My plot had always looked unkempt due to the ‘non’ areas amongst the designed and intentional elements. Then I stumbled upon the terms ‘masses and voids’.
I realised that the solution is to design the voids; the masses take care of themselves, because they are trees or bushes or rustic duck houses or whatever, which tend to be the nice looking bits.
My focus for improvement needed to be the gaps in between - in my case mostly used as paths.
There was also an issue of drainage in my garden. I installed an innovative but amateur rainwater harvesting system which is unfinished in that the ingress of the rain is complete and functioning but the egress is still in progress. This means a lot of surface water.
I dug what I romantically call a ‘swale’ at the top of the garden, running across what I like to think of as a ‘contour’. Actually the garden is too small and level for contours, but the idea is to trap the run-off entering the site from above and spread it where needed. Unfortunately the main run-off from the roof of the council garages entered the swale through the garden gate at the top of the main path. The water was retained by the soil under the path rather than under the growing beds. Once trodden this became very slushy. So the creation of the paths and the installation of a drainage system needed to be incorporated into one design.
Raised beds was the obvious solution, but in random shapes rather than neat rectangles dictated by wooden planks. Old bottles are free, decorative and can be arranged in any shape. They are easy to install and easy to move again. They don’t take up much space, do not rot and they help warm the soil. Slugs cannot hide underneath them.
It is labour intensive but requires no skill. A rubber or wooden hammer is the only tool you’ll need.
You need ready access to an adequate supply of the suitable bottles. Blue gin bottles would be very pretty but horribly bad for the liver. Squat stumpy bottles won’t work well. The neck needs to be quite long in proportion to the body of the bottle so that they stay firmly in place. The taller the bottle the greater the temptation to build the beds up deeper than the paths.
Think of them as edging, not retaining walls. Pint beer bottles would be great, or small lager bottles. If you’re not a drinker, ask neighbours, Freecycle or pubs, and keep an eye open beside the bottle bank. With hindsight, removing the labels is little extra work for greater visual benefit – just soak in dirty washing up water then scrub residue with a copper scourer.
Where the paths run widthways they function as shallow soak-aways, with chipped-pruning drainage that allows water to filter through quickly to the soil below. Paths crossing the contour need a slight camber to encourage the water to drain towards the beds and borders. Here you can see the difference between the path where we were stomping about making the beds, and where the wood-chip path has been created.
The chippings need topping up occasionally and when rotted will be replaced and added as a surface mulch to the beds. This is more maintenance than paving or concrete, but is non-slip, porous and uses a ‘waste’; product onsite. This ‘tempaculture’ also has scope for adapting the course of the paths as plants grow or if access is required in a different place.
The width of the path is an important decision dictated by the size of your garden (and yourself). Narrow paths look mean. If you use a wheelbarrow you’ll need large enough paths to accommodate this. Allow for shrubs and bushes as they grow. I made mine an easy hip-width with my arms dangling at my sides, which looked in scale with the garden. Once you’ve decided the width, add to this the diameter of the bottles – which will look too wide once you start digging. Just accept this. It’ll work out better than starting with a path that looks right then filling it with bottles.
A piece of wood the correct width serves to measure the path and as a temporary retainer for the chippings.
Marking the entire shape of the bed or route of the path is unnecessary. I simply used marker bottles a few yards ahead, then viewing and walking it from different directions and angles.
Winding a hosepipe in the proposed pattern is another option. Paths with smooth curves are good or you’ll be tempted to cut corners. Sharp angles or narrow beds dry out more quickly - an opportunity to create microclimate (or not).
The goal is to remove all the topsoil and put it on the adjacent beds. If you produce more than you can accommodate, bottles can be built up gradually in higher tiers, but try to use sufficient mulching material to hold the bottles in place. They only need to protrude enough to keep soil and path materials separate.
I use an azada - a Spanish mattock - to break up the soil and draw it towards me, but you could use a spade. Then I crouch down and use a fire shovel to dig it out. Be accurate with your marking out, make a neat cut and try to keep the edge intact to make a stable place for the bottles. Ideally you’ll transfer the soil straight to the bed, but in practice I found it worked best to put it in a bucket, so I could also tip it further away than would be practical one spade at a time.
The bottles take a surprising amount of banging considering they are glass. But the job is still best done following damp weather. A rubber hammer is best but wooden will do. Very occasionally a bottle will break (I had about three out of hundreds of bottles). It collapses in on itself rather than shooting out dangerously, but perhaps don’t give the job to children – and do pick up every shard of glass. You will invariably hammer your fingers once or twice – avoid this by inverting your hand and gripping the bottle from below rather than above.
You need to try and get the bottles tight together yet without pushing each other sideways. When positioning allow for the size of the bottle not the neck – it sounds obvious but is difficult to judge. I found mine was an inch from the previous bottle – work out your distance then stick to it. Try to get it right first time, to make a nice, tight hold; get it wrong and you’ll make a hole, which causes instability.
Tree roots can be problematic – keep a good way from the bole. The occasional root can be cut with secateurs but admit defeat rather than work against nature. Once in place plants will self-seed between the bottles, or pop in seeds of your favourite wall or groundcover plants – pennywort, marjoram, thyme etc.
Bottle beds may make you look like a drunkard but they are a versatile method of creating raised beds. And if you change your mind in a few years – they can simply be taken to the bottlebank.
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