We bought our house just over four years ago and, with the bulk of the interior complete, we finally got around to working on the garden. As ever with this house, it’s not a straightforward job and there’s a lot to remove before we can start putting what we want into the garden.
This is the garden four days after we bought the property:
We’d fixed up the front garden, pretty soon after the last skip had been removed from it, after the major house renovation work had been completed and, apart from maintenance, we’ve not done much to it since then. Over the winter in 2015/2016, we’d built a new patio at the back of the house, replacing the mess of random, broken concrete, crumbling slabs, rubble and bricks that had constituted the hardstanding at the back of the house.
Finished in Indian teakwood sandstone, the patio was a pretty significant mini-project, that brought space and light (the sandstone warmed the light coming into the rooms at the rear of the house – an unexpected and welcome bonus) to the garden. Completing it enabled us to focus on getting the rest of the garden – a space of about 10m x 20m – into shape.
It was always our intention to create parking space at the rear of our property. Originally, all the houses in our part of the road had garages at the rear of their plots. Over the years these garages have been removed to reclaim the space for gardens, which resulted in our garage becoming closed-in and no longer usable for parking a car. Converting the front garden for car parking was never considered to be a serious option – I’ve always disliked car-parking spaces in front of houses, to me it looks ostentatious and messy and a signal for burglars and, in any case, the space at the front if the house is 14cm too short to meet council regulations. Almost from the time we moved in, I’d worked on ideas to develop the rear of the garden. I had originally envisaged quite a grand scheme with a white-rendered, block-built pseudo-modernist confection, with a car port, a workshop/storage building and a sun terrace. I’d sketched and modelled dozens of permutations of this and had a pretty good idea of what I thought we should build.
However, the realisation hit us that we don’t actually have the budget for such a project (highlighted by the cost of building the 40cm high retaining wall that was part of last year’s patio project) and we would have to scale back our ambitions. Fiona and I hatched a new plan: we would replace the existing, rotten, boundary fences, rather than build walls, and put in a timber building. The overall layout would stay the same, but the look would be traditional rather than modern and feel less permanent. More importantly, we (i.e. me) would be able to do much of the work.
Many more schemas and sketches ensued over the first couple of months of 2017 and a new vision for the garden emerged: a wooden workshop and a summerhouse with parking behind the two of them. We researched garden buildings (there’s now a huge market for them), settling on log cabins from a local supplier. We were then ready to move on to phase two – clearing the crap from the back of the garden.
The first job was to clear the overgrown mess that constituted most of the rear of the garden. We had neglected it from the day we’d arrived, using it only as a dump for the mainly clay topsoil that had been removed when laying the new patio last year. Apart from using it as a dumping ground, this part of the garden had not been touched in a good while – and not just by us, also by the previous owners. The trees there (mostly tree-sized shrubs) – Buddleia, Holly and a Forsythia – were ragged, misshapen and festooned with Ivy. Clearing them took a good deal of effort and required the use of a chainsaw, ratchet straps (to pull them down) and our new shredder. I managed to dig some of the stumps out of the ground, but the holly had a two-foot cube of roots that was impossible to move. The Forsythia’s roots were close to the concrete base of the shed and were difficult to access, making them difficult to remove. This called for specialist hardware; a stump grinder, which we would have to hire in. We decided to leave the stumps for the time being and carried on removing the rest of the rubbish. We made a good few trips to the local tip to take non-recyclable detritus and, meanwhile, the pile of concrete chunks dug from the ground (which were to become hardcore) started to grow. After a couple of long weekends’ work, with the bulk of the vegetation either removed or shredded, it was time to move onto the next phase – replacing the boundary fence.
With the rubbish out of the way, we needed to replace the rotten, collapsed fence panels and secure the rear of the house. We were happy to replace the existing fence with a like-for-like style, but we would use better quality material. I ordered posts, panels, gravel boards and trellises and they duly turned up in time for the Easter break – all 3.5 tonnes of them. The delivery driver was familiar, she had delivered the last consignment of fencing material, a small order we used to add two more bays on the eastern side of the garden (to hide the neighbours’ garage). This consignment, however, was a different proposition; more than eighty items – the pieces of concrete each weighing between 61 and 95 kilos. Thankfully, we could park the delivery truck in the ten-foot way, so we only had to carry the items a relatively short distance. Nevertheless, the work took nearly two hours and knackered both of us, the final items to unload being the 95Kg the corner posts, which practically finished us off. I’d also ordered more oak sleepers for the terracing, two garden gates, postcrete and some 100mm x 100mm treated timber, these arrived around the same time.
Thanks to the way college closure days work this year, I only had to take one day of annual leave to give me eleven contiguous days off for the Easter holiday, I thought this would enable me to complete the fencing. There were 17 bays to replace and I’d already cleared a fair bit of the old fence, so I thought I had plenty of time to get the garden fenced-in and secure. This proved to be a serious underestimation. I already knew about the concrete down the side of the garden – random bits of material of varying quality and thickness, which had been laid down over the years in an attempt keep the old fences propped up. It didn’t look like it would be difficult and I had my 16KG Titan breaker drill to get through the tough bits (it had made short work of the old concrete garden path when I’d removed part of it last year). It turned out that these crumbly bits of concrete were laid over a much tougher 30cm-thick concrete base and this concrete extend all the way around the back of the plot. To make matters even more difficult, the existing concrete fence posts, which I’d cut off at their bases, were pretty much exactly where the new fence posts were to be placed. I had to drill out all of them. Each post hole took two to three hours of noisy, backbreaking (access was difficult to most of them) work. It took four weeks, rather than the two I’d scheduled to complete the fencing, meanwhile the pile of rubble in the garden grew steadily larger.
We’d invited my mate Phil over to stay, to help with the next phase – groundworks for the bases of the buildings. It may sound an imposition to invite friends to stay and then hand them tools to undertake some hard physical labour, but, in addition to being a car nut, Phil, enjoys swinging a sledgehammer and burning things and I knew, with his help we could move this stage on quickly.
When Phil arrived on Saturday morning, I still hadn’t finished the fencing, there were two one more fence posts to install. We thought the very last one would be easy to do, because it was located further down the garden, away from the original garage. It should just be a matter of digging out soil, but no, we found another large lump of concrete, which took a couple more hours to remove. Eventually though, Phil and I completed the fence and we were ready to move onto the groundworks.
We spent the rest of the weekend, shovelling soil, moving things and laying oak sleepers to provide clear, level areas for the new log cabins. Whilst we didn’t complete the work (we couldn’t, because, at this time, some tree stumps were still in the ground and lying in the way), Phil’s vist had left me in a good position to finish off this phase without needing any more help. We were pretty pleased with what we’d done, it was neat, accurate and tidy and my plan was becoming clearer. Despite the number of drawings and sketches I’d shown to Fiona, she hadn’t, until now, understood how the overall scheme worked, now it was clear. And we now had an even larger pile of rubble.
The tree stumps were removed whilst I was back at work the week after Phil’s visit. For the same price as us hiring a stump grinder, a local arborealist came and removed all the stumps in 20 minutes, a lot less time than we would have taken – £150 well spent, in our opinion.
I spent the following weekend putting in the last of the oak sleepers, breaking up and digging out the remainder of the concrete (of which there was still large amount) and moving all this rubble into a new pile, as I’d realised we’d been dumping it in the wrong place. Even at this late stage, there were still surprises; a final lump of concrete, seemingly a buttress for steps up to the shed, proved to be a 40cm thick piece of very hard concrete with Forsythia roots threaded through much of it. By the time I’d finished moving the rubble pile again, I had pile of old concrete, fence posts, gravel boards, bricks and paving slabs about five feet high. I estimated there were about six or seven tonnes of material in the rubble pile, with a further couple of tonnes of paving slabs that were still in use lying around the garden. These were all to be crushed to make hardcore for the buildings’ bases.
The following weekend was the second May bank holiday – I’d set this time aside to finish the groundworks and to remove one metre from end of the garage. (The new workshop’s ground plan, slightly overlaps the existing building, which I still need to use for storage until the new buildings are complete.) I booked an extra day’s leave to give me a good chance of finishing this work in time and, after a lot of Googling and with a lot of help from Fiona, we’d booked a Red Rhino concrete crusher to be delivered on the first day of the break. The crusher arrived bright and early in the morning and, after two days of strenuous effort, the waste from the garden had been turned into something useful and was lying in position ready to be compacted. Neighbours came around to admire the Red Rhino and were impressed by its capacity to turn large lumps of concrete into piles of small pebbles. It now really felt like we were making progress. At the end of day two, with crushing completed and it being a nice, warm, sunny evening and we decided to celebratd the emergence of the new sun terrace, with a bottle of English fizz.
I spent the following day emptying the old workshop, to enable me to move the stud wall that I’d installed four years ago to cover the old garage door. This was so that I could reduce the length of the garage by about a metre to remove the overlap where the new workshop was to be built. It turned out to be relatively easy to move, the difficult part was trying to find space for the stuff in the shed (and moving it).
By the end of the bank holiday, We’d cut up and taken the old garage door, insulation and a lot of other rubbish to the tip, demolished the end of the shed, rebuilt the stud wall and waterproofed it , compacted the hardcore and built a new side gate (part of our privacy programme).
We’d realised that once the buildings are completed, access to the gate at the back of the garden will be difficult, there will only be a 400mm gap between the new and old workshops. I’ll be able to remedy this once I’ve moved enough stuff from the old garage, until then moving anything from the ten-foot way will be a tight squeeze. With this in mind, we ordered the 20mm gravel that will cover a lot of the landscape (at least in the near-term). We had one weekend before the log cabins were due to be built, so I ordered seven bulk bags (about six tonnes) which were delivered to the ten-foot way. Unloading was a tricky operation for the driver as there was only a few centimetres of clearance between the lorry’s grab and an overhead telephone cable. Originally I’d hoped we’d be able to crane the bags into the garden, but the phone line put a stop to that. The telegraph pole at the end of the garden is proving to be a real pain.
Once the lorry had gone, it was down to me to move the shingle into the garden. The idea was to put about half of it down in the garden and store the remainder until the buildings were up. I got just under four tons moved into the garden on the first day, it was hot work in brilliant sunshine and I ran out of time and energy. I’d had some landscaping to do, prior to laying down the landscaping fabric to receive the gravel which meant I didn’t start moving the gravel until quite late in the day. The following morning, I moved the remainder, a much easier job than the previous day, as by now I’d got into a rhythm and weather was much cooler. In the end, I’d moved 60 barrowloads of gravel and each barrowload took thirty shovels to fill. That’s quite a workout for an old man.
There were a few other jobs to complete, such as fixing the trellises to the fence panels (they are only resting on top of them) and general tidying up, which took a surprisingly long time to complete. But, by 7:30 on day two, everything was ready for the log cabin installers.
The guys from Johnson’s turned up on time on Monday morning with the components for one building, the workshop, which they intended to build first. Unfortunately, they hadn’t realised that once the workshop was up, access from the back would be restricted to a gap of less than 400mm between the workshop and the old garage. The guys made a call and arranged for the summer house materials to be delivered today and building would commence, once everything was safely brought into the garden. After a brief discussion about the final placement of the buildings and a warning about the old power cable, I set off for work, leaving Fiona in charge. I’d hoped that a lot of the assembly could be completed today, although it was glorious sunshine on the Monday, the weather forecast didn’t look to great for the next few days.
Whilst at work, I had a few anxious messages from Fiona, who seemed to think that every time work stopped, there was a problem, there wasn’t. There was one minor issue, it seems the oak sleepers I laid are no longer perfectly level and have dropped up to 90mm at one corner. However, this didn’t affect the placement of the bases. The journey back home couldn’t go quickly enough, I was anxious to see what had been accomplished today.
Back at home, I went straight out into the garden, the walls were more than 50% complete. Work had stopped because, the window frames and doors were required to continue construction. The buildings, particularly the summer house, appeared to loom quite large in the garden and the bases seemed higher than I had anticipated. I didn’t say anything to Fiona, although she appeared to have her doubts. The positioning of the buildings was even better than I’d hoped and we would have plenty of room to manoeuvre.
I left for work leaving Fiona in charge (and to fret), having first unlocked the back gate to let the guys in. I was busy all morning and, whilst I was having my lunch, Fiona sent me a photo of the summerhouse with the message “It looks lovely”. It did indeed and it was a great relief to see one building’s construction finished and looking pretty good. During the afternoon, it rained heavily in London, but fortunately the rain did not reach Whitstable and the construction of the two buildings was completed in the dry. Before I came home, I sent Fiona a screenshot of the model of the garden I’d constructed, taken from the viewpoint Fiona had used to snap her photo earlier. I was exceedingly pleased with the correspondence between the two. All that measuring and re-measuring had paid off.
Arriving back home, I dashed out into the garden to inspect the buildings. Now they were complete they appeared a lot less imposing and you can see, once they’ve been blended properly into the landscape, they will be a great asset. I was pleased with the quality of the construction and the placement of the doors and windows. All that was left to do was to complete the roofs, with insulation, top boards and felt shingles.
I’d arranged to work from home for the final day of construction, so that I could be there to deal with any final snagging and to sign the buildings off (Fiona was very nervous about doing this herself). I had a significant paper to write for work and I needed quiet to read a lot of background material – NCSC papers on securing VMs and other IT infrastructure, so the timing couldn’t have been better. I made good progress on the work as the guys got on with finishing the build.
With all the work finished by mid-afternoon, buildings inspected and papers signed, we chatted to the guys about the next stage – painting the buildings. It turns out it wasn’t going to be quite as simple as we’d hoped, the paint used in the system (Sikkens Rubbol Satura Plus) is very gloopy and they recommended we warmed the paint up to decrease its viscosity. They gave us a few more helpful tips about the buildings and left us to it.
I tidied up and went to the back to shut the rear gate, it wouldn’t close. The gate overlapped the gatepost by about 20mm at the top. This wasn’t right, I’d set these posts accurate to a couple of mm. With a measuring tape I discovered that the post the gate was mounted on was well out of true and a further inspection revealed that my neighbours’ corner fence post, which I’d put up a few weeks ago, had been hit, probably by the guys’ trailer and this had knocked against the adjacent fence post putting everything out of whack. (BTW I don’t blame the guys for this accident there is very little room in the ten-foot way owing to my neighbour across the way taking well over a foot out of the road with his garden fence.) It just so happened I’d ordered a two-ton bottle jack from Screwfix (to help lift the dropped oak sleepers) and it was waiting to be collected from the local store. I drove out to collect it and used the jack, along with jig made from old fence posts to push the gatepost back into position. I cut a top bar for the gate (effectively to create a complete door frame) from 100mm x 100m timber and, with the jack released, the pressure held the post in position and I put in some 160mm screws for good measure. I had to reposition the gate hinges and bolts, but with that done, the gate could once again be closed securing the rear of the house. I’d lost nearly two hours doing this, which meant I’d have to work much later than I intended to finish my paid work.
We are now the proud owners of two log cabins. All that’s needed now is to paint them, get the electrics installed (next week), install a rainwater collection system, do the landscaping, decorate them and furnish them – and I thought we’d nearly finished!
We didn’t realise what we were letting ourselves in for, when we started to paint the buildings. Four coats of hard-to-apply, viscous, spirit-based paint. As of 10 July, we’d completed the first coat on both buildings – a quarter of the way there. The work was slow, the bare wood sucking up the paint and using it at an alarming rate. We hope that the next coats will be easier as we’re no longer painting on bare wood. We now need to order more primer for both buildings. We will see if it gets any easier.
July 26: 1 1/2 coats of primer on the workshop, the summer house is primed and about half the first top coat is on. The painting is easier, but the famed British summer is doing its best to prevent us from working. There’s been rain almost every day in the last couple of weeks.
20 August: we (Fiona, actually) finally completed the last coat of paint on the workshop. The buildings, bar a bit of snagging, are now complete on the outside. It’s taken just over seven weeks just to paint the buildings – entirely due to the awful weather we’ve had this summer. Now we have to paint the interiors (one primer, two top coats) and the bases (two coats) and finish the landscaping. Progress has been so slow – it’s amazing that we both believe completing this stage is a major achievement. It’s just painting, isn’t it?
With the exteriors painted we can get on with finishing off the buildings and get the remaining landscaping sorted. The first job is to get the interiors painted, to protect the bare wood from dirt etc. We started on the workshop, but couldn’t complete it over the August Bank Holiday as the weather was too hot! The heat was unbearable in the cabin with the paint drying almost instantaneously when it was applied, we had to wait for cooler weather.
By 5 September, the workshop was almost complete, we still had a small bit of back wall to paint, then I could get the workshop floor laid and and start getting work benches and cupboards installed. I also needed to finish staining the plinths which will be a very dark grey. We’re going to varnish the window and door frames in both buildings as the fittings are difficult to mask and can’t easily be removed to facilitate painting. We think it will look OK, if it doesn’t, we can always paint them at a later date. The workshop is white inside but we’ve yet to decide on the summerhouse colour – we’re thinking pale green. In the workshop, I’ve replaced the cheap outdoor wall lantern, replaced the interior pendant light with two LED batten lights (very bright) and I’ve put two new wall-washers on the summerhouse. Fiona thought they were too bright to start with (3.5 watt LEDs!) but she’s now come round, partly encouraged by the first visitors who saw them switched on last week.
The last difficult job is to level the oak sleepers, which have sunk about 90mm at one corner. I think I’ll be using crowbars, a jack and a fair bit of concrete to get them back in place – maybe that’s why there was so much concrete in the garden. We’ll then be able to finish off the terrace and ramp.
We’ve reached an important milestone today (10 September), the workshop shell is complete – built, painted, electrified and floored. Now I’m ready to start putting workbenches and tools in it. I’ll be taking my time as I want to get it right (and we won’t be getting rid of the old garage any time soon).
We can now turn our full attention to the summerhouse and get that finished, it just needs to be painted inside. We’re still deciding on the colour, but now I’ve discovered I can remove the window fittings without too much trouble and re-fit them, we will paint the woodwork rather than varnish it.
Finally, we have reached a significant point, the buildings and the levels are complete. The log cabins are painted inside and out, guttering is in place, the terrace levels readjusted to compensate for subsidence and all the remaining aggregate shovelled and levelled. There are three small(ish) jobs still to do: complete the rainwater collection system (install the downpipes, place the water butts and connect to irrigation), set up the workshop (a longer job over winter) and furnish the summer house. However, the main building and landscaping work associated with the new log cabins is finished and we now can look at the next stages of garden work feeling less overwhelmed than previously about the scale of the jobs yet to do. It’s a big day for us.
It always seems to be the way with DIY projects that they take much longer than you anticipate, even apparently simple jobs. I thought things would be more or less sorted out by now, but that’s not the case.
The rainwater collection system is complete, but needs modification to prevent the connecting pipes from rising to the top of the shingle that covers them, which is what is currently happening in various places. I will need to dig out the shingle and staple the pipe to the ground, before reburying it. I also need to construct an overflow as the water butts filled a lot fasted than anticipated and the irrigation system for the trees is shut off for the winter, currently the excess just leaks out of the lids.
More importantly, it’s taking much, much longer than I anticipated, to transfer tools, materials etc to the new workshop, in advance of demolishing the old garage to make a parking space. Everything in the old workshop is filthy, often rusty, and it takes quite a lot of time to clean up each item, which I do before moving them into the workshop. Selecting what stays and what goes, finding suitable places for items and getting rid of the excess (and rubbish) is taking quite a lot of time and thought. The weather isn’t helping, either. It’s often too cold, even with a fan heater going, to spend much time in the outbuildings and when it’s a little warmer, it’s usually raining, which wouldn’t matter if I wasn’t constantly going between sheds, but that’s the job right now. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, the workshop has already shown how useful the new arrangement is. I recently made a pair of steel brackets for the TV sound bar so the it can be suspended directly under the TV. It was much easier and a lot more straightforward doing this in the new workshop than the old. If I could make a concerted effort over a few days, I know I can get things sorted, but I just don’t feel very motivated right now – perhaps it’s a post-Christmas thing.
Work started again on the garden in 2018 – read about that here.