Since buying our home a couple of years back we have struggled keeping grass alive on our lawn. This is in part due to a trampoline but mainly due to heavy clay soil. With the arrival of our second child, I decided it was time to change things up a bit.
This instructable will hopefully explain how I have added drainage and redesigned our garden into a usable outdoor room.
Step 1: Creating the Blank Canvas
The first thing I would advise is to take stock of what you already have.
In my case, I had very heavy clay that would allow water to sit on the surface, killing the grass and turning the earth to putty if walked on. If it was hot, it would kill the grass because the soil had turned to stone. In fact, the grass had to work very hard to stay alive, and in the end, it gave up.
I also had a slight gradient which I wanted to remove and I was aware that a previous owner had installed drainage but I suspected they had put the clay soil back over the drains. Pretty pointless!
I decided to remove approximately 100mm (4in) of clay from one side of the garden and 200mm (8in) from the other, thus leveling the everything up.
With this complete I could dig a 300mm (12in) deep, 300mm (12in) wide trench in a cross pattern to allow for drainage to be installed, tieing into the original drainage system at the manhole.
Whilst the garden is relatively small, approximately 7m (25ft) square, I didn't fancy hand digging the earth away. Clay is unbelievably heavy.
I decided to rent a micro digger, which are around 0.8 tons and are super easy to learn how to drive. The spoil was then dumped into a wheel barrow and put in a skip for disposal. My goal was reached by the end of the day, saving probably at least 1 - 2 days digging if done by hand. Grading clay clay is difficult, especially for someone inexperienced on a machine but we got there and my poor old Dad had definitely done his fair share of shifting mud! Thanks Dad!
I then dug the the trenches and back filled partly with a bed of 20mm gravel. The drainage, a 100mm (4in) slitted corrugated flexible pipe, was laid on top, and checked for dips and an angle of around 25mm per 3750mm (1in per 150in). You should try to ensure that no point is greater than 2.5 meters (8ft) away from a drain.
The pipe was then buried using more of the gravel. You can just make out a light coloured cross in the third picture.
I then brought in approximately 4 tons of fresh, good quality top soil, and brought the level back up 100mm (4in) to where I had started. 2 days work and it felt like I hadn't done anything other than make a mess!
If you are only doing the drains in your garden, you can throw the new grass on at this stage. I decided to wait though as I didn't want to ruin the turf (sod) as I built the rest of my garden back up.
Step 2: Landscaping
As the garden is so small, I decided that changes of level would make the it feel bigger. My main level starts at the existing deck and steps up to the planters, and down to the grass.
Whilst the steps are not big, it creates separate, clearly defined areas, giving the illusion of more space.
Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures whilst making the planters, but the construction is as easy as it comes.
Essentially, screw together 3 lengths of timber, mitered at the corners, to make a ring of timber. Repeat, and stack the second ring on the first, and repeat.
I tried a few different heights, but settled on 3 rings, approximately 450mm (15in). You could vary heights to create a layered look, change the shape, type of wood, etc. It really is a very adaptable was to create a planter.
If you wish, you could line the planters to avoid rotting the wood. I haven't done this as the wood is pressure treated decking and should withstand 20 years.
Once complete, I filled them with high grade, screened top soil and planted. I chose screened soil so the stone content is very low and thus retains moisture.
Finally, I used more deck boards, which match the pattern I have on the existing deck, to finish the top, as can be seen in the second picture. This also has the advantage of providing numerous seating locations.
Step 3: Lawn Edging
I really don't like cutting the grass, and the worst bit is strimming the edges. I think it must kick up the pollen more than when I just mow the grass and I get really bad asthma attacks from it.
For this reason I decided to edge the lawn with paving bricks. These are typically used for driveways. Luckily, I had a load of them from friend who had a surplus after having his drive done.
Before I laid the bricks though, I inserted a 4 core wire through a hose pipe. This is to be used to power LED strips on the underside of my player tops. I chose 4 core cable so I could use RGB strips should the mood take me, or I could run two separate circuits of standard LEDs. More on this in the next step....
With the cables in place, I bedded the bricks on sand and ensured they were level. At the corners, I mitered them using a brick cutter wheel on my angle grinder. If you use a similar technique, please wear gloves. I can confirm that an angle grinder does hurt when it rides up the job and on to your hand. I was VERY lucky and only gave myself a small cut which needed a couple of stitches. It could have been far worse.
Step 4: Lighting
At this point, I can only reiterate my earlier plea for safety. Please be careful when using electricity, especially outside. All of the lights I have used are 12 volts but ask if you are unsure.
Prior to fitting the tops of my planter, I ran my router along each length. I used a 10mm wide bit at a depth of around 6mm. This gave me a channel to install the LED strip into to.
The strip chose is a pretty standard, waterproof, warm white product off eBay which I then soldered on to the wires I installed earlier. An outdoor electrical junction box was use d to house the connections in and this was mounted on the inside of the planter, near the surface. I'm not too worried about moisture as everything is sealed, although I have kept the soil off it and have used an offcut of roofing felt to divert the worst of the weather away.
At surface level, I mounted deck lights into small, free standing blocks of wood. I found these at the local DIY centre and I can position them as plants grow to maximise their output. They are only highlighters really as the light output is minimal and does not project more than a few feet.
I wired each type of light on a separate circuit (remember the 4 core cable?!) so that I can control each light source depending on the time of day or lighting requirement.
I then made a small control board within the garage which houses the separate switches and an 80 watt, constant voltage transformer. This is fed from the mains via a switched fused spur so that I can isolate the system with ease.
The third switch in shown in the picture powers a water feature that I made last year.
I plan to update this a bit so that it is more in-keeping with the design of the planters.
Step 5: Turf and Finishing
Finally, we have come full circle!
I guess you have a few options here:-
- Artificial grass
- Grass via seeding
- Grass via pre-cut turf
- Flags or gravel
To be honest many people would lay artificial grass at point. It is something I considered but I just prefer the real deal. The other thing is how expensive the fake stuff is in the UK. If I were to install artificial grass at some point though I would just remove the grass and top soil, and build up with sand, before compacting.
I chose a durable turf for the garden as it will have years of abuse as the children grow up.
Laying turf is really straightforward.
Simply level the area using a heavy rake, ensure the top soil is well compacted by walking all over it (heel first to concentrate your weight) and unroll the turf in long straight rows.
Make sure the butt each joint tightly which will speed up the grass knitting together into a uniform lawn.
Water thoroughly but avoid using fertiliser to soon as it will likely stress the grass. It will grow long but we don't want that just yet. We want it to grow down and establish a strong root system.
If, like me, you left the turf on the delivery pallet for the best part of week while you messed about building stuff, don't worry if it looks a bit yellow. Mine looked pretty rough but it soon perked up with water and sunshine.
Finally, enjoy your new garden!
I have entered this into a couple of the contests so please consider a vote if you found this food for thought!
Step 6: Prices
I thought it might be helpful if I included a few prices, just to give you an idea of costs.
FYI - A dumpy bag is approximately 750kg
Digger (weekend) - £120 + vat + £15 delivery + fuel = £171 - Brandons Tool Hire
Skip (10cu yard) - £150 - Mates rates but should be about £200
7 x dumpy bag top soil - £150
1 x dumpy bag sand - About £30
1 dumpy bag gravel - About £30
35sq metres turf - About £2.50 metre
3 x fence panels - About £80
25 x 8ft deck boards - £3.52 per length
5 x gravel board - About £5
Electricals - About £100
All in, with a few extras, I think I have spent around £1100