Back Garden

We moved into our new house, in Bermondsey (central London), in July 2011. Excitingly, the house had a back garden; but it was entirely paved over with only one existing plant (a wild rose tree/bush). We own the house so there was scope to make some quite drastic changes.

Design brief: turn this 8m x 5m paved area into a real garden that meets the needs of the household (both human and canine).

I used the SADIM (Survey, Analysis, Design, Implement, Maintain) design approach.

Survey: Client Interview

There were three adult clients, plus one dog and one prospective baby (still in utero at the time!) to be accounted for.

Pete wanted:

  • grass for Sidney [dog] to be let out on.
  • somewhere for a washing line.
  • herbs?
  • somewhere to sit out.
  • some shade?

Doop wanted:

  • grass for the baby to play on.
  • somewhere to sit out.
  • somewhere relaxing – further inquiry suggested that this meant having greenery and plants around.

Juliet wanted:

  • grass for baby and for Sidney.
  • space for water play for baby?
  • room for raised beds for veggies.
  • washing line
  • herb garden
  • water butt
  • compost heap
  • storage for garden stuff.
  • somewhere nice to sit out, with some shade (south-facing garden!)
  • fruit bushes/canes
  • a tree, probably an apple tree
  • to keep the rose bush.
  • maximise growing space

Survey: Site

Base map (edited from plan map)
Base map (edited from plan map)

Site measurement, light, and water flows are all drawn on the base map. The area nearest the house is a concrete patio; south of that is a brick area with a sewage pipe access in the middle of it; south of that is paved with paving slabs just laid onto sand.

(A learning point from this: do not draw the design directly onto the base map; I had to edit this on the computer afterwards to get a clean base map, as is obvious!)



Garden just before we moved in, June 2011

Analysis

At this stage, based on a very basic assessment of what we wanted from the site, and wanting to Obtain a Yield (both of food and of satisfaction), I set up a single raised bed on the east side of the garden (autumn update) (Obtain a yield; use small and slow solutions). We also started to take up slabs and put down grass on a section of the west half of the garden, to test the principle and give the dog somewhere to go immediately. I observed (by investigating) that the paved slabs weren't cemented in but were just laid on sand with weed matting underneath. Taking up the slabs and cutting out the weed mat gave access to the very solid clay underneath.

I then analysed the other elements that we wanted to get a bit more information.

  • Compost heap: doesn't need light, doesn't need to be frequently visited, so the shady south end of the garden; but does need to be visited in the winter, so best on the paved west side.
  • Water butt (Catch and Store Energy) -- only one place for this, where the only drainpipe is. The requirement to avoid overshadowing the kitchen window and the general small space limited the choice and made it sensible to buy a specific water butt rather than going for any DIY option. I found a 200l space-saving butt that fitted the space.
  • Grass -- already decided to have the grass on the western (therefore east-facing) side and the veg on the other side.
  • Apple tree -- in the grass, to give a pleasant place to sit in later years (Integrate rather than Segregate), and as far south as possible while still getting light throughout the year. This meant in the middle of the grass, at the top of the midwinter sun level. Luckily, the tree needed to be planted in January or February, so I was able to wait and observe the midwinter sun (Observe and Interact). (In practice, we were also hampered by concrete under the grass which meant that it was planted slightly away from my ideal spot (Respond creatively to change).)
  • Rotary airer -- in the grass, but accessible from the paving (so usable in winter), and far enough south not to overlap the patio.
  • Raised beds -- on the east side of the garden. Given the state of the earth underneath (compacted London clay), raised beds were clearly the best option to obtain a yield in reasonable time. This would hopefully also improve the soil underneath over time. It made sense to use the existing paving slabs as a pathway between the beds (Use and value resources), which meant that beds should be 3x2 or 2x2 blocks (3x3 would be too big to reach the middle). I also needed to allow a 2x2 square to access the rotary airer. Within these limits there was only one sensible way to maximise bed space!
  • Shed/storage: no need for frequent access, no need for light. Again, a sensible use for the shady end of the garden, the other side from the compost heap.
  • Somewhere to sit: the patio was the obvious choice, and we already had a bench (which wasn't a great use of the space in fact). But could get more furniture at some point.
  • Shade over the sitting area: idea of a pergola and a grape vine, given how warm this area is (Integrate rather than Segregate). Implementation details a bit hazy though.
  • Herb garden: as the herbs were already in pots, this looked like a good use of the sunny south-west corner of the patio. This was unlikely to be in use for sitting in, as the water butt already took up some of it, and the patio furniture was on the other side of the patio. Pulled-up paving slabs could be used to stack the herbs at different heights, making it easier to access them for harvesting and maintenance. (A cut-off version of the traditional "herb spiral" (Use edges and value the marginal).
  • Tomatoes -- use eastern fence (west-facing) to grow them up. Use self-watering containers between the raised beds (previous experience suggests these are very successful), and plant in the ground in the beds themselves.
  • Satsuma tree -- not sure if this would last! But in the short term, keep it in its pot, against the wall of the house where it would have plenty of warmth.
  • Raspberries -- along the western fence.
  • Mini greenhouse -- perhaps by water butt? Unclear how to manage this.

Design

Back Garden Design

The design shows raised beds, grass, a rotary airer, an apple tree, and a sitting area on the patio. Water butt and compost pile are also shown.

Implementation

Our main restriction was that I was pregnant, so wanted to get as much as possible done before the baby was due (Feb/Mar 2012). This meant dividing things into "essential"/"most important" and "nice to have".

The most important things, so the things we prioritised over that first winter, were:

  • Water butt and compost heap, to support the rest of the garden. (Use and value resources, Produce no Waste)
  • The first four raised beds, for which we already had a pile of reclaimed pallets (Produce no Waste). This meant I could create a low-maintenance planting plan for spring/summer 2012.
  • The herb patch was already roughly in situ, consisting as it did of pots moved from our previous house.
  • We wanted to get the rest of the grass planted in autumn at the best time for it.
  • The apple tree needed to go in ASAP.
  • The rotary airer was another easy practical sustainability win.
  • I had some raspberry cuttings available from the allotment that autumn, so those were easy to plant.

Less important but wound up happening early on:

  • New garden furniture! In an ideal world this would have been sourced from freecycle or built from reclaimed wood, but instead it came from John Lewis (FSC) a few hours before I went into labour (when I suddenly decided it was really important). (Apply self-regulation and accept feedback)
  • The shed was initially a "nice to have", but I wound up building one out of pallets while on maternity leave. (Creatively use and respond to change)



Late Feb 2012, just before L was born



One year on: July 2012

Left for later implementation (Use small and slow solutions):

  • More raised beds, once it was clearer how much sun we'd get further down the garden in the spring/summer.
  • Shade over the patio.
  • Permanent fixing (concrete?) for the rotary airer.
  • Mini greenhouse.
  • Planting for the shady side of the patio.

Maintenance/Tweaking

Changes for 2013

I did some general planning for 2013, then made some specific changes:

  • Divided compost bin into two bins, to make it possible to shut one off, let it rot, and then dig the whole thing out. This is easier than continually adding on top and only digging out the bottom. (Apply self-regulation and accept feedback, People Care)
  • I planted some more fruit:
    • A grape vine to train up the SW facing wall behind the herb garden. While I still plan to have a pergola with a vine coming up from the East of the garden, I like grapes enough that two vines seem reasonable!
    • A blackcurrant bush at the south of the garden. I observed that during the summer this area is sufficiently sunny to ripen fruit (Catch and store energy), and I wanted both to make more use of this area of garden, and to hide the compost heap when seen from the kitchen door. A single bush could be planted with compost piled into the hole, without needing to build a raised bed immediately (as I was short on time). However, it rapidly became clear that the dog spent a lot of time jumping on this bed and scattering earth everywhere, so I built the raised bed earlier than planned after all. (Apply self regulation and accept feedback) This had the helpful result that I could also pile in more compost more easily. (Earth Care)
    • I moved the blueberry bush (moved from the allotment, in its ceramic sink, during the 2012 growing season) up to the patio where it would get more sun and be easier to harvest.
  • I rearranged the herb garden to add more growing space, make a better use of height, and match what we actually want and use more closely.
  • I added a bean wigwam at the south of the garden, to make better use of this space and of the summer sun (as with the blackcurrant bush). Also as with the blackcurrant bush, the initial plan to make do without a raised bed was rethought when it was messier than anticipated. I did however also use this bed to try out compost-in-place, as I could put a small compost pile in the centre of the bed and have it protected by the wigwam sticks. Unfortunately despite two plantings only one bean plant survived, though I am not sure why.

Notes during 2013

  • Aphids on the apple tree being farmed by ants led to the leaves curling up (Observe and interact). The apples this year were also quite small but that may not have been related. I tried duct tape around the treetrunk (intervention) without success; a possible option in 2014 would be to plant ant-repelling plants underneath the tree. Being careful to water thoroughly, and feeding the tree in spring with compost (Earth Care) would also ensure that the apple size wasn't due to either of those problems.
  • Rocket, winter lettuce, and chard, were not being used fast enough? (Least true of chard which was used a fair bit.) For 2014 I need to think again about usage and what we really eat. (Apply self-regulation and accept feedback)
  • The herbs are growing well but the cooks are not using them! Need to find a solution.
  • Both carrots and turnips did not grow.
  • Compost: spreading compost on the top of the soil is all very well, but I think it really needs to be more thoroughly rotted down first to integrate well. Possible solutions: Potential solution:
    1. Actually bother to sieve it a bit?
    2. Leave it to rot down for longer? (cf current compost bin separation)
  • The water butt filled over winter, but the pipe looks like it may be silting up, and it seems to fill quite slowly. May need some investigation.

2013 successes, 2013 problems, and 2013 analysis.

Changes for 2014

  • Forest garden plan.
  • Mini greenhouse (blog post; link to project design is here).
  • As part of a general rearrangement of the patio area, I moved some of the herbs to be right next to the back door. This made a significant difference in usage. (Use small and slow solutions, Produce no waste)
  • I made a planting plan based on usage.
  • I did some work on redesigning the patio.
  • One problem that kept people from using the grass area was that dog poo wasn't picked up regularly enough. This was partly because there was nowhere to put it. I installed a locking 'tub' in a hole by the rose bush, which allows it to rot down safely. (Earth Care, People Care).



Three years on: May 2014 (also more photos in the Flickr album).

Notes during 2014:

  • Water butt pipe seemed to be kinked and getting a bit blocked; however, the water butt did fill up over winter.
  • Peas were eaten by slugs.
  • Courgettes survived in little plastic cloches, then outgrew the cloches and two of the three were eaten by slugs.
  • Look into a pond in a pot?

Changes in 2015

The biggest change was that we got a builder in to take up the existing patio (actually on two levels), put in a proper 6' fence on the west side, and put a pergola over the patio. This (as of April) has already had a massive impact on the usability of the patio and indeed the whole garden:

  • More privacy so we feel more comfortable sitting out (People care); and I feel much more comfortable tending the garden generally so am looking after the plants better (Apply self regulation and accept feedback).
  • We put up a shade sail on the pergola while waiting for the grape vines to grow. This makes it possible to sit out when it's sunny; without shade, the south-facing suntrap is just too hot! (People care)
  • Although the patio area is the same, having it on a single level makes the space more usable (Integrate rather than segregate).
  • Replacing the parasol (which I freecycled) with the shade sail both significantly increased the shade available and made the table easier to move around so the space is more flexible (Use and value diversity).
  • I reduced the number of herb pots to focus on the herbs we really use, moved all the herbs into the largest available pots to make watering easier, and brought them closer to the kitchen door (Integrate rather than segregate).
  • A friend was getting rid of a potting table (Produce no waste), which fits neatly against the west fence, along with L's toys and paddling pool, so no need to get dirt all over the table any more.
  • Lots more space for L to play and paint on!

Patio from back door. Note the two-level structure (a bad use of space). New fence is waiting!
Patio from back door. Note the two-level structure (a bad use of space). New fence is waiting!

Higher part is concrete not wood, and uncomfortable on the feet; note also low, rickety fence.
Higher part is concrete not wood, and uncomfortable on the feet; note also low, rickety fence.

The day it was finished: patio now on a single level with much more room, and proper fence up. (Though the builders broke the raised bed.)
The day it was finished: patio now on a single level with much more room, and proper fence up. (Though the builders broke the raised bed.)

With shade sail and potting table up. Herbs are just visible behind the deckchair, between the mini greenhouse and the back door.
With shade sail and potting table up. Herbs are just visible behind the deckchair, between the mini greenhouse and the back door.

After the massive improvement made by the patio/pergola/fence, I made a few more minor improvements:

  • Cleared out a lot of unneeded scrap wood and old pots.
  • Cleared out the shed and made a 'door' (old sack) for it to make it more attractive.
  • Added a second water butt to the shed.
  • Got a new cover for the mini greenhouse.
  • Moved the rotary airer off the grass to make the grass more usable for playing.

New raised bed, lots of tidying up, 'door' on shed.
Three years on: April 2015. New raised bed, lots of tidying up, 'door' on shed.

Evaluation

This is clearly an ongoing project, and the observe/evaluate/maintain cycle will continue. But to capture my evaluation in a particular moment (summer 2014) is still useful. In terms of the design itself:

  • Positive: overall this design has worked very well. We have a garden which has space to play, space for the dog, space to sit out in, and lots of growing things. Three years in (two full growing years) we are eating some food from the garden and expect it to become more productive in the future. So the design brief has been met.
  • Negative: Being honest about the amount of time and energy I have, and fitting the garden to that, has been a challenge. We are still not making the most of the crops that are produced and need to work on harvesting. Nor do we have any shade outside.
  • Interesting: The move towards fruit and further towards a forest garden (forest hedge, really) model has been interesting to observe.

Update in spring 2015: we have now significantly improved the usability of the space, as above, and solved one of the 'negative' points, the lack of shade. Hoping to work on harvesting this year! The fruit trees/bushes seem to be doing well so far this year, and we may get our first grapes... Four years after moving in, I really feel that the garden has reached something close to a 'finished' state; I don't anticipate any more major changes, and it's set up for minimal maintenance

Reflections

Reflections on the design process:

  • Positive: Doing a proper land-based survey was a really useful practical experience; as was the work required to get very much useful information out of my fellow clients!
  • Negative: This was a big project to take on all at once. I didn't put enough thought into the people-care side initially, in that I would have preferred to put more focus on making the garden a pleasant place to be in and less on growing plants. (Though in the most recent tweak (early 2015) this is much improved!)
  • Interesting: The fact that this was my own garden and so I could treat it as a cyclical project (expecting to do multiple rounds of evaluating and making changes) made it much easier to tackle as there was less pressure. I'm still happy with the big 'landscaping' decisions.

Thinking about the permaculture ethics:

  • Earth care: a resounding success. We now have soil and plants where there was concrete; we're harvesting water; and we're recycling plant waste. Almost all of the material used for beds etc was reclaimed/recycled.
  • People care: too much expectation of myself in terms of maintenance. Not enough focus on the usability of the garden. Having said that, it is in nearly-daily use in the summer, especially as L (toddler) gets bigger. He can identify several different herbs which counts as a win! Further design cycles are improving the people-care aspect; as of spring 2015, once the patio and pergola were in, we were out in the garden most days and I did some of my final portfolio write-ups out there! This year L is very enthusiastic about watering...
  • Fair shares: I would like to share out our produce more as we get more of it (eg with our neighbours who are very interested in the garden). I have given out some cuttings already. There is definitely an unused surplus (mostly of rocket and chard) which does go into the compost but perhaps could be better used elsewhere.

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