Winter's more or less over and it's time to refocus on the positive steps I can take as an individual among many which en masse may compensate some of the damage done by big scale political decisions. Time to decide what to do with the front garden, and get it ready for planting this year's veg.
I'm still faced with numerous challenges – where to get soil? What to do with the rubble from all that mortar I broke up under the paving slabs. What to do about the areas which are too tough to break up with the tools I've got available? How to make the apparently random wasteland that I've made out of the formerly smart driveway into something which looks vaguely intentional? No, I'm not wishing I hadn't started it, but I've a feeling it's going to involve more effort and money than I hoped.
Why raised beds?
My lodger suggests raised beds. I've been resisting constructing anything because I wanted to create a green front garden using the minimum of resources, but the more I consider it, the more I'm persuaded it's a good idea. Raised beds make tending plants easier, create multiple microclimates, raise areas out of the shade, provide a free-draining environment, structure for plants at ground level to scramble over, a container for soil where there is none at ground level, look attractive and depending on how solid you make them and can be a perfect place to perch with a cup of tea. In my case they're also somewhere to hide most of the rubble I created in taking up the slabs from the drive.
Although I've no interest in cars, I'm conscious of the need for people to be able to get in and out of their vehicles, and this provides the first constraint – the height of the beds needs to accommodate the swing of car doors. But this need only affect the middle portion: at either end I can build them right up. I'd also like to drop them down closer to the house so that the whole planting scheme is nicely visible from the front door. Finally - and this is one thing which has me scratching my head over costs for a while - I'd like to build them from good chunky timber.
Timber raised beds
I pick new sleepers as my basic material because their own weight will lend the physical and visual solidity to the piece that embeds it firmly in place and contributes to the appeal of the garden. Old sleepers are to be avoided due to their being soaked in creosote – nasty to work with, nasty for the environment and definitely not good to combine with food crops. The new sleepers are 'eco-treated' – a contemporary version of 'tanalising' (treating softwood) without the copper and other contaminants which that used to involve; and I choose a brown colour as I'm allergic to things being painted or stained green in the outdoors. The wood is all UK softwood, so it's not come too far and is produced 'sustainably'. The whole cost of sleepers, the big screws which I'll use to fix them to each other and the delivery (which occurs a week early with no warning) is around £500 including VAT.
I've got a friend to promise some paid help – another spin off of this project being that I can give her a mini-boost to get her odd-job business underway. We spend 3 sessions lugging, measuring, sawing (a borrowed circular saw), drilling and hitting obstacles: a rotten sleeper, screws which lock fast half way in then won't shift either in or out, a new more powerful drill breaking the first time I use it (the chuck snaps clean off!) – but eventually it's basically in.
Planting for raised beds
The finished article is a collection of boxed areas of different heights – low for sunflowers, sweetcorn, asparagus; medium for brassicas, pumpkins, beans & peas; high for carrots (to combat root fly), potatoes and other root crops, although I will practice some rotation of these once we're underway. Within the higher segments I'm piling rubble at the base and the idea is that the defunct plastic sheeting from the back garden will be tacked to the insides above this, suitably pierced with drainage holes, then some of the brush I cut last time I pruned the hedge and finally the huge hippo sack of compost I've been making over the last year will be spread over the top. With any luck there'll be enough to cover some of the lower areas as well, but I can keep making compost for this in any event. And because of the thickness of the sleepers, there's less soil to find than if I'd simply left the exposed ground without building the beds.
The final detail is that I've left some gaps in the walls of the higher sections, into which chunks of rubble, stones, broken ceramics (potsherds anyone? – sorry, biblical joke...) and twigs will be inserted to create hideaways for a variety of invertebrate fauna – an 'insect hotel' no less. Two of these overlook the middle, lower section so that these guests will have direct access to any flowering plants I put in that area; and all a very short stone's throw from the main insect-visitor attraction: the wildflower border started last September and which is now beginning to look quite lush.
Time and now place to sit and ponder, and watch the neighbours pass by carrying quizzical expressions. Well, it's only me that needs to enjoy what it looks like..!
This article first appeared on Simon's website, www.sjw-landscape.org. Simon Watkins is a landscape architect with a special interest in sustainable edible landscapes and is currently studying for the Diploma in Applied Permaculture.