Restoring my own garden

I moved to Mottingham, SE London, in May 2015.  This picture shows what the garden looked like then.  It had been neglected for many years by the previous owners and was more or less derelict.  It certainly wasn’t a thing of beauty!  The picture was taken a few weeks after renovations had started – I was so excited about starting that I forgot to take a “before” shot. The tree trunk that you can see lying on the ground on the left belonged to a moribund elder tree that was originally resting at an angle of about 45 degrees on the small wall at the bottom of the picture.

About 130 feet long and 25 feet wide, the garden is in three distinct sections – a paved patio near the house, a long lawned area (although “lawn” is pushing it somewhat!) and a raised terrace at the end abutting the railway line.  This section had a large, deep and defunct pond in it which the previous owners had kept koi carp. The “lawn” is uneven, full of couch grass and weeds, scrubby, uneven and basically a disaster area.  There are two very large and unwieldy holly trees, a large spotted laurel (the remains of which can be seen on the right – it was more or less the first thing to be removed because I hate them) and some very manky shrubs at the far end on the right by the wall.  Basically, the only plants worth saving were what I call a “Wedding cake” tree out of behind the further holly tree (which I had already massacred back by about three feet at this point) a small conifer on the left (behind the big black tub) and a couple of nicely shaped conifers on the right.    The previous owners left several large blue plant pots behind, these can be seen on the steps at the back. 


The Elder tree more or less fell down completely when I tried to put a bird box up in it. It turned out to be almost completely hollow in the centre. The holly trees on the left have been drastically pruned back, and several tatty and uninteresting shrubs have been removed from the end of the garden on the right hand side.  Unfortunately two of these were holding up was was left of the fence, and in a couple of places this has fallen over as a result! Most of it fell down slowly in subsequent weeks. The picture is still a scene of devastation and neglect.  The only wildlife consisted of several squirrels, an occasional fox (unfortunately too slow to catch the squirrels), a large colony of horseflies (all of whom decided to bite me) and lots of mosquitos breeding in the stagnant water of the pond (all of which also decided to bite me).  


Most of that winter and early spring was spent destroying and clearing. It was a long, slow, miserable process.

Its sometimes said that if you listen to a garden carefully enough, it will tell you what it wants to look like. Having stared at the garden from an upstairs window for a while, I eventually heard it say to me “I want to be in circles”.  So three connecting circles of bricks were planned running down the length of the garden, to be infilled with lawn.  This would also increase the amount of bed space significantly.  I thought a measure of formality would suit the style of the house (mid 1930s) and would be a gentle pastiche of the garden style of Gertrude Jekyll, popular before the First World War and a style which in the thirties was starting to trickle down from the gardens of the very wealthy to the suburbs. I then had to get rid of the – well, I can’t really dignify it with the word “lawn” because it was like walking across moorland. It was bumpy and uneven and full of that horrible thick stemmed grass that goes all tufty. It had to go. I managed to bend two garden forks on it before giving up and hiring a professional with a grass stripper, and even then he didnt manage to get it all out. This would prove to be my undoing a couple of years later but for now, read on!

The next job was to acquire 350 old bricks!  The local builders merchant sold them for £1.50 each but I wasn’t willing to pay that much, so I spent a couple of weeks touring the local streets peering in skips outside houses that were being renovated.  Its amazing how many people don’t realise the commercial value of reclaimed bricks. So old bricks started to pile up quite rapidly – aided by someone who was knocking down their garage, and someone else replacing an old wall.  Then everything had to stop for a month because I had to go into hospital for an operation on my stomach and wasnt allowed to do any gardening. When I had recovered, I then had to teach myself how to lay bricks!  Fortunately, it didn’t seem too difficult, and it wasn’t – but it did take me an awfully long time – roughly 12 – 15 hours, done in short bursts.


By this point I had planted tall nicotiana in the wall planters, basically to hide the awful mess from view as much as possible because it was starting to depress me!


What also depressed me was the realisation that I was working with a garden full of the most awful soil imaginable. Solid, unyielding clay. It bakes so hard in summer that I could have made all the bricks myself. To cheer myself up, I bought myself a compost bin in the shape of a beehive. Several visitors actually mistook it for one!

Having marked out the circles with bamboo canes and string, I then had to dig a shallow trench for the bricks and rest them into a combination of sand and cement and then mortar them in.  The design isn’t ever going to win any prizes for geometrical accuracy (the circle at the far end is particularly dodgy in parts).  I did then try to dig over the new borders but managed to bend two more forks in the process and give myself some particularly nasty blisters, so had to give up about 1/3 of the way down.  Anyway, eventually the brick pattern was complete.  I sowed the circles with grass seed – our road turned out to be too narrow for a turf delivery truck!  I should have spent a lot longer digging out all the old grass – eventually this omission was going to give me a lot of extra work……. And by this point, I had found an old bird bath in all the rubbish at the end of the garden.


Above: early winter 2017.  Total transformation takes hard work, but I achieved it!  The brick circles are in place and the lawn is starting to grow in.  The wall planters have been planted with bulbs and herbs, and two box topiary ducks are shaping up in their frames.  Obelisks have arrived (I found them at the Hampton Court Flower Show) and have been painted dark metallic blue, as has a gothic arch over the gate (the gate was there when I arrived but very shabby, so this has been wire-brushed down and repainted).  A new and hideously expensive fence runs the entire length of the garden (but plenty of room for climbers, so worth it). The greatly increased borders have been dug over and mulched with leaves (I spent a lot of time raking leaves up from several open spaces nearby!). 

This is the garden from my bedroom window in late winter 2017. The lawn is still a bit patchy in places and full of dandelions and a particularly invasive Oxalis.  30 large bags of leaves were used as mulch!  At least 100 tulip bulbs are waiting underneath. The soil is solid clay and getting them in was very hard work. Alas, over the next couple of years, more or less all of them rotted away because clay soil retains water…. Plant catalogues are arriving regularly and I am hitting my credit card very hard!


Unfortunately the winter of 2017 was one of the worst and longest on record.  Endless months of grey skies, drizzle and heavy snow – the first load of which arrived, hung around for weeks and then finally disappeared, followed by a few days of warm bright sunshine.  Gardening activity increased exponentially, and then had to stop again for another fall of snow, followed by further weeks of dull grey nothingness. 


Two bird boxes have been installed in the holly tree, and the old bird bath left behind by the previous owners has been scrubbed clean of moss and set up. There are bird feeders in the holly tree, and birds are now regularly visiting – I’ve seen blue tits, great tits, goldfinches, a large family of long-tailed tits, a pair of dunnocks, at least three robins (either the garden is at the borders of three separate territories or they are a family group that has stuck together – for ease of identification they are called Bob 1, Bob 2 and Bob 3), a pair of wrens (Bibbidy and Bobbidy), blackbirds, magpies, the ubiquitous parakeets and, on one amazing occasion, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker.  Occasionally a grey heron floats over on its way to the moat at Eltham Palace or the lake in The Tarn.  Once it actually stopped by to see whether there was anything worth eating in the pond.  It was very early morning and it stood there in the half-light looking like a lonely ghost.  Having realised the pond was empty of fish, it slowly flapped away and I haven’t seen it since.


Talking of the pond reminds me of the struggle to do something about it! Right up at the end of the garden, it was a real eyesore. Surrounded by grotty paving slabs in a chequerboard pattern with vile blue/purple stone chippings, this area was basically Weed City! Every few weeks I pulled out buckets of weeds and for a while the area would look relatively tidy. But not for long. So I decided that Something Must Be Done. Quite what remained to be seen. But Something, anyway. Of course, having been neglected for years, this bit of the garden wasn’t going to be transformed overnight. It proved to be a task worthy of Hercules himself.

The first task was to empty the pond, so I clambered in and of course, the pond being about four feet deep, the water came up over the top of my wellingtons…. Plying my trusty plastic bucket, I managed to empty the pond in a couple of hours. Unfortunately I neglected to consider where the water would go to….. the next morning the patio area immediately outside the kitchen door was six inches deep in it! In the picture above, I have already levered up most of the paving slabs and chucked them in the pond in an attempt to fill it in. These were followed by about 50 bags of builders rubble. All the stone chippings followed them.

Also up at this end was what was laughingly called a “rockery” – basically a big mound of solid clay covered in several layers of black plastic, through which some manky shrubs had been planted, all of which was rapidly being smothered by wild honeysuckle All that went into the pond as well! The edging turned out to be old railway sleepers. Yes, they went in as well! Eventually, after many days of toil, the entire horrible thing was filled in and I dragged lots of earth over it all and went and had a stiff drink and a sit down!

While down this end of the garden it occurs to me that all the photographs so far have been from the back door and you’ve never seen the return view, so here I am standing on the semicircular steps looking back the other way. You can see the compost bin on the left and, just within shot next to it (above the brick post right at the far left of the picture), a matching Insect Hotel.  While standing here I notice that the lawns are being invaded with couch grass – I obviously never managed to dig all of it out to begin with and the roots are still alive, so for an hour I’m down on my hands and knees digging clumps out.  The more I look, the more I see.  This looks like its going to be a fight to the finish.  


Another previously unseen corner, this time the area to the right of the back door, which doesn’t get a great deal of direct sunshine at any time of the year, and for most of it is quite gloomy and damp.  I had planters made from old decking boards which I have filled with ferns and hellebores.  The two wrought iron planters were rescued from a skip, sanded down and painted dark blue to match the rest of the metalwork in the garden.  The climbing plants are shade-tolerant jasmine, at this point in the year still not broken into leaf.  The terracotta mask is a gorgon, probably Medusa.  The “trellis” sections I pulled out of a skip.


And this is the other side of the patio. I bought myself a birthday present in the form of a greenhouse, and there is obviously some major potting up of plants going on in this picture! My neighbour (thankfully) decided to replace the fence section that runs along our boundary before it fell down completely. I have plans for it!

Up against this fence is where the old elder tree had originally been. I am still finding saplings of it coming up all over the place, obviously some of the roots still survived. So on a “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” basis I decided that if I was going to have to live with them, I might as well do something with them. I decided to attempt some pleaching. Now, elder is not a great subject for pleaching. The new stems can be brittle, and most of the time when I tried to bend them, they snapped, leaving me with a hole in the “grid” of branches.


Fortunately my neighbour replaced that section of wobbly fencing with some strong fencing panels. This gave me a “hard background” to put screw eyes into and start tying branches in properly and securely rather than trying to mess about with bamboo canes. A couple of years later and I am starting to get the effect that I want – a living screen. There is already wild honeysuckle taking advantage of the support!

By 2018 things were starting to get into some kind of shape and the entire garden was beginning to look rather more how I had envisioned it. Rather than endlessly slogging away ripping stuff out and filling things in, I was able to spend more time on the aesthetics than the landscaping.

I decided that, as the afternoon sun hit the upper part of the garden from early afternoon and stayed there until sunset, it would be the ideal place for a summerhouse. I originally planned decking in this area but eventually decided that I would dig it all over, level it (I do make so much work for myself!) and turf it over. So, out with the spade, the fork and the backache cream! The clump of cordylines were choked with many years’ worth of dead leaves all the way up the trunks. So I decided to make even more work for myself and strip these all out.

Yes, that is my finger

I had, like everyone else, lots and lots of plans for 2020. And then the world threw a spanner in the works and we went into Coronavirus lockdown. Gardening supplies and plants weren’t available, and it seemed unlikely that anyone would be coming round to sit in the garden for some time. So I decided to carry out a project that I had been meaning to do for some time and that was sort out the lawn. As I mentioned, it hadn’t been properly dug over during the first phase of the restoration, and was very lumpy and increasingly full of couch grass and perennial weeds. It all had to go and I had to start from Square One again. I was away from home a lot of the time and only able to get back to the garden at the weekends so getting rid of all the old lawn took a looooooong time! First each section had to be covered in fleece to kill off all the old grass and weeds. Then the section had to be roughly dug over and the clods left to dry out entirely. The dead grass roots had to be separated out and composted and the clods broken down further. Then another dig over to finally level each section. The weather didn’t help – April and May were very hot and very dry, and the clay soil far too hard to dig as a result. So of course I had to wait for sufficient rain at each stage of the process to soften the soil, and then dig it, and then wait for it to dry sufficiently to work. The entire job took me until late June, by which time I was heartily sick of it. I was going to seed it, but eventually decided that turf would be quicker and far less hassle. Of course, then we got another long bout of very hot, very dry weather so I had to put up with the view until more suitable weather arrived.

Sometimes inspiration and ideas come at the strangest times, completely unannounced and out of the blue. After a fairly intensive weeding and generally tidying up session recently I was having a mug of coffee at the back door prior to hitting the shower and my gaze lit on the small plastic storage cupboard that currently resides next to the greenhouse and I thought how tatty it looked. It has the lawnmower, plastic storage boxes of bird food and bags of potting compost in it. Although its the right height for me to use as a potting bench, its not ideal because its not very sturdy and the lid slopes quite a lot. So I decided to move it right up to the far end of the garden and get it visually and physically out of the way. This was a feat in itself as I had to empty it, move all the stuff off the top and then clear a way through the pots on the patio, the gate, the lawn area and the upper patio. Then, the odd bit of fence behind it (which is actually my neighbour’s and which got rather marooned when they built their extension (before I moved in)) decided to start falling down. It was an eyesore anyway so I was really rather relieved. So, out with the claw hammer and, rather like the Queen of Hearts shouting “Off with his head!” it was “Away with the fence!” Half way through the process I began to wish I hadn’t started it but, after some major tidying and sweeping up of rotten timbers, it gave me a useful space. I looked at potting benches online but they all seemed very expensive and not really very sturdy, so I am currently investigating the possibility of building one myself! Watch this space!

Update on the potting bench. I looked at plans for a couple on the internet, selected one and went along to the local DIY store armed with a tape measure and a pencil. Alas! Things aren’t measured in inches any more! 2 x 1 planks are now…… these strange millimetre things, which don’t exactly correspond with inches! Several frustrating minutes with a calculator later I said “bother” (well, no, actually I said something else) and decided against building one. Mainly because I can measure something three times and still get it wrong. So I thought about upcycling an existing bit of furniture. Off to one of the local charity shops and there was an old and tatty chest of drawers that said “Take me home and turn me into a potting bench!” So I did. Took the bottom two drawers out to make room underneath for the old fruit crate that has been haunting the greenhouse for years (I use it to keep spare plant pots in), bodged up a couple of shelves from a bit of old skirting board, attached some hanging rails (scavenged from the side of an old wooden play pen that I found…..yes, in a skip), slopped a bit of paint about and voila, as they say! I’m going to use some old bathroom tiles on the work surface to make it extra durable and easy to clean. The chest cost me £20 and I had the paint hanging around for repainting the greenhouse. The shelves cost me nothing except a bit of time and effort and the tiles were hibernating in the garage. The only thing I am going to have to spend money on is some hooks for the rails so I can hang things up. As it was going to have cost me over £100 for the wood to build a potting bench, I consider this a major saving. More money to spend on wine! (Oh, and plants of course. In fact, the ornamental peppers on the top shelf were originally 4 for £11 at my local DIY centre but had been been reduced to £1.50 each. Nothing wrong with them, they were just a bit faded because they had been watered too much).

At last, some distinct progress on “Operation Summerhouse” , the reason for all the hard work going on at the very top end of the garden. I have finally decided on the style I want (after having changed my mind several times) and am going for one which, although the manufacturers refer to it as a “contemporary style” actually seems to me to be incredibly traditional in a very specific way. The design I have chosen actually bears more than a passing resemblance to a small Grecian temple. Unfortunately its not available until very early spring next year, so there is plenty of time to deal with the final levelling of the top part of the garden and making arrangements for a solid surface to act as a foundation. While dealing with this over the weekend, I almost came an expensive cropper! I had decided on the 10ft wide by 8ft deep model and spent an hour or so lugging old paving slabs about to make the foundation (if you have been paying attention, you will recognise that these slabs were actually up at the top of the garden when I arrived, in a horrible chequerboard pattern. Fortunately I saved a lot of them, even though even more went into the pond) As I was standing back admiring my work and sweating copiously, it suddenly dawned on me……. All the sections come pre-assembled, rather like a flat pack piece of furniture. That meant that the floor (10ft by 8ft, remember) would come as one piece. And the doors in the house are only 7ft high, and there is no side gate….. Thankfully I hadn’t at that point hit the “purchase” button on the website! However, I did have to take all my hard work to bits and rejig all the paving slabs to take account of the smaller size…….. I said “Bother”. No, actually I said something else. No, I know the foundations aren’t quite level, but I’m working on it!

I plan to paint the summerhouse a pale stone colour (white would look too glaring, I think). Being me, I am already making plans for a decorative pediment to enhance the “temple” feel. I’ll cut a big triangle of wood and get busy with the papier mache, which I will seal with gloss paint and yacht varnish. There are various deities who could end up being the Diety-in-residence: Flora, Goddess of Flowers; Pomoma, Goddess of Fruit; Sylva, Goddess of Trees or Ceres, Goddess of Harvests. The Patron Saint of Gardening is St. Fiacre. If there is a Patron Saint of Hard Graft, perhaps they would be a good choice!

Gardeners are notoriously thrifty and it occured to me earlier this year that, when the sun beats down on the greenhouse, my seedlings and young plants suffer (I lost enormous amounts of them earlier this year when I was away), so it needed some kind of screening on the roof. However, I wasn’t willing to pay for proper screens, so waited for some inspiration to strike. This usually happens when I am passing a skip. And last week it struck – as I was passing a skip. Poking out of it was a roll of twig screening, so I pulled it out, took it home and got busy with the secateurs. Pretty nifty. And free. In this shot you can see that I’ve also tiled the top of the potting bench.

So, as if I hadn’t given myself quite enough to do….. I decided to make myself a sundial for the garden. Not the actual sundial bit, of course. Just the plinth. I was inspired to do this by, surprise surprise, finding something in a skip. One of my neighbours threw out an enormous wooden bedframe and I saw it and immediately thought of a sundial. As you do. So, it had several sections of candytwist wood which immediately brought to mind a column of some sort. Where would you find a column in a garden? Holding up some sort of plinth? What would be on a plinth on a column? A bust perhaps? A planter? Or….. a sundial….. As usual, my enthusiasm carried me away before I thought of taking any pictures. So here is the bedframe already being reduced to its component parts. It required a lot of effort with my saw.

Firstly the varnish had to be stripped off because there was no way that any paint was going to sit on that wood. So, out with the Nitromors. The next task was to join the two smaller pieces of candytwist wood together to form the column itself. (The picture below shows the two bits before I had stripped them. I have no idea what to do with the other bits! They are still in the garage if anyone has any ideas).

The next part of “Operation Sundial” was to make a place for it in the garden, and the middle of the centre section of lawn seemed the best place. Fortunately I haven’t yet got around to putting turf down (I’ve been busy with lots of other things lately) so this seemed a relatively simple job. Ha. I’m not very good at measuring things; I can measure something four times and still get it wrong. And this proved to be the case with the sundial bed. First the circle was too far off to the left. I only found this out after I had dug the trench for the bricks and started to mortar them in. So it all had to come out and I remeasured. All proceeded quite well until I noticed that the central circle was too far up the circle of lawn. So it all had to come out again. The third time it was in the right place in the lawn circle but…… my measurements were wrong again and the circle looked more like an oval. A very wonky one. At this point I almost threw in the towel (and the trowel). But I FINALLY got it right. Having spent so long on it, once I have mortared in the bricks I’m going to dig out the centre, fill it with potting compost and grit and plant thyme. This is an example of gardener’s humour.

So, I headed off to eBay for a sundial. But I got distracted and started looking at armillary spheres instead, which I thought might be rather more sculptural than a flat sundial plate. I finally found one which I liked. It DID cost me rather a lot of money but hey, we live once, right? And I saved a lot of money by not buying a potting bench, right? I sawed up some old bits of MDF and made a top plate for the sphere to stand on and a bottom plate to support the column. I make it sound as if it were easy but my DIY skills are not great! It took me a long time to get the thing assembled, but I persevered, and am very pleased with the results. It needs painting, of course, but that is a job for another day. Of course, every good sundial needs a motto, and I spent a long time trawling the internet for suitable ones. I thought of all the standard ones – “I only count the sunny hours”, “It’s later than you think” – considered “The clock upbraids me with waste of time” which is a line from “Twelfth Night”, “Do not squander time, for it is the very thing that life is made from” which appears in a static shot of a sundial in the film “Gone with the Wind” and also “I won’t think about that now. I’ll think about it tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day”. None of these felt quite right.

Of course, its quite true that inspiration always comes when you are not thinking about it. I visited a garden down in Sevenoaks, Kent, and there, carved on a bench was exactly what I had been looking for. “A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life” which is a quote by Charles Darwin. The internet provided me with a pack of tiny wooden letters which I stuck onto the top plate, also adding “RTB hoc fecit 2020” (RTB made this 2020) out of sheer vanity. Watch this space for the finished article.

Below – before and after. Yes, October has arrived and its been pouring with rain so I decided that the time was right to get turfing. Unfortunately my maths was out again and I didn’t order enough the first time round. I got 2 circles turfed and ran out. So I had to order some more. Never having put turf down before (and certainly not intending to ever do it again!) I hadnt realised what hard work it is. I think I mentioned before that there is no side entrance to the garden so all the turf had to come through the house. And when turves get wet in torrential rain they weigh an awful lot more. It took most of a day to do the first two circles. It was a very muddy process, rather like turfing the Somme. At one point I had to stand there and laugh – the mud was squelching underfoot, the rain was pouring down and I looked like I had been driven over by a tractor. Fortunately there was so much rain that week that I didn’t have to water it. I finally finished the job the following Saturday morning. Having got up at 6.30 because even more rain was forecast, I had finished by 11. Ten minutes after I took the picture on the right, the rain started in earnest.

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