Category Archives: Garden Design

Should we give concrete another chance?

In most people’s minds in the UK, concrete is synonymous with the 1960s and 70s. These days, the word is normally used in negative connotations, such as ‘concrete jungle’, ‘concrete monstrosity’ or ‘concrete over [the countryside]’. This despite the fact that concrete not only has a long and noble history in twentieth century design, but also in current work of designers like Calatrava; whose work I have touched on before in this blog (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=666).

Exposed aggregate concrete paving used in Lauzerte, SW France in a historic square.

When I was recently in France, in a small historic town in the south-west of the country, I was taken by the widespread use of exposed aggregate concrete paving; laid in situ in some of the oldest historic parts of the town. Somehow I couldn’t imagine this happening in the UK. Concrete (and particularly in situ concrete) has really fallen out of use. Part of the problem is that because designers have stopped using it, the skill have largely been lost form the workforce. This is not the case in the USA. When I did a garden in the north-western US a couple of years ago – in NE Washington State – I was able to specify an in-situ concrete path with a smooth finish safe in the knowledge that any decent local contractor would have the skills to construct this to a pretty good standard. Can you imagine the same thing applying in a similar location in the UK – say, Central Wales or the Lake District?

An in situ concrete path I designed in a garden near Mount Spokane, WA, USA.

Concrete has started to creep back into civil schemes in England. I recently cycled through Blackpool (see www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=1230) where a new £100m scheme runs for 3.3km along the famous Golden Mile. The design incorporates large areas of banked in-situ concrete in flowing sweeps, as well as precast ‘pebbles’ weighing between 2T and 10T. Cycling through this lot turned me (and fifteen others) back into a fourteen year old boy again, sweeping up and down the ramps.

In-situ and pre-cast concrete used together with great effect at Blackpool’s Golden Mile.

In retrospect, concrete seemed like the obvious choice for this scheme (designed largely by engineers rather than landscape architects). However, too many schemes end up being carpeted in the evermore ubiquitous resin-bound gravel. A great material without doubt, but one that I am becoming a teensy bit tired of.

Until we see concrete used more in award-winning schemes and at Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows (there have been some), it seems unlikely that it will make any sort of resurgence in the UK anytime soon. Although in any case, without the construction skills being widely available, this is likely to be a slow process.

Garden Design and Exploring Space

I don’t know about you, but I get a lot more emails than I used to. What with that and phone calls, like everyone else, I frequently find myself typing or sketching something at the dining room table at 10pm in order to meet a deadline. It is even worse now that I am trying to train for this damn three peaks malarky – now I have to fit in 150 miles a week on the bike, as well! I say to myself how much more I could get done if I just had another hour or so… Just imagine what I could achieve if I didn’t have to sleep! And like other people I see on the tube and the train (where I am sitting right now) I use all those little bits of time to check emails, go on twitter, write a blog etc.

Which is why you may find it strange that I am arguing that we should make some space in our busy lives to do nothing. Some of you might remember my previous piece entitled ‘Where do ideas come from?’ (10 May 2012) In this, I argued the importance of the right-hand half of the brain in creative activities, such as design. In the article, I quoted Mattias Konradsson – “Creativity and ideas don’t come on command, they seem to spring up when we least expect it”. For me that is often when I am staring into space. Or sitting on a train. Or driving. Or (this one is the most frequent) standing in the shower in the morning. Perhaps this last is the most revealing: the fact that the brain has been completely disengaged from everyday tasks for a few hours may leave it free to chew away at some problem that it hasn’t been able to address during the waking hours. A bit like when my laptop runs short of RAM, except that it doesn’t seem to go on working when I turn it off! Perhaps we all need to make a bit more space in our lives for doing nothing? Shift into neutral and idle for a while. We might be surprised at the results.

So, if you see me on the train, gazing out of the window; or nursing a cup of coffee and staring into space, just remember that I might be working on my next project…

How do you find space to think in a busy life?

Splish-splash – update

 

Peaceful times...

Well for those of you who have been asking for updated photos of the swimming pond, here they are. I did have a few complaints about the plastic chairs in the final photos. In my defence, I have to say that we had 40 people coming for a party, seating for only 10 outside and a ready supply of chairs at the community garden – what is a man to do? the weather has delivered in spades in the last few weeks, we could hardly have expected such wonders. After one or two (minor) wobbles, the water has been crystal clear.

For me the reflections in the water are what it is all about - that and the swimming!

There has been nothing better after a hot day in the office/on site/in the car to come home to a cooling dip.

View from the timber deck...

My youngest has been transformed from doing not a lot in front of the television to 40 lengths a day. And today, after spending most of the day in a seminar on building information model software followed by a stint on emails, I came back to a calm flat body of water at a soothing 23 degrees. Better still, as I swam, a swift dipped down in front of me and scooped up some water, a dragon fly scooted past and a profound sense of calm settled over me. For me, other than the reflections in the water (which I go on about ad nauseum), sharing the pool with everything else is a joy. I am sure that to some people, the odd newt or insect is one too many, but I love it.

Butomus umbellatus just coming into flower - a delight!

The marginals have really taken off. The Butomus is starting to flower, as are the water lillies; the water forget-me-nots have been a delight. The only downside has been the lawn, which has really struggled in the hot weather, although the mole-mesh has worked a treat – although the borders are filled with moles hills, not a murmur on the lawn – truce! Best of all is the sense of calm and delight every time I look at it. Although I have to admit, this is a very expensive sense of calm.

 

The Final Splash – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Finally finished! A view form an upstairs window - ignore the plastic furniture borrowed form the Triangle Community Garden!

So here we are. Sixteen weeks of mud, sweat and tears. Finally after all that, the pool emerges from the building site like an enormous butterfly, transformed from the ungainly caterpillar of the last few months into a fully formed swimming pond. Or it would have done if we had managed to get the planting in the surrounding borders finished – my fault, by the way. All those fine words about which plants we were using didn’t actually get them ordered on time. And although Rochfords and Provender did their best to get to site in time (and partly succeeded) there wasn’t actually enough time to plant them before the party.

After a mad sprint to the line (including Glen plumbing up the pump and jets on Saturday morning), the party is a great success. Lots of people go in the pool, including an inaugural swim by Vicky in her birthday suit (the new wet suit I gave her for her birthday, that is). We warm up around the firepit and watch the sun go down over the water.

Trees, water and sky

Despite the sixteen weeks of mess and mud, it is a thing of beauty. As Allan Pollok-Morris put it – “WOW, that’s not a pool, it’s a chunk of heaven!” As I sit on our terrace on the Sunday evening and look at it, everything seems very worthwhile. Watching the sunset reflected on the still water, the pool achieves exactly what we wanted. The reflection of the trees and the sky in the water stirs something very deep inside me. I recall Rick Darke saying that for him, Landscape is all about trees and water. To that I would add sky.

So what have we learnt in this process? Well, clearly a lot about the technical aspects of natural pool construction. Lots of people said we were mad to put so many curves into the design, but I am glad we did – it really makes the scheme – lesson one: ‘stick to your guns’. The curves made it more difficult to detail, to construct and more expensive. But without them the pool would feel inserted into the garden. As it is, it feels as though it merges with the landscape. Once the planting gets established, it will wrap around the pool.

We started the process without having thought everything through. So perhaps lesson two should be ‘plan everything thoroughly’. Although, as I said to my brother on Saturday night, had we known how much it was going to cost and what was involved, we would probably never have embarked on the whole process. ‘A bit like having children’ was his answer. Not that I have any regrets about the pond, or the children. Lesson two therefore – ‘Do what you want to do and don’t worry too much about the detail until you need to’. Not a good work lesson, but not a bad life one.

Once the planting is more established and everything has settled in, I will post some more pictures. In the meantime, normal service on a wide range of subjects (and gripes) will resume…

A Bigger Splash – weeks twelve to fourteen – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

 
Finally starting to look like a pond, although the water level will eventually be up to the top of the liner right the way across.
 

I know, I know – it’s been three weeks since an update. The principal reason for this was that not enough had happened after two weeks. And the principal reason for that was that some of the gang were pulled away on to other sites to do something a little more productive. But it never ceases to amaze me what a difference it makes to a site when the turf goes down. It suddenly changes in one go from a landscape site to a garden.

The molemesh being installed just below the turf.

As you can see from the photo, we incorporated the famous ‘molemesh’ as it went down – fingers crossed. This allows us to share the lawn with the local mole population on the basis that they agree not to make any molehills. We have a signed agreement with the moles to this effect.

The new line of the path

The line of the stepping stone path was ‘adjusted’ (that’s a great word for lifting and relaying 11no 115kg slabs of stone) to a slightly sharper curve, which we feel works a lot better. In fact we are delighted. Which is just as well, ’cos they sure ain’t moving again! The grass will be laid between the slabs at the very end of the project, once we have finished wheeling stuff down there.

We had a minor leak, which the liner guys came back and fixed for us. Note to self – make next pool a simple shape. The leak was luckily in the most accessible part of the pond, in trying to install the liner around the concrete buttresses for the metal edging.

Marginal planting underway

The planting of the marginals is happening at the moment – see photo. The beds are first filled with special soil, mixed with light expanded clay aggregate balls to bulk it out (LECA, or Coco-pops as my sons call it). The plants are then carefully planted and a sealing layer of clay is placed over the top. Finally, a thin layer of limestone grit (otherwise known as cat litter by my sons) is laid over the surface. We have positioned some slabs to act as standing points within the lower beds for maintenance access. The lower beds are planted with lilies and other nutrient hungry plants. The upper beds are mostly ornamental. When complete, the water level will cover all the beds to the top of the liner – the pool is still filling at the moment.

 

Finally, it is starting to look like a garden! The view from an upstairs window.

It is such a huge relief to see green things arriving after so long with just mud, concrete and stone. Even the dogs have cheered up with the lawn going down, although they can’t understand why they are not allowed on it.

And some of you may have picked up from twitter that during that really hot bank holiday weekend, we had an inaugural swim in the pool (only about one-third full at that point). It was freezing, but felt great!

Just two weeks left to go now, and almost there… (I keep saying that, don’t I?)

A Bigger splash – weeks ten and eleven – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

 

As I write the words ‘weeks ten and eleven’ I can’t quite believe that it has been that long, despite the fact that I knew this process would take at least 2-3months. Despite this, the progress in the last couple of weeks has been phenomenal. Our beautiful Pennant paving went down this week, with a set of steps, the dramatic curved path and a counter-sweeping curve of stepping stones through the lawn. The path is a thing of beauty.

However, the more Vicky and I looked at it, the more we thought that the line of it through the

The Pennant stone path - a thing of beauty

lawn was not quite right. The idea for the stepping stone part of the path came from Glyn, our hardscape foreman (as opposed to Glen, our hard landscape manager, which is confusing for everyone). There’s a frustrated designer inside everyone. It was a great idea, and one which we latched on to straightaway; so much so that we didn’t draw anything out first (is that an alarm bell I hear ringing?). So in this morning’s drizzle, I said to Glyn that we were going to have to relay the 14, 110kg stones in a slightly different line. “You are winding me up, aren’t you?” was his not unexpected reaction. We just knew that if we didn’t re-lay them, we would be looking out of the window for the next twenty-five years regretting it. He should have expected it really, working for a couple of designers!

The irony of this was not lost on me. I have spent the last two or three days (in between other stuff) writing my presentation to the SGD conference in London on Saturday. In it I underlined the importance of good communication, a clear set of drawings and specifications, communicating with the site staff etc. etc. Alright, I know, calm down at the back there. So I write this blog to say that listening to the client is also important! When they change their mind, accept with good grace (do you think I got away with that?)

 

The shallow end of reclaimed teak at the far end of the swimming pond

We decided fairly early on to have a ‘shallow end’ in the pool. Rather than rake the bottom of the pool, we have achieved this by building a timber deck which will sit below water, giving us a depth of about 1.2m for the first 4.5m or so of one end. The frame timber is made up of English larch (from my new friends at Eco Choice) which does not leak any nasties into the water. The deck itself is made from reclaimed teak. Timber of course floats, so it may seem a bit counter-intuitive building an underwater deck. Once the wood becomes saturated (which takes quite a while) it is not nearly so buoyant, with the teak becoming heavy enough to sink. However, until then, it must be weighted down with concrete blocks, although our calculations as to how many are so unsure that we just decided in the end on ‘a lot’. We will fill the pool up slowly and see whether the deck floats. It’s called the scientific method – reaching a provable result through a controlled experiment (otherwise known as trial and error).

In the almost final fortnight (apart from re-laying slabs), the lawn will go down, the sun deck will go into place and the pool will get filled and planted!

A Bigger splash – weeks eight and nine – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

 

The completed liner for the swimming pond, looking towards the path end. The skimmer pit is in the foreground.

As of Friday night, the installation of the liner is finished and the pool is (hopefully) watertight.  I will resist all the obvious puns regarding liners and launching. Suffice to say that although we didn’t crack any bottles of champagne on the ‘bow’ of the pool, we had a small celebratory drink at what is after all a landmark in the construction.

Detail along the sleeper wall. The liner is trapped between pieces of timber and then sealed.

You might remember from (much) earlier posts that we decided to go for polypropylene rather than PVC partly on the grounds of it being manufactured in the UK, but also because it is a lot less environmentally damaging in manufacture. My concern with this was that it was very stiff and might look a bit ruckled following installation. I needn’t have worried. The appropriately named Tim Pool (yes, really) who is doing the installation of the liner for us did a fantastic job with almost no creases or ugly lumps. It did take quite a lot longer than we expected (like most things on this job), but the result looks great. I have posted a couple of pictures of some of the details as well as the main photo. The marginal beds with curves on both sides were particularly difficult. To seal the liner against the sleepers was tricky – we don’t like to make things easy for ourselves – we used a chunky piece of larch that we used to secure the liner against the timber sleepers and then enclose in liner. This stops the liner tearing against the fixings once loaded with water.

Similar to the timber detail, but using metal edging.

On the lawn side we used a similar method with a strip of metal bolted to the metal edging, which was in turn secured in concrete haunching. This may all seem a bit belt and braces but the pull on the liner once it is full of more than 200 tonnes of water is huge.

Although the rain has made working on the lawn grade difficult, we have made progress towards final levels. So much so that I am now beginning to think we might not have enough subsoil and topsoil! All those enormous piles have gone – I can’t quite believe that all the calculations were right.

Hopefully an end to these...

What I really cannot face is the incessant battles with the local mole population which has gone on for the last six years. This peaked when, on our return from our summer holiday a few years ago, we were confronted 40 molehills on the lawn. My heart sank. I spent 3hrs or so on my hands and knees opening the tunnels and burying all the soil so the lawn was green again. Next morning: ten fresh molehills – this was war! We tried everything – flooding the tunnels, battery operated sonic devices, solar powered devices, traps, with limited success. The ultimate indignity was finding a sonic device toppled by a fresh molehill – a sort of moley ‘two-fingered’ response. The dispute as to whose lawn it was dragged on for several years until I recently solved it (temporarily) by digging it all up. We had to find a more permanent solution by which we could both share the lawn. After a lot of research, we have come down in favour of a German product (suggested by Jens in our design office) which allows the moles to tunnel beneath the lawn but prevents them producing molehills. An honourable compromise that should restore peace. You can get details from Harald Unger at http://molebarrier.com/3.html. It is installed about 50-70mm below the surface of the turf. If I never see another molehill, it will be worth it.

From now it is a sprint to the finish. Marginal beds in the pool to be filled and planted, plumbing completed, paving laid, pool filled, lighting to be installed, lawn laid and decking constructed (both underwater and outside the pool). Soon there will be no more mud in the house…

A Bigger splash – weeks six and seven – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

Light at the end of the tunnel.

Swimming pond for a garden designer - The Oak sleeper edge
The oak sleepers that make up the lower edge of the pool. The marginal area is on the right, the deeper water plants in the centre and the deep swimming water to the left.

Despite the weather (and there has been plenty of that, if you know what I mean), we are nearly ready for the liner. In the two weeks since I last posted on this blog, it seems to have been alternately too wet or too cold to do anything! Luckily, we got most of the blocks laid before the really cold weather set in, but we still had to take our chances with the few remaining stretches, as well as concreting around the sleeper walls. The results, as you can see below are almost starting to look like something recognisable as finished instead of random piles of earth and the odd block wall.

Swimming pond for a garden designer
Almost ready for the liner...

 

Swimming pond for a garden designer - edge detail
The steel edge with its concrete buttresses that forms the upper edge to the pool. The intermediate block wall divides the marginals from the deeper water plants. The swimming area is to the right.

The money pit.

The costs have mounted up fairly alarmingly. By necessity, when we started on this, the design drawings had to progress pretty quickly leaving the finer points of the detailed design to be sorted out as we moved forward. As a result, although we knew roughly what the cost would be, there have been a few additions and we seemed to have forgotten one or two things…

 

Plants are people too.

Doing the planting plan for the big border to the right of the pond was a challenge. Plants are like people. They all have different characters. Some we have a sentimental attachment to and can’t help inviting to every planting plan. Others are old friends that we haven’t seen for a while, but bump into again. Planting plans for small spaces can be a bit like planning a difficult dinner party table! When its your own garden, it is even worse. I had to work really hard to keep reasonable sized blocks and sweeps of plants. My instinct was to try and squeeze in as many of my favourites as I could, but I knew space was limited. In the end, I limited myself to three grasses (not including the small patch of Helictotrichon I have sneaked in at the front): Muhlenbergia capillaris, Eragrostis spectabilis and Miscanthus gracillimus. This last is not definite but it was either that or Pennisetum

Pink Muhly grass. In autumn, this beautiful grass creates a spectacular, billowy of mass of pink, airy flowers on 1m-1.2m stems.

We are lucky to have a fairly deep sunny border, on a well-drained gravelly soil. Whilst this does not suit all plants, it does mean that I can finally plant Eremurus robustus with some hope of it succeeding! I can’t wait! I have also found room for two of my favourite large perennials – Cynara cardunculus and Crambe cordifolia which should punch up nicely amongst some of the lower herbaceous material. There are few places in the garden where we really have the right environment and space for herbaceous material, so it is a delight to have some freedom. Nonetheless, there is still a framework of taller shrubs towards the back of the border and through some of the deeper stretches.

With the end now in sight, the first celebratory party is already booked. I always groan when clients mention this – “We’re having a party on xx; can you be finished by then?” As before with this project, now I can see why they do it.

 

A Bigger Splash – week five – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

New Oak sleeper wall going into place.

I don’t want to bore you all with endless words and technical stuff on this. Goodness knows I’m getting fed up with having a mudbath for a garden week after week, so you lot must be bored stiff! So this week just a few quick pictures showing where we have got to.

New Oak sleeper wall going into place.
New Oak sleeper wall going into place.

A major milestone this week – the oak sleepers started to go in. We excavated a deep trench, rammed back fill around the sleepers and then concreted. We are using vertical sleepers in order to achieve the sinuous shapes those pesky designers have come up with. Actually, talking of pesky designers, I tried to draw a SketchUp model of the pool this week to try and get my head round some of the underwater decking (and because I thought some of you might be interested in it). But with all the curves, after three hours, I had come to the conclusion that building the full size model in the garden would be quicker! Whose idea was this anyway? The level of the top of the sleepers is just above water level by the way.

 

Although still muddy, at least it is level mud now!

The huge piles of earth have mostly gone now. The level of the lawn (I use the word loosely here) has been raised by about 600mm, and the remaining large pile of excavated material will be used as backfill around the sleepers. So I can finally breathe a sigh of relief that I am not not going to have to devise a landscape solution for a mini version of the the Alps in the garden.

No update on planting – I haven’t had time to do any planting plans. Proper work keeps getting in the way!

More soon…

A Bigger Splash – week four – story of a swimming pond for a garden designer

The builders yard - a necessary evil?

Although the design for the rear garden is finally starting to emerge from the muck and bullets, the front drive looks like a builder’s yard. In addition to the bulk bags of sand and ballast, pallets of cement, glass filtration aggregate, plumbing fittings, geotextile, reclaimed teak decking, and mulch visible in this photo, there is a 7m long roll of liner and 75no new English oak sleepers out of shot.

One of the principal features of the design is a curved path running around one end of the pool connecting the lawn to the forest garden. This is made up of single 1.2m wedge-shaped slabs of stone. Of course, with two garden designers, selecting the material was always going to be a difficult process. We had recently come across a very interesting stone from the Forest of Dean, called Pennant.

The curved walls that will run benath the new Pennant Stone path

I had been vaguely aware of this stone for about ten years, but never really used it. We had selected it for a large project in Berkshire, and liked the subtlety of the blue grey and buff tones. As well as the quality of the stone, what really impressed us though were the go-ahead attitude of the quarry and the sustainability of the production process. All the quarried material is used and the production unit (which is under the same ownership) can process up to 1000m2 a week – not relevant to our garden, but very useful on our site in Berkshire! The stone saws are powered by the plant’s own hydro-electric power unit producing 13.5kW of power. The stone was supplied through Edward Tennant at Ashfield Stone, who was extremely helpful (www.ashfieldgroup.com).

The path swings on a single radius of 11.1m, so precision is absolutely key. Glen has been keeping a very close eye on the measurements, as there is no room for error. The individual stones (of which there are forty) weigh 106kg each, so laying them will not be easy. After looking carefully at all the possibilities, we decided on suspending the slabs from the end of the excavator arm using a stone lifter. This should allow us to rotate and position the individual slabs very accurately. They will be delivered in about two weeks, so we will see. The block-work support for this path is going in at the moment.

Selecting the timber has been equally tortuous, for various reasons. There are a number of locations which have different requirements hence a variety of timbers are being used. The retaining walls for the lower areas are vertical (new) oak sleepers laid in sweeping curves. Within the pool, the main walls are topped of with capping of western red cedar (which will be under water.) In addition to this, there is a deck about a metre below water level at either end. This is to be made of reclaimed teak decking on a network of larch beams. It is not possible to use any treated timber in the water, because the chemicals used in the preservative process are effective biocides. There is also a deck suspended above the northern end of the pool. This must also be of larch bearers. We wanted to use locally sourced FSC timber wherever we could. The sleepers were fairly easy as there are many companies supplying English oak sleepers, but the other timbers were more difficult. EcoChoice (based in Cambridge – www.ecochoice.co.uk) were particularly helpful. We managed through them to find some really good British grown larch and western red cedar. I had only come across Canadian or Russian WRC before, so this was a revelation to me. the timber is a little knottier than Canadian, but a lot cheaper and perfectly good enough for our purposes.

Blockwork starting to go in for the deepwater renegeration beds (before rain stopped play)

 

A spring scene: what is left of our lawn, with the pretend farmyard in the distance (aka the messy area next to my veg garden) and the edge of the new herbaceous bed in the foreground.

Although the end is in site, I don’t think we will be finshed for when my family descend at Easter. What’s more, inevitably other work is starting to clamour for the team. Suddenly I am feeling like one of those clients who says – “It must be finished for my party on Saturday Week”. I’ll start changing the design soon…

I am beginning to develop designs for the main herbaceous bed. Not that we can agree on what plants to use. And as always, visualising herbaceous plants in their summer glory in what still feels like the depths of winter is a cross between torture and therapy. More on this next week.