Patio and damp proofing

Don’t always believe the builder!

Alison has finally persuaded me to venture into the blog-o-sphere and publish my first blog post.  Let’s just say this is seriously outside my comfort zone!

I’m John Hill, and head up ALDA’s garden construction team – I & my team are responsible for constructing all the gardens you see featured here on the ALDA website.

Here’s the story.

Builders are not always aware of the choices available to clients when it comes to the hard landscaping. As a result, builders have in the past advised our clients incorrectly.

A case in point was a client whose design plan was to make the most of her new extension by creating the outside patio flush with the floor where it leads to bifolding doors.

Her builder said that the only option was to go for decking, and that it was not possible to build above the damp course.

Patios, Damp Proofing & Drainage

Actually, it is entirely possible to build a patio above the level of the damp course.

With the correct approach -damp proofing the house wall, and installing proper drainage -building a patio that reaches right up to the threshold of the door is indeed a feasible option.

This means that the client has a choice of various finishes in terms of the patio floor surface – black slate, Indian sandstone, limestone, concrete etc etc.

And the moral of the story…

Don’t always believe the builder!  Or rather, in all seriousness, always ask the right expert for the problem in hand – if you’re thinking about redesigning your patio, ask a landscaper not a builder.

Bonus moral to the story?  If you try hard enough, you might just get a garden construction expert to write a blog post.  Maybe.

Until next time…



Mountainous garden!

How to cope with… a sloping garden

Is your garden a bit, umm… mountainous?

Ok, not mountainous, but does it have a slope to it?  Here are some pictures to whet your appetite:

The Challenge

Sloping gardens.  They’re challenging for home owners and garden designers alike.

  • Most people want to have a large enough level (ish) area near the house to locate a patio, and children (and some adults!) need a level area of lawn for play – football, cricket etc. Creating these level areas normally entails excavating / moving / introducing soil and building terraces and retaining walls, as well as steps and ramps. These jobs are normally expensive in terms of both labour and materials.
  • Lots of steps and retaining walls also require serious consideration in terms of safety – high retaining walls and steep steps are hazardous places for adults as well as children, and ramps can be slippery in wet or frosty weather. Walking up and down a large sloping garden can be a pretty tiring experience too (let alone trying to get a lawn mower from one end of the garden to the other)!
  • With gardens that slope uphill (away from the house), the number one issue is often how to situate a large enough patio to create a sense of space, without the need for a mighty tall and imposing retaining wall.  Other challenges?
    • Good drainage is vital – if you don’t want the new patio turning into a swimming pool during wet weather.
    • Creating a design that allows one to see the top of the garden from the bottom.  The top of a steep garden is unlikely to be visited much in winter, but it can still present a nice view when seen from the house.
  • Although visually, a garden that slopes downhill is perhaps easier on the eye, it presents another unique set of challenges:
    • If a large patio is required and the slope is steep, a tall retaining wall will be required – meaning a big drop at the end of the patio
    • Again, if the slope is steep, creating a design where the lower levels are visible from the top (particularly from inside the house) can be rather challenging.
    • If ground levels are built up too much so that the new level is high relative to the boundary fences, you can end up peering down into adjoining neighbours properties – something that they may not particularly welcome
    • And gardening on a downhill slope can be extremely back “breaking”.

If all that’s not enough, you may also like to ponder the ultimate challenge… a sloping garden that also has a cross fall.

Some Opportunities

But before you rush off to sell your ‘house with a drastically sloping garden’, let me also give you the up-side.  Sloping gardens also present some great design opportunities.

  • Natural slopes can be used to create wonderful water features – bubbling streams and cascades. Water spouts can also be built into retaining walls – with water pouring into a pond or some form of sump below.
  • The physical separation caused by retaining walls means you can do different things with different parts of the garden.
  • The highest points of the garden can be utilised as vantage points – either as areas with great views down over the rest of the garden, or as areas where features can be located – to be visible from down below.
  • Steep downhill slopes can be used to hide eyesores – at least when the garden is viewed from the house.

Mini Case Study

Before moving on to some tips and considerations, I wanted to share with you two photos (before & after) to demonstrate what a difference good design can make in a sloping garden.  In this case, the slope is relatively minor, but there all the same.

Cobbetts before1Burghclere1

What did we change to make this work so well?

  • Slightly enlarged patio area creates a more spacious feeling
  • Added a ramp to the side of the garden, allowing easier lawn mower access to the lawn
  • Widened the steps to create a more impressive feel and open up access to the top level
  • Added curved beds to take away the harsh ‘rectangular’ feel of the previous design

Some Tips & Considerations

So, what should be considered when designing for a sloping garden?  Here are a few ideas we’ve gathered over time:

  • If the slope is only slight, the garden can be levelled by locating a timber retainer such as a sleeper or 9”x2” timber inside the boundary fences, and infilling. Never just stack soil against a timber fence – it will rot and warp the fence.
  • Terracing a sloping garden may be the obvious solution, but terracing an entire garden is costly, and can make the garden too fragmented. So, perhaps consider whether the whole garden needs to be levelled / terraced. Could you perhaps have some flatter areas, and some areas sloping.
  • Think about building things into slopes, for example, vegetable beds can be constructed into the slope, so that they are at, or close to, ground level on one side, and raised at the other.
  • Remember that if the levels up and down a garden are adjusted, there will also need to be retaining walls / edges at the side boundaries.
  • Instead of one very high retaining wall, how about having two or three stepped walls, with planting / raised beds in between. This will take up more horizontal space, but will be safer as the walls be lower in height, and potentially more attractive.
  • Retaining walls over a certain height must have railings to comply with local planning / building regulations. Consult your local authority for details.
  • Drainage is critical – make sure that any contractor has a made provision for drainage of the wall itself (eg weep holes), and for drainage of any patio surrounded by retaining walls.
  • In small gardens on steep slopes, steps can be tricky as they can take up a lot of valuable horizontal space. As an alternative, consider curving the steps, or building them laterally (i.e. across the garden), perhaps using the retaining wall as a side wall for the steps.
  • Taking away or adding soil, in large quantities, is very expensive. So, when terracing a garden, think about it as a “cut and fill” exercise, where you are taking soil away from one area, and relocating it somewhere else. The trick is to try and balance out the “cut” and the “fill” so that they nett out to as close to zero as possible.
  • Retaining walls can be built of many different materials – in addition to brick, think about natural stone, sleepers, telegraph poles, log palisade, concrete block (which can be painted, rendered etc).  Or even gabions.
  • In our experience, decking can often be as expensive, or nearly as expensive as paving. However, on sloping sites, decking can be a more cost effective solution. This is particularly the case on downhill slopes as it can remove the need to bring in large quantities of ballast (or build solid retaining walls) that would be required if the area was to be paved. In addition, the area under the deck might be suitable for storage.
  • If the cost of creating a nice patio near the house is prohibitive, think about locating a sitting area elsewhere in the garden.
  • And finally, if the garden is truly mountainous, do seriously consider calling in an expert, such as a structural engineer, particularly for the design of retaining walls etc. Better safe than sorry – always.


Photo credits: Berit Watkin (cropped – banner), ALDA Landscapes

A Front Garden for Entertaining

How to cope with… an open plan front garden – a case study

Front gardens are often purely functional.  Pull up into the driveway, park the car, put the bins out, … you get the idea.

But sometimes, there’s an opportunity for something a little more special.  In this case, our client (someone who we had previously designed a garden for about 9 years ago!) asked us to design her front garden.  She and her partner love entertaining friends and family, so wanted an area to sit and enjoy the last of the evening sun, as it moves around to the front of the house.

This, together with the need to keep the front garden fully functional in terms of parking etc provided an interesting set of design elements to get right:


Front Garden3
  • Space for two small, interlinked patios – we knew the garden was going to be used as a space to sit and relax
  • Space for cars (and also between cars) – to get in and out with shopping, and to get past with wheelie bins and bikes
  • Privacy from passers by and neighbours – the location of borders and specific plants (as they grow) is very important


  • Widening of the drive entrance to allow easier access for cars
  • Channelling the postman to the front door through an archway – and not past the front bedroom window
  • Drainage – the ground slopes gently down towards the house
  • An attractive focal point/scene from the bay window in the sitting room


Front Garden1

… quite a long list!

We built the garden in January, and planted it over the Spring and early Summer (so the planting you see in the photos is still very young).  By the time we’d finished, this really was quite a transformation (the plants were so tall in front of the bay window last year, you could hardly see out!)

Our clients now tend to start the evening off in the back garden, and end in the front garden as the sun moves around.  It’s also a great setting in which to greet guests arriving at the house.



Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar

How To Attract Insects To Your Garden

This blog was almost called “How To Attract Beneficial Insects To Your Garden”, but when we started to think about what a “beneficial” insect actually is, it became clear that you can potentially describe almost any insect as beneficial – if only in terms of its role in the wildlife food chain. Even the almost universally unpopular wasp spends a lot of its time in early summer catching aphids to feed to the wasp larvae in the nest.


Most of us want to attract at least some insects into our gardens. They can be beautiful and interesting in their own right (e.g. butterflies). They pollinate plants. Good bugs (e.g. hoverflies) eat bad bugs (e.g. aphids). They provide food for other forms of wildlife (e.g. bats eat moths). And most gardeners these days want to do their bit for conservation and diversity.


  • Provide a range of habitats. In addition to lawn and borders, consider having an area where the grass is allowed to grow longer for butterflies. Consider installing a pond, or maybe a wildflower area if you have the space.
  • Provide food for insects – throughout the season. For example, bees that have hibernated overwinter will be more than ready for the nectar provided by early flowers. Early flowers will also encourage hoverflies and lacewings to lay their eggs in areas where their larvae can hatch and start to devour aphids and other less desirable pests.
  • Plant Buddleja and other plants that are good food sources for insects like butterflies and bees. Some good examples: Verbena bonariensis, Lavender, Erysimum, Origanum, Sedum and Echinops.
  • Night scented flowers will encourage moths. Consider Jasmine, Evening Primrose, Honeysuckle and Night Scented Stock.
  • Both moths and butterflies will be attracted by plants that will provide food for their caterpillars e.g. nettles.
  • Late flowering plants like Ivy can be an invaluable source of food for many insects in October / November.
  • Many insects have very small mouth parts(!) so tiny flowers are often very popular – fennel, Borage and Heuchera for example. Conversely, some large double flowers are either sterile or have nectaries which insects find hard to access.
  • Don’t be too quick to deadhead plants!
  • Try not to use pesticides, especially when the plants are in flower.
  • Provide water for insects – shallow pools where there is less risk of them drowning.
  • Provide shelter for insects. This might take a variety of forms – log piles, mulch, a few stones, a compost bay or two. A well planted garden, with a few large leaved plants will also provide shelter from the rain.
  • If you are really keen, of course, you can also buy or make a bug house, or insect nesting box for the insects of your choice.

The Downside

If you really want to attract insects to your garden, it might be necessary to be a little tolerant of some damage to your plants…

Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar

… a few weeks ago, I found that one of my Fuchsias had been almost totally devoured by this huge (it was over 75mm long) and very beautiful green caterpillar and one of its siblings.

Elephant Hawk MothI now know that this is the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawk Moth, which is normally brown but can also be bright green. Having discovered what a beautiful (dusky pink and green) moth the adult Elephant Hawk Moth is, I allowed the caterpillars to have free rein on the one Fuchsia in question.


In fact, when I found one of the caterpillars desperately trying to make its way to pupate under our shed, I gave it a helping hand as the local magpies were showing an unhealthy interest.

This was a much nicer fate than that meted out to the sawfly larvae that were skeletonizing my roses!



Photo Credits: David Tipping, Darius Baužys

Working to a deadline (… and not just a normal one either!)

If you run a business, you’ll know what it’s like to get that warm fuzzy feeling inside when the hard work pays off and you get a note from a client saying how pleased they are…

Dear Alison,

Please find final cheque enclosed.  We are delighted with our new patio and want to thank you and John, and all the boys(!) for doing such a lovely job.  It was a pleasure to have them here and you delivered just as you said you would and a bit ahead of time too!  Thank you very much – we have no hesitation in recommending ALDA landscapes.

With very best wishes from Juliet & Tony.



This was truly a case of Team ALDA to the rescue – well, sort of!  Our clients had started to renovate their patio, removing some of the surrounding wall and reshaping it.  Part way into the project, they decided that professional help was needed.  We were recommended to the clients by a friend whose garden we’d completely revamped a year or two ago.

Time was of the essence – the revamp was in preparation for the wedding reception of our client’s daughter – in mid-September.  The terrace needed to be completed by the end of August, so that the making good of the lawn would be settled before the wedding.  Also so that our client, a keen plantswoman (her plants were lovely – she certainly didn’t need any help from us in that respect!), could spruce up the planting before the big day.

And so we did a lot of work in a very short period of time.  Part of the curved retaining wall and steps were rebuilt; the terrace now has a small enclosing wall at the top level – which gives a bit of cosiness, but then has wide steps leading down and opening out onto the garden below (and a new little patio at lawn level) – all great for a big gathering.

We completed mid-August – ahead of schedule!  Now let’s just hope for sunshine when the wedding day arrives!


Using gabion baskets as retaining wall

Using gabions for retaining walls – a case study

Many of the gardens we design involve gradients to a lesser or greater degree.  If the gradient is relatively steep, or if a completely level lawn is required, some sort of retaining wall is necessary.  We use a wide variety of materials for this; the option we choose/advise depends not only on personal preference, but also cost & the wider design.  Some of the more common materials for retaining walls and/or raised beds are:

  • Brickwork
  • Timber / sleeper walls
  • Log palisades
  • Rendered walls
  • Gabion baskets

We recently incorporated gabion baskets into a garden design in Newbury – the baskets were filled with Purbeck stone and used for a retaining wall.  This gives a lighter feel than a solid brick wall, and is also a relatively inexpensive option.  The Purbeck stone here blends well with the tumbled limestone paving we chose.  We paved over the top of the gabions, providing both a path at the top level, and a bit of a seat – or at least somewhere to perch as you walk down the ramped, stepped path – or in this case, if you want a few seconds break from the garden office.

About this garden

The brief:

  • This is very much a family garden – our client has two teenage children, plus a dog.  Children and friends make heavy use of the (existing) swimming pool in summer, so this was a key feature to retain.
  • There was a lot to fit into the space (including an office); levels were complex.
  • Our busy client enjoys gardening, but has little time for it.

The solution:

  • Simple, open space at the upper level, with the main patio, lawn & swimming pool (we removed some old balustrades along the side of the swimming pool).
  • Our client was originally thinking of a curved ramp/path down and around the garden (with the office to be located in the bottom left hand corner).  But we devised a cleaner, more contemporary design, and removed some conifers at the side of the garden.  This made better use of space, and allowed us to locate the office along the side boundary, making room for a private sitting area (with its own mini lawn) in the sun trap in the corner at the lower level.
  • As well as using gabion baskets, sleepers were used for the solid and tallest bit of the retaining wall, creating an effective mix of materials & form.
  • Our client opted to do their own planting, so we created a limited number of borders which they can enjoy planting & maintaining.

The result is a deceptively simple, practical and family-friendly garden – which works well for this family.

An update on our recent work

We know those of you who read our newsletter regularly love seeing what we’ve been up to recently… so here’s a quick update on the garden in Bray that we showed you back in January.  We have now completely finished the garden; the planting still has a way to go, but is beginning to get going now.  Click on any of the images to enlarge.


Tilehurst garden wipMeanwhile…

A sneek preview at something else we’ve been working on… a quirky photo of some trendy raised beds with inbuilt oak seating.

The photo doesn’t do it justice, but we’ve now finished the planting and other work, so will hope to share some more photos in a few weeks time.  The garden is really wide and shallow, so we’ve divided it up into 3 or 4 areas widthways.  More to follow…


Gravel garden

How to cope with… hot, dry areas of the garden

Hot, dry areas of the garden can be quite a challenge for the gardener, particularly if the soil is very free draining (in which case it might be mega dry after a spell of hot dry weather), or consists mainly of clay (in which case it will bake rock hard).  Not surprisingly, many plants struggle to survive in these conditions and lawns become like straw.

One solution to the problem is to install irrigation.  But this can be expensive and is considered eco-unfriendly by many people.

So rather than battle the conditions, why not work with them – it’s far easier and more rewarding.  Some tips for doing so:


A hot sunny area is an ideal spot for a “gin and tonic” seat or sun terrace.  In fact, the area might be too perfect, and you might like to also consider locating the seating area under a pergola or awning.  Just imagine summer holidays sitting under a vine clad pergola…!  Or perhaps a light canopied tree could be planted to provide partial shade over the area.


When it comes to planting – as we said at the outset, it’s far more rewarding to work with the conditions rather than fight against them.  So think of plants which thrive in hot, dry conditions – a good starting point is to consider those that grow well in the Mediterranean or semi desert conditions.  Grey leaved plants, many herbs and a lot of grasses all do well with plenty of warm sunshine and good drainage.  Many aromatic plants contain oils which help prevent them from drying out.

But because we know you like detail, we’ve also put together a list of possible plants to try (linked to more information on each on the RHS website):

Cistus, Helianthemum, Halimiocistus, Lavender, Perovskia, Santolina, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Origanum, Teucrium, Verbena bonariensis, Anthemis cupaniana, Dianthus, Cerastium, Erigeron, Salvia, Verbascum, Nepeta, Euphorbia myrsinites, Buddleja, Caryopteris, Convolvulus cneorum, Gaura lindheimeri, Festuca, Helictotrichon, Stipa tenuissima, Pennisetum.

Also Centranthus, Echinops, Agapanthus, Sedum, Sempervivum, Cynara, Osteospermum, Alcea (Hollyhocks).

A few of these are slightly tender (e.g. Convolvulus) and don’t like very cold, wet winters, so it is wise to think about how conditions in the garden change throughout the year.

These plants can also be planted along with some attractive rocks and chipping / gravel to form a feature gravel garden, perhaps with an attractive central feature – maybe a small water feature.

Soil, Watering & Mulching

Before you plant anything (as always!), think about the soil.  Digging it over deeply and adding copious amounts of well rotted manure or a good garden compost will make the soil more moisture retentive.  It will also encourage the plants to develop a better root system – and thereby make them more resilient to drought conditions.

And remember – even if you choose the right plants for the conditions, they will still need to be watered regularly until they are established.

Finally, think about mulching.  This will help to conserve moisture.  The type of mulch used may also be important – bark is a good mulch, but be careful about applying it thickly around some plants.  A lot of the hot, dry weather lovers don’t appreciate sitting all winter caked in cold, soggy bark and are therefore prone to rot if you treat them thus!  Gravel may be a better option…


No more garden flooding! Drainage case study update

Back in January, we blogged about garden drainage and specifically mentioned two projects where drainage was a key ‘challenge’ (and that’s putting it mildly!).  Now the gardens are complete, we thought you might like to see some photos of how things turned out…


Crowthorne garden WIPThis garden is situated at the bottom of a dip in the surrounding area, and alongside a small stream.  The garden has always tended to get quite wet after heavy rainfall and during the excessive rain before and after last Christmas, the garage floor was submerged under 50-200mm of water.  Our client had to make frantic efforts to prevent water entering the house.

Crowthorne garden WIP3The solution involved installing a mini sewage pumping station underneath a gravel path that winds its way across the garden.  We also regraded the soil before returfing the lawn, so that the rain now runs down gently from all sides towards the path and hidden pumping solution.

The rain is then pumped off to the side of the garden, under the new raised patio, and from there is fed out into the little stream that runs along the side of the garden.  We have subsequently prepared a planting plan for all the new borders, and will be supplying and planting the plants in September / October.

Despite copious amounts of rain falling since installing the new system, the garden has not flooded since.  Our clients are certainly sleeping much more peacefully now!!

Lower Earley

Lower EarleyThe other garden we mentioned was a small back garden at a considerably lower level than the houses beyond (perhaps 2-3m lower).  Also a tiny bit lower than the gardens either side.

Here, as well as installing extensive gulley drains, connected to a huge new soakaway, we went on to install a permanent, gravity-fed pumping system.  Permanent pipework was installed under the garage floor, allowing water to be pumped out to the rain water pipes and storm drainage at the front of the property.

The Result

These two projects serve to show that with careful planning (and also the ability to adapt and modify plans as a project develops), flood-prone gardens can be dealt with!  We hope that our years of experience of planning for a wide variety of constraints has given us a can-do attitude, where problems are there to be solved, not walked away from!

The result?  Two happy clients with happy, flood-free gardens!



How to cope with… a long narrow garden

Long, narrow gardens have several drawbacks, particularly if they are very narrow:

  • the patio can seem very cramped for space (although the overall area of the garden may be quite large)
  • being in the garden can feel a bit like being in a tunnel or corridor, through which you are being ushered at an uncomfortably fast pace
  • the garden can appear very straight and rectangular

Below is just one example of a plan for a garden where the length far exceeds width, albeit in this case the garden is still rather wide.  The same principles apply to smaller scale gardens of similar proportions.  It is in these smaller gardens, where the width is perhaps only 4 or 5m, that the problem is particularly accentuated – and so the benefit of some of these ideas will be particularly conspicuous.  Notice the following:

long garden
  • We’ve divided the garden into separate ‘rooms’ or areas, with each section of the garden having its own character and / or purpose.  This “slows the pace”, and creates more of a sense of width relative to depth.  The garden can be divided using trellis, fencing, walls and other hard landscaping methods, but here we’ve employed a much softer, more subtle, yet equally effective division using plants.  As well as hedges, informal shrub borders can work very well.
  • The different compartments in the garden can be purely functional – the sitting area, the vegetable garden, play lawn, utility area etc; or they can relate to the character of the garden or its planting – see the Spring glade/walk to the right of this plan for example, with spring flowering trees; also the cottage garden to the top left, with everything on a much more dainty scale.
  • The different rooms can, if you wish, be angled differently to the rest of the garden – perhaps diagonally, or at 90 degrees – the latter is particularly useful if you want to have, say, a quiet space to contemplate in the garden, and is therefore often used in conjunction with seating.
  • Notice how the materials used to divide the garden (hedges and trellis for example) are also useful as a means of disguising less attractive elements such as sheds, compost and bins.
  • To avoid the (divided) garden looking much smaller than it actually is, we’ve allowed small gaps in the planting – revealing glimpses of what lies beyond.
  • If the garden isn’t too narrow, (and finances permit) you might consider laying a path up the garden.  HOWEVER…!  Make sure it’s not a long straight path (which will only reinforce and emphasise the long narrow dimensions), but a path which sweeps and curves its way up and across the garden.  The path could perhaps start on one side of the garden, and end up on the other – with lawns, borders and other areas connecting to the path.


This is just one solution; if you don’t feel like dividing up the garden, another option is to use / shape the lawn a bit like a river – allowing it to meander its way, Picasso style, up the garden, deviating here and there to points of interest.  Not all of the lawn needs to be visible at once; borders and other areas can be used to define views and hide, for example, private sitting areas.  The benefit of using the lawn like this is that it overcomes the rectangular feel of the garden.  But it is essential to ensure that the sweeps of the curves are generous (like those shown on the plan above), not tight and fiddly.


 Image credits: Dave Catchpole (cropped & colour altered), ALDA.