I've had in mind for some time that I'd like to terrace the small steep bit to the south of the garden, but it wasn't anywhere near top of the list of priorities. Then a friend offered me some topsoil, as he was digging a trench by the side of his house to deal with a damp problem. Free topsoil is not something to be sniffed at, round here, so I said yes please, and he brought several vanfuls of mud (in bags) over to our place and dumped it on a spare bit of driveway, next to the small steep bit.
Those bags of mud have sat there since the summer and we're starting to think it would be nice to have that bit of driveway back, if only to dump something else there. So it was that in the middle of January, as the lengthening days made getting outside quite an attractive proposition, I started work on another terrace.
I'd done some thinking about how to do this, and the first question was what to hold it up with. I thought a row of posts or stakes stuck in the ground might be a good start. So, where to get the stakes from? As it happens, we have a couple of coppiced oak trees on the hillside just above the new terrace.
That is to say, at some point someone cut down a couple of oak trees and they didn't die. Now, an unknown number of years later (at least four. Probably six, guessing when it was likely to have been done), the young shoots are fairly substantial. The first task, then, was to harvest some oak.
It wasn't too difficult to cut, if a bit fiddly where the stems were crowded. Once cut, I then removed all the leaves and small twigs and took them up to the other terrace (yes, it still needs topping up each year). This took a while, but eventually I had a nice collection of straight-ish pieces, roughly sorted by size.
I then did a bit of pacing out, plucked a few numbers out of the air, and decided that I needed twelve four-foot stakes, to be slammed halfway into the ground so that two feet would be sticking out to hold up the terrace. I selected the twelve thickest pieces and cut them to length. After I'd done this I made some more measurements on the ground, to find out where the posts would need to go so that two feet came up to level with the driveway. Over six feet from the edge, as it turned out. That's too wide - I couldn't reach into the middle from each side. I brought it back to a bit less than four feet wide, so it won't be two feet deep, even at the steepest part of the slope.
The next task was to get the stakes into the ground, pausing only to peel back some of the grass to reveal the kerb marking the edge of the driveway. The first few stakes went in quite easily, but then I hit stony ground - as most of it is round here - and the going got tougher. For the last few, where the slope is shallowest, I didn't make the holes so deep. They won't have to hold up so much mud, anyway.
I then cut eleven shorter pieces and stuck those a little bit into the ground, or at least into the grass, in between the structural ones. This enabled me to weave the thinner pieces between the verticals to make a rough fence.
Having got the space defined, it was then a matter of filling it. I have quite a lot of dead leylandii, so I got rid of some of that in the bottom of the bed at the steep end, but there was a limit to how much of that I could get in and still expect to grow things on top of it. Next, I tackled the grass. I left half of it in place, and flipped the other half over on top of it. That makes it sound so easy. It wasn't.
It's a fairly risky strategy leaving the grass in the new bed like this. If it was buried deeper, it would almost certainly all die, and rot down into a nice loam. As it is, the soil side of the turf isn't more than a few inches deep at most. I foresee weeding.
We've had beautiful weather while I was doing this; for the record, Imbolc was bright and clear, as was the rest of the first week of February. This did mean that I had to wait until the sun was high enough to melt the frost before I could start work in the mornings. This kind of work is hard enough without everything being frozen solid.
Finally, I got to using up the topsoil. I have to say,
topsoil wasn't an accurate description of very much of it. You could make pots with this stuff. It was also full of stones, which I decided to remove by riddling. Some of the soil went through easily enough but some of the stickier clay just stuck to everything. Some days I only managed a couple of barrowloads.
I've been adding wood ash to the soil as I go. I'm not sure whether this will help to break up the clay or not, but it feels like it ought to. We got a delivery of firewood on Tuesday, which came with a bonus load of moss, so I added that too, then when I ran out of moss, I used some sawdust, which isn't ideal because it absorbs nitrogen as it rots. I'll worry about that later.
As the end came in view, I was determined to get the job finished before the forecast rain on Friday. On Thursday I got eight barrowloads of soil riddled and dumped in the new bed. This meant working on after dark, but luckily we have an outside light just there. I was exhausted by the time I finished, though.
The last thing I did, on Friday morning, was to trim the stakes down to just a little taller than the bed. Here is the finished bed.
Now I have to decide what to grow in it. I'm currently thinking about sweetcorn and sunflowers, but that may change as I work out what's going where in the rest of the garden. In the meantime, I still have quite a lot of
topsoil to find a home for.