WILL IT EVER STOP RAINING?

At the end of my last garden blog I left with the pond being completed but the remaining area between the pond and our boundary fence was still unworked.  This blog will look at the work we undertook to get this as we wanted it.  Unfortunately, while last spring/summer was filled with sunny days this year was the complete opposite.  One of the most frustrating things was that we had so little to do to complete the job but continual rain meant the area was completely unworkable, and although we did get some days of dry weather they were so few and far between that the area didn’t get a chance to dry out.

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The first thing that we tried to do was to dig over and rake the area to clear it off all the weeds and get it level for the next stage of landscaping.  As we had already decided that we were going to store the outdoor tools like the roller and wheelbarrow next to the fence we used a lot of the rocks we removed from the soil to produce a hard standing area next to the fence.  We also planted the area between the patio and the fence.  These were all plants that had been transplanted into pots before we started working on this complete area.

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We then moved onto the next stage which was constructing the compost heap and the bug hotel.  You may remember from our previous work that we had slabs delivered on wooden pallets.  Well, rather than throw them out we decided to recycle them into the ends and sides of our compost heap.  We used extra wood from previous projects to reduce some of the gaps.  As soon as we finished our wee friendly robin landed on it and inspected it.

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Next – our bug hotel.  Most people who know me will know that for the last few years I’ve been planning this bug hotel, and have been gathering some things to put into it.  Again, this was built from wood we had in the garage.  We’ve started filling it with well-rotted wood, partially rotten wood and freshly cut wood, dog hair, hay, pine cones, wood shavings and bamboo.  We still have lots of space so filling it will continue to be a work in progress.  We have deliberately stood it on lumps of wood as we intend filling the bottom area with leaves once they fall in the autumn.  This should give a good home for one of the many hedgehogs that visit our garden.

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We got to this stage and then it started to rain, and rain, and rain.  So, this stopped all work in this area as walking on it was turning it into a quagmire.  Eventually, several weeks later, it stopped raining for long enough to let the soil dry out sufficiently for us to work in the garden.  We still had some slabs left over from our patio(s) so we decided to make a short path from them, but as we still wanted this to look like a wilder area in the garden we left spaces between them to allow grass to grow through.  So, path building for us, and we were very pleased with the appearance – exactly what we wanted.

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DISASTER.  No sooner than we had completed the path it started raining again.  We had visions of the sand underneath the path being washed away.  After about a week of constant rain it finally stopped.  So we left it a couple of days to dry out and then we walked on the path only to see torrents of water streaming from under it with every step we took.  Obviously not dry enough to work round it then.

Finally we got some sun with the wind, and the area dried really quickly.  We gingerly walked on the path to see if we would have to re-lay any of the slabs but no, they were all OK.  Now we were able to landscape the area around the path.

Our intention had always been to put screening up to hide the worst of the storage area.  After a lot of deliberation we decided on putting up a brushwood screen as it wouldn’t be a complete barrier.  We also decided that we wouldn’t put the screening down to the soil level as we wanted to allow space for the hedgehogs to wander through the garden.  We had already bought the screening but needed to fit it to a frame.  More wood came out of the garage and we built the frame and attached the screening.  We thought it would be really difficult to hammer the wood into the soil, but no, down they went quite easily.  We put the frame uprights about 40 – 50 cms into the soil.  To finalise this area we planted honeysuckles at each corner.

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Now, we could finalise the landscaping and planting in this area.  We planted grass seed on both sides of the path and in-between the path slabs.  The area between the shed and the path, and the area between the path and the irises were planted with a Scottish wildflower seed mix.  We hope this will give an area of traditional Scottish wildflowers for all the insects and birds to enjoy.  We used old CDs on string to try to persuade the local woodpigeons not to eat the seed until it is established.  Once established the CDs will be removed.

seeded path

Area completed and the grass seed and wildflower seed sown.

Another area of our garden that has always been a disappointment to us is the area next to our gate.  There is an old tree stump there that we cannot dig out which makes it really difficult to mow.  As I had some wildflower seed left over, I decided to sow more wildflowers in this area.  We have laid a wooded border to delineate the end of the grass and the start of the wildflowers.  This is purely to allow us to know where we can stop mowing the grass and let the wildflowers establish themselves.

Seeded area at gate

Wildflower area between wooded boundary and garden gate

Finally, we reseeded the grass area as it has suffered a lot of wear and tear due while we were carrying out the landscaping.

Completed area for this year

Area completed this year: wildflower area, pond, patio, screening, compost heap and bug hotel

Have we managed to enjoy our garden?  Well, not really.  We get the occasional glimpses of sunshine but the cold, wet and windy theme has now continued into July – but who knows, next week could see the weather improve.  I will live in hope.

Pond, Patio and Planting

In our last blog we covered the hard landscaping of the pond.  This blog will cover the completion of the pond and marginal landscaping.

Once we picked up the pond liner and other bits and pieces our next task was to empty the remaining water from the bottom of the pond.  There was a reason for this.  We knew that we had both newts and a frog in the bottom of the pond.  We also knew there were lots of pond insects mixed in there too.  We also knew that in the gunge at bottom of the pond there may be other valuable wildlife such as caddis fly larvae etc, so, out came the buckets and the whole lot got emptied into a trugg for temporary safe keeping.

7023 liner as placed

Pond liner in place, and trugg containing the wildlife

The pond liner we bought when we first did the pond several years ago was quite difficult to fit.  We deliberately chose a good quality one at the time, but it was really awkward to work with.  And, it was plastic.  This time we purchased an eco rubber liner.  I fully expected to take all afternoon trying to fight with it to get it to lie into the ledges correctly.  It was beautiful to work with, really flexible and moulded into the ledges really well.  I think I finished the whole thing in less than an hour.

7033 moulded liner

Pond liner moulded into ledges

At the same time as picking up the liner we also picked up a couple of water lilies as these had to be positioned at the bottom of the pond.  We had loads of underlay left over so we placed the lilies on these.  Now, we had to return the pond residents to their rightful home.  Once all this had been done we could sit back and relax and not worry about the rain headed our way – after all, it would help fill the pond for us.  Hmmmph, the rain did come, according to my rain gauge all 0.3mm of it.

7035 bottom of liner filled

Water lilies, oxygenator bags and wildlife now introduced

Before we started this project we had taken some of the marginal, and pond plants out, potted them up and kept them well watered.  We planted up the pond plants and positioned them in the pond.  As we had some old radiator bricks in the garden we placed them on pieces of underlay and used them as a level surface for the pots.  Now, we could start filling up the pond.

7040 2nd level filled

Next set of plants in the pond and starting to fill pond with water

We had already taken the decision that we would fill up the pond layer by layer.  This would allow the liner to settle nicely into the pond, and would give us time to check that each layer of planting was looking as we expected.  As this was to be a pond mainly for wildlife I hadn’t intended introducing a pump, especially as I didn’t want to have to cable electricity back to the house.  However, I did have concerns that if the water was stagnant we would get blue green algae growth, which we had for a couple of years the last time we attempted a pond until the pH levels evened out.  When we were picking up our liner we were asked if we had thought of a solar powered pump to give some water circulation.  So, on a later visit to pick up oxygenators we also bought a small solar powered pump.

7048 Stone containers and plants

Pump, oxygenators and gravel trays

We also knew that the side of the pond nearest to the fence and the end which would be nearest to the patio would be slightly steeper than we would like, and would cause problems when we came to placing the gravel.  We suspected the gravel would not sit properly.  You may have seen plastic gravel containers at the garden centre – these are designed to keep gravel contained in a path etc.  Well, they are really easy to cut, so we got a pack, cut them to size, placed them on underlay and then filled them with gravel.  This would make it much easier to achieve an impression of the gravel dipping under the water edge without losing all the gravel.

7060 taram down

Landscaping next to fence – now waiting the gravel

While it was really tempting to continue with the pond, we were also aware that before we could finish the pond we would have to complete the height of the overflow to the drainage ditch.  That meant completing the marginal area between the pond and the back garden fence.  So, these were dug over, shrubs planted and weed suppressing membrane laid.  Now, we could tie the marginal area and pond together using the gravel.  We were really pleased at how well we were able to integrate the gravel using the plastic holders.  They worked as we had intended.  This allowed us to continue to fill the pond.  Once we reached the correct height of the pond we made very small alterations to the overflow channel so that any further water would drain away into the drainage ditch rather than keep filling up the pond.

As mentioned earlier, we had intended designing this as a dried river bed.  We decided that we would achieve this effect by making it look as if it was a rock strewn area, with cobbles and slightly different coloured gravel.  We also decided that we would have the dried river bed at both sides of the pond.

7070 start of gravelling back

Starting to gravel, pleased with the gravel containers

We gradually worked round the pond, bedding down the setts, laying weed suppressing membrane and gravelling each area.  However, once we came to the back of the pond we made the decision to stop at that stage, and to lay the path and patio.  Once we had this completed we would be able to finish laying the setts and then complete the pond.

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The patio area was completed really quickly.  Now, we knew its exact location we were able to complete the landscaping between the patio and the pond.  This was to be home to several primulas that had been rescued from the pond area at the end of last year.  We now had a final home for the solar panel to the pond.  This meant that we could finalise all the gravel at the pond edge.

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The final planting of further marginals and primulas and the inclusion of two potted grasses, and a piece of gnarled wood made up the final touches to the pond project.

7159 primulae

Primula from our old pond now happily replanted

You will have noticed that I haven’t mentioned Willow our Labrador, and supervisor, on this part of the project.  Well, that’s because she said she was far too busy so contracted out the supervision to a robin.  What was her other more important task …… SLEEPING ON THE JOB!

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Next project, it will be the area between the patio/pond area and the fence between us and our neighbours.

The Hard Landscaping

I left you at the end of our last blog with a definite plan, and the first stage was to define the area.  We decided we wanted quite a large curved area for the total pond and marginal area.  We established the curved theme when we added the paths a couple of summers ago.  Also, I love the feel in a garden that a curve pulls you into an area.  Then, what to do with the tree?  This tree when we first planted it was lovely – if you check back on the Willow. Pond.  blog entry you will see it several years ago.  Then slowly it deteriorated.  A few years ago we cut off all the dead and it seems to have been making a comeback over the last year or two.  This year, although really small, its better looking than it has ever been.  So, we would include the tree within the gravelled area.

6970 overall area

Setting out the setts

The last time we created our pond we built in small ledges to give different heights for the different plant types.  But they didn’t go round the whole pond, and there weren’t enough of them.  This time we remedied this.  We started re-modelling the interior of the pond to include ledges that went round the whole pond.

At the end of the winter, when the hole in the ground was full of water we marked the top edge of the water with metal spikes.  You may remember in my previous pond blog I mentioned that our other error when we created our last pond was that it wasn’t completely level.  We used the metal spikes not just to mark the area of the pond, but also used a spirit level to set up a simple string guide to make sure that the pond was completely level.

7000 Layers in pond

Starting to define the layers

Once we had the interior complete, out came the spirit level and each part of the pond was checked to make sure it was level, and that we had kept the level across the width and length.  There was one addition to our team.  Willow was still supervising, but this time she had an apprentice – a little Robin.  There he was, every time we moved, waiting to pick up grubs and worms.  Several times we had to stop and wait for him to finish what he was doing – well, that’s our excuse for taking a break, and we’re sticking to it.

Robin On Sett

Robin – our supervisor

We got to this stage and then things got a wee bit panicky.  We had expected that this part would take us most of the spring and summer.  We fully expected, as we live in the north of Scotland, for us to get so far, rain, pond fill up and then have to wait for it to empty before we could get any further.  But no, so far so good, no rain!  BUT! Now we had a pond, no liner, and rain was forecast.  Not a problem! Fishkeeper Scotland has a store in one of the local garden centres and they happily reserved a liner and underlay for us.  Phew.  Now all we had to do was visit Inverness and pick it up before the rain.

In the next blog I’ll cover the building of the pond and marginal area.

Great Plans for the Pond

Well, at the end of the last blog we left you with this: a drainage ditch, a muddy pond and bits of pond liner.  Where next?

Completed Drainage Ditch

Drainage ditch, muddy pond and bits of pond liner

One of the major mistakes we made last time we constructed the pond was that we hadn’t thought through the pond marginal area and how we would keep it maintained.  This time, and one of our main activities over the winter, was coming up with ideas how the pond would fit into the rest of the garden, what its immediate surrounds would be, and how we would stop the grass encroaching into the area.  We quite quickly came to the conclusion that we wanted a gravel and rock surround, but of course then came the problem of keeping that enclosed without the inevitable mix of grass and gravel.  Up stepped the humble sett.  If you don’t know how we ‘rescued’ these you can read more in my blog entry Spring Work – Summer Relax.  We decided that we’d circle the whole pond and marginal area with the setts.  Question was – would we have enough?

6970 overall area

Estimating the number of setts we’d need round the pond

Then, I came up with another idea.  I decided that I wanted the pond to look as if it had been left behind as an ox-bow lake as part of a meandering river.  Then the idea came that the area on top of the drainage ditch was to be the dried out river bed of this meandering river.  This also served another purpose – we could, at a glance, tell exactly where the drainage ditch was.

So, this was all coming together nicely: we sorted defining the area, the ‘story’ of the pond and river; now we decided we wanted somewhere to sit.  Yes, you are quite right, we have already got 2 patios in the garden.  However, as we had to buy palettes of patio slabs last year we inevitably had some left over.  The planning for patio number 3 had started.  This wasn’t going to be a big patio it was just enough for 2 chairs and a wee table.  The location was also quite obvious too – it was to be in the last bit of the garden to get sunshine in the early evening.

Well, with that all sorted – now the really hard work could begin.

Willow.  Pond.  

Now it wasn’t perfect, in life things rarely are.  It did provide a habitat for frogs and toads, and the plants provided shelter and food for lots of insects.  We’d never created a pond before, it was our first attempt and it looked OK until we had heavy rain over a prolonged period.  Then we acquired an island.  In the middle of the pond, this pond liner “island” would appear.  OK, we also didn’t quite get our levels correct and one side was slightly lower than the other – but more about this later.

Pond in 2007

Completed Pond with Willow as a 3 month old puppy in the background

But, these problems were nothing compared to what was about to hit our pond.

Onto the scene came Willow.  A lovely, fox-red Labrador puppy.  Being a typical puppy she was into everything, and being Labrador loved water.  One day we thought she was being a wee bit too quiet in the garden so looked to see what she was up to and there it was: the offending pond liner, in bits, strewn across the lawn, totally destroyed, and unrepairable.

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As I type this, Willow who is now a grand old lady of (nearly) twelve is lying next to me, snoring away.  But, nearly 12 years since “pondgate” the time has come and we have to take action.  We’re going to sort it!

You may remember that last year we tackled the garden at one side of our house.  After we did all the digging we had lots of soil left over.  We used that to raise the side of the pond that had been slightly lower than the other.

We also decided to put in a drainage ditch and water retention sump between the pond and the fence.  At the end of last year that was dug out.  We didn’t quite finish it as the Scottish winter beat us, and the sump was finally completed this week.

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However, despite heavy rain and winter storms we realised things had changed our garden.  Normally, when we walk between the pond and fence we squelch our way through mud.  Not this year.  Obviously it was damp, but not boggy quagmire wet. I hear you say, drainage ditch.  Nope, apart from wee puddles in the bottom that wasn’t full of water either.  So, that blew apart our theory that we had a really high water table and it was that which created the “island”.  So, currently, my “working theory” is that the water overflowed the pond and created a really wet environment both under and around the pond.  Like I said, a “working theory” which will be tested over time.

I suppose one of the advantages of being married to an environmental engineer who, before he retired, specialised in flood risk assessments (yep I know, ironic) is that he knew how to build a really good drainage ditch.  Obviously, he wasn’t going to be irresponsible and simply stick in a drainage pipe and drain off to the path behind our property, so he constructed the water retention sump which will hold the water and allow it to percolate away naturally.  He’s also planned soft engineering of planting around the area.

So, that was this week’s work: pulling the remains of the old liner out of the pond, lining the drainage ditch with weed suppressing liner, lugging enough pea gravel from the sack in the drive to the drainage ditch to allow us to have a layer under the drainage pipe.  Laying the drainage pipe, and ensuring that it was correctly positioned into the sump.  Finally, lugging the remaining ton of pea gravel to the drainage ditch to ensure the pipe was correctly covered.

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Ah, I remember now, I don’t think I mentioned that we’re not just repairing the damage Willow created, oh no, after last years gardening exploits we’ve decided we’re giving the whole pond area a massive “facelift”.  I will try to keep posting on this blog to keep you up to date with how this is progressing.

Completed Drainage Ditch

Drainage ditch complete

Now, more importantly, what does Willow think of all this?  Well, at every stage, there she is, inspecting all our work.  When we’re busy lugging barrow after barrow of gravel she’s just lying there calmly watching, supervising.  Wait, is she dreaming?  Oh no, perhaps she’s dreaming about what she wants to do to this pond!