Garden Blog - Blog Post

That New Long Border


After the triumph of Magnolia Hill, we moved onto working another border that sits along the beech hedge at the right hand side of the garden. The soil here is no different and remains a heavy compacted clay. It consists of so much clay that you could probably take it straight out of the ground, twirl it on wheel, throw it into the oven and come out with a gritty dining set for six.

Clay and Sand

Lifeless heavy clay and wet sand: a horticultural nightmare.

The layer of clay is about a foot deep or so, immediately below that is sand, heavy, compacted and wet sand. In the picture above, I’ve taken a slice into this soil and put a spade’s worth on its side so you can see the cross-section. There’s no immediate mixed zone, solid clay gives way to compacted sand.

And I’m supposed to grow a garden in it?

That’s the crazy plan and it will happen thanks to the help of tonnes of imported top-soil, compost and manure – oh and an electric tiller – this is one job that should not be done by hand.

Just to remind myself of the scale of this job, I took my mind back to when the grass was first cleared of the worst of the rubbish and the garden was much more of a blank canvas than it is now.

Garden of Grass

The garden as work got underway

Just from looking at this picture, so much has changed that it’s hard to imagine the garden used to be just one large piece of grass, with a defunct electric car hiding in the bamboo at the back. From this piece of grass I formed my master plan on a scrap piece of A5 paper that we normally use to write the shopping list on and translated that into marking out the borders with sticks, assisted by my then-new and glamorous wheelbarrow.

Marking the Borders

Marking the new borders with sticks.

Then came out my trusty lawn edger, which must have carved several miles worth of border edges by now and so laying sticks were turned into real, visible border edges.

Marking the Border Edges

Using the lawn edger in anger.

An effortless way to do away with the pesky grass covering the new borders was to simply cover them with a membrane. This should also do away with any weeds too. When I ran out of good weather, membrane, sticks pegs and energy, I ended up with a garden with ready-to-dig borders just waiting for the fabric to be unpeeled and endless weeks of relentless digging to commence.

Membrane on Borders

Membrane-covered new borders.

As all the small borders around the house had been restored, we tackled the big middle one in the garden proper and created Magnolia Hill. After this we moved on to the border on the right against the beech hedge – but only after taking receipt of six tonnes of material to put in it. We started at the bulging end nearest the patio and worked back from the house. The grass was most definitely gone by the time we peeled back the membrane.

Large Border Uncovered

Uncovering that new long border.

It would have been so easy if the soil was any good, but simply digging the clay is not enough as it will simply compact, stick together and revert to airless clay again. Instead, we had to dig it all up and incorporate lots of topsoil, compost and manure in order to loosen the soil structure, add air, fertility and stop it from remaining terminally wet. When we mixed the new material in we dug right down to the sand layer.

New Border In Progress

Tilling that new long border.

The heavy clay was transformed into a light friable soil that should be incredibly fertile and well mixed. The tiller did most of the hard work but the material still had to be wheel-barrowed in from the front where it sits in bulk bags on the drive. The picture doesn’t give and idea of how highly mounded this border is. If we look at it from the side:

Mounded Border Height

Creating mounded borders for better planting.

The top is almost two feet above the grass surface. The final height of this border is going to be a bit lower, but it’s still a substantial mound. The mounding of the borders means:

  1. The original clay is well mixed in with all the new material, so it will have a hard time re-compacting as it is so well diluted
  2. The plant roots sit above the terminally wet sand layer so they don’t rot
  3. The plants have a great deal more soil for their roots to enjoy, meaning I can plant densely
  4. It adds interest to what would be a flat garden
  5. It gives different planting conditions (in terms of water running off the top and down the sides
  6. It lifts the plants, slightly prolonging the hours of sunshine
  7. It lifts the plants, so raising them above what could be a winter frost pocket
  8. The larger surface area and mass of soil may stay warmer in the winter and heat up quicker in spring

This border is still a long way from being planted, but I already have ideas of what is going in. I’ll reveal those when there’s more progress.

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Sunil Patel

I'm Sunil Patel, this is me. I created the Garden at 13 Broom Acres and I open it to visitors. I also bake and write blog posts giving a "behind the scenes" look into what it's like to maintain such a garden.

Visit the blog, then come and visit the garden. We can have a good sit-down, a jolly chinwag and a relaxing cup of tea with a sinfully generous slice of home made cake.

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susan maclean 30/07/2015 - 10:15 pm

Aiming for the “yellow book” then Sunil?!!! Phew – what a lot of work that is…. I have what I call Old Soil in my garden, 200 years of vegetable growing and a few years of flowers…… I am feeding with farmyard manure compost and slow release feed, but I should have done what you did although that’s a big job for me on my own. Anyway, can’t wait to see pictures next year, it is going to lovely, isn’t it?

Sunil 31/07/2015 - 9:12 pm

Hello Mrs Mac, yes, we’re aiming for the Yellow Book and we’ve only got three weeks to go! Just kidding! I’ve always wanted to have an entry in the Yellow Book but I’m several years away from it yet, the garden will be “under construction” for a while and I’ll have to do something about that patio first!

casa mariposa 31/07/2015 - 2:33 am

That is a tall mound! Are you adding stairs so you can get everything planted without falling off or even a guard rail? Excellent rationale for creating the mound but it needs a name. Your plants will be in heaven when they sink their roots in. 🙂

Sunil 31/07/2015 - 9:14 pm

Hi Tammy, it is pretty tall and the sides are step – a bit too steep, but given what I’m planning to put in there, I need all the soil I can get. I can put cap stone markers with the height at the top of the mounds for the adventurous! I’ve already got names for the various border areas now I have a better idea of what I want to plant in them.

casa mariposa 02/08/2015 - 3:23 am

I sent you a Facebook message. 🙂

lynngator 31/07/2015 - 4:17 pm

Wow, I’m worn out just reading about all the work you did! Fantastic. We have a mound in front of our house that was created by lazy builders who just bulldozed dirt and soil away. (This was done by the previous owners.) The side facing the street has good soil and is doing well with native trees and shrubs. The side facing the house is the worst sandy dirt imaginable. After 3 years we are making progress with ferns and lupines. It dries out quickly – just something you might want to keep an eye on with your mound.

Sunil 31/07/2015 - 9:17 pm

Hi Lynn, we can see how the mounds dry after the rain by seeing the colour change in the soil. As the garden is so wet and drains poorly, the bottom half of the mound stays moist, while the top half dries out. Depending on how far up the sides I plant I can get a range from “dry and free draining” to “continually moist”, which should let me grow a larger range of plants than I otherwise could have.

Emily Schiller 31/07/2015 - 6:52 pm

Wow! What a HUGE amount of work you’ve done, and what a gorgeous garden this will be! I love the design and how smart to have that mound to help the new plants thrive as well as altering the look of the space. I live with similar clay–rather than a dinner set, I’m thinking I could build an adobe-like house with ours–and as long as there’s still a substantial amount of clay in the mound, you’ll probably still have a lot of water retention. Though, in a heat wave like the one we’ve been having, all bets are off. It’s fun to see all the changes and your progress.

Sunil 31/07/2015 - 9:31 pm

Hello Emily, it’s has been hard work on top of having a day job, I do have a partner in crime but it’s still exhausting. The fun part comes when the soil is all prepared and the mound shaped and it’s ready for planting – that’s the best bit! We’ll have to see how water retentive the soil is now, I think it is still “soaking” up water from the rain like a giant sponge. It’ll be interesting to see how it is next season, after the winter rain.

gardeninacity 02/08/2015 - 6:54 pm

A tough job well done! Can’t wait to see what you’re going to plant. Your garden will be a showpiece.

Sunil 02/08/2015 - 9:12 pm

Hi Jason, thank you, I really love having the generous borders I can create with a garden this size, despite the fact that is means much, much more work. With the last garden being so small, it was hard to have wide, generous borders and still be able to move around.

aberdeen gardening 03/08/2015 - 6:25 pm

Sunil, wow, haven’t you been busy. I cant wait to see the transformation next year.Our soil is also very clay like, I did add loads of top soil to the large central border, the rest, I just dug in compost, hope this turns out to be sufficient.

Sunil 03/08/2015 - 7:15 pm

Hello Alistair, our soil needs a lot of work as it’s suffered from decades of compaction and as we’re on a slope, we get a great deal of run off from the heathland above us so the garden needs to have better drainage to let the water flow through and the plants need to be lifted above the wet layer so they don’t rot. The new garden certainly comes with its own challenges!

Sarah Shoesmith 03/08/2015 - 8:19 pm

Oh clay. It’ll all come good in the end, but getting there is such an effort. Preparation is all. I thought I had dug out the clay pan and all remnants of walls, foundations and other undersoil miseries in one area of my garden. I even had a drainage ditch put in. How does it drain? Badly. Time to take it up again and have another go. One day we will smile about all this work…. one day… In the meantime, planning borders is always a joy and you have an awful lot of border to fill there. Enjoy the planning!

Sunil 03/08/2015 - 8:26 pm

Hi Sarah, the electric tiller helps out so much, it’s just not reasonable to do it by hand. It’s expensive, but the time it saves is incredible. It’s still work to use it, but it does save on your back and other joints and whips air into the soil along with all the manure and compost in a way that’s impossible to do by hand. I’m looking forward to planning the show of bulbs, there’s a lot of border that needs bulb planting this autumn!

Jean 20/08/2015 - 2:36 am

Wow, That’s a big job! I don’t envy you all that heavy clay that needs to be dug and amended. This gives me more appreciation of my sand — it needs just as much amendment but is at least easy to dig. Like you, I end up with what are essentially raised beds once I add all that manure and compost to the existing “soil.” That long border is going to be beautiful when it’s planted. I love its shape.

Sunil 24/08/2015 - 8:51 pm

Hello Jean, we’re really struggling with bad weather that’s stopping us from making much progress with this border and it ideally needs to be completed before the end of the season but it’s been raining so much that the ground might be simply unworkable. It’ll be interesting to see how wet the soil stays in the raised beds this winter. I’m hoping that there we won’t have standing surface water and slow drainage in the improved areas now that they’ve been dug.


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