When we moved into Chez Snail, the back garden simply consisted of a lawn, a patio and a paved path, There were literally no plants other than the grass in the lawn. A bit of investigation revealed that there was also almost no soil, and after the first heavy rain we discovered that the water from the field behind rapidly flowed, river-like, into our garden, formed a lake and then progressed into next door’s garden. Our solution was planting and soil-building – a willow hedge, raised beds, composting. We whittled away at the lawn until, eventually, there was none left, although we did keep part of the patio so that we could sit outdoors. Then, six years ago, we had the limery built and our outdoor seating space was greatly reduced. We managed and it didn’t seem like much of an issue until covid and the need for space outside in which to socialise.

So, earlier this year, and setting aside my reticence about lawns**, we made some changes to our garden. Mr Snail removed two of the long thin raised beds from just outside the back door, and created a single deeper bed on the far side of the garden. We levelled the former site of the beds (well, sort of) and I ordered some turf becuase that seemed like the quickest way to establish our new grassy patch. We didn’t return the area back to it’s original level, but retained about six inches of our homemade soil on top of the original ground level, surrounded by the bottom layer of old railway sleepers that had formed the raised beds. Ten days of excluding the dogs, and we had achieved our aim.

In fact, we don’t intend to have a pristine grassy patch – we’ll let the wild flowers grow and Mr Snail will be scything it when necessary. Around the edges I am planning to seed some native wild flowers. The soil will act as a reservoir for some of the excess water when there is heavy rain and the grass is cool for feet and paws (unlike flag stones) when the weather is hot. It’s been in place for a couple of months now and has been well-used… it’s even hot enough at the moment to have dinner out there in the evenings.


** “A lawn is nature under a totalitarian regime”

Throwing it all away


The glorious rubbish bed in 2013

Before the limery was built, we had a feature in our garden known as the ‘rubbish bed‘. Basically this was a raised bed made and filled entirely with waste. Mr Snail had constructed it by taking up some of the flag stones that formed the patio and partially burying them on their ends to enclose an area that we filled with all sorts of waste to rot down and become a growing medium. I don’t think it contained any actual soil, but there was a lot of cardboard, grass clippings, shredded willow, spent potting compost, shredded paper, moss raked from a friend’s lawn and leaves. Most of the organic matter went in fresh and we allowed it to rot down in situ. The best squashes I have ever grown were from this particular bed.

And then came the limery. Because of our limited space, we had to shuffle things around and the rubbish bed had to be sacrificed. The flag stones were reused to floor the limery and a new much deeper bed was built in a different location. The contents of the rubbish bed were transferred to other places – some went into two dumpy bags in which I grew potatoes and some was spread on the other raised beds.


Volunteer potatoes in the new bed

Ideally, I wanted the new bed to be filled the same way, but it is turning out to be a long haul. However, I think that the end is in sight… it just requires some physical labour. As you may recall, I began by lining the bottom of the new bed with old handouts and lecture notes as a cathartic way to draw a line under my teaching career. Then, we added all the usual stuff, plus lots of tea leaves and coffee grounds and we stopped recycling most of our junk mail and put that in there too, along with the bedding from the hen house. Of course, when we thought we were getting near the top we turned our backs and everything rotted down and the bed was only 1/3 full again. Despite this, we have persisted and it’s currently hosting a late crop of unintended potatoes that we have decided to nurture, plus a courgette in a pot that has rooted down into the compost. Once these have died back and been harvested, we will be piling in the contents of the two dumpy bags (which came from the original rubbish bed), plus all the spent compost from the pots that have had the peppers, squashes and tomatoes in over the summer. And we’ll keep adding paper and cardboard and grass clippings from our neighbours so that by the time we come to plant courgettes and squashes next year, they can go in the ‘new and improved rubbish bed’ and we will hopefully have an ideal medium for a huge harvest… once again, all from material that many folks would simply throw away.

So, if you have a garden that is short of organic matter or just generally lacking soil like ours was, don’t despair…. simply compost everything and anything that can rot down, either in a compost bin or in situ, and you will be amazed by the productivity you can achieve.


Courgette in a pot but rooting into the compost in the new bed – hopefully a taste of things to come

Wood, plastic, concrete

When we first moved in, the garden of Chez Snail was far from interesting: a lawn, a patio, a rotary dryer and larch-lap fencing. That was it – no flowers, no shrubs, no vegetables, nothing. So, we set about changing things. The fencing went the first night… at least one of the panels did, as it blew down in high winds! We soon discovered the lack of soil, and embarked on a scheme to rectify this.

We didn’t have much compost at the time, so we started by using log rolls to create some slightly raised beds in which to grow vegetables. We hoped slowly to improve the clayey subsoil that was our growing medium. Sadly, this just didn’t do the trick – productivity wasn’t good, we were creating little compost and the garden was so wet that the logs rotted. Round about this time we planted a willow hedge along the back of the garden and we knew that this would generate some compostable biomass.

More squashes

Beds made from reclaimed railway sleepers

And so we decided that some more robust and deeper raised beds were required. After careful consideration, we decided to use old railway sleepers. We knew that these would not rot plus we were keen to be reusing a resource rather than sourcing from new. In many way these have been a great success. I think they have been in place for about 10 years now. We bought in some topsoil to get the beds started, but then we upped our game with composting – collecting leaves and moss from friends, getting our neighbours to give us their grass clippings, using shredded willow (it now grows about 10 feet/3m every year) and making use of cardboard, paper, kitchen scraps and dog poo – and the fertility of these beds has remained high. On the down side, old railway sleepers do ooze tar in the sunshine. They are a real challenge to install because they are very heavy, unwieldy and tough to cut. Looking back, I’m glad that we used them and I think the beds we made with them have many years of life left.

IMGP5678Next we moved on to an area of garden where we wanted to grow soft fruit. Despite the success of the railway sleepers, we decided to try using a different material for this large square bed and opted for planks made of recycled plastic. The facts that these are relatively light, do not rot and (according to the manufacturers) can be worked with using standard woodworking tools were all factors that made them appealing. As it turned out, the first two points were correct, but the last one was simply not true. Mr Snail (you may be aware how much he loves DIY) really struggled to work with the plastic… which (unsurprisingly, on reflection) did not behave like wood at all and was a pain to drill and saw. In addition, it is very bendy and so the edges of our beds have bowed out as a result of the weight of the enclosed soil (even though it’s only about 12 inches/30cm deep).


Those are link-a-boards that Aliss (rip) is perched on

The third area of the garden that needed dealing with was the chicken’s patch. Poor things had sloshed about in mud in the winter and experienced ground like concrete in the summer, so we decided that they needed a bed of wood chip, which they could churn up and fertilize and slowly convert into soil. In this case, with a light substrate, we decided to try using link-a-boards – these are made from recycled plastic, come in 1m lengths and fit together with plastic pegs. They are about 6inches/15cm in height and can be placed on on top of one another to make deeper beds. These were a joy to use – they were light, portable and slotted together easily. They don’t rot and have been perfect for enclosing woodchip. We used two on top of each other for a depth of 12inches/30cm.

My earliest planting of potatoes

Up-ended flags enclosed this bed

As we wanted more growing space, we started eying up the patio. In this case the materials to construct the bed were right there in front of us – the paving slabs. Mr Snail levered them up (they weren’t very well fixed) and used them to define a progressively larger and larger bed, which eventually became J-shaped. This was what we called our ‘rubbish bed’ because all the materials were reused. It contained no ‘soil’ just compost made from garden waste, paper, cardboard , old potting compost etc. As a site for squashes, this bed was unsurpassed!

Slabs back as a patio

Slabs back as a patio

But life moves on, and the limery plans meant that the rubbish bed had to go. We saved all the compost – some of it was incorporated into the railway sleeper beds and some is in storage in rubble sacks. The paving slabs, now in their third incarnation, are back being used as a patio and the compost is destined for the new block-built deep bed. After all the problems we have had with flooding and our experience of all these other building materials, we concluded that blocks were the only viable option for the new deep bed. It’s going to be filled with home-made compost, with wood, cardboard, paper and moss in the bottom and we’re hoping for some good root crops – carrots and parsnips in particular.

Obviously, different materials have different qualities and you have to choose the right one for the job, but I must say that the plastic wood is my least favourite and not something we will be rushing to use again.


This post was inspired by a conversation on Facebook with Ann L. and Sarah H.


Farewell rubbish bed

We now have a date for the builders to arrive to start construction of the conservatory. This means that there are some jobs to be completed… one of which we tackled this morning, namely the emptying of the “rubbish bed”.

I have written several times in the past about the woeful lack of soil in our garden when we moved into our house. This was because the topsoil had been stripped away and sold off when the house was built. The only solution was for us to build raised beds and create our own soil. We did buy some topsoil in to get started, but we have also made tonnes of compost over the 15 years we have been here. Perhaps our greatest success was the rubbish bed – constructed from upended paving slabs and filled with all sorts of waste material: cardboard, shredded paper, wood-chip, moss raked out of a friend’s lawn, fallen leaves, spent potting compost, garden compost, grass clippings, wood ash, teabags, to rot down in situ and generate soil and a bit of heat for the plants too.

The 'four sisters' bed

The “rubbish bed” in all its glory in 2013

However, this bed now has to go to make way for the conservatory, properly drained patio and a new, block-built raised bed. So, in glorious sunshine this morning, we emptied out the most amazing compost/soil (all home-made) and transferred it onto other beds and into two dumpy bags that we then planted up with potatoes. The soil that we had created was packed full of earthworms and had the most fabulous texture. It’s a bitter-sweet activity – I am so proud of what we have created from “rubbish”, but very sad that this area of garden will no longer exist (it has been amazingly productive).

Most of the site of the rubbish bed is destined to become a patio, but part of the footprint will coincide with a much deeper raised bed… which, in its turn, will be filled with new compost all created from waste: we already have two of our neighbours trained to deliver their grass clippings, and a friend has some moss to contribute.

So, farewell “rubbish bed” and thank you. Here’s to much more in situ compost making and productivity.

Emptied out and waiting to be dismantled

Emptied out and waiting to be dismantled

Round and around

Most annual crop growing systems benefit from some sort of rotation, where you grow different crops in the beds from year to year so that you don’t get a build up of pathogens and a depletion of specific nutrients. Your rotation can last three or four years, and there is lots of information available on how to plan; for example the Royal Horticultural Society give  a brief outline of both three- and four-year rotations here. In practice, many vegetable gardeners either do not have the space to practice a rigorous rotation (for example not growing potatoes at all, or only growing them in containers) or simply can’t be bothered.

My pick-and-mix placement of crops usually works

My pick-and-mix placement of crops usually works

In my small garden, I could be strict with a four-bed rotation as I do have four raised beds. However, I’m not consistent with the crops that I grow, so sometimes I want more than a quarter of the space given over to one type of crop and sometimes less. Also, I like mixing crops in the same bed, which sort of puts a spanner in the works. And anyway, I’m just too disorganised. I like to be creative and spontaneous, so basically I plant what I feel like where I feel like with the proviso that I don’t plant either onions or potatoes in the same place two years running. In fact I try out new crops each year and some of the less conventional ones (like Aztec broccoli or oca) almost certainly have fewer diseases than the standard offerings  and different nutrient demands. I do try to move my beans around each year because (a) they always get a healthy dose of compost dug into their bed before planting and (b) they are nitrogen-fixers, so should help boost the fertility of the place they have been.

Last year the potatoes grew in it, this year it's being used for mangetout

Last year the potatoes grew in it, this year it’s being used for mangetout

In addition, in my garden, I do lots of container growing. I make use of loads of home-made compost for this purpose and, of course, it doesn’t just get used once.You can’t, however, plan a rotation for your pots in the same way as for land. Last year I used lots of my fresh compost for potato-growing in dumpy bags. After I harvested the potatoes, I left the compost in the bags, but folded the tops down to protect it. I don’t want to grow potatoes in the same compost this year, so that has been transferred into some big pots for growing mangetout up the fence. Compost that has had tomatoes or peppers growing in it usually gets transferred into a bed that will be used for squashes. Because tomatoes and potatoes both get blight, I try to avoid transfer of spores in compost so don’t use compost from tomato pots in potato beds.

It all sounds quite complicated, but actually, I don’t have any difficulty remembering what I grew where (especially since I always take lots of photos) and deciding where to plant. I’m sure there are some of you out there who love an organised rotation, but you are clearly not scatty like me!

And while we moved compost today, Max enjoyed the sunshine!

And while we moved compost today, Max enjoyed the sunshine!


In permaculture there is a saying that ‘every problem is a solution’. This doesn’t mean that problems solve themselves, just that it may be possible to get a positive out of a negative. And so it is in our garden.

A coating of gloop

A coating of gloop

Many months ago I wrote about the fact that our garden has no topsoil – it was removed (and no doubt sold on) when the house was built more than 20 years ago. This resulted in us having to build raised beds in which to grow our crops and even a raised area for the chickens to live on, but there are still parts of the garden that are at the lower level. Unfortunately, there is a field behind us that still has its topsoil, so when it rains heavily, guess where the water ends up? It has never got high enough to flood the house, but the garden does flood and we often have standing water on the patio. And once the water subsides, we are left with gloop.

Some work with my squeegee revealed the flagstones

Some work with my squeegee revealed the flagstones

After the weeks of rain we have experienced recently, there is abundant gloop, making any transit of the patio a risky affair. Footwear with a rugged tread is essential if one is to avoid slipping. Careful thought resulted in the conclusion, however, that what we have is a resource – it’s just in the wrong place. The gloop is, in fact, topsoil from the field behind, and topsoil is never to be sniffed at. So, this morning I went out with a squeegee and an old dustpan and scraped up quite a large quantity of the mud from the paving stones, making it much safer and more likely to dry out when we finally get a period without rain. And I transferred it onto one of the raised beds, where it will provide a substrate for vegetables… what a result!

Relocated gloop: much more useful on the raised beds

Relocated gloop: much more useful on the raised beds


p.s. if you want a prettier picture, there’s a new square on my Masterpiece page!

And the results are in…

An early harvest of Colleen

An early harvest of Colleen

This year I decided to keep a record of some of the crops that I harvested from the garden (not all of them, I’m not that much of a garden-geek). Really I wanted to demonstrate to myself that I am making a useful contribution to our food consumption, and to show that it is possible to grow a significant amount of food in a relatively small space. The two crops that I recorded were courgettes and potatoes. Since the potatoes were all dug up some weeks ago and the courgette plants have now been finished off by the cold weather, I have the full season’s results.

Prolific courgettes

Prolific courgettes

In total, from an area of approximately four square metres I harvested just over 12kg of courgettes. Of these 7.3kg were from ‘ordinary’ courgettes (two green bush and two Trieste White Cousa) and 4.8kg from three Costata Romanesco plants. We ate the majority of these over the summer, but some of them went into soups that are currently frozen for winter consumption.

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

Colleen and Valor in a raised bed

The total harvest of potatoes was an impressive 41kg. They have been feeding us since about June and we still have quite a lot stored. We grew these in approximately five square metres of garden plus three dumpy bags* and one small growing sack. The most prolific variety in the dumpy bags was the first early variety Colleen which yielded just over 6.07kg from one dumpy bag filled with grass clippings. garden compost and shredded paper and planted with 9 tubers. In comparison, six tubers planted in a soil-filled raised bed gave us 5.73kg. The main crop varieties Milva and Mira did less well, only yielding 3.5kg from their dumpy bag (I mixed them together). Valor (a second early) did particularly well in the raised bed containing soil, yielding an astonishing 12.7kg  from 6 tubers.

Potatoes in dumpy bags in the 'waste of space' corner

Potatoes in dumpy bags in the ‘waste of space’ corner

All varieties of potato did better in soil in beds than in dumpy bags. I think this is actually related to water availability: we had a very dry summer and the vigorously growing potatoes in the dumpy bags wilted on numerous occasions even with daily watering, whilst those growing in the garden never wilted. Despite this limitation, the dumpy bags were a great success – they increased the growing space available and added significantly to our harvest. My favourite potato has to be Colleen – they grow really well and provide the first potatoes of the season, but I liked Valor too. I think these are the varieties we will focus on next year.

Costata Romanesca - delicious fried with garlic (each of those slices is 5-8cm across)

Costata Romanesca – delicious fried with garlic (each of those slices is 5-8cm across)

The Costata Romanesco courgettes are a favourite of Carol Deppe and she recommends using them for drying. This is something we didn’t get round to doing this year, but I will have a go at next year. The plants are big and start off as bushes, but then get to sprawling around. Whilst not prolific in terms of fruit, those they do grow can get really big but still remain very tasty (unlike marrows) and tender. However, I do like the more normal courgettes, especially for their joyful abundance and will continue to grow them every year.

All in all, it’s been an interesting experiment to weigh our crops. And what’s the most important thing I have learned? Next time make a proper recording sheet, because trying to decipher all those scribbled notes on several tatty sheets of paper is quite a challenge at the end of the season!


* I have been experimenting with growing in containers in a previously unused bit of space. There are several ‘waste of space’ posts if you are interested: here, here and here

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