddled soils and refreshed plants and freshened up old soils, tidied and reduced the line of growing plants down the footpath and allowed more comfort space for Suze to walk down it. We had erected the plant cabinet, planted into the border, moved the plants around on the patio area, planted up the strawberries, tidied around the shed, emptied off the compost bins and generally made good Suze’s garden.

All in all, it was a very productive weekend … a month on and l haven’t been able to revisit Suze’s garden – we have both been busy with one thing or another – but Suze informs me that she is struggling with slugs and snails and they seem to be hell bent on eating everything ……. l told her not to worry – sadly that is gardening … l am experiencing the same here, my number 1 garden predator is the snail!!

There is not much left to do now, we are waiting on Suze’s brother to bring along the edging bricks, and to set the three slabs into the bottom of the garden and to connect her water butt up … but, if he doesn’t do these things in the next week, we have said we will get them finished next week, when Suze is on holiday.

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